Doctrine of Christ (Part 10): The Work of Christ (3) - Christ as Sacrifice

March 14, 2017

The Suffering Servant of the Lord

Some of the folks watching Defenders class on Facebook Live last week after listening to it said, What is the topic? The topic is the atonement. We’ve been looking at motifs in the Bible characterizing the atonement wrought by Christ. We’ve seen that one of the most important of these is sacrifice. We looked at the Old Testament sacrifices and saw that they filled a dual function of expiating sin and of propitiating God. Now we want to look at Christ as a sacrifice.

When we return to the New Testament construal of Jesus’ death as a sacrificial offering to God, we find that the New Testament writers think of Christ’s death as both expiatory and propitiatory. With regard to the expiation of sins, the author of the book of Hebrews hammers this point home. In contrast to the Old Testament sacrifices which he says, “can never take away sins” (Hebrews 10:11), Christ, “having been offered once to bear the sins of many” (Hebrews 9:28), “remove[d] sin by the sacrifice of himself” (Hebrews 9:26), so that “we have been sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all” (Hebrews 10:10). In the Gospel of John, John presents Christ as a Passover lamb whose death, in contrast to the original Passover sacrifices, is expiatory. We see this in John the Baptist’s words in John 1:29: “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” Paul also uses technical Levitical terminology from the Greek Old Testament in order to characterize Christ’s death as “a sin offering.” The phrase here is peri hamartias which means “for sin” or “concerning sin” but is an idiom for the sin offering in the Old Testament. We see this in Romans 8:3 where Paul says that God has offered Christ peri hamartias – that is as a sin offering. To see this idiom at work look at Hebrews 10:6, 8 where you have the same Greek phrase. There, quoting from the Old Testament, “in burnt offerings and sin offerings thou hast taken no pleasure.” The Greek phrase translated here as “sin offerings” is peri hamartias. Also in verse 8, “When he said above, ‘Thou hast neither desired nor taken pleasure in sacrifices and offerings and burnt offerings and sin offerings’” again the phrase is peri hamartias. So when Paul says in Romans 8:3 that God has offered Christ peri hamartias, he has offered him as a sin offering and fulfills that function that the sin offerings in the Old Testament have.

Similarly, in Romans 5:9 Paul says that those who have believed in Christ “have been justified by his blood.” Again showing the expiation of sin through Christ’s death. He says in Romans 5:18-19 that Christ’s righteous act of obedience “leads to acquittal and life for all men. For . . . by one man’s obedience many will be made righteous.”

In these passages we see the role of Christ’s death as a sacrificial offering that takes away sin and justifies those on whose behalf it is offered.[1]

With respect to propitiation, we have in Romans 3:24-25 another significant expression hilasterion:“They are justified by his grace as a gift through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus whom God put forward as a hilasterion in his blood to be received by faith.” There is a great deal of debate over the exact meaning of the word hilasterion in Romans 3:25. In extra-biblical Greek literature the word hilasterion means a propitiation – a gift offered to the gods in order to appease them and placate them. But in the Greek Old Testament hilasterion is more typically used to describe the surface which is on the top of the Ark of the Covenant in the Holy of Holies where the blood was sprinkled. Often in English this is referred to as the mercy seat. One could understand Christ being presented either as a sort of mercy seat (using that metaphor where atonement is made) or could be understood as a propiation as in extra-biblical Greek literature. I think that the protracted debate over the exact meaning of this word has unfortunately diverted attention from the conceptual necessity of propitiation in Paul’s thinking. The concept of propitiation is not dependent upon the exact meaning of this word. Paul could have written instead of hilasterion, peri hamartias in Romans 3:25. He has put forward Christ as a sin offering rather than as a hilasterion. The context would still require that Christ’s death has a propitiatory function. Paul’s statement in Romans 3:25 comes against the backdrop of the first three chapters of the book of Romans in which Paul exposits at length the wrath of God and the condemnation of mankind for its sin. Something in Paul’s following exposition has got to solve that problem. Something has got to avert the wrath of God and to rescue us from the death sentence of sin that is hanging over us. That solution is to be found in Christ whom Paul says God “put forward as a hilasterion in his blood to be received by faith” (Romans 3.25).

Whatever the meaning of hilasterion is, the function has to be in some measure propitiatory in order to solve the problem of God’s wrath and the condemnation of all mankind that is described in the first three chapters.

