Many assume that the point at which Jesus actually bore our sins was on the cross. And to be sure, this is true. 1 Peter 2:24 tells us that Christ “bore our sins in His body on the tree”. When Jesus uttered, “My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me?” (Mt 27:46), it was a declaration that he was dying under the wrath of God as a sinner even though he was “without sin” (Heb 4:16).
But was this substitutional “sin-bearing” by Jesus limited only on the cross? I don’t think so. I think it was far more comprehensive than that. I think that Jesus’ whole life was one of sin-bearing. That the Christ who was without sin was all at the same time bearing the sins of mankind his entire life.
Isaiah 53 gives a very illustrative glimpse of this. Isaiah says that Jesus “Himself bore our sicknesses, and He carried our pains; but we in turn regarded Him stricken, struck down by God, and afflicted” (53:4). And it is not until the next verse that Isaiah speaks of this Servant being pierced for our transgressions. I believe that Isaiah here is pointing to a life of carrying “our pains”, being “afflicted” and outcast for our sake. Isaiah gets even more explicit in 53:7, saying that “He was oppressed and afflicted, yet He did not open His mouth. Like a lamb led to the slaughter and like a sheep silent before her shearers, He did not open His mouth”. He describes the Messiah as oppressed and afflicted and silent on his way to the slaughter — before the slaughter Christ was afflicted, silent, stricken.
Matthew gives us a picture of this as well. Matthew 8 has an episode where Jesus heals many people who were brought to him — and he gives a commentary on why, saying, “when evening came, they brought to Him many who were demon-possessed. He drove out the spirits with a word and healed all who were sick, so that what was spoken through the prophet Isaiah might be fulfilled: He Himself took our weaknesses and carried our diseases” (Mt 8:16-17). He is quoting from Isaiah 53 here, and attributing it not to the death of Jesus only, but to his entire life and ministry. Matthew’s commentary on Isaiah 53 gives the imagery of Jesus bearing sickness in his body in his lifetime. It’s really quite interesting.
Also, in the episode of John 18-19 where Pilate interrogates Jesus, John highlights that Jesus makes no real defense for his innocence. The climax of the interrogation includes John’s personal commentary in which he says, “Jesus did not give an answer” (John 19:9). Since Jesus did in fact speak after this (John 19:11), we can assume that Jesus didn’t give an answer of defense. Meaning, he didn’t try to acquit himself, or argue his innocence — what I think John is highlighting is that Jesus went to the cross purposefully, as the world’s sin-bearer. This reminds us of Isaiah 53:7, that Jesus was a like a “sheep silent before her shearers, [and] He did not open His mouth”. He was bearing the sins of the world on himself, and therefore didn’t try to defend himself!
I believe that Jesus’ entire life was a life of substitution. That he was outcasted, afflicted, smitten, considered hated by God, and all that he might go to the cross as a sinner, even though he is the righteous one.
I will end this post with a very insightful explanation from Horatius Bonar. His description of this sin-bearing life of Jesus is very helpful. Bonar says:
“[Jesus] was always that sinless One bearing our sins, carrying them up to the cross as well as bearing them upon the cross. Substitution…attached itself to each part of his life as truly as His death. Our burden He assumed when He entered the manger, and laid it aside only at the cross. The utterance, ‘It is finished’ (John 19:30), pointed back to a whole life’s sin-bearing work…
He entered our world as the Substitute. ‘There was no room for them in the inn’ (Lk 2:7) — the inn of Bethlehem, the city of David, His own city. ‘Though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor’ (2 Cor 8:9). In poverty and banishment His life begun. He was not allowed either to be born or die [without being] an outcast man. ‘[Outside] the gate’ (Heb 13:12) was His position, as He entered and as He left our earth. Man would not give even a roof to shelter or a cradle to receive the helpless babe. It was as a Substitute that He was the outcast from the first moment of His birth. His vicarious life began in the manger. For what can this poverty mean, this rejection by man, this outcast condition, but that His sin-bearing had begun?” (from The Everlasting Righteousness, emphasis his)