Saturday Series: John 1:29 (continued)

John 1:29, continued

Today, we continue with our previous study from last week, on John 1:29, the first sin-reference in the Gospel of John. It was mentioned that the text of this verse is secure, and yet a precise interpretation has proven somewhat difficult for commentators. In this study, I wish to focus on two areas of interpretation: (1) the expression “the lamb of God”, and (2) the force of the verb aírœ. It will be necessary to adopt an historical-critical (and intertextual) approach to these topics, looking at the historical background to the language used by the Gospel writer (and John the Baptist as speaker).

“Lamb of God”

Commentators have struggled to determine precisely the origins and significance of the expression “the lamb of God” (ho amnós tou Theoú), which occurs only here (being repeated in verse 36) in the Scriptures. A number of sources of influence have been proposed and discussed, with commentators differing on their relative plausibility. There has, however, come to be something of an emerging consensus that the two main sources are: (a) the figure of the Passover lamb, and (b) the reference to the Servant-figure in the Isa 52:13-53:12 Servant Song as a lamb (53:7). The relatively recent article by Jesper Tang Nielsen, “The Lamb of God: The Cognitive Structure of a Johannine Metaphor” (published in Imagery in the Gospel of John: Terms, Forms, Themes, and Theology of Johannine Figurative Language, eds. Jörg Frey, Jan G. van der Watt, and Ruben Zimmermann, WUNT 200 [Mohr Siebeck: 2006], pp. 217-56) discusses the conceptual blending of these two specific background-aspects of the expression (I refer to this study below as “Nielsen”).

1. The Passover lamb

Some commentators have argued that the Isaiah 53:7 reference is primary for the expression “the lamb of God” in Jn 1:29. I would strongly disagree; in my view, the Passover lamb represents the principal point of reference. This seems to be quite clear, based on two points of evidence. First, we have the specific identification of Jesus with the Passover lamb in 19:14, 36, where the lamb-identification is made in the context of Jesus’ death—being ‘lifted up’ on the cross. Second, the foreshadowing of this moment in the reference to the ‘bronze serpent’ tradition (Numbers 21:9) in 3:14-15 strongly suggests the parallel of the lamb, once it has been ‘lifted up’, giving life-saving healing to all those who look at (i.e., believe in) it.

And yet, as many commentators have noted, there is no indication, either in the Old Testament or in later Jewish tradition, of a direct connection between the Passover lamb and sin. In particular, there is no evidence that the Passover lamb (or the ritual as a whole) was ever thought to take away sin (see on the verb aírœ below). I have discussed the Passover tradition in several recent articles, and will here only mention three aspects of its significance that seem relevant to the sin-association in Jn 1:29:

    • The apotropaic function of the Passover lamb’s blood in the original Exodus-tradition (Exod 12, esp. vv. 7, 13, 22-23), as protection against death.
    • The idea that those participating in the ritual must purify themselves in preparation—represented primarily through the symbolism of the leaven that is removed (see vv. 14-20, and compare Paul’s interpretation in 1 Cor 5:7); note also the purity regulations in Numbers 9.
    • The symbolism of the historical context of the Passover—the Exodus as freedom from bondage (in Egypt).

One can see how each of these aspects could be related to the removal of sin (and its effects); yet were any of these particularly in view for the Gospel writer, or did they specifically influence the sin-association in Jn 1:29? Philo of Alexandria, in his allegorical interpretation of the Passover tradition, blends together the second and third aspects in a unique way. In his work On the Special Laws, in the section on the Passover (2.145-149), the festival is interpreted as figuratively representing the purification of the soul. He utilizes the wordplay between the Hebrew word for the festival, pesaµ (transliterated in Greek as páscha), explained as deriving from the root psµ I (“pass over”), and the Greek verb páschœ (“suffer”, i.e., being affected, specifically by the passions), so as to explain the Passover as symbolizing the “passing over” of the soul, away from the body and its passions (2.147).