Christ’s death in the New Testament is presented as both expiatory and propitiatory. This is beautifully summarized in Romans 5:9: “Since, therefore, we are now justified by his blood [that is expiation], much more shall we be saved by him from the wrath of God. [that is propitiation]”. Any biblically adequate theory of the atonement must make good sense of Christ’s death as a sacrificial offering which is both expiatory of sin and propitiatory of God’s wrath and justice.


Student: How do you reconcile that concept of propitiation with Ezekiel where God says if the wicked man stops doing that he’s got no problem with him, and if the righteous man starts being ugly he is going to suffer judgment.[2] It is like it wasn’t necessary if we could do that. It has to be more related with how it is not possible because of our sin nature. Is it our image of God that is propitiated, too, or is it God?

Dr. Craig: No. Propitiation is directed toward God. I think Ezekiel agrees with this system of Levitical sacrifices that need to be offered. He is talking about a wicked person who repents, turns to God, God is not now going to exact justice on him because he has repented. But he still needs to participate in the liturgy of the sacrifices and so forth. It is not as though these are abrogated.

Student: I am not sure that addresses all of it because it is talking in the context of the blood of bulls and stuff and saying, I’ve got no problem. I think it has to be related to our image of God.

Dr. Craig: I think what it emphasizes is that the sacrifices are not sufficient if they are just done mechanically without a heart change – without genuine repentance. These sacrifices are not just rote mechanical exercises. They require repentance and faith on the part of the person who offers them. But they still need to be offered. That is part of the way in which expiation and propitiation take place.

Student: I guess this is a hypothetical. It is a kind of a thief on the cross kind of question. If the wicked man repented and didn’t get to do the sacrifices . . . ?

Dr. Craig: I think that since we understand God to be gracious and righteous we would say that this is the normal prescribed procedure but if someone through no fault of his own was, say, killed in battle or maybe on his way to offer the sacrifice, I think the Old Testament Jew would count on God’s righteousness and faithfulness to save him.

Student: C. S. Lewis says in Mere Christianity something like there are different theories of the atonement and justification. He is not sure which one is right but something like maybe God could have just let us off. What do you think of that? I understand what is prescribed in the New Testament is this Christ’s atoning death is the way our sins are paid for and are justified. But the second part is this. King David in the Old Testament, after he committed his terrible sin with Bathsheba and murdered her husband Uriah, it says that in Psalm 51 (this very famous psalm) that he would be washed from his sins and his transgressions would be forgiven, then he says in verse 16 that God does not delight in sacrifice, otherwise I would give it. Thou are not pleased with burnt offering. If you read the passage in 2 Samuel there is no record of a sacrifice given for his sin. This is the last part of my compound question. In 1 Kings 14:8 it says that David always followed God with all his heart (this is after his death) to do only what was right in my sight. So it seems like his sin had been discharged in some way. I don’t see a record of an Old Testament sacrifice that actually would take him to the point of justification for the sin that he committed.

Dr. Craig: OK. Let’s say something first about the first question. That is getting way ahead of ourselves. Your question is: with respect to a theory of the atonement, is it possible for God to simply forgive sins or does some kind of satisfaction of divine justice have to take place? That will be a question we will address much later on. Right now we are just surveying biblical material. We will treat this when we get to a systematic summary of this. Theologians have differed over this question.[3] Some theologians would say that it is impossible given God’s essential holiness and righteousness for him to just forgive sins without having a satisfaction. Others say, no, he could have done it that way but he had good reasons for preferring to do it through Christ’s sacrificial death. It was a better, more effective way of procuring forgiveness of sins. That was a choice on God’s part. We will talk about that later.

With respect to the first one. I think I would say exactly what I said about Ezekiel with respect to David and Psalm 51. What he says in Psalm 51:16-17 is,

For thou hast no delight in sacrifice; were I to give a burnt offering, thou wouldst not be pleased. The sacrifice acceptable to God is a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, thou wilt not despise.

But then he goes on to say,

Do good to Zion in thy good pleasure; rebuild the walls of Jerusalem, then wilt thou delight in right sacrifices, in burnt offerings and whole burnt offerings; then bulls will be offered on thy altar.

So you can see he is not saying sacrifices aren’t to be offered. On the contrary, it ends by saying right sacrifices should. But a sacrifice is not something that just operates mechanically. It requires a broken and contrite spirit to offer that sacrifice, and then they will be effective.

