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The Substitute

For the past two weeks we’ve been theming our messages around the phrase – “No Pain – No Gain” as we try to understand why Easter matters. I think most of us get it, that Easter is not just about bunnies and chocolate eggs and such, but rather it’s a remembrance and a celebration that Jesus Christ died and rose again to life. That part is pretty well understood I think – especially if you’ve had any connection with church for any length of time.

But what might not be so universally understood is why that matters. Why is it important to you and I,  that some 2000 years ago, a man named Jesus died and came back to life again? What difference does it make in your life today?

That’s what we’ve been trying to wrap out heads around in this series – No Pain, No Gain – Why Easter Matters.

And I think we’re starting to get an idea of the gain side of the equation. In our first message, we identified that one thing that everyone of us wants – but very few of us find. And that is complete and lasting satisfaction.

We can certainly be satisfied for a few moments here and there. There is an element of satisfaction in many pursuits in life – from accomplishing great things, or having fun and exciting experiences, enjoying great food and great friends – these all give us a sense of satisfaction. But nothing is lasting. The satisfaction we do get quickly fades away and we’re forced to chase after something else – something more.

It’s like no matter how wonderful the meal is – we find we’re always hungry the next day. But what if we could find true, lasting satisfaction? Satisfaction that didn’t fade away. What if we could live in a state of being fully, completely satisfied in life?

Well, we discovered last week, that that’s exactly how God intended us to live. When God created Adam & Eve – he created them to live fully satisfied lives. He provided for their every need – both their physical needs as well as their spiritual and emotional needs. And for a time, Adam & Eve enjoyed the most satisfying life you can imagine.

They lived in a perfect place. They had a perfect relationship with each other. There were no quarrels, no hurt feelings, no frustrations – they lived in perfect harmony and unity with each other. We noted that they didn’t even know the meaning of the word ‘selfishness’ and so they lived with each other in mind. We can only imagine how sweet that would be.

They had that same relationship with God too. They could walk and talk in the very presence of God with no shame, no guilt, no fear – there was nothing that would put any distance between them and God.

And so, for time, Adam & Eve were completely and fully satisfied.

However, all that changed when they chose to reject God’s authority and chose instead, to do things their own way. They disobeyed God’s direct command not to eat from the tree of the knowledge of Good and Evil – even though God had warned them that if they did, they would surely die.

And they certainly did die – although perhaps not in the way we might expect. As you read through the story, you’d kinda expect that if you were watching this in a movie, upon eating that fruit, Adam & Eve should grasp their throats, kneel over and die. But that’s not what happened.

As we saw last week, the death they experienced in that moment had a much more severe consequence. You’ll remember that the Biblical understanding of death isn’t just the physical end of our life – although that’s certainly a part of it. Death is understood to be separation.

Our physical death is when our soul is separated from our physical body. In contrast to that, life is when soul and body are together – when they are unified as one being — and death is when they are separated.

Now in Adam & Eve’s case, their sin set in motion their eventual physical death, but that death wouldn’t occur for several hundred years.

However, they did experience another type of death immediately in that they were separated from each other and they were separated from God. What God had designed to be together in unity and harmony was torn apart.

You’ll remember that the moment they ate the fruit, they immediately felt shame at their nakedness and they sewed fig leaves together to cover themselves. They had lost that perfect relationship with each other. We see further evidence of this later as Adam blames Eve for what they had done. They were no longer in perfect harmony – they were divided. Sin had come between them.

And the same thing happened between them and God. After their sin, they hid from God in shame. They were no longer comfortable and at home in the presence of a holy God.

Sin had created a barrier between man and God. And just like how physical death occurs when our body & soul are separated – spiritual death occurs when man and God are separated.

This is why even today we cannot find full and lasting satisfaction in life. We are designed for life in perfect harmony with each other and with God, but because of our sin, we simply cannot experience that.

But we ended last week with good news. God does not want us to be separated from him or from each other. He didn’t create us for death – he created us for life. He created us for togetherness and unity & harmony! And so God made a way to undo the damaging effects of sin and death. And that’s what we’re going to look at today.