An even closer parallel can perhaps be found in Josephus’ brief discussion of Passover in Antiquities 2.311-14 (see Nielsen, p. 238). Josephus shifts the meaning of the lamb’s blood somewhat. Instead of its apotropaic function (see above), with the blood being applied to the house of the Israelite family (thus protecting the people inside), a spiritualizing ethical interpretation is given, whereby the blood actually purifies (vb hagnízœ) the individual who faithfully observes the ritual. This concept of the purification of the devout/faithful Israelite by the lamb’s blood is not that far removed from the Christian idea of Jesus’ blood cleansing the believer from sin (1 John 1:7).

Already in the Exodus tradition (Exod 12:27), the Passover (lamb) is referred to as a sacrificial offering (ze»aµ)—that is, an animal that is ritually slain as an offering (to God). In Israelite and Jewish tradition, the Passover would increasingly be recognized as a kind of sacrifice. It clearly is not an offering for sin; it has much more in common with the šelem offering (Leviticus 3), in which the worshiper eats the meat of the animal as part of a ritual meal. Even so, the traditional conception of the Passover as a sacrifice may well have led early Christians to connect it with other aspects of the sacrificial offerings, such as the offerings for sin—including the expiatory offerings of the Day of Atonement festival (Leviticus 16), which involved the ritual/symbolic removal of sin. That early Christians did, in fact, associate the Day of Atonement offerings with the person of Jesus (and his sacrificial death) is clear from Hebrews 8-10. It would not be unreasonable for an early Christian to blend this sin offering imagery together with the motif of Jesus as a Passover lamb that is slain, bringing life and salvation to those who believe.

2. The lamb in Isaiah 53:7

(I discuss Isa 52:13-53:12 at length in an earlier article and set of notes; see the note on 53:7)

The “Suffering Servant” figure in this famous Isaian Servant Song (52:13-53:12) is compared, in verse 7, to a lamb brought along to the slaughter. This is one of the very few Old Testament passages that could be cited by early Christians as prophesying the suffering and death of Jesus. As the repeated references in Luke-Acts make clear, it was vitally important for the early (Jewish) Christian missionaries to demonstrate (for their fellow Jews) that Jesus was the Messiah, even though his suffering and shameful/painful death made such an identification difficult. They sought to prove from the Scriptures that it was necessary for the Messiah to be put to death (see Lk 18:31ff; 24:25-26, 46; Acts 3:18; 9:22; 17:3; 18:5, 28; 26:23), and Isa 53:7ff is one of the few passages that could reasonably be quoted in support of this.

Indeed, Isa 53:7-8 is specifically cited in Acts 8:32-33ff, applied to the suffering and death of Jesus. Since the lamb in John 1:29 also is connected with Jesus’ death (as the slain Passover lamb, see the discussion above), it would be natural for the lamb in Isa 53:7f to be similarly applied to Jesus by the Gospel writer.

In the Septuagint (LXX) of Isa 53:7, the Hebrew nouns ´eh and r¹µel (referring to a male and female sheep, respectively) are translated by the Greek nouns próbaton and amnós. The noun próbaton is a descriptive term that denotes a quadruped animal that “walks forward”, referring particularly to sheep or goats; amnós, the word used in Jn 1:29, properly designates a young sheep (lamb).

The LXX of Isa 53:7-8ff seems, in particular, to have influenced the Johannine use of the lamb-motif (see Nielsen, pp. 231-3). First, there is the idea of the Servant being “taken up” from the earth (v. 8), using the same verb (aírœ) as here in 1:29 (see below). Beyond this, in 52:13-15, and again at the end of the passage (53:10-12), there is an emphasis on the glorification of the Servant, tying his vicarious suffering/death to his exaltation. Of particular note is the occurrence of the noun dóxa and the related verb doxázœ (twice) in the LXX of 52:13-14, which is significant, given the importance of these words in relation to the “lifting up” of Jesus (death-exaltation) in the Gospel of John (12:23, 28; 13:31-32; 17:1, 4-5, 22, 24; see also 7:39; 12:16).

In Isa 53:10, the suffering of the Servant is specifically connected with the idea of a sin offering, helping to explain the sin-association that is notably absent from the background of the Passover lamb (as mentioned above). The vicarious nature of this offering is clear from verse 12, where it is stated that the Servant “lifted up” (vb n¹´¹° ac*n`) the sins of many people, bearing them himself, in a way that intercedes (vb p¹ga±) for the people (on their behalf) before God. In the LXX, this is expressed in a way that better fits the vicarious suffering of Jesus: “and he (himself) brought up [i.e. carried] the sins of many, and he was given over through [i.e. because of] their sins”.

