“For Christ also suffered once for sins, the just for the unjust, that He might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh but made alive by the Spirit,” I Peter 3:18
Before I take you on a mental jog in which we examine the presence (and value) of substitutes, let me first take you for a walk down memory lane. Let’s go back to the time…probably the mid-elementary school years…when you were asked to compare and contrast two things. The teacher asked you to draw two circles that overlapped. Where the circles were separate, you were to write individual characteristics (how each item was different from the other) and where they overlapped, you were to write shared attributes (how the two items were alike). Remember? If your memory serves you well…or if you didn’t have as far to stroll…you’ll recall that what you created was a Venn diagram. It’s a simple tool whose purpose is to illustrate how two seemingly different things may also be alike. Now, with that memory in tow, let’s start our mental jog and talk about substitutes. No…wait. Let’s substitute walking for running. After all, it’s difficult to talk while running…even if it’s just a mental jog!
So, about Venn. I wanted to reintroduce you to his presence and purpose because…the other day, while reading in I Kings…Venn showed up. I wasn’t expecting him, although there had been one thought circling in my mind for a few weeks. But, when the second thought circled and intertwined with the first, there stood Venn, and there was no denying his contrastingly comparative presence. That’s when I decided to take a closer look at his two rings, especially where they overlapped, to perceive just how these two outwardly different circles interlocked and revealed two inwardly similar truths. The first ring emerged from a very fitting source, The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King. The second ring, heralding a similar title, came from I Kings 12. Together, they crossed one another and, in doing so, outlined the presence and meaning of substitutions in our lives.
The first circle, or ring, presented itself while watching The Return of the King. While I’ve seen this movie several times, on this occasion something new caught my eye. Actually, it was the object that caught the eye of Pippin…and Sauron (the evil presence)…that also caught my eye; it was Saruman’s seeing-stone. Pippin was the one who found the large, black, crystal ball looking relic, but Gandalf quickly took it, wrapped it, and kept it in his possession. Pippin’s naturally inquisitive nature was piqued and what had begun as intriguing soon mushroomed into intoxicating …and he just had to take a look at that object! The problem, however, was that Gandalf held it in his arms as he slept. Determined to retrieve the object and examine it more closely, Pippin began preparations for his mission: Operation Switcheroo.
First, Pippin looked around the room for something of similar weight and size as that of the seeing-stone. Settling on an urn, he then swaddled it in cloth so that it would have a similar feel to that of the wrapped stone. Then, with great agility, Pippin extracted the stone and inserted the urn. Mission accomplished! Substitution complete! Gandalf the Wise was none-the-wiser…but only for a moment. If you’ve seen this movie, you know that Pippin’s actions put his life, and the lives of those around him, in danger. Gandalf, of course, woke up and retrieved the stone from Pippin, but not before Sauron had peered through the seeing-stone and, upon seeing Pippin, believed him to be the ring bearer. Operation Switheroo was pulled off, but not without grave consequences.
After seeing this movie, unbeknownst to me at the time, the first circle of the soon-to-arrive Venn diagram began to form. I kept thinking about the substitution of the urn for the stone. I thought about how, when it came to replacing one object with another…if and when the goal was to have the transfer go unnoticed…the two objects had to be similar in weight, shape, and texture. I didn’t know why that thought kept tugging at my brain…until the second circle formulated.
Circle two emerged while I was reading about Jeroboam in chapter twelve of I Kings. After the death of Solomon, the kingdom of Israel was divided. Jeroboam, Solomon’s servant, became king of the northern kingdom (Israel) and Rehoboam, Solomon’s son, became king of the southern kingdom (Judah). Because the temple was located in Jerusalem, which was in the southern kingdom, Jeroboam grew fearful of the hold it would have upon his people…upon his kingdom. So, like Pippin, Jeroboam began to prepare for Operation Switcheroo. For him, however, it wasn’t a matter of removing the temple, but it did involve replacing the temple. And, for that, he would need something of similar weight, shape, and texture. Like Pippin, Jeroboam did not want to rouse those who were “asleep”. He too needed to be calibrated in his delivery so that the people would not notice that what they held was a veiled substitution which, not unlike the shrouded seeing-stone, was an endangerment to their lives and the lives of those around them.
While Pippin’s replacement object was an urn, Jeroboam needed more than one object to replace the weight, shape, and feel of the temple. Since the temple provided a place, a time, an aide, and an entity for worship, substitutions for each would be necessary. Jeroboam looked around and established high places that his people would have a place to worship (Bethel to the south and Dan to the north); he ordained feasts that his people would have special times of worship; he appointed priests that his people would have aides in worship; and he had golden calves crafted that his people would have a form to worship. Jeroboam thought of everything…and he delivered it with such ease that the transfer was barely noticeable. As he placed the substitutions in the arms of his subjects, he reassured them that these were for their own good.
