Rabbi Mark was sitting with the old men of his synagogue when the situation of Yeltov the baker came up.
“Yes,” Mark mused. “Sadly Yeltov will go to gaol for several months for receiving stolen flour from the army’s cook.”
“But we can’t be without bread for several months,” the old men lamented in unison. “Hence we’ve devised a plan to solve our problem,” they optimistically announced.
To which Mark immediately responded suspiciously, “What plan?”
“Pitzik the pauper can take Yeltov the baker’s place in prison,” the old men happily asserted.
“But Pitzik’s done nothing wrong,” Mark protested.
“Nor has Yeltov the baker—merely a minor crime, which he did for our sakes,” the old men said in defence. “Anyway prison would be a far better place for Pitzik than roughing it on the streets. In prison he will have his own warm room, three meals a day, clean bedding and our gratitude,” the old men rationalised.
“Your gratitude for going to gaol for something he didn’t do?” Mark said in disbelief.
“Yes, our gratitude and we’ll visit him in gaol,” the old men claimed with finality.
“But he has done nothing wrong!” Mark again reminded them.
“What part of our exchange plan don’t you understand, Rabbi? Shall we explain it to you again?” the old men asked in a slightly sarcastic tone.
“No I understand it,” Mark said resignedly.1
Jesus exchanged places with us; He stood in for us; and the place He took for us was far worse than Pitzik’s prison cell. Pitzik went from poverty to a relatively better place, but Jesus did the reverse as 2 Corinthians 8:9 (NRSV) powerfully lets us know: “For you know the generous act [grace] of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that by his poverty you might become rich (emphasis added).”
The language of movement from plenty to penury is clearly metaphorical. The text, of course, is referring to Jesus’ coming from heavenly splendour to earthly shame (see Philippians 2:6–8). Two things should be noted. First, Jesus’ descent into poverty somehow procures our ascent from deprivation into spiritual abundance, with the implication that we should share our material wealth with others who are in poverty (vv 13,14; 9:7,13). Second, that Jesus’ action was entirely altruistic is expressed with the prepositional phrase for your sakes.
The idea of exchange is also found in 2 Corinthians 5:21. “God, for our sakes, treated him, who knew no sin, as though he knew sin, so that we, who know sin, might receive in Christ a right relationship with God” (author’s free translation). That the text refers to the cross seems unavoidable, and the New Testament rather frequently attributes the action of that tragic event to God—“Whom God put forward as a sacrifice of atonement by his blood” (Romans 3:25); “who was handed over [by God] to death for our trespasses and was raised by Him for our justification” (Romans 4:25); “He who did not withhold his own Son, but gave him up for all of us” (Romans 8.32); “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son” (John 3:16); “But when the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son” (Galatians 4:4).
"God's action in Christ crucified justifies the ungodly; His death is the catalyst that precipitates the change."
Thus “He made Him to be sin” belongs to this body of texts that affirm that God was present and active in the death of Jesus.
Another text that captures this sense of a sweet exchange between Jesus and the sinner is 1 Peter 3:18: “For Christ also suffered for sins once for all, the righteous for the sake of the unrighteous, in order to bring you [or “us”] to God.” The reference to Christ’s once-for-all [hapax] suffering is clearly alluding to the cross, as the verb “to suffer” often does. For examples see Luke 9:22; 22:15; Acts 1:3; Philippians 3:10; Hebrews 2:9 (“suffering of death”); 9:26; 13:12; and 1 Peter 2:23,24. The “righteous” is obviously Christ and is equivalent to “he who knew no sin” in 2 Corinthians 5:21, and “he who was rich” in 2 Corinthians 8:9. It is reasonable to see the idea of exchange in this passage, as it is quite clear that the unrighteous are the beneficiaries of the suffering of the “righteous One”.
There are two verses in Romans 5 that go together (verses 6 and 8).
“For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the sake of the ungodly [hyper asebōn]” (Romans 5:6, NRSV adapted, emphasis added).
“But God proves his love for us in that while we were still sinners Christ died for our sakes [hyper hēmōn]” (Romans 5:8 NRSV).
Asebōn is a plural adjective and thus refers to the ungodly ones or the impious ones; in other words, sinners, a word with which it is sometimes conjoined (see 1 Timothy 1:9; 1 Peter 4:18; Jude 1:15). The word weak [asthenōn] is also a plural adjective, and although often used for the sick (for example Matthew 25:43; Luke 10:9; Acts 4:9; 5:16), it is clearly used here with the same negative moral meaning as ungodly, which is confirmed in the related text of Romans 5:8 that uses sinners [hamartōlōn].
The word “ungodly” is also used in Romans 4:5: “But to the one who does not work, but trusts him who justifies the ungodly person [asebē], his faith is reckoned for righteousness” (author’s translation). Clearly God’s action in Christ crucified justifies the ungodly (Romans 5:6); His death is the catalyst that precipitates the change. Any notion of meritorious human action in redemption is immediately excluded in that the initiative is God’s alone; His saving righteous action [that is, “the righteousness of God”] occurs while we were impious, helpless and sinners—to put into sequence Paul’s three plural adjectives, as in Romans 4:5; 5:6 and 5:8. There is no reference to punishment in these verses, yet by some profound means the death of Jesus reverses the state of the impious, the helpless and the sinners, just as the “poor” became “rich” in 2 Corinthians 8:9.
Around the middle or the end of the 2nd Century an unknown “disciple of the apostles” penned in Greek these beautiful words, which capture the exchange theme of this article and provide its title: God “gave His own Son as a ransom for us—the Holy for the wicked [lawless], the Sinless for sinners, the Just for the unjust, the Incorrupt for the corrupt, the Immortal for the mortal . . . O sweet exchange! [ō tēs glukeias antallagēs].”2
“Sweet exchange” indeed.
Dr Norman Young is a former senior lecturer at Avondale College of Higher Education.
- Adapted from David Kossoff, A Small Town is a World: The Rabbi stories of David Kossoff (London: Robson Books, 1979), 84–88.
- The Epistle to Diognetus (translated by Maxwell Stanforth).