Now normally, when I talk about Adam & Eve and their sin and God’s way to make things right again, I usually point out the first hint of hope in Genesis 3:15. That’s the verse where God promises that the offspring of the woman would crush the serpent’s head – which eludes to the fact that Jesus would one day defeat Satan.

But for our purposes today – I want us to start looking just a few verses later.

If you jump down to Genesis chapter 3, verse 21 – we find a very different kind of verse – but I think this verse too, offers us hope. We find this verse just after God had laid out the consequences of Adam & Eve’s sin. The serpent was cursed. The earth was cursed. And life was going to get much harder for Adam & Eve. But then it says in verse 21….

“And the Lord God made clothing from animal skins for Adam and his wife.” Genesis 3:21

I find that to be a curious statement. Why did God do that? Weren’t the fig leaves that Adam & Eve had sewn together sufficient?  I mean, I suppose fig leave might not have much durability – and they probably weren’t the most comfy. But was God just trying to give their wardrobe an upgrade or was there something more?

And, why animal skins? Couldn’t God just have sheared a sheep and made some wool sweaters? Or couldn’t He have picked some cotton and woven together some nice jeans?  Or maybe he could have rounded up a bunch of silk worms and made some good looking threads! Of all the things God could have done to make clothes for Adam & Eve – why did he make them from animal skins?

Well, the Bible doesn’t specifically give us these kinds of answers in this passage. But as we look at the rest of the Bible, I think we can glean some insight as to perhaps why God did what He did.

First of all, it seems to me that having clothes made out of animal skins would be an ever-present and very vivid reminder to them that sin results in death. We read in James 1:15 last week:

15 These desires give birth to sinful actions. And when sin is allowed to grow, it gives birth to death. James 1:15

The Bible is very clear that sin leads to death and I imagine God wanted to make that clear to Adam & Eve. I imagine it would have been very sobering for Adam & Eve to see (or at least to know) that some animal had died because of their sin. Had they not sinned, they would not have felt shame at their nakedness and they would not have needed to be covered. There would have been no need for that animal to die in order to provide that covering for them.

It was a very visual reminder of how destructive sin is. Sometimes I think we are oblivious to how damaging our sin is to ourselves and to others. We often trivialize our sin – We brush off those little white lies or ‘mistakes’ or ‘lapses in judgement’. We don’t even like to call it sin! We forget how serious sin is – we forget that sin leads to death. I think if we had to sacrifice an animal like they did back in the Old Testament whenever we sinned, I think we might take our sin a bit more seriously.

So I think for God to make clothes from the skins of these animals would have been a very powerful reminder for them that sin leads to death.

But I don’t think this was just a reminder of the consequences of sin. I think these animal skins also served as a promise of hope. They were evidence of God’s love and mercy!

And you might think: “What kind of hope is there in a dead animal?” Well, that’s just it. It was dead animal. Not a dead Adam & Eve.

By all rights, the moment they choose to rebel against God, they should have died right then and there. Now, certainly they died spiritually and they were separated from God as we’ve already talked about – but God had every right to end their earthly lives as well, and to remove them from his presence forever. In fact, I would even say that, because of God’s perfect justice, God had a moral obligation to do that. Because if God is just, he has to punish sin. Justice has to be served.

But instead of Adam & Eve being immediately put to death, it seems that God, in His mercy because He loved them, allowed a substitute to take their place. The wages of sin is death, but God allowed that animal to die instead of them. So those skins that they wore from that time on would remind them, not only of the consequences of sin, but also of the mercy of God – how He allowed a substitute to take their punishment.

Now of course,  the Bible doesn’t specifically say that that’s the case in this instance. It simply says God made clothes out of animal skins for them and I’m just trying read between the lines a little bit. But I think there is a strong case to be made here because, as I look through the rest of Scripture, I see that same pattern of God graciously providing substitutes for people facing the penalty of death.

Let me show you what I mean. Jump ahead in your Bibles to Exodus chapter 12.

This is the grand finale in the ten plagues that God sent against Egypt in order that Pharaoh would allow the Israelites to leave Egypt and be freed from their slavery.

For the tenth plague, God was going to send the angel of death to pass through the land of Egypt with instructions to kill every first born man and animal. But God provided a means of escape from that destruction for the Israelites. Exodus 12 – verse 21.

