All languages contain figures of speech where words have a figurative meaning instead of the literal one. The same is true for the Bible. It’s important to correctly recognize figurative language so we don’t treat figurative language as though it were literal, or treat literal language as though it were figurative.
The passage “by his wounds you have been healed” is mentioned in Isaiah 53:5 and 1 Peter 2:24. What does it mean? From the context, “his wounds” refers to Christ’s suffering on the cross. Does it mean that through Christ’s death we can be miraculously healed from illness or injury? Or does it mean something else?
This passage is also alluded to in Deuteronomy 32:39NIV: “There is no god besides me. I (God) put to death and I bring to life, I have wounded and I will heal, and no one can deliver out of my hand”.
This verse is a part of the song of Moses which deals with the punishment of the nations which God used to punish Israel. Here God is shown to be sovereign over the nations. He can destroy them (“put to death”) and create them (“bring to life”). He can judge them (“wound”) and restore them (“heal”). So in this context, the word “heal” is used as a figure of speech for restoring the fortunes of a nation. It has nothing to do with recovering from an illness or injury.
We will now look at Isaiah 53:5, followed by 1 Peter 2:24.
The Hebrew word nirpa (Strongs #7495), which is translated “heal”, is mentioned in six verses in the book of Isaiah. According to the Appendix, in 80% (4/5) of these verses, the word “heal” is used as a figure of speech. So what does it mean in the other verse, Isaiah 53:5? Is it figurative or literal?
Isaiah prophesied and wrote in Judea in about 700BC when there was great wickedness and idolatry amongst the Judeans. There are four “servant songs” in the book of Isaiah in which the servant is the promised Messiah (Isa. 42:1-4; 49:1-6; 50:4-9; 52:13 – 53:12). The fourth song describes a servant who would experience suffering and exaltation. Isaiah 53:5 is set in the following context.
4 Surely he took up our pain
and bore our suffering,
yet we considered him punished by God,
stricken by him, and afflicted.
5 But he was pierced for our transgressions,
he was crushed for our iniquities;
the punishment that brought us peace was on him,
and by his wounds we are healed.
6 We all, like sheep, have gone astray,
each of us has turned to our own way;
and the Lord has laid on him
the iniquity of us all.
Here the servant endured: pain, suffering, punishment, striking, affliction, piercing, crushing, and wounding. This punishment was from God and in this way the servant took the punishment that “we” deserve for “our” transgressions, iniquities and sin (v.10, 12). In this context the “we” and “our” were the faithful remnant of Judah (Isa. 10:20-23; 11:11; 37:31-32; 46:3). The result is that they experience peace and healing and justification (v.11). Their problem was that they “had gone astray” (v.6). They had sinned and transgressed the law of Moses. There is no mention of illness or injury. So in this verse “healed” means forgiveness of their sins and transgressions, not physical healing. According to the NET version, “Healing is a metaphor for forgiveness here”. It’s a spiritual healing, not a physical one. Brown-Driver-Briggs says that its figurative and addressing a nation or city like Babylon (Jer. 17:14). This means that the word “heal” is used as a figure of speech in 83% (5/6) of the verses where it is mentioned in the book of Isaiah.
In 1 Peter
The Greek word iaomai (Strongs #2390), which is translated “to heal”, is only mentioned once in the books written by Peter (1 Pt. 2:24). Most of the other instances of this word in the New Testament refer to physical healing. The exceptions are:
Acts 28:27, which is a quotation of Isaiah 6:10 in which the phrase “I (God) would heal them” is used as a figure of speech for a spiritual revival (see Appendix).
Hebrews 12:13 “’Make level paths for your feet,’ so that the lame may not be disabled, but rather healed”. The context of this verse is enduring hardship as God’s discipline (v.3-13). They are encouraged to persevere instead of giving up. The desired outcome is to “share in His (God’s) holiness” (v.10). This is a spiritual solution, not a physical one. So it was a spiritual problem, not a physical one. The “lame” is a weak believer (who had maybe drifted away, Heb. 2:1) and to be “healed” is to be built up, strengthened and restored (instead of stumbled). The NLT says “Mark out a straight path for your feet so that those who are weak and lame will not fall but become strong”. So the words “lame”, “disabled” and “healed” are being used metaphorically in this verse.
So what does “heal” mean in 1 Peter 2:24. This verse is set in the following context:
23 When they hurled their insults at Him [Jesus], He did not retaliate; when He suffered, He made no threats. Instead, He entrusted himself to Him [God the Father] who judges justly. 24 “He himself bore our sins” in His body on the cross, so that we might die to sins and live for righteousness; “by His wounds you have been healed.” 25 For “you were like sheep going astray,” but now you have returned to the Shepherd and Overseer of your souls.
After dealing with submission to authorities, Paul gives the example of Christ’s submission when He suffered for our sins. Then he quotes from Isaiah 53:4-6 to encourage believers to live godly lives: “so that we can be dead to sin and live for what is right” (v. 24, NLT). The verse is referring to sin and righteousness, not sickness and disease. Therefore, being “healed” means to be forgiven and saved, not to be physically healed. According to Thayers’ Greek Lexion “by His wounds you have been healed” means “to bring about (one’s) salvation”. It’s a way of saying that Christ’s death brings salvation to those who trust in Him. So, it’s spiritual healing. This is consistent with the finding that Isaiah 53:5 is also addressing spiritual healing, which should be the case as that is the source of the quotation in 1 Peter 2:24.
