When Jesus died on the cross, He died in the place of lost sinners. He had no sins of His own to bear, but willingly stood condemned before God and received upon Himself the full wrath of God for our sins. This is the heart of the doctrine of penal substitution, or the Bible’s teaching that Jesus paid the penalty for sins serving as our substitute. While we might be able to say more about the work of Christ than this, we certainly may say no less than this. What I have discovered is that the Gospel of John, while making very few if any explicit references to substitution, nevertheless carries this crucial theme throughout the entire book.
As John opens his gospel message he records John the Baptist viewing Jesus from afar and declaring, “Behold the Lamb of God, which taketh away the in of the world” (KJV). While this statement is not an explicit statement of substitution, we cannot help but notice the clear imagery of the Old Testament Passover lamb in view. In Exodus 12, the firstborn sons of Israel were “passed over” from the slaughter brought at the hands of the Angel of the Lord by a lamb that was killed in their place with its blood splattered in the doorway. When the Baptist calls Jesus the Lamb of God, this is not a cute little ewe going everywhere that Mary went, but a mental picture of a brutal slaughter to allow escape to the people of God.
Other examples abound as we journey through the Gospel. John 3:16 may be the most famous passage in the Bible, but it cannot be read apart from the context of 3:14-15: And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life” (ESV). Jesus is referring to Numbers 21 when Israel, facing the judgment of God for rebellion, could lift their eyes up to a bronze serpent hoisted high on a pole to find hope. Jesus later speaks of Himself as “the Bread of Life,” and states that “this bread is my flesh which I give for the life of the world” (John 6:51). He calls Himself “the Good Shepherd,” who lays down his life for His sheep (John 10:11).
In John 11:47-52, John’s Gospel takes us into the meeting hall of the Sanhedrin, the Jewish religious leaders of the day. They are debating about what to do with Jesus and how to minimize the fallout because of His popularity. Caiaphas the High Priest that year responds to the debate in this way: "You know nothing at all. Nor do you understand that it is better for you that one man should die for the people, not that the whole nation should perish,” (11:49-50, ESV). While Caiaphas has diabolical motives behind such a statement, John interprets in prophetically in the context of Jesus’ redemptive work as a substitute for the sins of His people (v. 52).
Now while there are numerous other examples throughout the book, there is one particular passage I would like to focus your attention. I have read numerous commentaries and articles, and none of them draw the connection from this passage to substitution. It occurs in John 19:26-27: When Jesus saw his mother and the disciple whom he loved standing nearby, he said to his mother, "Woman, behold, your son!" Then he said to the disciple, "Behold, your mother!" In the ancient world, it was common for fathers or heads of the home who were dying to give an oral testament, or a verbal “Last Will and Testament.” The dying party would place the care of a spouse or loved ones into the hands of a close relative or trusted friend. It was a great honor to receive and in effect it meant taking over the dying person’s role in the life of the family. In other words, Jesus is declaring John the disciple to be Mary’s substitute son in place of Him who is dying. Yet is it possible that the imagery of substitution can be fleshed out further? Can we not observe, based on the motif of substitution powdered throughout the Gospel of John, that Mary’s REAL substitute not the disciple standing beside her, but the crucified Lord hanging in front of her? And could we not also say that this substitute is not just intended for her, but also for John, the rest of the disciples, and even now serves as “the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world,” (1 John 2:2)? That Friday Mary may have received a substitute son, but she trusted by faith the one and only true substitute that could bear her sins in an eternal sense.