The Leper-Substitute

Isaiah 53:3–4:

   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.

Isaiah’s suffering servant will have no physical beauty to capture the eye-roving world, and this is partly because he will be “badly disfigured by persecution,” writes Ben Witherington in his new commentary on Isaiah. But that’s not all. On top of this disfigurement by violence, the servant appears to have been “stricken by some illness” (243). The term ‘stricken’ is a verb for disease, literally quasi leprosum in the Vulgate. This diseased condition is “one that probably causes disfigurement and repulsive appearance, and leprosy best fits this sort of description.” The badly disfigured shall be exalted by God — pure nonsense to a world that assumed outward beauty an evidence of God’s favor and disfiguring disease an evidence of God’s displeasure. Neither is a rule, and the suffering servant will destroy these divine stereotypes. Whether or not the servant will literally be disfigured by disease, he will be esteemed as such. “There is very little doubt that here we are talking about vicarious and substitutionary suffering,” Witherington states rightly of the text. “What is quite amazing is that it is not a person the people might have evaluated as suitable or exceptional who is called upon to perform this substitutionary suffering for God’s people, but one who to all outward appearances seemed ordinary, if not repulsive, the least likely candidate, humanly speaking” (245). Indeed, and this diseased one shall bear our diseases (Matt. 8:17).

5 thoughts on “The Leper-Substitute

  1. I am a bit concerned that you may be inserting into scripture that which is not there, namely that Christ had leprosy. Surely, given the horrors of those who had leprosy during biblical times, and described clearly as such in scripture, we cannot assume that this was the case with Christ. He was not cast out of the city to a leper colony, he had followers, people sought to touch him for healing and to sit near him for teaching – none of these things would be the case if he had in deed had leprosy. I think we need to be very careful what we choose to read between the lines in holy scripture. Misrepresenting God in any way can lead to idolatry (worshipping a god of our own making rather than the true God as he has revealed himself to be).

    I hope I have mis-read your article, or perhaps misunderstood. If so, then please accept my unreserved apologies. Your point that we see Christ as beautiful, when he had nothing that would attract us to him, is also idolatry. Too often this attitude of venerating external beauty over internal or spiritual beauty results in a church that excludes the externally uglier members of our community (drug addicts, prostitutes, etc). The very people that Christ himself said he had come to save. It betrays a self-deceived view of ourselves as being one of the beautiful people when, in fact, we are ugly with sin inside our minds and hearts.

  2. Yeah, my approach here is that Isaiah’s prophecies must be dealt with first, before they get applied to Christ. The prophet saw a Servant who would be leper-like, despised and rejected in like manner. Then we can apply the prophecy in light of Christ, not injecting what we know of Christ back into the prophecy, but on coming away from Isaiah with imaginations further educated about who the Savior would be, in his social position. What was to come was God’s Servant, one who was leper-like, if not a leper in fact.

  3. Thank you Tony for clarifying my understanding on this matter. I hope I have not offended you and I am grateful for your insight. We must indeed seek to understand OT prophecies as they are before we can carry them through to their fulfilment in Christ etc. If we take care to do this then we can also use the light of Christ to reflect back on OT prophecy to reveal deeper elements of the truths therein.

    Thanks again & God bless your ministry.

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