The twenty-second chapter of Genesis is the meeting point of several lines of scriptural truth. The purpose of this paper is to focus upon one of these: the truth of Substitution. “Substitute” is a word in common usage which has a well understood meaning. The thought is that of a person or object being in its correct place, but someone comes along with the power to remove it, does so and something or someone else is put in that very place.
The incident recorded in Genesis illustrates the truth of Substitution, but also places it in the context of God’s infinite wisdom and greatness. God was in the process of teaching Abraham that greatness in His sight consists of more than physical greatness; it is concerned with such qualities as faithfulness, obedience, submission and constancy.
Abraham had come to understand something of this, and his utterances indicated this. To the young men he said, “I and the lad will go yonder and worship, and come again to you”, v. 5; to Isaac he said “My son, God will provide himself a lamb for a burnt offering”, v. 8. This was spiritual perception which shone through the anguish he experienced as he made his way to offer his “only Isaac” upon the altar on mount Moriah.
The son submitted to the elderly father, and was bound to the altar. When the knife was raised, Abraham’s submission to God’s will was apparent. It was then that the declaration was made: “Lay not thine hand upon the lad … for now I know that thou fearest God, seeing thou hast not withheld thy son, thine only son from me”, v. 12. Isaac was taken from what God had indicated to be his appropriate place, the sacrificial altar, and the ram was offered as substitute in his place.
The incident is a clear illustration of Substitution, but is also very much more: it outlines the very foundation upon which the scriptural truth of Substitution is based. It shows clearly what we may refer to as the “law” of the truth of Substitution as it applies throughout Scripture.
The first element of this law is that for acceptance the substitution has to be complete. The ram could only be regarded as Isaac’s substitute because the judgment in its totality fell upon it. Isaac was released and was allowed to go free, not because the judgment was withheld or modified in any way, but because it fell upon the substitute.
The sinful nature we possess, and the sins that this produces, place us in the position of judgment. That place was taken by the Lord Jesus on the cross; when the wrath of God beat upon Him, He dealt with the principle of sin and the very sins of the believer. He declared with a clear voice, “It is finished”, John 19. 30, and the Scripture confirms “that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting fife”, 3. 16. As believers in Him we are made just; our sins were imputed to Him, and He imputes righteousness to us. Praise God the substitution is complete!
The second element of the law we are considering is that for acceptance the substitution has to be permanent. Never again did Abraham and Isaac make a journey to the place of sacrifice with the fire and wood for a burnt offering knowing that Isaac was to be put in the place of judgment.
The salvation which the believer in the Lord Jesus enjoys is based upon God’s holiness; sin was dealt with on the cross on the basis of righteousness. The demands of God’s throne were propitiated eternally by the cross; He was delighted and satisfied in every way with the Person and work of Christ. The demands of His throne were met finally: “now once in the end of the world hath he appeared to put away sin by the sacrifice of himself’, Heb. 9. 26.
The third element in the law of Substitution relates to the standard required in the sacrifice if the sacrifice is to be acceptable. Abraham was aware of the standard required in the ram if it was to be offered in the place of Isaac. When his attention was directed to “a ram caught in a thicket by his horns”, v. 13, he could not accept it as an automatic substitute for Isaac. With trembling hand he must have examined it to confirm that it measured up to the known standard. The words of Scripture are most careful — it was caught only by its horns in the thicket; if the thicket had torn it or harmed it in any way it would not have been acceptable.
John Baptist beheld Jesus as He walked and said, “Behold the Lamb of God, which taketh away the sin of the world”, John 1. 29. He was accepted as God’s Lamb; He was the fulfilment of all the Old Testament types, and in every aspect of His Person and Being He measured up to God’s required standard. All members of the human race have the principle of sin within them and, therefore, commit sins. Scripture says of the Lord Jesus, “in him is no sin”, 1 John 3. 5, which confirms that there was no principle of sin in Him; we also read, “who did no sin; neither was guile found in his mouth”, 1 Pet. 2. 22, which explains that He committed no sins. The humanity of Christ was holy humanity, Luke 1. 35, so there was nothing within Him to respond to the sin which surrounded Him; as God incarnate He could not sin. He alone could be the believer’s Substitute, because He alone attained the divine standard.
The Bible is God’s Word, and as such it is the depository of divine truth. There is a danger that we become ready to accept uncritically mere statements of truth. The Bible states more than truth, it illustrates it, expounds it, explains its underlying principles and shows its constancy from dispensation to dispensation and throughout eternity.
An attempt has been made in this brief study to go beyond the statement of the truth of Substitution. The principles upon which the truth is based have been considered. Not only was Christ an acceptable offering but He took the believer’s place completely and permanently. The fragrance of the Person and work of Christ brought joy and satisfaction to the heart of His Father in heaven. Abraham perceived something of this through his experience on mount Moriah. May we as believers be helped by the Holy Spirit towards a deeper affection for the One who was our Substitute.
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