“He was numbered with the transgressors.”
These verbally-inspired words of prophecy from the pen of Isaiah are essential to our Christian faith in the vicarious atonement of Jesus Christ for the sins of the world. For, although the holy season of Lent is now behind us, we continue humbly to meditate in gratitude for our redemption upon the suffering and death of our Savior as “the propitiation [the payment of complete satisfaction of divine justice] for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world” (I John 2:2). Indeed, “[we] know that [we] were not redeemed with corruptible things as silver and gold from [our] vain conversation received by tradition from [our] fathers [from our sinful condition inherited and passed down to us from Adam, Romans 5:12], but with the precious blood of Christ, as of a Lamb without blemish and without spot” (I Peter 1:18-19).
And how significant is even the grammatical tense of Isaiah’s prophecy — cited in Mark’s Gospel as being fulfilled in Christ’s crucifixion as a criminal (Mark 15:28) — that “He WAS numbered with the transgressors.” Isaiah reports it, over seven hundred years in advance, as if the crucifixion on Calvary’s hill had already taken place, that it was already a historical fact, that Christ’s propitiatory sacrifice in the place and in the stead of sinners had already been “accomplished” (cf. John 19:30 tetevlestai), as it indeed had been completed in the mind of God by “the Lamb slain from the foundation of the world” (Revelation 13:8) according to God’s eternal decree of redemption (I Peter 1:19b-20). For it was on the basis of Christ’s perfect satisfaction of divine justice [‘in Christ”] that God “reconcil[ed] the world unto Himself, not imputing their trespasses unto them” (II Corinthians 5:19), and that He predestinated the elect from eternity already to be saved (Ephesians 1:3-7).
During the holy Lenten season, we witnessed the suffering and death of the Lamb of God in His state of humiliation as it occurred in time, as recorded in the Holy Gospels and as compiled from them in the Passion History cited in our special Lenten services, in fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy and of other God-inspired prophecies of His great passion (e.g. Psalm 22, etc.).
With our spiritual eyes (and ears) fixed upon that sacred record, we followed Jesus from the judgment hall of Pontius Pilate, where we saw Him brutally scourged and condemned to capital punishment; and we found ourselves on Calvary’s hill just outside the city of Jerusalem — the place called “Golgotha, the place of a skull” (Matthew 27:33; Mark 15:22; John 19:17), the place where convicted criminals were publicly executed; and St. Luke tells us, “there they crucified Him” (23:33).
That rather cold, matter-of-fact, four-word report of what happened strikes us as strange upon first hearing, considering the gruesome nature of that chosen method of capital punishment. Crucifixion was completely unknown among the Jews until they encountered it among the Medes and Persians in the Babylonian Captivity, and the Romans later introduced it as a means of punishing slaves and freemen convicted of particularly heinous crimes. Roman citizens, however, were exempted from it by law since it was so inhumane. While in some cases, victims were merely tied to their crosses, reliable historians report that the practice of nailing them down hand and foot was not at all unusual among the Romans, in spite of the common denial of the practice by historical critics nowadays who attack the Scripture record in John 20:25 as being “the only Gospel account” that mentions “nails.” They, of course, completely dismiss the God-inspired prophecy in Psalm 22:16, “They pierced My hands and My feet.”
The “malefactor” or “transgressor” convicted of a capital crime and “worthy of death” (Luke 23:15) was first offered a drink of sour wine [a.k.a. “vinegar” (Psalm 69:21; Matthew 27:34) into which had been mixed a bitter anesthetic drug called “gall.” This was intended to numb the immediate pain, so that the victim wouldn’t die of shock and thus end the “show” prematurely. In Jesus’ case, He refused the gall, the Bible tells us (Matthew 27:34), because He wanted to suffer the full agony that was to come (John 18:11). The timbers of the cross were laid flat upon the ground, and the victim was forced to lie down on them. His arms were then stretched out toward the ends of the crosspiece; and, while several soldiers held him in place, another drove a huge spike through the palm of each hand (or occasionally through the wrist), fastening him to the wood. The same was then done to the feet. Finally, the cross was raised to an upright position; and its base was dropped into a hole in the ground, much like a fencepost or utility pole is set today. When the base of the cross hit the bottom of that hole, the victim’s hands and feet literally tore, as the weight of his body yanked against the nails. There the victim hung in the hot middle-eastern sun —sometimes over the course of several days— his arms often dislocated from their sockets and his body racked with pain, infection, thirst and sunstroke —until he died!
