Atonement in Luke-Acts Pt. 4

I proceed with my examination of Luke’s theology of atonement (

The necessity of the death of Christ

According to the plain teachings of the Lord Jesus and his inspired emissaries, Christ’s death was necessary and had to take place:

“He is not here, but has risen. Remember how he told you, while he was still in Galilee, that the Son of Man MUST BE delivered into the hands of sinful men and be crucified and on the third day rise.’” Luke 24:6-7

“He said to them, ‘How foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken! Was it not NECESSARY that the Christ should suffer these things and enter into his glory (ten doxan autou)?’ And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself.” Luke 24:25-27

“He said to them, ‘This is what I told you while I was still with you: Everything must be fulfilled that is written about me in the Law of Moses, the Prophets and the Psalms.’ Then he opened their minds so they could understand the Scriptures. He told them, ‘This is what is written: The Christ will suffer and rise from the dead on the third day, and repentance and forgiveness of sins will be preached in his name to all nations, beginning at Jerusalem.’” Luke 24:44-47

“When they had passed through Amphipolis and Apollonia, they came to Thessalonica, where there was a Jewish synagogue. As his custom was, Paul went into the synagogue, and on three Sabbath days he reasoned with them from the Scriptures, explaining and proving that it was NECESSARY for the Christ to suffer and to rise from the dead, and saying, ‘This Jesus I am proclaiming to you is the Christ.’ Some of the Jews were persuaded and joined Paul and Silas, as did a large number of God-fearing Greeks and not a few prominent women.” Acts 17:1-4

Now this raises the obvious as to why Christ had to necessarily die. Luke-Acts provide the answer.

Luke’s use of Isaiah 53

The following Old Testament passage is the clearest prophecy of the sacrificial nature and atoning significance of the death of God’s Servant, whom both the NT writings and rabbinic Jewish interpretation identify as King Messiah, e.g., the Lord Jesus. I cite the Greek version of this prophecy for the express purpose of showing both, its verbal and conceptual links to the NT writings:

Behold, my Servant (ho pais mou) shall understand, and be exalted (hypsothesetai), and glorified (doxasthesetai) exceedingly. As many shall be amazed at thee, so shall thy face be without glory from men, and thy glory shall not be honoured by the sons of men. Thus shall many nations wonder at him; and kings shall keep their mouths shut: for they to whom no report was brought concerning him, shall see; and they who have not heard, shall consider. O Lord, who has believed our report? and to whom has the Arm of the Lord been revealed? We brought a report as of a child before him; he is as a root in a thirsty land: he has no form nor comeliness; and we saw him, but he had no form nor beauty. But his form was ignoble, and inferior to that of the children of men; he was a man in suffering, and acquainted with the bearing of sickness, for his face is turned from us: he was dishonoured, and not esteemed. He bears our sins (houton tas hamartian hemon), and is pained for us: yet we accounted him to be in trouble, and in suffering, and in affliction. But he was wounded on account of our sins, and was bruised because of our iniquities: the chastisement of our peace was upon him; and by his bruises we were healed (to molopi autou hemeis iathmen). All we as sheep have gone astray; every one has gone astray in his way; and the Lord gave him up for our sins. And he, because of his affliction, opens not his mouth: he was led as a sheep to the slaughter, and as a lamb (hos amnos) before the shearer is dumb, so he opens not his mouth. In his humiliation his judgment was taken away: who shall declare his generation? For his life is taken away from the earth: because of the iniquities of my people he was led to death. And I will give the wicked for his burial, and the rich for his death; for he practised no iniquity, nor craft with his mouth. The Lord also is pleased to purge him from his stroke. If ye can give an offering for sin, your soul shall see a long-lived seed: the Lord also is pleased to take away from the travail of his soul, to shew him light, and to form him with understanding; to justify the just one (dikaion) who serves many well; and he shall bear their sins. Therefore he shall inherit many, and he shall divide the spoils of the mighty; because his soul was delivered to death: and he was numbered among the transgressors; and he bore the sins of many, and was delivered because of their iniquities.” Isaiah 52:13-53:12 LXX 

Seeing how clear this prophecy is, it should, therefore, come as no surprise that Christ and the Apostles cited it from it in explaining Christ’s death and subsequent glorification and exaltation into heaven after his physical, bodily resurrection.

“For I tell you that this scripture must be fulfilled in me, ‘And he was reckoned with transgressors’; for what is written about me has its fulfilment.’” Luke 22:37

Our Lord quotes Isaiah 53:12 and applies it to his impending crucifixion and death.

