“By his wounds we are healed.” —Isaiah 53:5b
“Then Pilate took Jesus and had him flogged.” —John 19:1
Several centuries before Christ’s birth, the prophet Isaiah foresaw and foretold the suffering of the Messiah in great detail. Isaiah 53 is an amazingly accurate picture of what was actually going to take place eight hundred years later. One of the most painful lines in this passage from Isaiah is, “And by His wounds we are healed.”
This was the prophecy of the senseless and brutal scourging of Jesus. There the prophecy of Isaiah was literally fulfilled. Roman law prescribed just how such a flogging was to be done. The victim was bent over with his hands fastened to a low stake. The whip of the Roman soldier was brought down repeatedly on the victim’s bare, tense back. A whip would be painful enough. This whip, however, had several lashes, each one loaded with sharp hooks and lead weights—some commentaries say with pieces of broken glass. The beating would tear up the flesh. It would plow deep furrows into the skin. The blood would flow freely. It was a terrible thing—so terrible, that although it was intended only as a preliminary to the crucifixion, it often resulted in the death of the prisoner. But Jesus survived it and then still had to go to the cross.
When we think about that gruesome sight today we shrink back from it in horror. We do not like to dwell long on the horrible suffering Jesus of Nazareth had to go through. In fact, the Bible seems to do the exact same thing. It does not describe for us in gory detail what happened; it simply states the facts: “Then Pilate took Jesus and had him flogged.”
Done By Pilate
Of course Pilate did not do it himself. He ordered it done by his soldiers. Roman law required that he had to be there and watch it. After all, he was the one responsible for ordering it to take place. One would wonder how he could stand it—especially after he had just declared, “I find no guilt in Him.”
No crime had been proven against Him, try as they might to pin something on Him. Not only was Jesus pronounced innocent by Pilate; Jesus was pronounced innocent by several people several times through this whole ordeal.
Judas Iscariot, for example, the very disciple who plotted against Jesus and betrayed Jesus, declared the innocence of the One he had followed for three years. After seeing all that had taken place, he tried to return the money he had received for betraying Jesus and declared, “I have sinned, for I have betrayed innocent blood” (Matt. 27:4).
Pilate’s wife had nightmares over the whole thing. She sent messengers to her husband, Pilate, pleading with him, “Don’t have anything to do with that innocent man, for I have suffered a great deal today in a dream because of Him” (Matt. 27:19).
And then there was Pilate himself. Not only once, but three times, Pilate had declared Jesus to be an innocent man. Pilate was so troubled by Jesus and what to do with Him that he sent Jesus to Herod, because Jesus was in Herod’s jurisdiction (Luke 23:7). Herod also came back with the verdict, “He has done nothing to deserve death” (Luke 23:15). All of this happened in just a matter of a few hours, and yet they cruelly flogged Him, and afterwards Pilate handed Him over to be crucified.
Done By Us
Our first impulse is to heap bitter condemnation on Pilate and on those who carried out his orders. How could they be so cruel? How could they do this inhuman task? Flogging a guilty criminal was bad enough, but how could they do it to this man? He had done no wrong. He had been officially declared innocent. Everybody knew that He was a good man who had done many good works. Think of the miracles, the moral life He lived, and the example he gave to others. Even after Pilate had found Jesus innocent and declared Him as such to the crowd, he still had Him flogged.
We wouldn’t think of doing anything like that today, even to the worst of criminals. Instead, we build comfortable prisons; we condemn capital punishment; we talk about rehabilitation so that the criminal can be returned to society.
We have a hard time believing that people in their right minds could actually do such a frightful thing to Jesus. This was not only a gross miscarriage of justice, but it was also an unspeakable, shameful way to deal with any human being, no matter how bad he might be. Maybe Pilate thought he could save Jesus from the cross by having Him flogged, hoping that this would somehow satisfy the angry mob that had gathered, screaming for His blood. He should have known that this would only whet their appetite for more blood. Once the flogging had taken place, the people wanted more. They shouted, “Crucify Him! Crucify Him!” They even went so far as to accept the whole responsibility for the crime by saying, “His blood be upon us and on our children” (Matt. 27:25).
We can easily sit in judgment over those who committed this dreadful deed. But can we detach ourselves from it? Somehow our righteous indignation leaves us feeling a little uneasy. Those words of the prophet Isaiah keep coming back to us: “And by His wounds we are healed.” What does that mean? Are we also implicated in this monstrous crime? Does the brutal beating that Jesus received point an accusing finger at us who live in the twenty-first century as well?