This study has illustrated how to use the surrounding context to distinguish figurative language from literal language in the Bible. The verses and passages in each book of the Bible are set out in an order determined by God. Don’t try to understand a verse or passage in isolation. Look at the message in the whole book. Look at the message in the same chapter, in the previous chapter and in the following chapter. Look at the message in the verses before and in the verses after. Read it like any other book; don’t just read here and there. Proverbs is the only book of the Bible where the verses aren’t always related to each other.
If a verse is quoted and explained without looking at the surrounding context, there is a danger of eisegesis (an interpretation that is imposed on the biblical text by the reader – it comes from the reader’s preconceived ideas) instead of exegesis (an interpretation that is obtained/derived from the biblical text).
In our everyday language the meaning of the words we use is mainly given by the surrounding context. The same rule applies when interpreting Scripture. It’s not good practice to select verses elsewhere in Scripture (i.e. “cherry picking”) to derive the meaning of a particular verse. Who decides which selection is best? But once the meaning has been explained, it’s OK to look for other passages of Scripture that are consistent with the meaning.
If this passage from Isaiah 53:5 and 1 Peter 2:24 is not relevant to illness and injury, then what is a proper Biblical response to such circumstances? Paul prayed about his health problems, but when it was clear that that weren’t going to be taken away, he knew that God doesn’t promise to remove our ailments and problems (2 Cor. 12:9). Instead God can give us the strength to live with our ailments and problems, because human weakness enables the display of divine power. Like a parent trains their children, God uses suffering for our spiritual development (Heb. 12:4-13). It’s how our self-reliance, pride, and earthly wisdom can be replaced with godliness and a stronger faith. James taught that the purpose of such trials is to develop our endurance, patience and perseverance (Jas. 1:2-3). Because our problems can develop our Christian character, we should accept them joyfully instead of getting angry, complaining, giving up, having self-pity, or believing that God will take them away. That can be a challenge for us!
We have seen that the passage “by his wounds you have been healed” mentioned in Isaiah 53:5 and 1 Peter 2:24 doesn’t mean that through Christ’s death we will be miraculously healed from illness or injury. Instead it means that through Christ’s death our sins can be forgiven and we can be spiritually healed and revived. However, physical healing is promised in future when believers will be resurrected to experience no sickness, pain, suffering, or death (Rev.21:1-4, 22:1-3).
Paul’s response to his “thorn in the flesh” (2 Cor. 12:9), parental training of their children (Heb. 12:4-13), and James’ advice on trials (Jas. 1:2-3) are good examples on how to react to illness or injury.
Appendix: Usage of the word “heal” in Isaiah
The Hebrew word nirpa (Strongs #7495), which is translated “heal”, is mentioned in six verses in the book of Isaiah. We now look briefly at the meaning of this word in five of these verses.
Isa. 6:10b: “Otherwise they might see with their eyes, hear with their ears, understand with their hearts, and turn and be healed”. This verse is in a passage describing the results of Isaiah’s ministry to Judah. The people would be unresponsive (like being deaf and blind) and turn even further from God. It’s opposite to people turning back to God (being repentant). And opposite to a spiritual revival. And opposite to spiritual healing. So the phrase “be healed” is used in this verse as a figure of speech for a spiritual revival.
Isa. 19:22: “The Lord will strike Egypt with a plague; He will strike them and heal them. They will turn to the Lord, and He will respond to their pleas and heal them”. Here the Egyptians are able to pray for deliverance from the plague like the Israelites (1 Ki. 8:35-40). In this verse, the word “heal” is used for physical healing from the plague, which is a disease.
Isa. 30:26: “The moon will shine like the sun, and the sunlight will be seven times brighter, like the light of seven full days, when the Lord binds up the bruises of his people and heals the wounds he inflicted”. This chapter describes Israel relying on political alliances instead of on God, which results in suffering and sorrow. The suffering and sorrow are referred to metaphorically as “bruises” and “wounds”. But they are promised blessing if they repent. The end of their suffering and sorrow is likened to a metaphorical healing. So the word “heals” is used as a figure of speech for a spiritual revival when the Israelites repent to obey God once again.
Isa. 57:18-19: “I have seen their ways, but I will heal them; I will guide them and restore comfort to Israel’s mourners, creating praise on their lips. Peace, peace, to those far and near,” says the Lord. “And I will heal them”. These verses are in a passage where God promises to restore the Israelites who turn away from idolatry. The meaning of the word “heal” is given as to “guide”, to “restore comfort to Israel’s mourners” and to bring “peace”. There is no mention of illness or injury. So the word “heal” is used here as a figure of speech for forgiveness and restoration.
So in 80% (4/5 of these verses, the word “heal” is used as a figure of speech. The other verse that we haven’t considered here is: “But he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was on him, and by his wounds we are healed“ (Isa. 53:5). The meaning of “healed” in this verse is discussed above under the heading “In Isaiah”.
Written, February 2017