The use of the noun amnós can serve as further evidence that Isa 53:7 is in view here in Jn 1:29, since different nouns (ar¢¡n, próbaton) are used in the LXX for the Passover lamb. As I have noted, it seems likely that the Passover lamb is the main point of reference in Jn 1:29, but that the nuances of meaning from Isa 53:7ff have also shaped the “lamb of God” concept. This Johannine lamb-tradition continues in the book of Revelation, where the noun arníon (diminutive of ar¢¡n) is used for Jesus as the lamb that was slain (and now has an exalted status in heaven). The noun amnós, by contrast, is rather rare in the New Testament; apart from here in Jn 1:29 (and 36), it occurs only in Acts 8:32 (citing Isa 53:7, see above), and in 1 Peter 1:19, where the Passover lamb (with its unblemished character) may also be in view.

The noun amnós is used in Exod 29:38-41 for the lamb that is presented as a twice-daily burnt offering, while próbaton is used in Leviticus for the various sacrificial offerings (sin offering, 5:6ff, etc). Thus there is some precedence in the tradition for understanding an amnós-lamb as a sacrificial offering; and, as mentioned above, it would have been natural for Christians to extend this association, when applied to the person of Christ, to include offerings for sin as well.

The use of the verb aírœ

John 1:29 uses the verb aírœ (ai&rw), which has the basic meaning “take up”. It is a common verb, used without any special meaning in many of the Gospel references (2:16; 5:8-12; 8:59, etc). There are two possible ways of understanding its meaning here: (a) take away (i.e. remove), or (b) the act of lifting up (i.e., bear/carry). The verb is used both ways in the Gospel, equally for lifting/carrying (5:8-12) and removing (e.g., 11:39, 41). What is the principal emphasis here? Does Jesus, as the “lamb of God”, remove sin, or does he bear/carry it?

If, as I discuss above, Isa 53:7ff is an important influence on Jn 1:29, then we might assume the latter. In verse 12, it is clearly stated that the Servant, in his suffering, “lifted up” (i.e., carried) the sins of many. In Hebrew, the verb n¹´¹° is used, which certainly could be translated in Greek by the verb aírœ, even though in the LXX of v. 12 it is the more concrete verb anaphérœ (“bring up”) that is used, denoting an act of lifting/bearing/carrying. The verb aírœ does occur in LXX Isa 53:8, but in reference to the death of the Servant—i.e., his being “taken up/away” from the earth. However, since the death of Jesus is also in view in Jn 1:29 (see the discussion above), and as the departure of the Son (Jesus) from the earth (back to God the Father) is a key Johannine theme, Isa 53:8 could very well be influencing the use of aírœ here (compare the use of aírœ in a similar Passion context, 19:15; 20:13ff; see also 16:22; 17:15).

At the same time, the idea of the removal of sin is also found throughout the Johannine writings, most notably in 1 John 1:7, where it is stated that the blood of Jesus (i.e., through his death as the slain ‘lamb’) cleanses the believer from sin. Perhaps the strongest argument for this meaning of aírœ here in Jn 1:29 comes from 1 John 3:5, where it is indicated the purpose of Jesus’ appearance on earth was to “take away” sin (“…that he might take away [ár¢] sin”).

The most significant (and relevant) use of aírœ elsewhere in the Gospel occurs in the Shepherd-discourse of chapter 10. The context of Jesus’ death, as a self-sacrifice, is clearly indicated:

“Through this, the Father loves me, (in) that [i.e. because] I set (down) my soul [i.e. lay down my life], (so) that I might take it (up) again. No one takes [aírei] it away from me, but (rather) I set it (down) from myself; I hold (the) authority to set it (down), and I (also) hold (the) authority to take it (up) again—this (is) the charge (laid) on (me) to complete (that) I received (from) alongside my Father.” (10:17-18)

The verb aírœ is used in the sense of Jesus’ life being “taken away”; however, when he speaks of his actual death, as a self-sacrifice, he uses the verb pair “set/lay (down)” (títh¢mi) and “take (up)” (lambánœ). No one “takes away” his life; rather, he himself sets it down (dies) and takes it back up again (returning to life). This use of aírœ , paired with the Johannine references in 1 Jn 1:7; 3:5, seems to confirm that the principal aspect of meaning for aírœ in 1:29 is the removal (“taking away”) of sin.

