Sub! When we get to the halfway point in our basketball game that is typically what you hear. Someone yells, “Sub!” because we need to make a substitution. At that point it is time for the extra guys on the sidelines to step in and play. It is an important part of the game for us. The guys who are sitting out want in… and the guys who are not in as good of shape want out! [And if you lack the skill like me, the other guys want you out! (they are a very gracious group to let me play with them).] But every Tuesday and Thursday morning, we recognize our subs and we pull them into the game.
I mention this because the passage that is before us deals with the practice of substation.
It is interesting what we hear on this hilltop. The Lord drowns out most every noise that would have surely clamored that day. He seals our ears from most of the clamor and chatter, and he gives us just a few sound bites. Because of the Holy Spirit, we are allowed to eavesdrop on a few of the conversations. And we recognize that these “The seven words from the cross” or “The seven sayings of Christ from the cross” as we call them are given for a distinct purpose. They are here to help us understand something of God’s redemptive love.
The one before us is the third of these sayings. And the words resonate with this theme of substitution. The Lord Jesus, in the throes of death, acts to substitute himself. He speaks to Mary and to John and he binds them together in one of the most intimate of unions. Interestingly too, he says nothing about himself. But even though he does not use the first person pronoun, we find that astounding things are said. In making this substitution, I want us to see that three things here: Christ distinguishes himself, isolates himself, and he replaces himself.
To begin with, it is important to see that Christ is here distinguishing himself as the promised s
I. He distinguishes himself in history
At this moment Jesus is numbered among those who are common thieves. Everyone who witnesses this awful execution people would be tempted to see him as just another criminal. Yet Christ will not let them do this. In these words he sets himself apart from the others who are sentenced alongside him. As a matter of fact, he distinguishes himself from every other person in history.
Why do I say that? It is because of the nature of this event. In this scene Jesus replays a scene from redemptive history. If you are familiar with how the Bible begins, you know that this is not the first time that a woman has had another man substituted for her lost child. We see this happen in the opening chapters of Scripture (the story of Cain and Able in Genesis 4 to be precise). You may remember that after Abel was killed, Eve conceived another son She named him Seth (which means “appointed”) because God had appointed her another son in the place of Abel. It was a divine substitution! Just like the one we see here at the cross.
Now let your mind play a little bit. Do you remember what Adam first called his wife? Her first name was not Eve. That was the name he gave her after the fall. When he first laid eyes on her he was enthralled with her, and he said, “She shall be called Woman.”
Here at the cross we see that historical moment replayed. The woman (as Jesus designates her) receives another son in the place of the one she lost (or is about to lose as the case may be). Mary is sort of a second Eve. Both the first and second Eve had a child who was tragically ripped away from them and murdered. Sin was the cause of both of them being slain. Both were the victims of sin. But Jesus wants to point out that his death is much more monumental than that of Abel’s.
Now, remember why the first woman received the name Eve. Why did Adam name his wife Eve? It was a result of God’s promise of redemption. When God cursed the snake he said, “there will be enmity between your seed and the seed of the woman.” Adam then started calling his wife Eve because she would be the “mother of all living.” That was his way of saying, “I believe the promise of salvation and life that God has just given us.”
When Cain was born, Adam and Eve might have thought, “Is this the one who is going to crush the head of the serpent?” The answer was a definite no.
Yet here at the cross, Jesus replays the that substitution. His purpose for doing so was to distinguish himself from among all the other men in the world. He is saying that the role of the Eve has been fulfilled in him. From the cross, in a cryptic symbol, he says that the real seed of the woman has come. He was now in the process of crushing the head of the serpent. Yes, his heel would be bruised. Yes, he too would die. An innocent man would be put to death again. But his death would not be a simple letting of blood without any purpose. As the author of Hebrews says, His blood speaks a better word than the blood of Abel. His blood would be shed for the purpose of defeating sin, death and the devil. Through his blood and through his death, there would come life!
A lot of people think that these words were written for the sake of Mary. They say that Jesus was acting as the sweet son, caring for his mother to the very end. To be sure, there is an element of this. But these words were not just for Mary’s comfort. They are for your comfort. They are here to tell you that God’s promise of salvation has come to fruition. God has procured full atonement for all our sins. He has done it in the body of His own Son.
This makes what comes next all the more vivid. In substituting himself he not only distinguishes himself in history, he isolates himself from others.
II. He isolates himself from others
What you see here is something akin to an athletic event where one athlete is substituted for another. When you have a substitution on the basketball court, one player steps in for another. But the one who was substituted must now leave the game. He must take his seat on the bench. In a sense he is isolated from the rest of the players.
What we see here at the cross is that sort of thing taking place. Christ isolates himself by formally breaking the familial ties he has to his mother. He removes himself from the union and puts another in his place.
As he does this we see him willingly taking upon himself the wrath and curse of God.
Isolation is a curse. When God created us, he designed us to have communion with one another. I know that this may be hard to understand for you. We live in such a fragmented and broken society. But we were created to have communion with one another. True happiness is found being in the presence of other people with complete peace and unity. There is no quarreling in heaven. No factions. Those are characteristics of hell because hell is a place of isolation.
