A story of one man, Saint Maximilian Kolbe is an interesting story, first raised to my attention by John Stott in his book, The cross of Christ, in his explanation of ‘substitution’. During Second World War, Kolbe was arrested for hiding Jews and sent to Auschwitz detention camp.
One morning, one of his fellow detainees escaped and the authorities decided to starve 10 of the detainees to death. As they walked out, one of the culprits sobbed, ‘My poor wife! My poor children! What will they do?‘ When he uttered this cry of dismay, Kolbe stepped forward silently, stood before the commandant and said, ‘Let me take his place. I am old. He has a wife and children.‘ What a man, Kolbe, volunteering to die in place of a stranger.
In my reading about Kolbe, I was moved by the statement of the man whom Kolbe died in his place.
“I could only thank him with my eyes. I was stunned and could hardly grasp what was going on. The immensity of it: I, the condemned, am to live and someone else willingly and voluntarily offers his life for me – a stranger. Is this some dream? I was put back into my place without having had time to say anything to Maximilian Kolbe. I was saved. And I owe to him the fact that I could tell you all this. For a long time I felt remorse when I thought of Maximilian. By allowing myself to be saved, I had signed his death warrant. But now, on reflection, I understood that a man like him could not have done otherwise.”
As a Christian, I can relate to this. Someone was substituted and died on my behalf. The notion of substitution is that one person takes the place of another. This is what Paul does in his letter to Philemon, as he tries to reconcile him with his runway servant, Onesimus. In verse 18-19, he tells Philemon:
If Onesimus has done you any wrong or owes you anything, charge it to me…I will pay it back to you… (Philemon 1:18-19)
Every time I read these verses, I am moved! What does Paul say here, that he is ready to pay everything Onesimus had stolen from his master? This is a great sign of commitment in reconciling these two brothers in the Lord.
Paul here drives home an important point for all Christians- Substitution! We all need to appreciate and should be forever grateful to God for substituting our wrath with Jesus, making one who had no sin to become a sin for us, the righteous dying for the unrighteous. He paid our debt; he laid his life as a ransom for us.
Paul shows Philemon what it means to lay down one’s life for another. “Charge everything he owes you to me,” he says confidently reminding Philemon that he preached gospel to him too.
There is no other better and simpler way to say it than that Jesus died on our place, he took the wrath we deserved and imputed on us his righteousness. We, just as Onesimus can stand before Philemon, owe our righteous standing before God entirely to the cross of Christ, through whom our sins are forgiven.
At the cross of Christ, we have our pride broken, our guilt removed, our love kindled, our hope restored and our character transformed. We join Isaac Watts in saying,
At the cross, at the cross where I first saw the light,
And the burden of my heart rolled away,
It was there by faith I received my sight,
And now I am happy all the day!
Was it for crimes that I had done
He groaned upon the tree?
Amazing pity! grace unknown!
And love beyond degree!
By Kenneth Irungu
iServe Africa apprentice placed at DOVE Christian Fellowship, Kawangware.