“But an angel of the Lord said to Philip, ‘Rise and go toward the south to the road that goes down from Jerusalem to Gaza.’ This is a desert road. And he rose and went. And behold, an Ethiopian, a eunuch, a minister of the Can’dace, queen of the Ethiopians, in charge of all her treasure, had come to Jerusalem to worship and was returning; seated in his chariot, he was reading the prophet Isaiah. And the Spirit said to Philip, ‘Go up and join this chariot.’ So Philip ran to him, and heard him reading Isaiah the prophet, and asked, ‘Do you understand what you are reading?’ And he said, ‘How can I, unless some one guides me?’ And he invited Philip to come up and sit with him. Now the passage of the scripture which he was reading was this: ‘As a sheep led to the slaughter or a lamb before its shearer is dumb, so he opens not his mouth. In his humiliation justice was denied him. Who can describe his generation? For his life is taken up from the earth.’ And the eunuch said to Philip, ‘About whom, pray, does the prophet say this, about himself or about some one else?’ Then Philip opened his mouth, and beginning with this scripture he told him the good news of Jesus.” Acts 8:26-35

The eunuch reads from Isaiah 53:7-8, which Philip explains in relation to Christ.

Exalted (hypsotheis) to the right hand of God, he has received from the Father the promised Holy Spirit and has poured out what you now see and hear. For David did not ascend into the heavens; but he himself says, “The Lord said to my Lord, Sit at my right hand, till I make thy enemies a stool for thy feet.” Let all the house of Israel therefore know assuredly that God has made him both Lord and Christ, this Jesus whom you crucified.” Acts 2:33-36

“The God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, the God of our fathers, has glorified his Servant Jesus (edoxasen ton paido autou ‘Iesoun), whom you delivered up to be killed, and you disowned him before Pilate, though he had decided to let him go. You disowned the Holy and Righteous One (Hagion kai Dikaion) and asked that a murderer be released to you. You killed the Author of life, but God raised him from the dead. We are witnesses of this.” Acts 3:13-15

“When God raised up his Servant (ton paida autou), he sent him first to you to bless you by turning each of you from your wicked ways.” Acts 3:26

God exalted (hypsosen) him to his own right hand as Prince and Savior that he might give repentance and forgiveness of sins to Israel. We are witnesses of these things, and so is the Holy Spirit, whom God has given to those who obey him.” Acts 5:31-32

“Which of the prophets did your fathers not persecute? And they killed those who announced beforehand the coming of the Righteous One (tou Dikaiou), whom you have now betrayed and murdered,” Acts 7:52

“And he said, ‘The God of our fathers (B)appointed you to know his will, to see the Righteous One (ton Dikaion) and to hear a voice from his mouth;” Acts 22:14

It is quite evident that these texts from Acts are drawing from the very language of Isaiah 52:13-53:12 in its depiction of God’s having glorified and exalted Jesus his righteous Servant.

Therefore, to suggest that Luke would make such copious use of this prophecy from Isaiah, which clearly and emphatically stresses the sacrificial, vicarious nature of the death of God’s Servant, and yet somehow intended to deny that Jesus’ death has any atoning value whatsoever is simply desperate, to say the least. As the following NT scholar puts it: 

“The section of the prophecy that is quoted is concerned with the injustice perpetrated on the Servant and with his patient acceptance of it without complaint.  There is no explicit reference in this part of the text to the effects of the Servant’s suffering.  This omission is of a piece with the general tendency in Acts to ignore the significance of the death of Jesus as a vicarious sacrifice that opens up the possibility of forgiveness and salvation for repentant sinners (see, however, 20:28).  However, the use made of the Scripture here is of a piece with the emphasis both in the Gospels and in the evangelistic and apologetic speeches in Acts of identifying Jesus as God’s agent and accounting for the fact of his sufferings in terms of the divine necessity expressed in Scripture.  It was important to establish that Jesus is the Messiah and that his suffering is not at odds with this but is rather an essential part of his vocation before going on to the question of the significance of his sufferings.  Parsons (1998) suggests that the humiliation and rejection of Jesus are centered, since the point is that the eunuch can identify with Jesus.  He builds on a hint by Johnson (1992: 156) and further suggests that the quotation stops where it does because ‘his life was taken from the earth’ could be ambiguous and refer both to his death and to his exaltation (cf. the metaphor of ‘lifting up’ in John’s Gospel).  A deliberate avoidance of the concept of atonement by Luke (so Rese 1969: 98-100) seems unlikely; more probable he is relating how the church at this early stage dealt with the offense of the crucifixion by emphasizing that it was willed by God.  One might as well argue from the fact that the Servant’s vindication is not mentioned here that Luke was not interested in it either!” ( I. H. Marshall, “Acts” in Commentary on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament, ed. G. K. Beale & D. A. Carson [Baker Academic, Grand Rapids, MI 2007], pp. 574-575; bold emphasis)

Peter Stuhlmacher writes in regards to Luke’s use of the Isaianic servant motif in relation to Jesus:

“The old-fashioned language in Acts about Jesus as God’s anointed Servant or [pais theos] (Acts 3:13, 26; 4:27, 30), humiliated and put to death by his enemies according to God’s will but exalted by God and invested with Divine authority, refers back to Isaiah 61:1 and 52:13; 53:11. Parallel to this, Jesus is called [ho dikaios], the Righteous One, in Acts 3:14; 7:52; 22:14 (cf. Isa. 53:11 and I Enoch 38:2; 53:6). Whether such expressions merely take up individual motifs from the Servant tradition or rather represent a more comprehensive picture of Jesus’ ministry, suffering, and exaltation as God’s Servant is a question that can be answered by two considerations. First, the two titles predicated of Jesus are certainly pre-Lukan and must therefore be considered not apart from but together with the Jerusalem formulaic texts Romans 4:25 and I Corinthians 15:3b-5. Moreover, Luke has used them not independently of his passion story but only in conscious connection with it (cf. Acts 3:13-16; 4:27-28; 7:32).  Both considerations suggest that in the figure of Jesus a holistic concept of God’s Servant has been realized. Without such a larger concept it would be impossible to understand the language of the forgiveness of sins that came through Jesus’ mission as the [pais theos], which Luke repeats almost stereotypically (cf. Acts 3:13, 19 with 2:38; 5:31; 10:43, etc.). But the intercessions in Luke 22:32 and 23:34 together with Isaiah 53:12 explain this language quite well. The exalted Christ will continue the “intercession for transgressors” which he began on earth, and even in the final judgment he will bring them forgiveness of sins through his vicarious death for sinners.” (Peter Stuhlmacher, “Isaiah 53 in the Gospels and Acts” in The Suffering Servant: Isaiah 53 in Jewish and Christian Sources, ed. Bernd Janowski & Peter Stuhlmacher, transl. Daniel P. Bailey [William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, Grand Rapids, MI / Cambridge, U.K. 2004], pp. 156-157; bold emphasis ours)

This in itself sufficiently refutes the notion that Luke attached absolutely no atoning significance to Christ’s crucifixion, death, resurrection, and exaltation to heaven.

Cursed is he who hangs on a tree

Acts provides further support for the vicarious nature of Christ’s death by referring to Jesus’ dying as a result of his hanging on a tree: 

“The God of our fathers raised Jesus from the dead — whom you had killed by hanging him on a tree.” Acts 5:30

“And we are witnesses to all that he did both in the country of the Jews and in Jerusalem. They put him to death by hanging him on a tree; but God raised him on the third day and made him manifest; not to all the people but to us who were chosen by God as witnesses, who ate and drank with him after he rose from the dead.” Acts 10:39-41

“So Paul stood up, and motioning with his hand said: ‘Men of Israel, and you that fear God, listen… And when he had removed him, he raised up David to be their king; of whom he testified and said, “I have found in David the son of Jesse a man after my heart, who will do all my will.” Of this man’s posterity God has brought to Israel a Savior, Jesus, as he promised. Before his coming John had preached a baptism of repentance to all the people of Israel. And as John was finishing his course, he said, “What do you suppose that I am? I am not he. No, but after me one is coming, the sandals of whose feet I am not worthy to untie.” Brethren, sons of the family of Abraham, and those among you that fear God, to us has been sent the message of this salvation. For those who live in Jerusalem and their rulers, because they did not recognize him nor understand the utterances of the prophets which are read every sabbath, fulfilled these by condemning him. Though they could charge him with nothing deserving death, yet they asked Pilate to have him killed. And when they had fulfilled all that was written of him, they took him down from the tree, and laid him in a tomb. But God raised him from the dead; and for many days he appeared to those who came up with him from Galilee to Jerusalem, who are now his witnesses to the people.’” Acts 13:15-16, 22-31

This is a direct allusion to the curse found in Deuteronomy 21:24, which states that hanging a person on a tree is a sign that such an individual has been cursed by God.

Since Luke obviously had no intention to portray Jesus as having been cursed for any sins or crimes that he personally committed, this means that there is a deeper meaning behind Christ’s being placed upon a tree. That meaning is brought out by both Paul and Peter in their inspired letters:

“For all who rely on works of the law are under a curse; for it is written, ‘Cursed be every one who does not abide by all things written in the book of the law, and do them.’ Now it is evident that no man is justified before God by the law; for ‘He who through faith is righteous shall live’; but the law does not rest on faith, for ‘He who does them shall live by them.’ Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law, having become a curse for us — for it is written, ‘Cursed be every one who hangs on a tree–” Galatians 3:10-14

“For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, that you should follow in his steps. He committed no sin; no guile was found on his lips. When he was reviled, he did not revile in return; when he suffered, he did not threaten; but he trusted to him who judges justly. He himself bore our sins (hos tas hamartias hemon autos) in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness. By his wounds you have been healed (hou to molopi autou iathete). For you were straying like sheep, but have now returned to the Shepherd and Guardian of your souls.” 1 Peter 2:21-25

Not only does Peter allude to the curse of Deuteronomy 21:24, but he also employs the language of Isaiah 53:4-7 and 9 in describing the Lord Jesus’ vicarious death.

Christ was accursed for our sake, meaning, that he was taking the judgment that sinners deserved in order to redeem them from the curse of God’s laws, which condemns anyone to death for failing to live by God’s righteous and holy standards.

There’s more in the final part of my examination of Luke-Acts (

2 thoughts on “Atonement in Luke-Acts Pt. 4

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