Jesus – Our Substitute




Jesus being our Substitute refers to the fact when He died on the cross, He died in our place, suffering the punishment that we deserved according to God’s perfect justice because of our sins.


Substitution explained


Substitution is an act of perfect love by God towards sinful human beings in that He did not want any human to suffer the eternal death penalty, which He had to inflict on humans because of the demands of His perfectly righteous, holy sin-hating nature. Substitution allows God to express His totally unselfish perfect love to humans without Him in any way compromising with even the smallest sin or wickedness.

The actual word “substitution” is not used in the Scriptures, but the idea it represents is. For example, Romans 5:6 and 8 says: “For when we were still without strength, in due time Christ died for the ungodly. But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” Here we see Jesus substituted for us when He died.

Substitution means He took our place. According to God’s perfect justice, every human deserves the death penalty, including physical death and eternal spiritual death in hell (see Romans 6:23, James 1:15 and Revelations 21:14). So God the Supreme Ruler and Judge agreed to allow Jesus Christ to suffer as our substitute. As Supreme Ruler and Judge, God legally accepted Jesus’ death as being worth more than the physical and eternal spiritual death penalty owing by every other human to God’s perfect justice.

Hebrews 9:22 shows God has accepted death – symbolised by the expression “shedding of blood” – as the means by which the guilt of all human sin can be cancelled or forgiven: “…without shedding of blood there is no remission.”

Substitution involves a God-initiated exchange. Our sin, guilt and deserved death sentence is debited to Jesus Christ and His perfect righteousness is credited to us. This wonderful exchange is totally undeserved and unearned on our part. This is why it is an expression of God’s grace and mercy.


God accounts our sin and guilt to Jesus Christ


Another way of looking at substitution is the see it in terms of legal accounting. As Supreme Ruler and Judge, God legally accounted every sin of every human plus Adam’s original sin to Jesus Christ. God acted as though He had an accounting book for His Divine Son which had credit and debit columns in it. Prior to dying on the Cross, Jesus Christ had an infinite list of credits and not one debit in this supposed book. Each credit and debit related to character, purity of nature, thoughts, words and actions. Every human being, including Mary, can be assumed to have an account book in God’s mind with no credits in it but only a list of debits representing each sin they have committed.

When Jesus Christ willingly acted as our substitute in dying on the Cross, God debited to Jesus’ account all of the sins and associated guilt of every person from their past, present and future. All this is evidenced in the fact that while Jesus was totally sinless and innocent (see Hebrews 4:15, 1 Peter 2:22 and John 8:46), 2 Corinthians 5:21 records God made Christ sin in the sense of treating Him as though He was a sinner: “For He made Him who knew no sin to be sin for us, that we might become the righteousness of God Himself.”

Isaiah 53:5 refers to all our sins being debited to God’s suffering Servant (Christ): “But He was wounded for our transgressions, He was bruised for our iniquities…”

As Isaiah 53:12 prophesied, Jesus was numbered by God with the transgressors of God’s holy laws: “…Because He poured out His soul unto death and He was numbered with the transgressors, and He bore the sin of many…” In the original Hebrew, the word “numbered” is “manah” which also means “count…reckon”. [1] Mark 15:28 and Luke 22:37 reveal Jesus fulfilled Isaiah 53:12 when He was crucified.


Jesus willingly died as our substitute


Another key aspect of Jesus Christ’s death was He did not die a natural or accidental death, nor did He die unwillingly at the hand of an assassin. If He had died in any of these ways, He could not have been a substitute for the rest of the human race. He had to give up His life willingly in order for Him to be an acceptable substitute before God the Supreme Ruler and Judge.


Totally innocent but treated as guilty


God sovereignly arranged for Jesus Christ to be tried by the highest Roman court in Palestine at the time. Acts 2:23 says: “Him, being delivered by the determined purpose and foreknowledge of God, you have taken by lawless hands, have crucified, and put to death.” Acts 4:27-28 states: “For truly against Your holy Servant Jesus, whom You anointed, both Herod and Pontius Pilate, with the Gentiles and the people of Israel, were gathered together to do whatever Your hand and Your purpose determined before to be done.”

Pilate, the supreme human ruler and judge in Judea found Jesus Christ perfectly innocent but still condemned Him as a criminal and sentenced Him to the worst punishment inflicted by the Roman legal system. This punishment was the slow horrid death of crucifixion. Mark 15:15 shows Pilate acted on selfish sinful motives in condemning Jesus to die. But despite this, God used him to declare Christ’s innocence and condemn Him to death. Pilate is recorded to have declared Jesus’ innocence in Matthew 27:23-24, Mark 15:14, Luke 23:4, 23:13-15, 23:22, John 18:38 and 19:4-6.

