After John 3:16, this was the first Bible verse I was really conscious of. Not the actual verse, but its name: Isaiah 53:5.
And I was only made aware of these six letters, three digits and a colon by the fact it appeared on the cover of some of the albums produced by a heavy metal band I was into in my junior high and early high school days: Stryper.
This Orange County, California-based quartet was unusual among the hair metal acts of the ’80s, because instead of singing ‘boy meets girl, boy boffs girl‘ songs or ‘knight meets dragon, knight slays dragon‘ songs, Stryper was a Christian band.
Their songs contained knock-you-over-the-head Christian lyrics, to be sure. But they drew criticism during their heyday for touring with big-name acts like Ratt and Bon Jovi, whose songs and sex, drugs and rock ‘n roll lifestyle weren’t in keeping with most Christians’ ideas of morality and appropriate behavior. Moreover, between songs, Stryper didn’t talk about their faith much during concerts.
Jesus was sung about, but not talked about much.
Were they a real Christian band, or was their alleged faith just as contrived and tacked-on as their striped yellow-and-black leather costumes? Just another gimmick to differentiate the band from the rest of the poisonous, quietly riotous, motley crew of iron maidens and armoured saints of the day? Sure, they tossed Bibles out from the stage, but was that just part of the gimmick, too?
Stryper definitely had some Christian fans, but there were also plenty like me, who tolerated the preachy lyrics because we enjoyed the music and thought the costumes were kinda cool. (It’s hard to imagine now that I liked the costumes at one time. But it was the ’80s, and I was only 13 when I started listening to them. Besides, I was kind of a wrestling nut too, and their outfits kinda reminded me of the WWF goodguys, the Killer Bees.)
I haven’t given Stryper much thought in a few decades, but I have paid a lot of attention to Isaiah 53:5:
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.
In fact, I sang this verse during today’s Good Friday service at my church, in the form of a song made famous by Mac Powell, Steven Curtis Chapman, Brian Littrell and Mark Hall called By His Wounds. It’s such a perfect song for this climactic day in the life of Christ that we’ve sung it every year for the past half-decade or so.
And thanks in part to that song, Isaiah 53:5 has become one of my favourite verses in the whole Bible. Once or twice, when signing a card or writing a note to a fellow believer, I’ve scrawled the words ‘Isaiah 53:5’ on the card, just like Stryper did on its album covers 30 years ago.
But a couple weeks ago – on the same day as the Communion I wrote about yesterday in Broken for Me, as it happens – a friend cited this same passage when talking about the strength Christ gives him, during a time of trial in his life.
Only he quoted the King James Version, where instead of ‘wounds’, it says ‘with his stripes we are healed.’
And that made me think of where I first saw this verse: on a Stryper album cover.
And then I started thinking what might have happened if some spiritually comatose headbanger in the ’80s was looking at a Stryper album cover, and found himself curious about what this Bible verse was all about. So he headed to his living room and looked it up in his parents’ dusty King James Bible, and found this:
‘But he was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities: the chastisement of our peace was upon him; and with his stripes we are healed.’
‘Whoa. The whole band is, like, about this verse? They wear those faggy stripes to, like, represent the gashes torn out of Jesus’ flesh when He was whipped and stuff? They tour with those dirtbag bands I like, and sing all those faggy harmonies, just so they can point to these sentences about Jesus? Huh. Must be pretty important to them, for some reason…’
Is it possible that Stryper endured the ridiculous costumes and the inevitable jeers of their secular peers, just to drop bombs like that one on metal fans like this one?
Is the truth that they chose not to preach from the stage at mainstream metal concerts, not because they didn’t really buy what they were selling, but because they knew they’d reach more people by not preaching? That they deliberately held back from fire-hosing people with Christ because they knew their fans could only handle a trickle? And that if they got too preachy, the secular metal bands would drop them from their tours like a groupie with an STD?
How many mustard seeds of faith were planted in my generation of metalheads as a result?
How many of today’s worship leaders, pastors and sold-out Jesus Freaks owe their lives in Christ partially to stories like these – to Stryper’s decision to hold back and the patient discipline it took to stick to that choice?
I don’t know, and neither do Robert and Michael Sweet.
But Jesus does.
As I look back on this little revelation in Hindsight, I regret that the anecdote above is purely hypothetical, not autobiographical. I’m a bit bummed that it took me until 2015 to make the connection between Stryper and Jesus’ stripes.
If I’d caught on back when I was still inside the group’s target audience, would I have connected with Jesus that much earlier? If so, where would I be today?
Thankfully, late is better than never, and God can work with me, right where I am.
Peace be with you.