You are quite right in saying that the daily sacrifices that were offered in the tabernacle and temple were not for these gross, serious sins. They were more for inadvertent sins. But the Yom Kippur sacrifices that were offered annually did atone for more serious sins. You will remember it speaks of all of your sins, iniquities, and transgressions that will be laid upon the scapegoat and driven into the desert and these will be removed. So these more serious sins could be dealt with by these annual Yom Kippur sacrifices if not the daily sacrifices.

Student: I would say in looking at the very first book of the bible, Genesis, where God goes to Adam and Eve in the Garden and says, Eat the fruit of that tree and you will surely die. Without the sacrifice God would have been a liar right then. He had already told them, Do it, you are going to die. The sacrifice, it seems to me, when he was hanging on the cross (Jesus) he said, Father, forgive them for they know not what they do. I am convinced that the hammer was about to fall on Jerusalem at that very moment. It was spared for like forty years after that before it was finally destroyed in 70 AD. It appears that God heard Jesus because the sacrifice was about to be offered right then that would cover up the sins and allow him to forgive the leaders of the church who were executing Jesus at that point in time.

Dr. Craig: You mean the leaders of the temple.

Student: Yes.

Dr. Craig: Yes, I think that what you are describing is the substitutionary nature of a sacrifice. Remember we saw that when the worshiper offers a sacrifice he lays his hand on the head of the animal thereby showing his identification with it. The animal then suffers the fate that should have been the worshiper’s, namely death, which, as you rightly say, from the time of the Fall is declared to be the penalty and consequence of sin.


Let’s turn to the second motif I want to discuss with you which is Isaiah’s Servant of the Lord.

Another significant New Testament motif, along with sacrifice, with regard to Christ’s death is Isaiah’s Servant of the Lord. New Testament authors saw Jesus as the suffering Servant who is described in Isaiah 52:13-53:12. This is called the fourth of the Servant songs of Isaiah. Ten of the twelve verses of Isaiah 53 are quoted in the New Testament.[4] There are abundant allusions and echoes of Isaiah 53 as well. Let’s read this passage together beginning in Isaiah 52:13.

Behold, my servant shall prosper,
he shall be exalted and lifted up,
and shall be very high.
As many were astonished at him—
his appearance was so marred, beyond human semblance,
and his form beyond that of the sons of men—
so shall he startle many nations;
kings shall shut their mouths because of him;
for that which has not been told them they shall see,
and that which they have not heard they shall understand.
Who has believed what we have heard?
And to whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed?
For he grew up before him like a young plant,
and like a root out of dry ground;
he had no form or comeliness that we should look at him,
and no beauty that we should desire him.
He was despised and rejected by men;
a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief;
and as one from whom men hide their faces
he was despised, and we esteemed him not.
Surely he has borne our griefs
and carried our sorrows;
yet we esteemed him stricken,
smitten by God, and afflicted.
But he was wounded for our transgressions,
he was bruised for our iniquities;
upon him was the chastisement that made us whole,
and with his stripes we are healed.
All we like sheep have gone astray;
we have turned every one to his own way;
and the Lord has laid on him
the iniquity of us all.
He was oppressed, and he was afflicted,
yet he opened not his mouth;
like a lamb that is led to the slaughter,
and like a sheep that before its shearers is dumb,
so he opened not his mouth.
By oppression and judgment he was taken away;
and as for his generation, who considered
that he was cut off out of the land of the living,
stricken for the transgression of my people?
And they made his grave with the wicked
and with a rich man in his death,
although he had done no violence,
and there was no deceit in his mouth.
Yet it was the will of the Lord to bruise him;
he has put him to grief;
when he makes himself an offering for sin,
he shall see his offspring, he shall prolong his days;
the will of the Lord shall prosper in his hand;
he shall see the fruit of the travail of his soul and be satisfied;
by his knowledge shall the righteous one, my servant,
make many to be accounted righteous;
and he shall bear their iniquities.
Therefore I will divide him a portion with the great,
and he shall divide the spoil with the strong;
because he poured out his soul to death,
and was numbered with the transgressors;
yet he bore the sin of many,
and made intercession for the transgressors.