Isaiah 53:10-12 predicted Jesus Christ would be numbered with the transgressors even though He was righteous Himself. Verse 10 begins by saying God was pleased this happened.



The most holy humans were not suitable


Someone may wonder, “Would it have been sufficient if the most holy ordinary human had acted as a substitute for the human race by taking their deserved punishment? Would this have made the death of God the Son unnecessary.”

Such thinking is wrong for a number of reasons. First James 2:10 and Galatians 3:10 reveal even if a person does only one wrong thing in their whole lives, he/she is placed under a sentence of eternal condemnation by God. Therefore since all humans have done at least one wrong thing, they are all deserving of the sentence of eternal condemnation and need a substitute themselves. In fact, God charges every human of accountable age with rebellion against Him, lack of love for Him, making idols of things or people, disobedience and selfishness. Also their debited sin from Adam places them under eternal condemnation.

Exodus 32:31-32 records Moses offered to be a substitute for the Israelites: “Then Moses returned to the Lord and said, ‘Oh, these people have committed a great sin, and have made for themselves a god of gold. Yet now, if You will forgive their sin – but if not, I pray, blot me out of Your book which You have written.’” Here Moses pleaded for God to allow him to be eternally punished instead of going to heaven in order that God would forgive the Israelites of their wickedness. But note the Lord rejected Moses’ offer to be their substitute. Even though Moses was such a godly holy person, his own sin made him unsuitable to be a substitute for others.


How could one man substitute for billions?


One important question about substitution must be asked, “How could God accept Jesus Christ as a substitute for billions of people? He was only one man, so should He have been only allowed to substitute for one other person?”

The answer is that because God is the Supreme Ruler and Judge who has been sinned against, He has the right to determine what sacrificial offering He will accept as a suitable substitute for the punishment billions of people deserve because of their wicked and evil decisions and behaviour.

An imperfect comparison can be seen in history when an emperor of one country would agree to exchange a captured prince of another country for thousands of the emperor’s own people who had been captured and enslaved by the soldiers of the prince’s nation. Because the emperor is both absolute ruler and supreme judge, He has the authority to decree such an exchange or substitution.


Jesus substituted for Barabbas the murderer


God also sovereignly arranged that a key feature of Jesus Christ acting as our substitute be expressed at Jesus’ Roman trial when Pilate, the Roman ruler and judge allowed a notorious condemned criminal to go free and Jesus to take his place (see Luke 23:18-25). Barabbas was a murderer. According to Exodus 21:12, Numbers 35:16-21 and Deuteronomy 19:11-13, every murderer deserved the death penalty. But Barabbas the murderer was pardoned, having the charges against his legal record removed by Pilate, the supreme Roman ruler and judge in Judea.

Two key Greek prepositions – “anti” and “huper”


In the original Greek New Testament, there are two key prepositions which teach the substitutionary nature of Jesus’ death. The first of these is “anti” which has a number of meanings, one of the main ones being “for”. When referring to “anti”, Vine says, “In the majority of occurrences in the New Testament, the idea is that of in place of, or exchange; eg. Matthew 5:38, ‘an eye for (anti) an eye’; Romans 12:17, ‘evil for evil’; so 1 Thessalonians 5:15, 1 Peter 3:9, and in the same verse, ‘reviling for reviling’. The ideas of substitution and exchange are combined, eg; in Luke 11:11, ‘for a fish…a serpent…” [2]

In Matthew 2:22, “anti” is used to mean “in place of”. Archelaus’ father Herod had died (see verse 19). So verse 22 says Archelaus was reigning in place of his father. “Anti” could not mean “on behalf of” in this verse because Archelaus’ father was dead. Bauer says that in the context of Hebrew 12:16, “anti” means “in exchange for”. [3]

The preposition “anti” is used in verses such as Matthew 20:28, Mark 10:45 and 1 Timothy 2:6. In Mark 10:45 Jesus stated: “For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life as a ransom for many.”

Commenting on the usages of “anti” in Mark 10:45 and Matthew 20:28, Bauer shows how “anti” was used by an ancient secular writer in the context of inflicting punishment on someone in place of others. [4] In Mark 10:45, the Biblical teaching of substitution is combined with that of Jesus being a ransom to God. [5] In 1 Timothy 2:6, the Greek word “antilutron” meaning “a ransom for “ is used: “Who gave Himself a ransom for all…”

Moulton and Milligan say, “By far the commonest meaning of “anti” is the simple ‘instead of’.” [6]

Note in the Greek Septuagint translation of the Hebrew Old Testament, the word “anti” is a translation of the general expression “in place of” and not the broader “on behalf of”. For example, it is used to translate the Hebrew “tachath” meaning “in place of” found in Genesis 44:33. The Septuagint translation was made in Alexandria in Egypt by Jews somewhere between 250 to 150 B.C.. Despite its many weaknesses, this translation is a fair indicator of the meaning of Greek words used later in the New Testament.