Then Moses called all the elders of Israel together and said to them, “Go, pick out a lamb or young goat for each of your families, and slaughter the Passover animal. 22 Drain the blood into a basin. Then take a bundle of hyssop branches and dip it into the blood. Brush the hyssop across the top and sides of the doorframes of your houses. And no one may go out through the door until morning. 23 For the Lord will pass through the land to strike down the Egyptians. But when he sees the blood on the top and sides of the doorframe, the Lord will pass over your home. He will not permit his death angel to enter your house and strike you down.

Exodus 12:21-23

God allowed that passover lamb or goat to take the place of the first born child in each family. The lamb would die – and it’s blood would be brushed onto the door frames of the house – and the firstborn would live. God allowed a substitute to take the place of the one facing death. When the angel of death saw the blood of that substitute, he knew that the death penalty had already occurred, and he would pass over that house without killing anyone.

God had graciously provided the Israelites a way of escape from the penalty of death by means of a substitute. And that’s certainly not the only times this sort of thing happened.

Let’s look at another example.

Just a short time later, when God is setting up the terms of his covenant with Israel – the agreement for what God expected of them if they were to be his chosen people and He was to be their God – God sets up this system of sacrifices for them, so that if they sin and break their agreement, they still have a way to make things right with God. Look at Leviticus chapter 1 – verse 2.

When you present an animal as an offering to the Lord, you may take it from your herd of cattle or your flock of sheep and goats.

3 “If the animal you present as a burnt offering is from the herd, it must be a male with no defects. Bring it to the entrance of the Tabernacle so you may be accepted by the Lord. 4 Lay your hand on the animal’s head, and the Lord will accept its death in your place to purify you, making you right with him.

Leviticus 1:2-4

Again, God allowed substitutes. God’s agreement with the Israelites was that if they sinned, one of their animals could die in their place so they they could be right with God. They simply had to obey God by bringing a male animal without defects to the Tabernacle – laying their hand on its head (which was kinda symbolic of transferring their sin to that animal) – if they were to obey God in doing all this, then God would accept that animal’s death as a substitute for theirs. The wages of sin was still death – but God graciously allowed a substitute to die in their place.

And as you read through the Old Testament, we see this theme occurring again and again. There is clearly an establish pattern that God provides substitutes for those who would otherwise die.

And if that’s the case, then perhaps there is hope for us.

Last Sunday we talked about how our sin keeps us from being connected with God. It separates us from him. Not only does it keep us from gaining that lasting satisfaction that all of us crave, but it also leads to death – and not just death in the physical sense, but eternal death as we are separated from God’s presence for all eternity.

But perhaps, with this pattern of substitutions we see in the Old Testament, perhaps there is a substitute for us as well. Perhaps God would allow another to take our place and spare us from the death that all of us are headed towards.

Well, of course, I’m sure you know where this is headed. We do have a Substitute. But our Substitute is not a bull or a goat or a sheep. Actually the Bible tells us that those substitutes were only a shadow – a preview – of our true substitute. Look at Hebrews 10:1.

The old system under the law of Moses was only a shadow, a dim preview of the good things to come, not the good things themselves. The sacrifices under that system were repeated again and again, year after year, but they were never able to provide perfect cleansing for those who came to worship. 2 If they could have provided perfect cleansing, the sacrifices would have stopped, for the worshipers would have been purified once for all time, and their feelings of guilt would have disappeared.

3 But instead, those sacrifices actually reminded them of their sins year after year. 4 For it is not possible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins.

Hebrews 10:1-4

It’s like all those substitutions that we read about were temporary coverings for sin – just like Adam & Eve’s animal skin coverings. They didn’t take sin away – they just dealt with it temporarily until God would provide a permanent solution.

The Good News is that now, God has provided that permanent solution. God has provided the Ultimate substitute – the Substitute that will not just cover sin, but will take it completely away. John the Baptist makes this announcement in John 1:29.

The next day John saw Jesus coming toward him and said, “Look! The Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!” John 1:29

Jesus Christ is our Substitute. Some 2000 years ago God sent his one and only Son, Jesus Christ, to live on the earth and die on the cross in our place. Jesus substituted His life for ours. He died so that we can live. Isaiah 53 – verse 5 tells us…

He was pierced for our rebellion,

    crushed for our sins.