I have already mentioned Jesus alluding this passage in his words at the Last Supper: This cup is the new covenant my blood which is poured out for many, echoing Isaiah 53. Moreover, in Acts 8:30-35, the evangelist Philip encounters an Ethiopian official returning from offering sacrifice and worship in the temple in Jerusalem. He is reading aloud from Isaiah 53. Seeing Philip he says, “About whom does the prophet speak?” Who is he talking about? Philip answers by sharing with him “the good news about Jesus.” That is Acts 8:30-35. 1 Peter 2:22-25 is a reflection upon Christ as the Servant described in Isaiah 53, who Peter says “bore our sins in his body on the tree.” Hebrews 9:28 alludes to Isaiah 53:12 in describing Christ as “having been offered once to bear the sins of many.” The influence of Isaiah 53 is also evident in the book of Romans, in 1 and 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Philippians, 1 Timothy, and Titus.[5] New Testament scholar William Farmer concludes, “This evidence indicates that there is an Isaianic soteriology deeply embedded in the New Testament which finds its normative form and substance in Isaiah 53.”[6]

What is remarkable, even startling, about the Servant described in Isaiah 53 is that he suffers substitutionally for the sins of others. Some scholars have denied this, saying that the Servant merely shares in the punishment of the Jewish exiles. But I don’t think that interpretation makes as good sense at the shock that is expressed in Isaiah 53 at what God has done in afflicting his righteous Servant as well as the Hebrew pronouns which emphasize the contrast between the Servant and the persons who speak in the first-person plural as “we” or “our.” For example, in verses 4-6:

Surely he has borne our griefs
and carried our sorrows;
yet we esteemed him stricken,
smitten by God, and afflicted.
But he was wounded for our transgressions,
he was bruised for our iniquities;
upon him was the chastisement that made us whole,
and with his stripes we are healed.
All we like sheep have gone astray;
we have turned every one to his own way;
and the Lord has laid on him
the iniquity of us all (Isaiah 53:4-6).

I think it is clear that there is a substitutional suffering on the part of the Servant of the Lord for the sins of Israel.

Sometimes people will say that the idea of offering a human substitute, as opposed to an animal substitute, is utterly unknown in Judaism; but, in fact, that is just not true. The idea of substitutionary punishment is clearly expressed in Moses’ offer in Exodus 32:30-34 to be punished in the place of Israel for Israel’s sins. There it says,

On the morrow Moses said to the people, “You have sinned a great sin. And now I will go up to the Lord; perhaps I can make atonement for your sin.” So Moses returned to the Lord and said, “Alas, this people have sinned a great sin; they have made for themselves gods of gold. But now, if thou wilt forgive their sin—and if not, blot me, I pray thee, out of thy book which thou hast written.” But the Lord said to Moses, “Whoever has sinned against me, him will I blot out of my book. But now go, lead the people to the place of which I have spoken to you; behold, my angel shall go before you. Nevertheless, in the day when I visit, I will visit their sin upon them.”

Here Moses offers himself as a substitutionary sacrifice for the people. The fact that Yahweh declines Moses’ offer nevertheless it is very clear what the offer is – that he will die in the place of the people. I think this shows the idea of a substitutionary human sacrifice is not regarded as absurd or impossible even if God is too good to accept such a thing. Similarly, even though in the Old Testament the Lord consistently rejects human sacrifice, in contrast to the pagan nations around Israel, still Abraham’s being commanded to offer his son Isaac as a human sacrifice shows that such a thing is not absolutely impossible.[7] Genesis 22:1-19 God commands Abraham to offer his son Isaac as a human sacrifice. In Isaiah 53 you notice how extraordinary and surprising the author expresses his shock and astonishment at what God has done in afflicting his righteous Servant. God has inflicted on his righteous Servant what he refused to inflict upon Moses and Isaac. In both of those cases God would not exact substitutionary human punishment. But now he does do it in Isaiah 53 upon his own righteous servant.

The suffering of the Servant in Isaiah 53 is agreed upon all hands to be punitive in nature. That is to say, it is a punishment. In the Old Testament the expression “to bear sin” or “to bear one’s sins” is a Hebrew idiom which means “to be held culpable” or “to endure punishment.” There are many references for this, but let’s just look at one – Leviticus 24:15: “And say to the people of Israel, Whoever curses his God shall bear his sin.” Here is an example where someone blasphemes against God – he will bear his sin. He will be held culpable. For that he will endure punishment for it.

In Isaiah 53 the Servant of the Lord does not bear his own sin. Rather, he bears the sins of others. In verses 4 and 11-12 it says that he bears our iniquities and our sins.

