Question: "What does it mean that 'by His stripes we are healed'?"
Answer: “Stripes,” (Isaiah 53:5; 1 Peter 2:24) in the language of the King James Version of the Bible, and in some others, means “wounds,” as seen in more modern translations such as the New International Version. These stripes were administered by whipping the bare backs of prisoners whose hands and feet were bound, rendering them helpless. The phrase “by His stripes we are healed” refers to the punishment Jesus Christ suffered—floggings and beatings with fists that were followed by His agonizing death on a cross—to take upon Himself all of the sins of all people who believe Jesus Christ is Lord and Savior. “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6).
The whips used were made of braided leather, with pottery shards and sharp stones affixed to the ends, which tore open the flesh of the prisoner with each cruel swing of the whip. When we picture this terrible, inhumane form of physical punishment we recoil in horror. Yet the physical pain and agony were not all Jesus suffered. He also had to undergo the mental anguish brought on by the wrath of His Father, who punished Him for the sinfulness of mankind—sin carried out in spite of God’s repeated warnings, sin that Jesus willingly took upon Himself. He paid the total price for all of our transgressions.
Under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, the apostle Peter wrote, “He Himself bore our sins in His body on the tree, so that we might die to sins and live for righteousness; by His wounds you have been healed.” In Isaiah 53, Jesus’ future life on earth was foretold in the clearest of terms, to include his eventual torture and death: “But He was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was upon Him, and by His wounds (stripes) we are healed” (Isaiah 53:5; 1 Peter 2:24).
Although these two verses are central to the topic of healing, they are often misunderstood and misapplied. The word “healed” as translated from both Hebrew and Greek, can mean either spiritual or physical healing. However, the contexts of Isaiah 53 and 1 Peter 2 make it clear that they are referring to spiritual healing, not physical. “He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, so that we might die to sins and live for righteousness; by his wounds you have been healed” (1 Peter 2:24). The verse is referring to sin and righteousness, not sickness and disease. Therefore, being “healed” in both these verses is speaking of being forgiven and saved, not being physically healed.
Matthew uses Isaiah 53:5 and speaks of its fulfillment in the context of Jesus’ healing ministry: “Many who were demon-possessed were brought to him, and he drove out the spirits with a word and healed all the sick. This was to fulfill what was spoken through the prophet Isaiah: ‘He took up our infirmities and bore our diseases’” (Matthew 8:16–17). Jesus was not actually bearing sin in Matthew 8, but He was bearing some of the consequences of sin; thus, Jesus showed Himself to be the true Messiah prophesied by Isaiah. In healing the multitudes of their physical ailments, Jesus proved His power to also heal them of their spiritual ailments (cf. Mark 2:8–12). Matthew finds in Jesus’ healing miracles a foretaste of Jesus’ atonement for sin: the bearing of the diseases was emblematic of the removal of sin. The ultimate cause of sickness, the sin of the world, would be borne later on the cross, and our ultimate physical healing, with resurrection, will come at the end (1 Corinthians 15:42).