He was beaten so we could be whole.

    He was whipped so we could be healed.

All of us, like sheep, have strayed away.

    We have left God’s paths to follow our own.

Yet the Lord laid on him

    the sins of us all.

Isaiah 53:5-6

God’s justice and his holiness demanded that our sin be paid for by death – but God’s incredible love for us allowed Jesus to take our place – and God paid Jesus for our sins.

This upcoming Friday is called Good Friday. Its when we remember how Jesus Christ was nailed to a cross and crucified. You can read in your Bible – starting in Luke 22 how he was betrayed, abandoned and denied by his friends. He was arrested, falsely accused, put on trial – even though He had never sinned even once. He was whipped, beaten, and nailed to a cross. He was mocked, insulted, and left to die.

When you think of all Christ went through, it’s seems odd that we call this “Good Friday” – but it is good, because He willingly did all that for you and for me. His pain brought us great gain.

“For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.” John 3:16

We don’t have to experience eternal death. We don’t have to live in this state where we are separated from one another and separated from God. Because of Jesus, our Substitute, we can have eternal life. Eternal connection and friendship and togetherness. We can have eternal satisfaction – just like God created us to have.

But of course, it’s still our choice. Just like Adam & Eve had the choice to submit to God’s authority or to rebel and do things their own way – each one of us still has that same choice.

The Israelites in Egypt had the choice whether or not to obey God’s instructions and kill that passover lamb and put it’s blood on their doorframes. It probably seemed like a pretty odd thing to do, but they had to choose to trust and obey God.

Later on, when they were in the promised land, if they were to sin, they had to choose to bring one of their animals to the tabernacle and to allow it to die so that they could be forgiven. There was a cost involved (they had to lose a perfectly good male animal) but they had to make that choice.

Likewise, we have to make the choice whether or not we are going to accept Jesus as God’s substitute for us. God gives us the freedom to reject Him if we so choose. He allows us to remain separated from Him – if that’s what we desire. But He has done everything possible to draw us back to Himself. He wants us to have life. He wants us to have satisfaction.

So what will you choose?

Are you ready to accept Jesus Christ as your Substitute? Are you ready to reconnect with your Creator? Are you ready to start a relationship with the One who made you, the One who loves you like crazy – and the One who died in your place?

If you are, then I’d invite you to pray with me this morning. Just talk to God in the quietness of your own heart. There’s no special words you need to say or anything – just talk to God and let Him know that you want to accept Jesus as your substitute and you want to start a new relationship with Him. And if you don’t know what to say, you can say something like this:

God, I thank you so much for allowing Jesus to be my Substitute. I recognize that I have sinned and I’ve chosen to do things my own way. And I know that my sin keeps me separated from others and from you. But because of Jesus Christ dying on the cross in my place, I can be forgiven. And I humbly accept that forgiveness today. I want to begin a new relationship with you, my Creator, starting right now. Teach me how to follow you. I ask this in Jesus name, Amen.

If you prayed that prayer (or one like it) for the first time today, I encourage you to come and tell me or some of your friends around you. We’d love to celebrate with you and help you get started in this new relationship with God.

And whether you made that choice just this morning, or whether you made that choice many years ago, this morning we’re going to celebrate communion together. Every time we share communion, we remember all the things that we just talked about.

The very first communion happened just shortly before Jesus was crucified. Jesus was actually celebrating the passover meal with his disciples, and I’m sure that was no coincidence. As they were remembering how God provided a substitute for the Israelites back in Egypt so that the angel of death would see the blood of the lamb on the doorposts and pass over them – In a very similar way, Jesus was about to become the ultimate substitute and his blood on the cross would provide a way for each of us to escape death.

And so before we have communion this morning, I just want to give you a few moments to reflection on your own life and your own relationship with God. Where are things at between you and God? Are you experiencing life – togetherness, unity, one-ness? Or are you experiencing death – separation, distance, disharmony? The Good news is that where-ever you’re at, Jesus has bridged the distance. His pain has paved the way for your gain. All you have to do is ask and receive.

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