The second important preposition used in the Greek New Testament in relation to substitution is “huper”. “Huper” is also used in Matthew 5:44 to mean “in behalf of”. But in Philemon 13, “huper” means “in place of, instead of, in the name of”. [7] In the usage of “huper” in Romans 9:3, “the meaning ‘in place of’ merges with ‘on behalf of, for the sake of’”. [8] Davies states the word “huper” is used in relation to both substitution and for one’s benefit in classical Greek. [9]

The word “huper” is used in the Greek Septuagint translation of Isaiah 43:3-4 to refer to the substitution of humans for others. Isaiah 43:3-4 says: “…I gave Egypt for your ransom, Ethiopia and Seba in your place. Since you were precious in My sight, You have been honoured, and I have loved you; therefore I will give men for you, and people for your life.”

The word “huper” is used in John 10:11, 10:15, 15:13, Romans 8:32, 2 Corinthians 5:21, Galatians 3:13, Ephesians 5:2, 5:25, 1 Timothy 2:6 Titus 2:14, Hebrews 2:9 and 1 Peter 3:18 in relation to Jesus dying both on behalf of and in place of sinful humans. In John 10:11, Jesus said: “I am the good Shepherd. The good shepherd gives His life for the sheep.” 1 Peter 3:18 declares: “For Christ also suffered once for sins, the just for the unjust…”


Further proof of substitution


There are numerous other verses in the Word of God which prove Jesus Christ died as our substitute in relation to the penalty of death we all deserved. In 1 Corinthians 5:7, Paul speaks of Jesus’ death: “Therefore purge out the old leaven, that you may be a new lump, since you truly are unleavened. For indeed Christ, our Passover, was sacrificed for us.”

Here Paul is referring to Christ’s death as being foreshadowed in the shedding of passover lamb recorded in Exodus 12:1-30. In this Old Testament situation, the innocent lamb was a substitute for the Israelites, saving their firstborn sons from being killed by the destroying angel. The death of the lamb was the God-given means of delivering Israel’s sons from the terrible judgement of death that fell upon the pagan Egyptians. Revelation 5:8-13 relates also to Jesus’ death being foreshadowed in the substitutionary death of the passover lamb.

Isaiah 53:4-9 speaks of the Suffering Servant (Christ) substituting for us in His death: “Surely 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 bruised for our iniquities; the chastisement for our peace was upon Him, and by 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. He was oppressed and He was afflicted, yet He opened not His mouth…For He was cut off from the land of the living; for the transgressions of My people He was stricken. And they made His grave with the wicked – but with the rich at His death, because He had done no violence, nor was any deceit in His mouth.”

Verse 5 here refers to the fact that His death involved a penal substitution – a substitution involving a penalty or punishment. Note the two usages of “He”, “for” and “our” together in this verse express His substitution for us.


The ceremonial aspects of the Mosaic Law


Hebrews 10:1-14 shows the ceremonial aspects of the Law of Moses were symbols or shadows of Jesus’ death. The Mosaic Law also revealed much about what sin is and taught how atonement occurred and forgiveness of sin was received. The sinning guilty worshipper brought a sacrificial victim without defect, laid hands on it as an expression that it was to serve as a substitute for him. The person also confessed his sins over the sacrificial substitute and then had the priest slay the animal. The resulting blood of the animal was then sprinkled on the altar.

The truths of substitution, the accounting of both sin to the innocent victim and of God’s righteousness to the guilty worshipper were continually taught to the Israelites through these never-ending sacrifices (see Leviticus 4:1-35 and 16:1-34).

In the Mosaic Law, the Day of Atonement especially symbolised what Jesus Christ would do for believers (see Leviticus Chapter 16 and Hebrews 10:1-10). The sins of the Israelites were debited to the innocent flawless animal substitutes and the innocence or guiltlessness and the perfection of the animals were credited to the Israelites who had faith in God. The innocent animals died for the guilty Israelite. The blameless victim suffered the death deserved by the sinful human.

These animal sacrifices did not actually achieve the forgiveness of sin, removal of guilt and the crediting of righteousness to sinful humans. Instead the sacrifices symbolised what Jesus would later achieve through His obedient death.