In next week’s study, some concluding comments and observations on 1:29 will be made, along with a brief examination of the context of the second sin-reference in the Gospel (5:14).

The Old Testament in the Gospel Tradition: Isaiah 52:13-53:12 (concluded)

Isaiah 52:13-53:12, concluded

In the final portion of this article we will examine the application of 52:13-53:12 to the person of and work of Jesus. There are three primary New Testament references which make clear that early Christians, by the year 70 A.D. (at the latest), were citing this passage as a prophecy of Jesus’ life (and death). In addition, there are several other minor quotations or allusions that should be mentioned. However, before proceeding with a study of all these references, it will be worth highlighting the lines, in the original poem, which are most applicable to the Gospel tradition and beliefs regarding Jesus in the early period (c. 30-60 A.D.).

  • “See, my servant will show (his) understanding” (52:13a, note)
    By the 1st century B.C./A.D., the Deutero-Isaian “Servant of YHWH” was viewed as a Messianic figure (esp. in 42:1ff, cf. the earlier article in this series). To be sure, the Servant is more properly understood as a Messianic Prophet (according to the figure-type of Moses or Elijah), rather than the royal/Davidic Messiah. However, as I discuss at length in the series “Yeshua the Anointed”, all of the Messianic figure-types were applied to the person of Jesus by early Christians. This includes the Messianic Prophet types, such as the “Prophet like Moses” (Deut 18:15-19) who would appear at the end time.
  • “he will rise high and be carried up, and be very high [up]” (52:13b, note)
    The exaltation of the Servant to a heavenly position would obviously apply to the resurrection and exaltation of Jesus, so central to the Gospel message and the earliest Christology. Somewhat surprisingly, this particular connection is not mentioned in the New Testament, nor is 52:13 cited.
  • “so destroyed from (that of) a man (was the) sight of him…” (52:14, note)
    This line could easily be applied to physical abuse of Jesus during his Passion—particularly the vicious whipping (verberatio) by the Romans prior to crucifixion. Admittedly, the whipping/scourging is barely even mentioned in the Passion narratives, but the effect of it would have been obvious (and striking) to eye-witnesses.
  • “—so will he sprinkle many nations” (52:14, note)
    Assuming that the rendering of “sprinkle” is correct, this could be seen as a prophecy of early Christian baptism, tied to the apostolic mission to the Gentiles.
  • “Who has been firm (in trust) to (what) we have caused to be heard…” (53:1, note)
    Cited twice in the New Testament (cf. below) as a prophecy of the Gospel message (by and regarding Jesus), as well as the reaction to it.
  • “(there was) no (fine) shape to him, and no adornment that we should look (at) him” (53:2, note)
    This could be understood in light of the humble/modest origins and social standing, etc, of Jesus.
  • “He was disregarded and forsaken by men…” (53:3, note)
    Almost certainly, this verse was interpreted in light of Jesus’ suffering and his being rejected by many Israelites and Jews at the time. Cf. especially the wording of the Passion prediction in Mark 9:12 par.
  • “Certainly he has lifted our weaknesses, and our sorrows, he has carried them” (53:4a, note)
    This can be understood in terms of Jesus’ identification with human weakness and suffering, interpreted as a prophecy either of (a) the earthly ministry of Jesus (cf. on Matt 8:17 below), or (b) his (vicarious) suffering and death as sacrificial offering for the guilt/sin of humankind.
  • “But he was pierced from our acts of breaking (faith)…” (53:5a, note)
    Assuming that “pierce” is the correct rendering of the Hebrew, this can be seen as a prophecy of the crucifixion of Jesus (cf. also the study on Zech 12:10). There may be an allusion to 53:5a by Paul in Rom 4:25, where the emphasis is on the vicarious/sacrificial character of Jesus’ suffering and death.
  • “…and with (the) binding of his (wound)s there is healing for us.” (53:5b, note)
    My translation understands the final line of v. 5 in light of Isa 1:6. However, the emphasis may be on the wounds themselves, rather than the binding of them. Again, this would make for an obvious connection with the whipping (scourging) of Jesus prior to crucifixion (cf. above). The idea that his suffering/death brings healing for us makes for an excellent statement of the vicarious suffering of Jesus. Cf. on the quotation in 1 Peter 2:24 below.
  • “All of us, like a flock (of sheep), we have wandered…” (53:6, note)
    Another expression of the vicarious/sacrificial suffering and death of Jesus, also cited in 1 Pet 2:24-25 (cf. below). On Jesus as the Shepherd of God’s people, with the Messianic and Divine implications of that motif, cf. Mk 6:34; 14:27 pars; Matt 2:6; Jn 10:1-18; Heb 13:20; 1 Pet 5:2-4; Rev 7:17; and consult Parts 68 of the series “Yeshua the Anointed” (on the Davidic Messiah).
  • “And he…was (op)pressed and (yet) he did not open his mouth….” (53:7, note)
    This was almost certainly understood as a prophecy of Jesus’ relative silence before his accusers in the (Synoptic) Passion narrative (Mk 14:60-61; 15:4-5 pars; cf. also Jn 19:9). 1 Peter (2:23) ties this aspect of Jesus’ character directly to Isa 53:7. Verses 7-8 are cited in Acts 8:32-33 (cf. below).
  • “For he was cut off from (the) land of (the) living” (53:8, note)
    A clear reference to the death of the Servant, forming an obvious parallel to the death of Jesus. The idea that the Messiah would suffer and die was highly controversial for Jews at the time, and it was virtually unique to the identification of Jesus as the Messiah.
  • “(even) though he (had) not done (any) violence, and (there was) no deceit in his mouth” (53:9, note)
    Verse 9a could conceivably be viewed as a prophecy of Jesus’ burial, though the idea of being buried “among the wicked” does not fit the circumstances of his burial particularly well. It applies better to the manner of his death (Mk 15:27f par). V. 9b would apply to Jesus’ innocence, that he was not deserving of such a painful and humiliating death.
  • “…with his knowledge my just servant shall bring justice for (the) many…” (53:11, note)
    Verses 10-12 emphasize again the vicarious nature of the Servant’s suffering and death, and how he took upon himself the guilt of the people. He is also characterized specifically as “just/righteous” (qyD!x^, Grk di/kaio$). On Jesus as the “righteous one” in the early tradition, cf. Acts 3:14; 7:52; 22:14; also Lk 23:47. Justice/righteousness comes to believers through the just/right character of Jesus (cf. Rom 1:17; 3:21-22; 5:17ff; 10:4; 1 Cor 1:30; 2 Cor 5:21, etc).

