“And Abraham went and took the ram and offered it up as a burnt offering instead of his son” (Gen. 22:13). Like an old-fashioned grammar text, the Bible is a book in which many of the answers to questions posed early on are to be found in the back of the book. Take the idea that Jesus died for me. We sing Cecil Frances Alexander’s words:
We may not know, we cannot tell
What pains he had to bear;
But we believe it was for us
He hung and suffered there.
And we sing these words because they reflect something we find to be deeply embedded within Scripture. Substitution is the word we have come to employ for this even though, like Trinity, it is not a biblical word. But it is a word that summarizes what we find in the Bible from the very start: that sin is atoned for by the sacrifice of another. Sinners in the Old Testament came and offered sacrifices, symbolically laying their hands on the victim’s head before killing it (see Lev. 1:4; 4:4). Plainly, what is in view is a symbolic transference of guilt from the sinner to the victim.
The annual ritual of the scapegoat taught this, too. Leviticus 16 spells it out for us: on the day when the sins of the people for the previous year is to be atoned for, the High Priest is to make atonement for himself. Taking two goats, he puts his hands on the head of one and having confessed the sins of the people, the goat is taken into the wilderness picturing the removal of sin. The other goat is sacrificed showing the cost that such removal of sin entails. Nothing could illustrate substitution clearer. The laying on of hands effected the identification of the sinner with the guiltless and the transference of sin and guilt from the one to the other. When Abraham was shown the ram caught in the thicket on Mount Moriah, he had no need of divine instruction as to what to do with it. Even though the meaning of the sacrifice was given fuller exposure in Leviticus 16, there was already the idea in Abraham’s time of the ritual of sacrifice in the place of sin.
The principle of substitution starts here in Genesis 22:13. Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his only son Isaac is total but, in the last minute when his obedience is without doubt, God provides a ram “instead of his son.” From this point onwards, the way of atonement is heading towards a definite goal — the death of Jesus on our behalf. If we are in doubt as to the course, Isaiah 53 spells it out. God is making His servant’s life an offering for sin. And what does that mean, exactly? This: “He has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows; yet we esteemed him stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted. But he was wounded for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his stripes we are healed. All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned every one to his own way; and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all” (Isa. 53:4–6). vPaul and Peter will employ precise language, using specific prepositions, to underline this concept: “For our sake he made him to be sin” (2 Cor. 5:21); “the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me” (Gal. 2:20); “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us” (Gal. 3:13); “For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous” (1 Peter 3:18).
Substitution brings with it a guarantee: that sin, my sin, can never be revisited. It is atoned for — completely! All the punishment that my sin deserves has been fully met in the punishment of the substitute. Isaac was spared. It is interesting to note that when Paul says in Romans 8 that God “did not spare his only Son” (Rom. 8:32) he may well have been thinking of the passage in Genesis 22:16 in which God speaks of Abraham as having not “withheld” Isaac. The Greek translation of Genesis (the version that Paul would have known best, perhaps), the exact same word is employed. Abraham was willing not to spare his own son, but God spared him. By contrast, God’s own Son, the son he loved, was not spared.
It is even more poignant to consider that the Gospels record Jesus’ prayer of dereliction on the cross: “My God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matt. 27:46). Jesus deserved to be spared! He had cried earlier in Gethsemane: “My Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me” (Matt. 26:39). As a son to a father he had cried for an answer. But Jesus was not spared.
All this highlights the way in which the Old Testament story prepares the way for the coming of Jesus as the promised Savior. The Scottish preacher “Rabbi” Duncan in a famous outburst in one of his classes, summarized it for us: “Dy’e know what Calvary was?” And with tears in his eyes went on to say, “It was damnation; and he took it lovingly.