Some of the main sufferings our great Substitute experienced


Some of the bodily, mental and emotional sufferings which Jesus experienced while dying on the Cross can be seen in the following: A person sentenced to crucifixion was first of all flogged with a leather whip loaded with metal or sharp fragments of bone. After being savagely whipped in this way, he was required to carry the cross beam to the place of crucifixion. This beam was approximately 6 feet long. The beam was then attached to the upright stake which was already in place. Nails about 7 inches long were driven through the hands and feet of the victim. The nails had a head to stop the body sliding off.

The Romans pushed the victim’s feet upwards when they nailed him to the cross so the victim could lean on the nail and raise himself up for a moment in order to breathe better and therefore live longer. Death rarely came in less than 36 hours. Some people survived 2 or 3 days before they died.

Terrible thirst, severe pain from the previous whipping, cramps, dizziness, great difficulty in breathing, public shame and the dreadful horror of knowing how the suffering would likely drag on for many more hours, possibly days, made crucifixion one of the most painful, barbaric and cruel types of death imaginable. The victim suffered horrendously in body, mind, emotions and spirit.

Dr J.J. Scott says: “The social stigma and disgrace associated with crucifixion in the ancient world can hardly be overstated. It was usually reserved for slaves, criminals of the worst sort from the lowest levels of society, military deserters, and especially traitors. In only rare cases were Roman citizens, no matter what their crime, crucified. Among the Jews it carried an additional stigma. Deuteronomy 21:23, ‘A hanged man is accursed by God,’ was understood to mean that the very method of death brought a divine curse upon the crucified. Thus, the idea of a crucified Messiah posed a special problem for such Jews as Paul (cf. Galatians 3:13; 1 Corinthians 1:27-29).” [10]

D.G. Burke comments on what happened after the victim was nailed to the cross: “Once the condemned was thus immobilised he was left alone, unable to attend to bodily functions, unprotected from inclement weather or flies, and, because the place of execution was usually some public street or prominent place, subjected to abusive words and mockery from passersby. Often the body was left to putrify on the cross and become the prey of carrion birds to complete the utter humiliation…. It was not unusual for a tablet identifying the crime to be hung on the condemned as he went to the execution site, then attached to his cross for all to see…. The suffering of death by crucifixion was intense. In addition to exposure to the weather and insects (and sometimes animals), the body suffered from the intensifying damage of the wounds and from the stretching caused by the strained position. Some think that headache and convulsions added to the agony. The ultimate cause of death has been debated; generally it is considered the result of gradual suffocation brought about by fatigue. The length of this agony was wholly determined by the constitution of the victim and the extent of the prior flogging, but death was rarely seen before thirty-six hours had passed. Instances are on record of victims of the cross, who survived their ordeal when taken down after many hours of suspension (Josephus, “Vita” 75). Death was sometimes hastened by breaking the legs of the victims; crura fracta (“broken legs”) [11] was a Roman expression for crucifixion.” [12]


Bible Study Questions


1.         What does it mean when we say Jesus died as our substitute?

2.          Explain Jesus dying as our substitute in accounting terms of debits and credits.

3.          Discuss what Acts 2:23 teaches us.

4.          Why did God not have Moses or some other very holy person die as our substitute on the Cross?

5.          How could one man die as an effective substitute for billions of people?

6.          Explain how the New Testament uses the Greek word “anti” and “huper” to teach the substitutionary nature of Jesus’ death.

7.          Explain how the Passover lamb and other ceremonial aspects of the Mosaic Law were symbols or shadows of Jesus’ later death.

8.          Discuss the types of sufferings Jesus Christ experienced on the Cross.


[1] Brown, Driver and Briggs, page 584.

[2] Vine, page 696.

[3] Bauer, page 74.

[4] Ibid, page 73.

[5] The concept of ransom will be explained in Chapter         “Was the Ransom Paid to Satan or God?”

[6] James Moulton and George Milligan “The Vocabulary of the Greek Testament”, W. Eerdmans, Grand Rapids, Michigan, 1930, page 46.

[7] Bauer, pages 838-839.

[8] Ibid, page 839.

[9] R.E. Davies, “Christ in Our Place – The Contribution of the Prepositions”, “Tyndale Bulletin, 21:1970, page 82.

[10] Walter A. Elwell (editor), “Evangelical Dictionary of Theology”, Baker, Grand Rapids, 1984, page 287.

[11] Cicero, “Philippicae”, xiii. 12 [27].

[12] Geoffrey W. Bromiley (Editor), “The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia”, Volume 1, W. Eerdmans, Grand Rapids, Michigan, 1988, pages 829-830.



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