The story of Cain and Able is so telling on this. There you have two men who are to be bound together in the bond of brotherhood. But Cain rises up and kills his brother. God comes along and says, “Cain, where is your brother?” Cain replies, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” You know what the answer to that is? Yes! You are! You share flesh and blood! Of course you are to be your brother’s keeper. You are to love and cherish him!
But do you remember what happened to Cain? The passage in Gen. 4 tells us that God punished Cain by making him a “fugitive and a wanderer on earth.” As a punishment for his schismatic spirit he was isolated. His lot in life was to bear the curse of loneliness. And he recognized how miserable that would be because his reaction was one of complete despair! He cried out, “O my punishment is too much for me.” “It is greater than I can bear!”
You’ve no doubt experienced the misery of isolation. How many of you have been in a church that has been ruptured for some ungodly reason? (there are godly separations. But rarely do they happen for godly reasons.) When that church split, you suffered, didn’t you? You were cut off from other godly people. You lost the opportunity to share in their gifts and graces. It was as if there had been a real amputation in the body of Christ. That isolation is a curse. And that is why it is a foul thing to have the peace, purity and the unity of the church rent asunder.
Our society is a miserable place today, isn’t it? You know why? It is because there is so much isolation. Studies say that 36% of children today are born without fathers in the home. That’s not counting those fathers who leave soon-there-after. Kids are isolated.
Even those places that we would not call broken homes are most often places that are fractured. Whole families live in isolation from one another. Mom and dad go opposite directions in the morning. Kids are shipped off to day care or school or to who knows where afterwards. That’s not the way it was meant to be. The two are to become one. The family unit was to be one of the strongest bonds on earth. Home is to be where communion and happiness is found.
And here at the cross you have a severing of the most intimate of earthly relationships. The tie to the home is cut. Christ isolates himself from his own mother.
We know that Jesus is the Son of God. But he was also the son of Mary, according to the flesh. He was nursed at her breast. He was nurtured by her daily affection. He was cared for just as any other human son.
Jesus was not a stoic. He was very man of very man. And to formally have to cut his ties with his mother would have been mentally excruciating. To have to watch her weep over him at the foot of the cross and then see her walk away under some other man’s arm would have been a hell in itself.
Yet, this isolation was the work of the obedient lamb. He willingly broke up his own family so that he might bear the awful curse of isolation.
But as he substitutes himself he not only distinguishes himself, He not only isolates himself, but he also replaces himself.
III. He replaces himself with his beloved.
We must not neglect to remember that in this substitution Jesus appoints another to fill His shoes. John is thrust into the family in place of Jesus.
Let’s go back to our basket ball illustration. When a sub comes in, what does he do? He replaces one of the players on the court, doesn’t he? He takes his place and stands in his stead. He now has all of the responsibilities and he gets to enjoy all the privileges of the one he took the place of.
Perhaps a better example may be found in the 2008 Summer Olympics. The event was fencing. Italy and China were competing for the bronze medal. Late in the match Matteo Tagliariol, the Italian star, pulled a muscle and had to bow out of the event. His replacement, Stefano Caozzo stepped in and, with only two touches, sealed the medal. What is amazing is that Caozzo got to go home with the medal while the only thing guy who did all the work got to go home with was a terrible limp!
That is a great illustration of how a substitute gets all the blessings that are due to another. And that is a beautiful illustration of what happened right there at the cross.
When Jesus looks at John and says, “Behold, your mother,” he says you now have my spot! You are my replacement. You are going to stand in where I am supposed to be, and you get to enjoy what I am supposed to have.” What was he supposed to have? It was life, of course!
Now I want you to recognize that there is a great deal of symbolism here again. And to understand the symbolism (or typology) you have to know something about John. He was the Beloved disciple. He was the one who was nearest and dearest to Jesus. He had a unique relationship to Jesus and with Jesus.
And I don’t think it is by coincidence that John is at the foot of the cross at this moment. I don’t think that it happened by chance that Jesus appointed him as the one to stand in Jesus’ place. He is chosen to be because he is the beloved disciple. And as the beloved disciple, he represents every disciple that is beloved by Christ.
Therefore we see in this replacement what kind of death Jesus is dying. It is a vicarious death. It is the fulfillment of all the bulls and goats the priests had sacrificed up to this point. Everyday a family would enter the temple and they would bring their animal. They would lay their hands on it and then give it to the priest who would then slay it. In doing so the family was saying, this animal is dying as my substitute. It will stand in my place as the one who deserves death, and I will be the beneficiary. I will stand in its place as the one who shall live.
Jesus here says, you beloved disciples are the beneficiaries of my life. You get to stand in my place. Just like the Italian guy who got the bronze medal, you get to go home with the prize—You get to go home with everything. Christ has thrust you into his place. And because he does so you have become part of God’s family. Because of Christ, you have become one of the sons of my heavenly Father.
It is no wonder why we are made to listen in here. The words were no doubt uttered with the utmost pain and with almost inaudible volume due to the agony of crucifixion. Yet they reverberate through history with seismic thunders. They point us to the fact that Christ has become our Great Redeemer. As the Second Adam and the Second Able, he closed himself off from all contact. He isolated himself in the pit of hell, so that we may walk through the gates of heaven.
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Matt is blessed to be a husband, father, and pastor in Ashland, Ohio.