The good news, sacrifice, and servant leadership all tied up in Jesus’ cross.
Surely he has borne our infirmities
and carried our diseases;
yet we accounted him stricken,
struck down by God, and afflicted.
But he was wounded for our transgressions,
crushed for our iniquities;
upon him was the punishment that made us whole,
and by his bruises we are healed.
— Isaiah 53:4-5
Verses 4 and 5 are quoted and cited in Formula of Concord, Solid Declaration, Article 5: Law and Gospel (SD 5.23) as an example of the both the law and the gospel in the Hebrew scriptures. These verses, of course, are the gospel part of that polarity.
Verse 5 is partly quoted in Smalcald Articles, Part 2, Article 1 (SA 2.1.5) to drive home the central importance of justification by grace through faith made possible only by Jesus’ paschal gift and the presence of the Holy Spirit.
All we like sheep have gone astray;
we have all turned to our own way,
and the Lord has laid on him
the iniquity of us all.
— Isaiah 53:6
The last part of verse 6 is quoted in Apology of the Augsburg Confession, Article 20: Good Works (AP 20.5) as a clear statement from scripture to show that there is nothing we can do to save ourselves from our sin. Our salvation is only in Jesus.
Verse 6 is also quoted just before verse 5 above in Smalcald Articles, Part 2, Article 1 (SA 2.1.3) as part of a string of scriptural quotes providing a short statement of faith on who Jesus is according to the Bible.
Yet it was the will of the Lord to crush him with pain.
When you make his life an offering for sin,
he shall see his offspring, and shall prolong his days;
through him the will of the Lord shall prosper.
— Isaiah 53:10
Verse 10 is quoted twice in Apology of the Augsburg Confession, Article 24: The Mass as Melanchthon does a deep delve in to sacrifices both in the Bible and in cultural thought. Melanchthon first quotes this verse (AP 24.23) as a way to address the topic of offerings for sin. He points out that this passage clearly (for Christians, at least) points to Christ as the only acceptable offering for sin.
Melanchthon’s second quote of this verse (AP 24.55) assumes a Christian reading of this passage from “the beginning of the world.” While such a reading of the future hopes of an eternal atoning sacrifice can be read into the prophets, even Melanchthon has to admit that this way of reading Isaiah comes from Hebrews (see below). What he’s doing here is pulling in other scripture to show there was some indication that the regular animal sacrifices did not erase sin, but Jesus’ sacrifice does, and for all time.
Out of his anguish he shall see light;
he shall find satisfaction through his knowledge.
The righteous one, my servant, shall make many righteous,
and he shall bear their iniquities.
— Isaiah 53:11
Verse 11 is quoted in Apology of the Augsburg Confession, Article 4: Justification (AP 4.101) as Melanchthon is wrapping up his argument that Paul’s idea of justifying faith is unique to Paul. Melanchthon uses the Vulgate here, so the part of this verse quoted reads, “By the knowledge of him he will justify many.” He turns this to point out that knowledge of Jesus is faith in Jesus. It’s a bit hard to work that out given the NRSV translation as the object of satisfaction here is the suffering servant. That being said, I hope that Jesus does find satisfaction in the knowledge that his death grants forgiveness of sins and life.
We turn again to Apology of the Augsburg Confession, Article 24: The Mass for all three of the Hebrews 5 citations. For Melanchthon, there is a direct connection between these Hebrews citations and the Isaiah 53:10 citations above. Indeed, we saw above that he concedes that Hebrews is at the heart of his argument here (AP 24.53).
Every high priest chosen from among mortals is put in charge of things pertaining to God on their behalf, to offer gifts and sacrifices for sins.
— Hebrews 5:1
Verse 1 is quoted (AP 24.52) as an argument from the Confutation to point to there still being a sacrifice at the mass since there are still high priests. Melanchthon identifies this as manipulative cherry-picking of scripture. He backs up this claim citing the following:
So also Christ did not glorify himself in becoming a high priest, but was appointed by the one who said to him,
“You are my Son,
today I have begotten you”;
as he says also in another place,
“You are a priest forever,
according to the order of Melchizedek.”
— Hebrews 5:5-6
…having been designated by God a high priest according to the order of Melchizedek.
— Hebrews 5:10
Verses 5, 6, and 10 are cited (AP 24:53) to show that Jesus is our high priest, not some mere human. There is a contrast, Melanchthon argues, between the Levitical priesthood and Jesus in this section of this epistle to show that the Levitical priesthood and the rites associated therewith were a foreshadowing of Jesus, the great high priest and only acceptable sacrifice.
So Jesus called [his disciples] and said to them, “You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. But it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant…”
— Mark 10:42-43
Verses 42 and 43 are cited in a footnote to Treatise on the Power and Primacy (Tr 36, n. 39) as a shot at the pope for being a tyrant not only over the church but also over civil authority against Jesus’ direct teaching.
Atonement theories can be very confusing. What exactly happened on the cross? What exactly did Jesus do? Jesus died, of course, but what did his death accomplish, and how?
We have some differing answers to the atonement question this week. The Isaiah 53 reading, part of what Christians call the suffering servant passage, presents that servant as being wounded, crushed, punished, and bruised for our sins, and his life is an offering for sin. Mark 10 has Jesus talking about being a ransom for many.
So was Jesus punished for us, or was he a sin offering, or was he a ransom? If Jesus receives our punishment in our place, then the only thing keeping us from doing evil is our desire to not hurt Jesus—who’s already in heaven sitting at the right hand of God the Father. If Jesus is an offering for our sin, then God the Father has sacrificed God the Son to fulfill the law of God—so why wound’t God just change the law? If Jesus is a ransom for many, who is he paying? If Jesus is paying God the Father, then that’s God paying God, which seems silly. If Jesus is paying Satan, then Satan has considerable control over God, which just can’t be right.
I’m not going to resolve this tension here because it’s not possible to do quickly—if at all. But this little exercise points out that as we approach the ineffable, the harder it becomes to be precise in our language and the more our assumptions about God are shown. Being able to uncover our assumptions makes this kind of thought exercise worthwhile. The only one who can explain exactly what Jesus’ death on his cross accomplished for us is God, but it is worth thinking about how we talk about it because whatever language we use will reveal something of how think about God’s work in the world today. And on that point, Jesus has something clear to say: be servants.