Jesus: In Our Place
As Jesus hung from the cross, the crowds taunted him with these words, “He saved others; he cannot save himself. He is the King of Israel; let him come down now from the cross, and we will believe in him.”
In fact, Rabbi Michael Goldberg in his book Jews and Christians: Getting Our Stories Straight was reflecting on Matthew’s portrayal of the crucifixion of Jesus. In doing so, he asks of the crucified Jesus, “Why doesn’t Jesus come down off that cross and let God put up there in his place those who truly deserve to die: Jews, Romans, in sum, all humanity which has in one way or another taken part in committing such a heinous crime?”
But that is exactly the point of the cross, is it not? Though Jesus could have come down from the cross, he chose to lay down his life for us. In doing so, he wasn’t just dying for us. Actually, Jesus was dying in our place. He took our place! Paul writes in Galatians 3:13, “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us - for it written, ‘Cursed is everyone who is hanged on a tree.”
The theological term for this is “substitutionary atonement.” And there is a sobering implication to the substitutionary nature of Christ’s death. If Jesus was dying in our place, then this heinous death on the cross was something we deserved. That, in and of itself, that tells us how terrible our sin really is and the kind of judgment we deserve.
Fleming Rutledge observes that while many of us still talk about the cross, perhaps we have diminished the notion of sin and judgment. For example, when asked the question, “Why did Jesus die?” our common answer tends to be, “To show us how much God loves us.” While it is true that the cross speaks of God’s love for us, it is an incomplete answer. The shame of the cross speaks to the sin of mankind and the judgment of God against sin. Jesus died to atone for our sin and take God’s judgment for our sin upon himself.
Rabbi Goldberg got it right. It should have been me and you on that cross. We deserve the judgment of God. But because Jesus took our place, our Substitute, we come to Easter Sunday with great joy. Because of Jesus, we are delivered from the curse of sin. Rutledge concludes, “in the greatest act of love that has ever taken place, he gives his own person back to us, crucified and raised from the dead, the firstfruits of all who belong to him.”
A Prayer for This Week: Almighty God, who through your only begotten Son Jesus Christ overcame death and opened to us the gate of everlasting life: Grant that we, who celebrate with joy the day of the Lord’s resurrection, may be raised from the death of sin by your life-giving Spirit; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.
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