By Tom Lawson
During the 1930s a hopeful contender in a Charlie Chaplin look-alike contest in San Francisco was disappointed when he did not even make the finals. The contestant was, of course, none other than the real Charlie Chaplin.
Today, an entire industry of celebrity doubles has arisen. Want Arnold Schwarzenegger at your 5-year-old’s birthday party? No problem. Want Barack Obama to speak at the church’s annual Thanksgiving dinner? No problem.
Among the billions of human beings on earth, some clearly bear striking similarities to others. In European folklore this may be behind the myth of the doppelganger—a person’s duplicate who is said to appear as a bad omen.
There are advantages to having a double, of course. Celebrities make use of them, as do important politicians. Whether for security or just to obtain a little personal privacy, a stand-in who looks just like you can come in handy. Nowhere would this be more helpful than to avoid some unpleasant consequences. Like, for example, being hanged as a horse thief or, as Sydney Carlton did for Charles Damay at the end of A Tale of Two Cities, being executed by guillotine in the French revolution. Then it would be a good thing to have a look-alike also serve as a stand-in.
When Paul writes, “God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Corinthians 5:21), he is describing a remarkable example of a look-alike serving as a stand-in. On the cross, human sinfulness was so thoroughly wrapped around Jesus that he looked thoroughly sinful. Jesus, as Peter observes, carried our sins in his body on the cross (1 Peter 2:24).
Although no longer a popular image with some who discount traditional notions of God’s justice and wrath, this understanding of the cross as, in part, an act of substitution is a foundational truth of Christianity. In looking guilty, Jesus accepted the punishment deserved by the guilty. In accepting Jesus, the guilty are, as Paul notes several times (Galatians 3:27; Colossians 3:12), clothed in Christ. That is how the Bible can speak of us as being “holy and blameless in his sight” (Ephesians 1:4).
The cross and, indeed, the ministry of Jesus are certainly about more than this one idea. But, to remove or downplay the central truth of substitution and atonement is to rob the cross of its inherent necessity.
A wise man once observed that basic fairness meant that God could only punish the guilty and pardon the innocent. “Acquitting the guilty and condemning the innocent—the Lord detests them both” (Proverbs 17:15). In the cross, however, this is exactly what God does. The innocent (Jesus) suffers punishment, while the guilty (you and me) are treated as completely innocent. Jesus looked like us so that, in God’s eyes, we can look like Jesus.
In Communion, we celebrate the most wonderful, and the most terrible, example of a look-alike serving as a stand-in in history. Jesus. On the cross. For me.
Tom Lawson teaches at Ozark Christian College, Joplin, Missouri.