An Interpretive Key that Unlocks the Entire Bible

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A Basic Concept

Of all the words that could be used to encapsulate the message of the Bible, one of them has to be substitution. The most elementary definition of this term is “the action of replacing someone or something with another person or thing.” Like using Splenda in a recipe instead of sugar. It is a very basic concept.

You may be someone who considers the Bible too antiquated or complicated to understand. If that is true, this post is going to open your eyes to the simplicity of the gospel, giving you an interpretive key that unlocks the entire Bible. Don’t get me wrong. There are difficult passages to interpret and some doctrines are more challenging than others to process intellectually and emotionally.  

Nevertheless, it has been correctly said that, while the most brilliant theologian will never plumb the depths of the Scriptures, the youngest child may readily grasp its central teaching. Or as a quote attributed to an early Christian scholar named Jerome around 400 A.D., says, “The Scriptures are shallow enough for a babe to come and drink without fear of drowning and yet deep enough for theologians to swim without ever reaching the bottom.” This means that if you possess the mental capacity of a child, you can understand the metanarrative of the entire Bible.

The Key We Need

All you need is a simple key— a key that will enable you to make sense of the Bible and help you make sense of your life.

This is the key the apostle Paul gives us in Galatians 3:1-14. In his letter to the Galatians, Paul reminds the original recipients and us that reconciliation between God and sinners has nothing to do with what we do for God. It is all about what Jesus has done for us. In other words, reconciliation with God takes place through the substitution of Jesus. 

Reconciliation through substitution. That is the heart of the gospel and a central theme that runs through the Bible from Genesis to Revelation.

But it is not only our initial reconciliation with God that matters. Reconciliation with God through the grace of substitution influences everything in the Christian life. It is the moment by moment reality of grace that fuels and sustains the Christian life as we live in light of the present value of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection. 

  • If the concept of substitution isn’t at the heart of the sermon, the preacher has not preached the gospel. 
  • If substitution is not at the center of our evangelism, we are not sharing the gospel. 
  • If substitution is not at the heart of your relationship with God, you are not personally living in the freedom of the gospel. 

Thankfully, Paul’s teaching in Galatians 3:1-14 provides the key we need to unlock the world of grace Jesus invites us to explore and enjoy. 

3:1 You foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you? Before your very eyes Jesus Christ was clearly portrayed as crucified. 2 I would like to learn just one thing from you: Did you receive the Spirit by the works of the law, or by believing what you heard? 3 Are you so foolish? After beginning by means of the Spirit, are you now trying to finish by means of the flesh? 4 Have you experienced so much in vain—if it really was in vain? 5 So again I ask, does God give you his Spirit and work miracles among you by the works of the law, or by your believing what you heard? 

6 So also Abraham “believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness.” 7 Understand, then, that those who have faith are children of Abraham. 8 Scripture foresaw that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, and announced the gospel in advance to Abraham: “All nations will be blessed through you.” 9 So those who rely on faith are blessed along with Abraham, the man of faith.

10 For all who rely on the works of the law are under a curse, as it is written: “Cursed is everyone who does not continue to do everything written in the Book of the Law.” 11 Clearly no one who relies on the law is justified before God, because “the righteous will live by faith.” 12 The law is not based on faith; on the contrary, it says, “The person who does these things will live by them.” 13 Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us, for it is written: “Cursed is everyone who is hung on a tree.” 14 He redeemed us in order that the blessing given to Abraham might come to the Gentiles through Christ Jesus, so that by faith we might receive the promise of the Spirit.

Clearly Portrayed as Crucified

I know what you may be thinking. “McKay, you said the gospel is not complicated. But I’m feeling a bit lost in the theological forest.”  Remember, there is a key to unlocking the confusion. What is the word? Say it with me, “Substitution.” 

This is the theological assumption underlying verse 1, where Paul reminds the Galatians they had virtually seen the crucifixion of Jesus with their own eyes. Had they seen it in person? No. Galatia was hundreds of miles from Jerusalem. 

Although they had not been present in Jerusalem for the crucifixion of Jesus, Paul had clearly portrayed the cross and its implications in his preaching to them the previous year on his first missionary journey through the region of Galatia. It was as if they had seen Jesus crucified. Like we may have seen a foreign land in photos, Paul vividly painted a graphic portrait of the sufferings of Christ in crucifixion.

He had been so clear in his presentation, that he responded to their failure to live in view of the implications of the cross with perplexed frustration. “Who has bewitched you?” It was as if they were under a spell, blinded by demonic deception.

A Rhetorical Question

In verses 2-5, to shake them out of the trance, he asks a rhetorical question concerning how they had been reconciled to God? Was it because of their obedience to the law? No. It was through faith in the work of Jesus—the substitutionary work of Jesus for them. And for us. 

The Galatian believers had started their lives as Christians in view of the cross.  But they had been deceived by the schemes of the devil through the false teachers who had infiltrated the Galatian churches. Because the significance of the cross was minimized, the focus of these Christian’s lives no longer was on Jesus’ work for them but on their work for God.

The Example of Abraham

To reorient them to the centrality of faith in the promises of God fulfilled in Christ, in verses 6-9, Paul recalls Abraham’s spiritual experience. Since the false teachers in Galatia likely were converted Jews who demanded Gentiles become Jews in order to be reconciled to God, Abraham, as the father of the Jewish people, was the perfect example to make the case that we are not saved by anything we do but through faith alone in what God has promised to do. If Abraham, as the father of the Jews, was justified through faith in the promise of God and not by ceremonial rites or by his own obedience, the same is true for all who are disciples of Jesus.

