Wednesday, March 08, 2006

What a "bear"!

I’ve struggled recently to harmonize some comments and thoughts regarding the bearing of sin by Jesus on the cross. As odd as it may sound for my +20 years as a Christian the idea of Jesus literal sin bearing on the cross never entered my mind. I say odd because only recently have I become aware that the view of Jesus becoming responsible for my sin, and that of the entire world, on the cross is very pervasive amongst Christian brethren and the religious world at large. This will be the first in a series to lay out as precisely as possible a harmonization of scripture on the topic.

In my discussions and reading of various writers I have found that one of the foundational items to a view of Jesus literal sin bearing as becoming accountable for my sin on the cross is the word “bear” in scripture speaking of Jesus. In English the word “bear” has several possible definitions. This is not a complete list but presents a few of the commonly used meanings.

1. To hold up; support.
2. To carry from one place to another; transport.
3. To be accountable for; assume:
4. To have a tolerance for; endure:

In application of these definitions to the subject of Jesus on the cross, the definition commonly applied to passages such as 1 Peter 2:24, Isaiah 53, and others is option (3): "To be accountable for; assume." Application of this definition of “bear” is how the concept of Jesus literally being accountable for my sin, and all other sinners, on the cross is reached.

It is at this point that I begin having difficulty in harmonization of scripture and using the definition of “bear” as direct accountability by Jesus. We have very clear statements concerning the accountability of sin in passages such as:

Eze 18:20 The soul that sinneth, it shall die. The son shall not bear the iniquity of the father, neither shall the father bear the iniquity of the son: the righteousness of the righteous shall be upon him, and the wickedness of the wicked shall be upon him.

This context states in four different ways that the accountability and responsibility of a sin is that of the individual, and that person only, that committed it. The only reasonable definition for “bear” in this context that fits is “To be accountable for; assume.” How then can one passage of scripture say very explicitly that sin responsibility is not transferable while concluding that is what happened to Jesus on the cross? For the moment, let’s leave this question to look at some additional scripture.

To add some more dimension to this word “bear”, let’s consider a passage from Lamentations:

Lam 5:7 Our fathers have sinned, and are not; and we have borne their iniquities.

Applying the definition of “borne” here as to mean “To be accountable for; assume” would conflict with Ez 18:20. So, how is this harmonized? Given that the word “bear” has several possible definitions, this passage must be using one of the other definitions of “bear”. Examination of the broader context of Lam 5 reveals that the writer is describing how they were under affliction from outside forces. However, the actions and events that brought about the affliction occurred many years earlier. Therefore, the definition of “bear” in this case is either option (1) or (4), the idea of endurance or bearing under a load. Their fathers had sinned, were dead, and now the current generation was reaping the consequence of their sins. They were not accountable for their father’s sins but were bearing under the load created by them and their sin.

Then we have the context of Isaiah 53:

Isa 53:4 Surely he hath borne our griefs, and carried our sorrows: yet we did esteem him stricken, smitten of God, and afflicted.

Also, in Isa 53:11 our word “bear” is used again concerning iniquities. The unique thing about this context is that we have a case of scripture commenting on the meaning of another scripture in this passage:

Mat 8:16 When the even was come, they brought unto him many that were possessed with devils: and he cast out the spirits with his word, and healed all that were sick:
Mat 8:17 That it might be fulfilled which was spoken by Isaiah the prophet, saying, Himself took our infirmities, and bare our sicknesses.

Now we have Divine inspiration giving us the definition for “bear” found in Isaiah 53. Jesus did not literally transfer these diseases to his own body in healing the people and casting out demons. Jesus removed these things, similar to the meaning of option (2) presented earlier: "To carry from one place to another; transport."

In the original Hebrew language, the words used for "borne" and "carried" found in Isa 53:4 are respectively nasa and sabal. In Isa 53:11 speaking of Jesus, “for he shall bear their iniquities”, "bear" is the same Hebrew word sabal. This Hebrew word sabal is also the root word used in Eze 18:20 and Lam 5:7 translated as “bear” or “borne”. One of the Laws of Language is once a definition is established in context it remains the same until the context changes or the author explicitly changes it. This is a universal principle since all languages have words with multiple meanings and without it there could never be a consistent understanding by the reader. Therefore, with the establishment of the specific definition of “bear” in Isa 53:4 by the commentary provided by Mat 8:16,17 what is being spoken of in Isa 53:11 of the Messiah is the carrying away, the removal of their iniquities.

Now, coming back to the question asked earlier: how then can one passage of scripture say very explicitly that sin is not transferable while concluding that is what happened to Jesus on the cross? Simply put, using the definition of “bear” for Jesus on the cross to mean “To be accountable for; assume” is not correct. Scripture itself uses the word "bear" in different ways depending on the context (Lam 5:7, Isa 53:4,11) and does not universally mean “To be accountable for; assume”, as I have heard some state. Jesus didn’t literally become accountable or assume responsibility for my sin or anyone else’s on the cross (Ez 18:20) since scrpiture explicitly states that this does not and cannot occur. Considering the Divine commentary established for Isaiah 53 by Mat 8:16,17 reinforces that the “bearing” that is described of Jesus on the cross is the removal of my sin and in removing my sin He did not become accountable for it.

Future studies will consider other dimensions for the action of Jesus bearing on the cross. Understanding of the word “bear” is just the first step in proper harmonization of scripture concerning this subject.

---Stephen Ledford