Today: Monday, December 09, 2019

Substitute    (4/22/2018 )

Almost exactly a month ago, Lieutenant Colonel Arnaud Beltrame, a French policeman on duty in the town of Trèbes, became an international hero when he took the place of a hostage victim and was subsequently shot and killed by the gunman.

The French Interior Minister said, “France will never forget his heroism, his bravery, his sacrifice.”  The officer’s brother said, “He gave his life for someone else, for a stranger.”

That incident echoes a similar story associated with the Second World War.  Father Maximilian Kolbe was a Polish Catholic priest, who volunteered to take the place of an army sergeant when prisoners at Auschwitz were being selected for execution in 1941.

What links these stories is self-offering for the sake of others - in the face of evil.  When someone stands in for another, and faces death in their place, we are very readily overawed by their courage, compassion and sacrifice.

In recent weeks within the Christian church, we have been re-telling the story of Jesus and his act of sacrifice for others through his death on the cross.  The circumstances were different, but that sense that Jesus was standing in for others - indeed for us - has been one of the major ways of trying to grasp what happened when he died.

The key word in that picture is “substitute”.  Within the accounts of the crucifixion, Jesus clearly became a substitute for Barabbas.  Given the choice of saving the condemned rioter and murderer Barabbas or Jesus, the crowd shouted for Barabbas (see John 23, verses 13-25).  Barabbas was set free, Jesus, whom Pilate would rather have released, was crucified.

That account inspired a famous hymn which includes the words -

Bearing shame and scoffing rude,
in my place condemned he stood;
sealed my pardon with his blood:
Alleluia! what a Saviour!

What Jesus faced in that great act was the combined forces of evil, hatred, violence and death - all the fruits of a world gone wrong.  It is as though bearing that himself, he sheltered us from their destruction, and saved us from their effect.

What Jesus did on the cross can be pictured and interpreted in a whole number of ways, some of them giving us vivid, sometimes difficult images.  But no one of those pictures is complete in itself.  it is as though we are surveying a great mountain range of truth.  As we move on we get fresh glimpses of the vastness and glory of what God has done for us in Jesus.

We hope to explore some of those images in coming weeks.  Meanwhile, it’s important to grasp the core of what any picture is saying, and not to get bogged down in the detail of how it works.  In the case of someone giving themselves as a substitute for us, we can well understand the meaning - we’ve seen it in Beltrame and Kolbe.  

Jesus has done that for each of us.


Jesus, you died in our place, facing the consequences of our sinfulness.  Through your sacrifice we may come to God.  I come in thankfulness and wonder, in trust and joy.

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