But what had God promised to do? 

The entire Bible is an unfolding of this question’s answer. From the very beginning in the garden, when Adam and Eve committed treason against the Lord by following the deceptive ways of Satan, God provided a substitute to die in their place. When the Lord confronted the first humans after their rebellious act, they sought to cover their shame in the presence of God with fig leaves. But the Lord took an animal from the garden and slaughtered it, making a garment from its skin that would cover them without withering or fading like a leaf. That animal was the first substitute, foreshadowing the lamb who would be slain as a substitute to cover our shame through death, cleansing our sin with his blood and providing a garment of righteousness as an eternal covering to replace our attempts to cover ourselves with the fig leaves of self-righteousness.

The theme of substitution continues from the garden through the formalized system of sacrifice that was established when the people of Israel were formed as a nation. Rather than sinners serving the death sentence they deserved, animals would be provided as substitutes to die in their place. But did the blood of sheep, pigeons, goats, and bulls really forgive their sins? 

No. All of the substitutionary deaths in the Old Testament were shadows, teaching the people of their need to trust in an ultimate sacrifice who would fulfill the promise of God to cleanse from sin and reconcile sinners to himself. That substitute would be the Messiah— the suffering servant depicted in Isaiah 53. Even as lambs were slain and blood spread over the doorframes of homes in the deliverance of Israel from the oppression of Egypt in the Passover, the Lamb of God would be slain to deliver the new Isreal, the church, from the oppression of sin and the penalty it requires before a holy God. This is why the concept of substitution encompasses the entirety of the Biblical story.

A Theme Rooted in the Old Testament

In verses 10-14, Paul elaborates on the concept by tying the Old Testament’s demand for substitution to the New Testament’s fulfillment of the demand. He quotes from the Old Testament books of Deuteronomy (27:26) and Leviticus (18:5) to demonstrate how those who refuse to follow the ways of God revealed in his law are under a curse. He then references Habbakuk 2:4, showing how the Old Testament corroborates the message that righteousness is not attained by trying to keep the law but by trusting in the gospel promise of God. 

Neither the ceremonial law nor the moral law was given to be a means by which we could attain to or remain in a position of good standing before God. The law was given to show us our need for a substitute who could obey the law in our place and who would suffer the penalty the law requires. This substitute is Jesus. 

As Paul writes in verse 13, “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us, for it is written: “Cursed is everyone who is hung on a tree.” Of course, the tree in view here is the rough-hewn beams of a Roman cross, built for execution and constructed out of trees. It was a death sinners deserve but believers avoid because Jesus lived and died in our place. He was cursed by suffering our judgment so that we could be blessed as the forgiven, accepted, and beloved of God the Father, reconciled through substitution.

In summary, we can say three things about substitution.

  1. Substitution is the marrow of biblical theology. It is like a key that unlocks every part of the Bible. The Old Testament is a shadow of the promised substitute and the New Testament is the fulfillment of the promised substitute. 
  2. Substitution explains why there is both law and gospel in the Bible. The law reveals my need for the substitute and the gospel confirms God’s provision of the substitute. The law was never meant to be a way for people to obey and be accepted. It is a tutor who shows us how badly we need a Savior. 
  3. To believe the gospel is to claim a substitute. It is to profess, while I have failed the exam miserably, Jesus has achieved a perfect score. Through the cross, he has taken my record upon himself and given his record to me. This is what it means to believe the gospel. Jesus’ righteousness is my righteousness. I no longer have anything to earn. I have nothing to prove and nothing to fear. As a result, I’m free.

The Man in a Red Bandana

You probably have never heard of Welles Crowther. Although he played lacrosse for Boston College on his way to a career as an equities trader in Manhattan, working in a world of wingtips, starched shirts, and Italian suits with neatly folded white handkerchiefs in the pocket, he was known for the red bandana he carried with him everywhere. As the son of a volunteer firefighter with the NYFD, Welles was a bit out of place in the high-rise world.  Nevertheless, he would make his mark, even if not the way he expected.

On September 11th, 2001, he was sitting in his office on the 104th floor when the building exploded twenty floors below. As smoke began to rise, he started to descend to see if anyone needed help. They did.

As smoke filled the building, he took out the bandana, tying it over his nose and mouth. Eventually, he found a woman named Lin Yung, who had been blown across her lobby and was lying on the ground covered in debris. Although it was hard to see, she noticed a shadowy figure approaching her. Later, Lin would describe how “the man in the red bandana” helped lead her down twenty flights of stairs to rescue workers. But instead of going down, he turned and ran back up to find others who needed help. 

Welles’ body wasn’t found for six months. As he was being uncovered, there was no doubt that it was Welles Crowther. The red bandana was still tied around his face—the bandana that now is showcased in the 9-11 Memorial in New York. 

It is estimated that Welles saved at least eighteen people that day, restoring men and women to their families, spouses, children, and friends. We know this because at least that many testified they were rescued by “the man in a red bandana.” One of them, Lin Yung,  keeps a photo of Welles in her apartment. She says, “Without him, I wouldn’t be here. He saved my life.”

Lin was in no condition to save herself. If she had not been found by Welles, she would have been one of the thousands to perish in the towers. But she was saved by a man willing to substitute his life for hers. 

Just like Jesus. 

He isn’t the man in a red bandana. He is the man upon a cross, where he was willing to substitute his life for ours. He was cursed so that we can be blessed. He was judged so that we can be forgiven. He was forsaken so that we can be reconciled to the Father.

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