Acts 8:26-40 (vv. 7-8)

Verses 7-8 are featured at the heart of the episode of Philip’s missionary encounter with the Ethiopian official in Acts 8:26-40. The Scripture citation (in 8:32-33) follows the LXX Greek, the wording of which provides a more fitting application to Jesus. Here is how the LXX of vv. 7-8 reads:

“And he, through being ill-treated, did not open up the mouth;
as a sheep led upon the slaughter,
and as a lamb before the (one) shaving him (is) without voice,
so he did not open up his mouth;
in the humiliation, judgment [i.e. justice] for him was taken (away);
his (period of) coming to be, who brings (it) through [i.e. tells/declares it] (to us)?
(for it is) that his life is taken (away) from the earth.”

The LXX only loosely translates the Hebrew, as is often the case with the Old Testament poetry. However, the overall sense of the lines is preserved well enough. Only in the first line of v. 8 does the LXX (and Acts) differ noticeably from the original Hebrew. A rather literal translation of the line into English is:

“From oppression and from judgment he has been taken”

I understand this to mean that the oppression and judgment (from YHWH) which fell upon the Servant led to his death (i.e., being “taken”). The sense in the LXX, however, is that judgment/justice has been taken from the Servant—that is, he suffered and died unjustly. In this regard, the LXX translation provides a better fit to the circumstances of Jesus’ death. Early Christians took great pains to emphasize that the crucifixion of Jesus was an act of injustice, and that he himself was innocent and undeserving of such punishment.

