Surely our griefs He Himself bore, and our sorrows He carried. Isaiah 53:4 NASB
Griefs – Once more into the battle, my friends. Unfortunately, this one will have to be complicated. We are dealing with translation differences, midrash and motivation. It will be a bit technical. But I promise, in the end, it will be worth it.
Peter translates this passage from Isaiah as hos tas hamartias hemon autos anenenken (“He Himself bore our sins”). You will immediately see that Peter changes Isaiah’s word, hola-yenu (our griefs, our sicknesses) to hamartias hemon (our sins). The context and meaning in Isaiah is crucial here. The usual translation of Isaiah’s proclamation is “sicknesses,” derived from the verb hala (to become sick, weak, diseased, grieved). What we must notice is that hola-yenu is not about the guilt of our disobedience. It is about the consequences of our disobedience. The servant in Isaiah bears the consequences of sin. Isaiah does not use any of the usual Hebrew words for sin. His focus is not on disobedience but rather on the results of disobedience. Just as sickness is not the cause but rather the symptom, so the consequences of sin are not the cause but the symptom. The consequence of sin is death, but death is not the cause of sin. Isaiah’s suffering servant bears the consequences in this prophetic description of the cross.
In my opinion, John and Peter both suggest that the guilt that results in these consequences was dealt with before the foundation of the world. The symptom of death still had to be dealt with – and that is accomplished on the cross. The fact that Peter reaches back to the Isaiah passage makes it clear that Peter has the consequences in mind, not the guilt that caused those consequences. In other words, Peter is saying that Yeshua bore the hola-yenu on the cross, perfectly in line with his own declaration that the guilt sacrifice, not the consequence correction, occurred before God formed the world.
But if this is the case, why does Peter use the word hamartias (sins) rather than the proper Greek word for grief, penthos. A quick examination of the meaning of penthos provides the answer. In classical Greek as well as New Testament Greek, penthos is an emotional state typically associated with mourning the dead. It is used in the LXX for prophecies of disaster and judgment. Its closer translation would be “lament” associated with shame and unrepentant sin. As we see, most of these contexts are extremely negative, more in line with funeral dirges than restoration from forgiveness. In fact, even the positive use of penthountes (Matthew 5:4) is eschatological, recovering joy after present suffering. Clearly Peter does not wish to portray his exhortation for endurance as though it were connected to feelings at a funeral. Peter wants his readers to see the triumph and perseverance that produces glory. Therefore, he is forced linguistically to follow the LXX translation of Isaiah 53:4 (hotos tas hamartias hemon). There is no doubt that Peter’s motivation is to provide the paradigm case of unjust suffering as exhortation to his current readers, but since those readers include Greek-speaking Gentiles, this paradigm is enhanced by pointing to the most humiliating and shameful execution known in the Roman Empire. It is significant that neither the MT or the LXX contain the words “on the tree.” This is Peter’s addition in order to make the midrash applicable to his purpose – enduring suffering that leads to glorification.
What conclusion can we draw about Peter’s declaration that Yeshua bore our sins on the cross? Deeper analysis shows that Peter’s motivation is not soteriological and neither are his references to the Tanakh. “On the cross” is a paradigm event-locator, not necessarily a theological statement about the place of atonement.
But, since we cannot ask Peter to explain his thinking, we are left with only alternatives; speculative at best. We must read Peter within the larger context of other New Testament and Old Testament passages. And that means that this verse in Peter, perhaps the strongest case against an understanding of the sacrificial atonement before the foundation of the world, isn’t quite as strong as we first thought. Maybe Peter added the words, “on the cross” because they enhanced his purpose, not because they told his reader where forgiveness occurred.
If we believe that atonement takes place “before the foundation of the world,” and not on the cross, what doesn’t change? Yeshua is still our sacrificial, substitutionary atonement. God still deals with sin in His plan of restoration. Death is still overcome. We are still redeemed. Unjust suffering still brings glory to God. We are still called to follow Yeshua. Sin is still forgiven.
What does change? Only the claim that the crucifixion was the place of atonement.
Why is this so crucial? Because if atonement occurs on the cross, then it is possible to claim that followers of YHWH prior to the cross were “saved” by some other means no longer applicable. If atonement occurs on the cross, then there is motivation for drawing a division between Jew and Christian. If atonement occurs on the cross, then the sacrificial system has ended and holy days like Yom Kippur are obsolete If atonement occurs on the cross, then the Tabernacle and Temple are merely “shadows” of a different, replacement reality. And, of course, if the cross is the place of atonement, then the Church has a new symbol of forgiveness, one that is antithetical to everything God did with Israel.
Topical Index: cross, xylon, griefs, hola-yenu, penthos, 1 Peter 2:24, Isaiah 53:4