“It is too much for you to go up to Jerusalem. Here are your gods, O Israel, which brought you up from the land of Egypt!” I Kings 12:28
Mission accomplished! Substitution complete! But, just as Pippin’s actions held a dire consequence, so too did Jeroboam’s. For the duration of the divided kingdom, there would be no godly kings in Israel. No one would arise to reverse Jeroboam’s substitutions; no leader would call into question the faultiness of the replacements; and, other than the prophets who spoke for God, no one would question the weight, or shape, or feel of that which they not only held, but held tightly.
As I read about Jeroboam and his substitutions, and remembered Pippin and his substitution, I suddenly realized I was no longer alone with my thoughts. Someone else was there now, too. That’s when I saw Venn. And when I saw him, I knew I had to look at those circles a bit more closely. As I examined them, I realized that within their overlap there laid a lesson on substitutions. While the differences of these two accounts are many (most notably that The Lord of the Rings is fictional and Jeroboam of First Kings is historical), it is in their similarities that we learn some valuable truths, and the first one is this: undetected substitutions are dangerous.
In both accounts, that which served as a substitute was not equal to that which it replaced. But, because the items were wrapped and delivered in such a way that their exchange was not noticed, they were readily accepted. I realized, then, how important it is to examine that which we hold; to make sure it remains uncovered and visible so that we don’t look down one day to see that what we have been holding on to is not at all what we started out with. If we do not “examine everything carefully and hold fast to that which is good” (I Thess. 5:21), we may find ourselves holding on to that which we do not recognize, praising that which we do not honor, defending that which we do not understand, and worshipping that which we do not obey. If we allow substitutions to go undetected and undiagnosed, we may find out, like Pippin and Jeroboam, that substitutions can have costly consequences.
As I thought about the importance of examining that which was substituted, I then began to question why substitutions were made in the first place. What causes one thing to be desired over another? I thought about substitutions in my own life and the first three things that came to mind were substitute teachers, Splenda, and sweet potato fries. All three are substitutions I make on a regular basis and, though superficial at first glance, one of these did reveal another “overlapping” truth.
Since I’m a teacher, the first thought that crossed my mind was substitute teachers; where would I be without these valuable replacements? Secondly, I thought of Splenda. I know, I’m deep, but that’s only because of my deeply rooted reliance upon sweetened coffee! Sugar substitutes? When it comes to coffee…a resounding yes! Next, I thought of sweet potato fries because (stay with me, this is going somewhere), sometimes, you can substitute them for regular fries. Of course, one can also substitute broccoli for fries, but when is something steamed ever a replacement for something fried? And that twice-battered, extra crispy thought led to this nutritional morsel…and second truth: substitutions reflect value. Broccoli for fries? Yes, if one values high nutrition over high cholesterol. Sweet potato fries for regular fries? Yes, if one values…say…less poor nutrition over more poor nutrition. (I can live with that…for a time…and, if need be, with medication.) At any rate, there was no denying that my substitutions reflected my values, which lead me to think about the role of value in the realm of substitutes.
Value. It makes sense that this would be a…well…a valuable component of substitutions. After all, we don’t willingly replace that which we value nor do we readily accept that which we do not value. But, since value is in the eye of the beholder, it often goes unrecognized…and unaccepted. So I asked myself, “What is an example of a valuable substitute that has been rejected because its value went undetected?” And, the answer unfolded before me as substitute became substitutionary, and substitutionary became payment for sins, and payment for sins became Jesus Christ, and Jesus Christ became the Lamb of God…“who was despised and rejected of men…acquainted with grief…[from whom] we hid our faces; He was despised, and we esteemed Him not.” (Isaiah 53:3) In Jesus’ death on the cross, we have access to the most valuable substitution ever made…His righteousness for our wretchedness, His payment for our debt, His unconditional love for our conditional love…and yet many fail to see the value of this replacement…and therefore do not accept it. Just as, under Jeroboam’s rule, the people of Israel valued convenience and form over commitment and substance, so many people of today value practice over proximity, activity over allegiance, titles over truths, and time over eternity. It’s all a matter of value, for value affects the substitutions we make…and the substitutions we accept.
And there you have it. Two rings intertwined to reveal two overlapping truths: undetected substitutions are dangerous and substitutions reflect value. When Venn ran circles around my mind, he caused me to see that substitutions need to be exhumed and examined. In light of this, perhaps we would be wise to draw circles around our own activities and beliefs and ask:
- What am I holding?
- What has been replaced?
- What values do these substitutions reflect?
- What have I done with the greatest Substitution of all? Have I overlooked its value or accepted this substitutionary gift?
Whew! That was quite a walk! Thanks for joining me…and for allowing Venn to tag along. Granted, he may have run circles around us, but at least he helped us get to our destination…without having to circle back!