Well, for one thing, we can hardly claim that we are not guilty of the same kind of brutality. The same evil passions that brought on the scourging of Jesus Christ and finally sent Him to the cross are still at large in the world. We use different implements today, but the hands that wield them and the hearts that move them are no different from those of long ago.
We don’t like to think of the gas chambers and the concentration camps and the incinerators that were used for mass extermination in the last world war. We close our eyes to events taking place in Dufar, Uganda, South Africa, and other places. I daresay Pilate and the Roman soldiers would be shocked at our sophisticated methods of brutality done to innocent children.
The world of that day was no worse than ours and the people no more brutal. When we look at those guilty of the flogging of Jesus, we should look in the mirror. We would have done something like that, too, if Jesus had come to earth in our day and age. We would have found Him innocent and then sentenced Him to death.
Look at how the world treats Jesus today. Anyone who has ever encountered Jesus really has nothing bad to say about Him. They may speak ill of the church and of some people who call themselves Christians, but really, no one speaks evil of Jesus. Even the Muslim religion, which wants nothing more than the death of all Christians, believes Jesus was a great prophet. The world declares Him innocent, but it treats Him no better than Pilate did. We love His ethics, but we do not follow them. We love His teachings, but we do not apply them. We pretty much want Him to stay crucified and in the grave.
Eight hundred years before that flogging took place, the prophet saw that something like that was going to happen. Isaiah knew that this would be the response of the world as it tried to come to grips with the Savior. The men of his generation were capable of doing it, and he judged correctly that every generation that followed him would react in the same way.
Isaiah knew that no matter when the Savior came, somehow He would have to suffer at the hands of men who harbor such evil passions in their hearts. The prophet may not have known that a man by the name of Pilate was going to be responsible for it, but he did know that whoever it would be, he would be one of us. He would expose the monstrous capacity we have for evil within our hearts.
Done For Us
Even so, that doesn’t explain what Isaiah is teaching in his prophecy. Isaiah is not merely telling us that the scourging of Jesus was an index to the sinful heart of mankind. He had something far better to tell us—something far more important.
Jesus was far from being just a victim of the evil passions of man. He suffered that pain on purpose. In a very real way this flogging was not intended for Jesus—it was meant for you and me. That scourging was meant to be given to a totally depraved, rebelling-against-God sinner. We should have suffered the consequences of our own sin.
Jesus took those consequences on Himself. Paul wrote, “He who had no sin became sin for us” (2 Cor. 5:21). That is what Isaiah 53 is all about. Jesus was innocent but made Himself guilty for us. What we have done makes us deserving of those stripes. We should have been tied to that stake; our backs should have been exposed to that whip, but Jesus took them on instead. Although Jesus is the only person in all of human history who never had an evil desire in His heart, He took on Himself the punishment we deserved for all the evil desires we have in our hearts.
In other words, the only hope of healing for our hearts rests in the fact that Jesus came here to suffer the consequences of our sinfulness. He came so that we can come to grips with our evil desires and be delivered from them. All the penalty and power of sin—the very wrath of God against our sin—was poured out on Jesus. And by His wounds we are healed.
Not only did Jesus survive the flogging but He also made it serve the purpose of His redeeming grace for sinful people. Peter wrote, “He Himself bore our sins in His body on the cross, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness; for by His wounds you were healed” (1 Peter 2:24).
How shameful and frightening to see the Son of God fastened to a stake and flogged like a criminal and then handed over to be crucified. Jesus told Pilate, “For this reason I was born, and for this I came into the world” (John 18:37). There was no other way. The love of God had to bear the hate of man and overcome it. The love of God had to bear the wrath of God and endure it. No mere human being could have done that. The conflict would have been too bitter, the pain too great, and the burden too heavy.
Be certain of this: the once-for-all sacrifice is complete; the work of salvation is done. The hands that were fastened to that stake now hold all power in heaven and on earth. The back that was flogged now wears the royal robe of redemption.
It is not enough to go about imitating the example of Christ or admiring the way that He lived. We must place our trust completely in His sacrifice—that His flogging, His stripes, His suffering and dying was done for us. Christ did not come to show us how to be saved; He came to save us, for by His wounds we are healed.
Rev. Wybren Oord is the co-pastor of Trinity United Reformed Church in Lethbridge, AB, and the editor of The Outlook.