A Story of Substitution
It’s possible that as Barabbas sat in his cell, he thought those shouts were for him. He had no idea at that time the people were calling for the death of an innocent man.
But Jesus knew.
Jesus knew very well that He would be taking the place of Barabbas. One who was guilty, convicted, and rightly judged would be exchanged for the perfect, innocent Savior of the world. Something we, as Christ followers, can identify with.
I think a closer look at this account and what follows is not only awe-inspiring, it helps us understand (and explain to others) the fullness of Jesus’ substitutionary atonement for our sins.
Laying the Groundwork
Substitutionary atonement is an intimidating phrase, so let’s break it down a bit. In its simplest form, if someone is substituting themselves to atone for us, they are taking our place (substitution) to satisfy a payment we owe (atonement). The payment we owe God is very high indeed. He is the essence of perfection and thus cannot allow imperfection in His presence. We, unfortunately, are imperfect sinners to the core. As such, we don’t need to simply “be better” externally, we need sinless perfection internally. This is something we cannot provide, so we must rely on something else: a substitute. The question is, what kind of substitute do we need? That leads us to examples we can use to explain what Jesus is done for us.
Barabbas: A Physical Substitution
As mentioned, Jesus was very much aware that that people would call for the release of Barabbas, and that He would be the physical substitution for him. We’ll never know how grateful Barabbas was, but we do know this – Jesus took his place.
Of course, it was only a physical substitution. Jesus took Barabbas’ place in line to be executed, but unless Barabbas later trusted in Christ, his death was ultimately just postponed to a later date. There was no internal change for Barabbas.
This highlights an important truth. We don’t just need a perfect substitution. A physical substitution can be perfect, but it doesn’t make up for our spiritual imperfection. we need more than a physical substitution to solve our sin problem. Somebody simply taking our physical punishment is not enough to help our spiritual dilemma.
A second kind of substitution would come just a little while later.
The Thief: A Spiritual Substitution
Christ would soon be crucified between two thieves. Both thieves were mocking Jesus. Both were joining with the crowd in their disdain for the Savior. And then something happened. We don’t know exactly what transpired, but one of the thieves saw something in Jesus – Maybe the fulness of His innocence; maybe something more … whatever it was, the important thing he saw was his own sin and his need for forgiveness. And it changed everything within him in the midst of his final hours of life. He turned from mockery and said:
“’…we indeed are suffering justly, for we are receiving what we deserve for our deeds; but this man has done nothing wrong.’ And he was saying, ‘Jesus, remember me when You come in Your kingdom!’” (Luke 23:41-42)
Jesus provided the most assuring response possible. The message of spiritual substitution.
“He said to him, ‘Truly I say to you, today you shall be with Me in Paradise.’” (Luke 23:43).
A waterfall of relief must have poured over this criminal. Jesus exchanged His perfection for the sinfulness of the thief – and just a short while later that thief would be standing with His Savior in eternal glory. Likely a place that no one among his friends or family would ever imagine him to be, but God is in the habit of turning expectations on their head.
What Jesus did the for the thief, He also did for us; a forever pardon. Not just a physical substitution, but a spiritual substitution that fully takes our place and settles our account with God, making us acceptable to Him – but there’s more.
Us: Full Substitution and Provision
Today, when we place our trust in Christ alone, He substitutes His perfection for our sinfulness just as He did with the thief, and then He promises more: His very presence within us along with the power of the Holy Spirit. Something the thief was not able to experience. Following is a longer verse, but please take the time to read through these astounding words carefully:
And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another advocate to help you and be with you forever— the Spirit of truth. The world cannot accept him, because it neither sees him nor knows him. But you know him, for he lives with you and will be in you. I will not leave you as orphans; I will come to you. Before long, the world will not see me anymore, but you will see me. Because I live, you also will live. On that day you will realize that I am in my Father, and you are in me, and I am in you. (John 14: 16-20)
We are more than pardoned! We are provided for eternally because of the ongoing, never-ending presence of Jesus and the sanctifying power of the Holy Spirit within us! We are saved, secured and sealed as both citizens of heaven and able to participate in the work of God on Earth.
Telling the Story to Others
This progression of substitution is something we can share with others as we ask them to consider Christ. While not a full gospel presentation, it can help explain the magnitude of what Christ has accomplished on our behalf. A physical substitution (Barabbas) is not sufficient. We need more than just a “delayed death.” We need a full spiritual substitution like the thief received by trusting in Christ. But we even get more than the thief could have ever imagined when we trust in Christ today. We receive a full substitutionary atonement along with the provision of Christ Himself and the Spirit that seals us as citizens in heaven.
He accomplishes it all and allows us to live the fullness of life in Christ. Forgiven and free.
PO Box 703929
Dallas, TX 75370-3929