The punitive nature of the suffering of the Servant of the Lord seems to be clearly expressed not only in the idiom “to bear sins” but in such expressions as “wounded for our transgressions,” “bruised for our iniquities,” “upon him was the chastisement [or punishment] that made us whole,” “the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all,” and “stricken for the transgression of my people.” Those expressions are in verses 5, 6, and 8 of Isaiah 53. This I think also serves to distinguish the suffering of the Servant from the scapegoat in Leviticus 16. The scapegoat was merely a symbolic vehicle for the removal of sins. But here the Servant of the Lord actually bears the punishment for the sins of the people.

By bearing their punishment, the Servant reconciles them to God. It is true that the language of atonement is not used in Isaiah 53. You don’t have the word kipper or any of its derivatives. But nevertheless the concept, I think, of atonement is very clear. In verse 5 it says that by his suffering the Servant brings healing and wholeness to us. In verse 11, it says he makes “many to be accounted righteous.” In verse 12 it says he makes “intercession for the transgressors.” Clearly there is the concept of atonement in Isaiah 53 in that by bearing their punishment the Servant reconciles people to God.


Student: I was talking to a Jewish friend of mine about how do you deal with this chapter. He said he’d have to get back to me. He gave me a 147-page document that tries to explain why that wasn’t talking about Christ. Basically it looked at the nation of Israel as being the suffering Servant.

Dr. Craig: Yes, and in the earlier Servant songs (remember I said there are four of these Servant songs), Israel is identified as the servant. But now in the fourth Servant song, Israel seems to be those who speak in the first person plural: “our transgressions,” “we esteemed him stricken by God and smitten.” He is an individual now here in Isaiah 53. It is the people who speak in this corporate language about what the Servant has done.[8]

But your question does lead me to highlight a point. Don’t miss the point that I am making. I am not making the point that this is a prophecy about Jesus. That is not the point. It is almost irresistible to think that when you hear it. But the point is that the Servant of the Lord – whoever he is, whoever Isaiah thought the Servant of the Lord was – is God’s righteous Servant who suffers substitutional punishment for the sins of the people in order to reconcile them to God. That is the key point here. It is not the identity of the Servant but rather his function, his role. It is penal substitution. It is substitutionary punishment to bring about reconciliation to God. Then, as you would notice, the New Testament authors reading this in light of Christ say this is Jesus. He is the suffering Servant of Isaiah 53.

Student: We don’t have any other references though of Israel suffering for someone else, do we? They suffer for their own sin versus . . .

Dr. Craig: The closest that I could think of would be in the book of Maccabees (which is an extra-biblical book written between our canonical Old Testament and the New Testament), the deaths of the Jewish martyrs are said to be a propitiation for the sins of Israel. God sees what these brave Jewish martyrs suffered for Israel and he says because of the martyrs’ death I will forgive your sins. This is another example of where you have human death seen as propitiatory in the deaths of these Jewish martyrs. But this is expressed in excelsis when you come to Jesus.

Student: It is my understanding that Isaiah 53 was seen as messianic and referring to an individual almost universally in Christ’s days and in the Old Testament days. It is only after the atrocities of the Crusades when Isaiah 53 was used as an excuse for that that a lot of rabbis started pushing back and substituting Israel rather than an individual.

Dr. Craig: That gets, again, to the question that I am not making about whether this is a prophecy about Jesus. My understanding has been quite the opposite. In Judaism, up to the time of Jesus, there was absolutely no anticipation of a Messiah who would suffer defeat and death in a way you have described here in Isaiah 53. So it wasn’t interpreted messianically. However that may have been, that is not the point that I am trying to make here. The point is that what we have described here is the substitutionary punishment of the Servant rather than punishment of Israel for its sin.


We are out of time. Let me end it there. Next time we will come back and look at the New Testament authors’ application of Isaiah 53 to Jesus’ substitutionary death.[9]



[1] 5:21

[2] 10:11

[3] 15:00

[4] 20:01

[5] 25:27

[6] William R. Farmer, “Reflections on Isaiah 53 and Christian Origins,” in Jesus and the Suffering Servant: Isaiah 53 and Christian Origins, ed. William H. Bellinger, Jr. and William R. Farmer (Harrisburg, Penn: Trinity Press International, 1998), p. 267.

[7] 30:07

[8] 35:19

[9] Total Running Time: 39:17 (Copyright © 2017 William Lane Craig)