If the citation of vv. 7-8 here is intended to illustrate the substance of the early Christian Gospel preaching, it seems clear that two aspects are most relevant to the message: (a) Jesus’ innocence and the injustice of his death, and (b) his meekness and humility (i.e., silence) in the face of this injustice. These two aspects are central to the understanding of Jesus as “the Righteous One” (o( di/kaio$), and we can see the importance of it for the earliest Gospel proclamation (kerygma)—cf. 3:13-15; 4:25-28; 5:28-31; 7:52, etc. It is perhaps no coincidence that the two key references to Jesus as the “Righteous One” both come in the Messianic context of Jesus as the ‘Prophet like Moses’ (3:17-23ff; 7:17-53). As discussed in the previous portion of this article, and in the exegetical notes on Isa 52:13-53:12, there are good reasons to think that the Servant figure is closely tied to the type-pattern of Moses.

It is interesting that the aspect of the Servant’s vicarious/sacrificial suffering and death is not emphasized in the Acts episode, and the lines of the poem which bring out this aspect are not cited. This seems to reflect the thought of believers in the earliest period. While forgiveness of sin was made possible through the death and resurrection of Jesus, this is expressed primarily through his exaltation (to heaven) by God, rather than through his death as an atoning sacrifice. While the latter is certainly part of the New Testament message, there is little or no evidence of it in the preaching recorded in the book of Acts. On this point, we may compare the reference to Jesus as the servant (of God) in 3:13, and note how the author of Acts cuts off the citation of Isa 53:7-8 omitting the final line that refers specifically to the vicarious, atoning nature of the Servant’s suffering.

The only conceivable reference in the book of Acts to Jesus’ death as an atoning sacrifice (for sin) is at 20:28, where Paul speaks of the Christian congregations (the e)kklhsi/a) as something which God “made [i.e. gathered/acquired] around Him through the blood of His own [Son]”.

1 Peter 2:21-25 (vv. 4-7, 9, 11)

The same points of emphasis can be seen in 1 Peter’s use of the passage, but with a much stronger reference to the vicarious aspect of the Servant’s suffering—how he took upon himself the sin/guilt of the people. In the context of the letter, the author (Peter) is referring to situations where believers may suffer and undergo oppression unjustly (vv. 19-20). In such instances, we are to follow the example of Jesus:

“For unto this we were called, (in) that (the) Anointed (One) also suffered over us, leaving behind for us an underwriting, (so) that we might follow upon his (foot)steps” (v. 21)

The example of Jesus—literally, an “underwriting” (u(pogra/mmo$), i.e. a writing used as an exemplar for copying—is described in vv. 22-25 largely using words and phrasing (or paraphrasing) from the Servant Song. It begins in v. 22, which essentially quotes 53:9b (cf. the note):

“…who did not do (any) sin, and deceit [do/lo$] was not found in his mouth”

This emphasizes the innocence of Jesus (with regard to his death), but also his righteous and holy character generally. Such character is demonstrated by the fact that he did not respond in like manner when he was mistreated:

“…who, being abused, did not abuse (back) against (them); (though) suffering, he did not threaten, but gave (himself) along justly to the (one) giving judgment” (v. 23)

This almost reads like a explanatory comment on the more colorful description in 53:7. He suffered and did not resist or strike back, allowing himself to stand before the judgment (i.e., the interrogations before the Jewish and Council and the Roman tribunal of Pilate). He endured this suffering even to the point of death, and it is his death that is emphasized in verse 24:

“…who himself took up our sins on his own body (when) upon the tree, (so) that, coming to be (dead) from the sins, we should live to justice/righteousness—of which (it is said) ‘by the battle-marks you were healed’.”

