The Suffering of Christ

He has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows; yet we esteemed him stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted. But he was pierced for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities” (vv. 4–5a).

- Isaiah 53

A significant portion of the Heidelberg Catechism deals with the teaching of the Apostles’ Creed, which summarizes everything we must believe to be saved (Q&A 22). Questions and answers 37–38 of the catechism deal with the assertion of the Apostles’ Creed that Jesus “suffered under Pontius Pilate,” reminding us that Christ was born not to have an easy life but to suffer for His people. But what exactly does it mean that Jesus suffered for us?

That is what question 37 of the Heidelberg Catechism asks, and it turns to Isaiah 53 in providing the answer. Isaiah’s prophecy in this chapter is one of the most important christological texts in the Bible. The Apostle Peter refers to it in 1 Peter 2:18–25, revealing that Jesus’ work on the cross is the ultimate fulfillment of this text and the means by which human beings can be reconciled to God. Of course, it is easy to understand why Peter applies Isaiah 53 to Jesus. The prophet’s references to stripes made by flogging, the silence of the Suffering Servant, and His burial in a rich man’s grave, among other things, all find parallels in the passion of Christ (Isa. 53:5, 7, 9; John 19). It is as if Isaiah himself was an eyewitness to Jesus’ death even though he lived centuries before our Lord went to the cross.

Whether or not Isaiah actually saw a vision of the crucifixion itself, we do know that Isaiah 53 gives us the inspired, inerrant interpretive grid through which to view Jesus’ life and death. It can be easy to focus on the physical pain and disgrace Christ experienced at the hands of lawless men, but we dare not miss what was going on “behind the scenes.” While human agents were killing an innocent man, God was pouring out His wrath on this same man — His incarnate Son. He was crushing Jesus “for our iniquities.” Indeed, He was laying on Christ “the iniquity of us all” (vv. 5–6). God was cutting Him “off out of the land of the living” (v. 8), sending Jesus into the exile of hell while He hung on the cross so that “his soul” would make “an offering for guilt” and satisfy the Lord’s just demands (v. 10). The Father was offering up His Son as a true sacrifice, a substitute to endure what we deserve so that we might enjoy what Christ alone deserves — eternal life. In bearing this wrath, Jesus suffered so that His people would not have to.

Coram Deo

The Heidelberg Catechism says that Christ sustained the anger of God against the sin of His people “during his whole life on earth, but especially at the end” (Q&A 37). There is a sense in which all of the suffering Jesus endured on earth was part of His work of bearing sin, but Scripture is clear that the key work of atonement occurred on the cross. If we focus on Jesus’ life at the expense of His death, we will miss why He really came in the first place.

Passages for Further Study

Psalm 65:1–3
Ezekiel 16:59–63
Matthew 26:26–29
1 Corinthians 15:3

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