I am a math nerd. I used to get in trouble in the first grade for taking out my math workbook during English/reading time – yes it started that early. When you take algebra you learn about the substitution method. If you have an equation like 3x + 4y = 25 and you know that x = 7, you substitute the 7 in for x in the first equation and then you can solve for y (hint, y = 1). If you need a refresher, you can check out this Khan Academy article (Substitution Method Review). It is one of those basic skills you need to get algebra. It is also at the heart of Good Friday.
Today is all about substitution. Jesus substituting himself for us is the heart of the cross. God’s algebra is given in Romans 6:23 – “For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.” Our equation is “sin earns us death”, but Jesus has substituted his death for us so that we can have eternal life, which he has earned for us by his perfect righteousness. The cross, Good Friday, Christianity – they make no sense without the idea of substitution.
In Luke’s account of the trial and crucifixion of Jesus, he goes out of his way to tell us that Jesus was innocent. After the Jewish religious leaders condemn Jesus, they take him to Pilate, who has the power to lawfully put Jesus to death. Pilate’s initial examination of Jesus ends with the proclamation, “I find no guilt in this man” (Luke 23:4). Then Jesus goes before Herod, because he was ruler of Galilee where Jesus was from and Herod also found no guilt in Jesus (23:15). Pilate examines Jesus a second time and says to the religious leaders, “After examining him before you, behold, I did not find this man guilty of any of your charges against him. Neither did Herod, for he sent him back to us. Look, nothing deserving death has been done by him.” (23:14-15)
But the religious leaders kept shouting “Crucify, crucify him!” And a third time Pilate said to them, “Why, what evil has he done? I found in him no guilt deserving death. I will therefore punish and release him.” (23:21-22) But the religious leaders demanded that Jesus be crucified and Pilate granted their desire.
So they crucified Jesus, and the Roman centurion who was watching, said, “Certainly this man was innocent!” At least FIVE times, Luke tells us that Jesus was innocent – 3 by Pilate, 1 by Herod and 1 by a Roman centurion – and yet he was crucified as a convicted criminal. In Matthew’s account of the crucifixion, even Pilate’s wife joins the call for Jesus’ release – “Have nothing to do with that righteous man, for I have suffered much because of him today in a dream.” (Matthew 27:19)
At the same time, there was a notorious man name Barabbas who had been thrown into prison for an insurrection started in the city and for murder. He was supposed to be crucified that day along with two other men. But it was the custom of Pilate to release one Jew at Passover. Pilate wanted to release Jesus. So he thought he would outwit the religious leaders and take it to the crowds. He asked the crowds, “Whom do you want me to release for you, Barabbas, or Jesus who is called the Christ?” (Matthew 27:17) But they asked for Barabbas!! And said of Jesus, “Let him be crucified!”
Jesus is taking Barabbas’ place on the cross. Jesus is substituting himself for Barabbas. Although to the human eye all of this appears to be the doing of the jealous religious leaders, Jesus tells a different story. In John 10, Jesus says “I lay down my life for the sheep…No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord.” (John 10:15-18) God is substituting his Son for Barabbas. “Jesus, delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men.” (Acts 2:23) This is God’s plan, God’s doing – both Father and Son. Why?
Listen to these verses of Scripture:
“For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” (2 Corinthians 5:21)
“For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you by his poverty might become rich.” (2 Corinthians 8:9)
“Jesus committed no sin, nor was deceit found in his mouth…He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness. By his wounds you have been healed. For you were straying like lost sheep, but have now returned to the Shepherd and Overseer of your souls.” (1 Peter 2:22-25)
“He was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities…and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all…They made his grave with the wicked and with a rich man in his death, although he had done no violence and there was no deceit in his mouth.” (Isaiah 53:5, 6, 9)
“Aaron shall lay both his hands on the head of the live goat, and confess over it all the iniquities of the people of Israel, and all their transgressions, all their sins. And he shall put them on the head of the goat and send it away into the wilderness by the hand of a man who is in readiness. The goat shall bear all their iniquities on itself to a remote area, and he shall let the goat go free in the wilderness.” (Leviticus 16:21-22)
“For if the blood of goats and bulls, and the sprinkling of defiled persons with the ashes of a heifer, sanctify for the purification of the flesh, how much more will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself without blemish to God, purify our conscience from dead works to serve the living God.” (Hebrews 9:13-14)
“So Christ, having been offered once to bear the sins of many, will appear a second time, not to deal with sin but to save those who are eagerly waiting for him.” (Hebrews 9:28)
“For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Romans 6:23)
Jesus was not just substituting himself for Barabbas, but for all who would believe. This is why we call it Good Friday. The innocent, righteous, knew no sin, perfect Jesus became sin so that we – the guilty, unrighteous, sinner, broken – might become innocent, righteous, forgiven through Christ. Jesus substituted himself for us so that we might be forgiven, loved by the Father, and comforted by the Holy Spirit. Jesus experienced the worst Friday in history so that we might experience Good Friday every day. You see, you do use algebra in real life.
May I encourage you to pick up your Bible this Good Friday and read the story of Jesus’ substitutionary death for you? Just pick one – and revel in the love of God for you today. You can find it in Matthew 26-27, Mark 14-15, Luke 22-23, and John 18-19.
Trusting in the Death of Christ for Us,