The crucifixion of Jesus—that is, his death on the cross—is identified as the moment when he “took upon” himself the sin/guilt of the people (“our sins”). This clearly stands as a reference to the vicarious and atoning aspect of Jesus’s death (an aspect generally missing from the book of Acts, cf. above). It is related to the same idea expressed in the poem regarding the Servant’s suffering and death (probably vv. 4-5 are primarily in mind, cf. also v. 11). The author specifically cites the closing line of v. 5, an adaptation of the LXX version, which itself reads:

“…by his battle-marks we were healed”
tw=| mw/lwpi au)tou= h(mei=$ i)a/qhmen

The noun mw/lwy fundamentally refers to a mark (bruise, wound, etc) left as a result of fighting. The Hebrew term (hr*WBj^) is more enigmatic, referring to something that is bound or joined together. When used in the context of a wound, it may signify something that is cut into the flesh, though I tend to view the wording in light of Isa 1:6, and the idea of binding up one’s wounds (wordplay between rbj and vbj). For 1 Peter, however, it seems that the wounds themselves—as the marks of Jesus’ suffering (and death)—are a sign of our healing (from sin). This healing continues to be the subject of the concluding statement:

“For you were as sheep being made to wander, but you (have) been turned back now upon the herder and overseer of your souls.” (v. 25)

The sheep/shepherd motif is traditional, but it certainly alludes to v. 6 of the Servant song (cf. the note). The author (Peter) develops it further in the letter, at 5:1-5.

Matthew 8:17 (v. 4)

The Gospel writer in Matthew 8:17 also cites v. 4 of the poem, expressing the idea that Jesus took upon himself the suffering and weakness of the people. However, in the Gospel context where this is quoted, it has nothing whatever to do with Jesus’ death. Rather, it is related to the healing miracles performed by Jesus during his ministry in Galilee (8:2-16). The Hebrew term yl!j( literally means “weakness”, but this can be understood as resulting from sickness or illness—which would be appropriate for the healing ministry of Jesus.

The Gospel writer does not quote from the LXX, but a Greek translation that is closer to the original Hebrew. The Hebrew may be translated in English as follows (cf. the note on v. 4):

“Certainly he has lifted our weaknesses,
and our sorrows, he has carried them”

Here is a rendering of the Greek in Matt 8:17:

“he took our weaknesses and carried (about) our sicknesses”

Unless the association here with Isa 53:4 is purely superficial (based on the reference to sickness), it is necessary to understand Jesus’ “taking up” our weakness in a broader and more holistic sense. As the “son of man”, he identified himself with the human condition—including its weakness and mortality. This was an important part of his ministry (cf. the “Son of Man” sayings in Mk 2:10; 10:45 pars; Matt 8:20 par; Lk 19:10), and should not be limited to his suffering and death in Jerusalem.

John 12:38; Romans 10:16 (v. 1)

Finally, we should mention the citation of v. 1 in the Gospel of John (12:38) and Paul’s letter to the Romans (10:16). John’s citation (which matches the LXX) comes at the close of the first half of the Gospel (the so-called “Book of Signs”, chaps. 2-12), in a narrative summary that emphasizes how, even though Jesus had done great signs among the people, many of them refused (or were unable) to trust in him (12:37). This is then said to be a fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy in 53:1, treated as a rhetorical question, implying that few (if any) of the people will believe the report given about the Servant (cf. the note on v. 1).

The Gospel writer deals with this sensitive topic—that is, why so many Israelites and Jews at the time did not accept Jesus as the Messiah—by adding an explanation that became traditional among early Christians, citing Isa 6:10, a passage that is quoted, for this same purpose, twice more in the New Testament (Matt 13:14-15 par; Acts 28:26-27). The rejection of Jesus by his people was very much part of the suffering he experienced, and fairly represents the experience of the Servant in the poem.

Paul’s use of v. 1 (citing the first half of the verse, again according to the LXX) in Rom 10:16b is very similar. He states bluntly in v. 16a that “not all have heard under [i.e. listened and submitted to] the good message”. The context of chapters 9-11 is centered upon this very issue: how and why so many Israelites and Jews have failed/refused to accept the Gospel. It was a matter dear to Paul’s heart, as we can see from the way he opens each of the three chapters.

Paul’s reference implies that the suffering/rejection of Jesus extends also to his followers—that is, those who proclaim the message of Jesus to others. Paul experienced firsthand suffering and hardship from his fellow Israelites/Jews, as we see narrated throughout the book of Acts, and referenced on occasion in his letters (e.g., 1 Thess 2:14-16). Jesus predicted that his disciples would experience just this kind of suffering (Mk 13:9-13 par, etc), and would even be put to death. In experiencing such suffering, believers are, in their/our own way, following the example of Jesus (the Servant) himself (Mk 8:34 par, etc).