Ash Wednesday

Preached: February 6, 2008

Caiaphas Testifies about Substitution
John 11:49-53

Grace and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, who pours out the Holy Spirit on us through his Word and Sacraments. The word from God for us to take to heart and put into practice is John 11

One of them, Caiaphas, being High Priest that year, said to them, “You don't know anything. Don't you consider that it's better for us that one man die for the people and not that the whole nation perishes?”
He did not speak this on his own. But being High Priest that year, he prophesied that Jesus would die for the nation and not only for the nation but also to gather the scattered children of God into one. So from that day on they planned to kill him. (John 11:49-53 NIV)

This is the word of our Lord.

Dear friends in Christ, fellow pilgrims to the cross:

The defensive end blitzed from the weak side. The quarterback did not see him coming. He went down hard. His right shoulder was dislocated. They had to send in the substitute to take his place.

In our sporting culture, we are familiar with the idea of substitutes. Someone takes the place of someone else. And based on the words of one of Jesus' fiercest enemies, we want to talk about Jesus as our Substitute.

However, our concept of a sports substitute can mislead us. Usually a substitute is not as good as the starter. The substitutes are the second tier players. Even in baseball where the relief pitcher, who substitutes for the starter, can be a high paid ace, he only comes in after the starter has done his best and is worn out. How different Jesus' substitution is! Let's consider that in the light of what Caiaphas says.

Caiaphas was the high priest that year. However, the people's spiritual wellbeing did not concern him nearly as much as holding on to his political power. For you see, the Romans, who had the military power, let the high priest and his ruling council, the Sanhedrin, govern much of the people's day-to-day life. The Roman governor, Pontius Pilate, did not interfere as long as order was kept and tax money flowed in.

Caiaphas saw Jesus as a threat to his politic power. If the people followed Jesus, then he'd lose much of his influence. Worse yet, he imagined that once Jesus gained enough popularity as the Messiah, he would lead a revolt against Rome. Then the Roman legions would come and destroy Jerusalem and the temple. Then certainly he, Caiaphas, would lose his power and even his life. He could not let this happen.

So he dresses up his selfish, power-grabbing motives with patriotic colors. Wouldn't it be better for this one man to die than for the whole nation to perish? So no matter what they had to do, they needed to see that Jesus was put to death.

Now even though Caiaphas's plan flowed from an evil heart, God saw to it that the words Caiaphas chose also reflected God's gracious, saving plan. “It is better for you that one man die for the people than that the whole nation perish” (John 11:50 NIV), Caiaphas says. Yes, Jesus would die, but not as the victim of the political plotting of Caiaphas. Jesus would die as the willing Substitute to take the place of sinners. One man, Jesus Christ, would die for all the people, in the place of everyone.

John, directed by the Holy Spirit, makes this clear. He explains Caiaphas's words this way: “Jesus would die for the Jewish nation, and not only for that nation but also for the scattered children of God” (John 11:52 NIV). Yes, no matter what nationality, race, or language, no matter how scattered around the earth, Jesus died for all the people. He is the substitute who takes the place for everyone. For he is the God-man, the Son of God who became flesh and blood. As true man he certainly can serve as a substitute for human beings and as true God his substitution counts for all. He came to be the Substitute who dies in our place, who dies the death we have earned and deserved.

Do you see how different this is from a sports substitute? It's not that we've down our best and even though we couldn't win on our own, Jesus came in as the substitute to finish for us. That thinking is contrary to what God says.

Rather than working towards a victory, we had been working towards death. “The wages of sin is death” (Romans 6:23 NIV), the Bible says. Caiaphas figured the Jewish nation was headed for death and destruction if Jesus wasn't killed. So also if Jesus hadn't died, we all would be headed for death and destruction in hell because of our sin. And remember that to perish in hell doesn't mean to stop existing. It means to exist forever in unimaginable pain and agony, pictured with fire and darkness and gnashing of teeth. That's what we deserved. That's what our sin had earned.

But just as Caiaphas talked about sacrificing Jesus instead of the nation perishing, so also Jesus willingly sacrificed himself in your place. God punished Jesus with that god-forsaken death instead punishing you and me. That's what it means that Jesus is our Substitute.

Throughout Scripture God brought this saving truth home to his people. For example in Genesis 22 when the Lord tells Abraham to sacrifice his son, Isaac, in the end the Lord provides a substitute, a ram caught in a bush. That ram dies in the place of Isaac, just as Jesus died in our place.

Consider the many Old Testament sacrifices. The person bringing the sacrifice would place his hand on the head of the animal. This showed that the animal was taking his place. The animal would die instead of him. That pictured Jesus' saving work. He takes our place. He dies instead of us. He is our Substitute.

Think of how Isaiah in chapter 53 presents Jesus as our Substitute. Notice how he uses the pronouns he and him to refer to how Jesus suffered and parallel with them are the pronouns our and us showing that it was our sin and guilt he suffered for in our place. “But he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was upon him, and by his wounds we are healed” (Isaiah 53:5 NIV).

Even the words Jesus chose for the institution of the Lord's Supper bring home his saving work as our Substitute. This was brought home to me in teaching Catechism class. Often as the students recited the words of institution for their memory work, they would say, “This is my body given to you.” This makes good English, since we usually give things to people. But Jesus said, “This is my body given for you.” With that little word for, Jesus reminds you and me that he is our Substitute. He gave his body for us, in our place. His body died instead of ours. He didn't simply give it to us but he gave it for us, for you.

This is what the Gospel is all about. Many can talk a lot about Jesus without ever getting to the Gospel. You can talk about his miracles and his high morals. You can ask what would Jesus do and study his teachings about being kind and loving toward others. But none of that is the Gospel. None of that saves. But these simply words: Jesus died for you. He died in your place. He died as your Substitute under God's anger and punishment that we had earned, He did it to bring you forgiveness, life, and salvation. That's the Gospel of Jesus. That Good News saves.

So this Lent, see Jesus as your Substitute. He died in your place. He died the death our sins had earned. He died instead of us, so that through faith in him you live eternally. Amen.

Pastor Gregg Bitter

St. John's Evangelical Lutheran Church
859 5th Street
Hancock, MN 56244
(320) 392-5313