It was, of course, no accident that our Lord Jesus was “crucified” instead of being stoned (for His alleged “blasphemy,” Leviticus 24:16), or hanged, or beheaded. For the Psalmist David, a full thousand years before, had prophesied in Psalm 22, speaking in the Savior’s own voice, “They pierced my hands and my feet” —a prophecy perfectly fulfilled in Jesus’ crucifixion as noted above. And the Savior Himself, “knowing all things that should come upon Him,” had told His disciples well in advance many of the details of His suffering and death, including the fact that He would be “crucified” (Matthew 26:2; Luke 24:7), and He had said to Nicodemus in John chapter 3, “As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whosoever believeth in Him should not perish but have eternal life” (v. 14).
And the company Jesus kept there on Calvary’s hill is rectilinear fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy that “He was numbered with the transgressors,” our title-text for this article; for Luke tells us that “there were also two…malefactors led with Him to be put to death” (23:32). “Malefactors” are literally “evil doers” —like you and me; for the Bible tells us that “there is none that doeth good, no not one” (Romans 3:12), that “all have sinned and come short of the glory of God” (v. 23) and that “we were by nature the children of wrath, even as others” (Ephesians 2:3b). And those “malefactors [were crucified], one on the right hand, and the other on the left” of Jesus (Luke 23:33).
Jesus was not executed, however, merely in the company of transgressors. He was executed as a criminal among criminals, “numbered with the transgressors,” as one of them, even though He personally was completely innocent, the holy Son of God, who never committed a single sin (John 8:46a; I Peter 2:22). The punishment that Jesus bore was not, as many have claimed, a “miscarriage of justice,” as it seems to have been according to Pilate’s own repeated declarations of His innocence: “I find in Him no fault at all” (John 18:39; Matthew 23:4; Luke 23:14; John 19:4, 6). No, and we need to value in gratitude this critical fact, that God “made Him…to be sin” [II Corinthians 5:21]. His Father imputed to Him sin and guilt and the wages of sin in making Him “a curse” [Galatians 3:13] and in demonstrating that curse, both to Jesus and to us, by forsaking Him (Matthew 27:46; Mark 15:34) in the outer darkness, in the ultimate loneliness, in the absolute contempt, and in the torture of the damned — in “the wages of sin” (Romans 6:23), in the “destruction and perdition” (I Timothy 6:9) of everlasting death.
But let us not lose sight of the critical fact that it was because of US that Jesus was crucified and bore the agony of the damned. It was because of US “transgressors” that “He was numbered with the transgressors.” WE are the ones who deserve to be “nailed” for our sins! The Bible says: “Cursed is everyone that hangeth on a tree” (Galatians 3:13b), the disgraceful capital punishment that we deserve because of our capital transgressions; for “the wages of sin is death,” Paul writes to the Romans (6:23), eternal death, the curse of God, everlasting shame, contempt, torment and death in the fires of hell! But as our Substitute, as our Stand-in, as our Scapegoat “under the Law” (Galatians 4:4b), “Christ hath redeemed us from the curse of the Law, being made a curse FOR US” (Galatians 3:13a). “He was delivered because of [Gk.] OUR offenses” (Romans 4:25) —“Surely He hath borne OUR griefs and carried OUR sorrows…He was wounded for OUR transgressions; He was bruised for OUR iniquities” (Isaiah 53:4-5a). “He laid down His life for US” (I John 3:16), as the Lord “laid on Him the iniquity of US ALL” (Isaiah 53:6). Thus “He was numbered with the transgressors” — with them, among them, as one of them, for them, in the stead of them — “that we might be made the righteousness of God in Him” (II Corinthians 5:21b).
It was for crimes that I had done
He groaned upon that tree!
Amazing pity, grace unknown,
and love beyond degree!
Thus might I hide my blushing face
when His dear cross appears;
dissolve my heart in thankfulness
and melt mine eyes to tears!
(TLH 154, 2 and 4)
— D. T. M.