HIS LIFE FOR MINE
A thrice-repeated dream of Jean Handwerk’s
I had been found guilty. I truly was guilty, and the death degree had been pronounced upon me. The day of my execution had arrived, and I was standing on the raised platform constructed for that purpose, surrounded by a sea of faces–-people just like me—who had come to watch the excitement. Movies and video games have executions of some type so often, they no longer sensed the eternal significance of loss of life. However, to see one in real life had drawn them.There was much talking and movement in the crowd, and even laughter. However, there was one in the crowd whose face shows sadness. It was my father. He stood at the base of the platform and wordlessly looked up at me with sadness in every line of his face, helpless to stop what was scheduled to happen to me. He was not excited like the others were, and at least he came to be with me till it was over. It was the only comfort he could give me. In the end, he knew and I knew I was responsible for my own actions. He could not help me now, and it must have been painful for him to see the results of what I had done with my life. It was painful to me to see him suffering there, but the past could not be undone. Truly we reap what we sow.
The formalities of the execution progressed. The executioner joined me on the platform, and the noise level of the crowd increased in their anticipation. I had only a few moments of life left. Never before had I appreciated how much—how precious—life is. It is ironic that I finally valued life only when I knew I was about to lose it. Had I realized–-had I even considered or contemplated–-the value of life, I would hope that my life would have turned out much differently. Like everyone else in that crowd, including my father, we take life for granted and do not think much about the reckoning that comes to all. I had lived for myself, taking instead of giving, making my own decisions and trusting my own judgment, without thinking to seek wisdom from wiser sources than myself. God had not been in my thoughts or life.
I could not deny the justice of the sentence that had been pronounced upon me. Too late, I realized how lives should be lived. If everyone would live to bless others, there would never be a need for executions. Too late my thoughts ran in this vein.
A voice from the sound system formally, dispassionately, announced, “This man has been found deserving of death, according to law. If any have any final words for him, speak now or forever hold your peace.” No one spoke; the crowd pressed even closer, no one wanting to miss any detail of my execution. I became saddened at their eagerness. In their desire to enjoy my death, they revealed hearts as depraved as mine had been. They were headed toward the same fate I was about to experience. Formerly I had had no idea–-no thought-–about the consequences of my actions; neither did they.
The thoughts going through my head were amazing me. I could hardly believe they were coming from me. Here I was, about to die, and I found myself caring about these strangers in the crowd who obviously didn’t care about me. They were poor, lost souls. It might have been the first time in my life I had compassion on people who, months ago, I would have written off as hopeless jerks. But now, as I looked at their upturned faces, I felt pity for them. And I hoped that somehow, something would happen to turn their feet from the path they were on. I had no idea what that might be, but I could see that without that something, they were as lost as I was, even if an earthly court never condemned them.
The voice from the sound system repeated the final words. “This man has been found deserving of death, according to law. If anyone has any final words for him, speak now or forever hold your peace.” The crowd was getting restless, wanting the action to begin. The executioner moved closer to me, in preparation for his part in the drama. And then came the voice—strong and calm and decisive.
The voice was clearly heard over the noise of the crowd. It was an unexpected development and the crowd actually hushed so as not to miss a word. I couldn’t tell where the voice was coming from, but I’ll never forget what the voice said. It simply said, “I’ll give my son to die in his place. Let him have another chance.”
Such a thing had never been heard of! The noise from the crowd escalated into a roar as the masses discussed this amazing new development and waited for what would happen next. I looked at my father, who looked at me with confusion on his face. I sensed the confusion he was feeling. After all, he was already grieving because he was about to lose his son, so how could he rejoice if another father gave up his son to die in my stead? It was the same thought running through my mind! What kind of father would give up his son to die for a stranger—and a guilty stranger, to boot? Didn’t that father care about his son? How did the son feel about being given up by his own father? What kind of perverted father-son relationship was that? How could I, knowing my own guilt, let that happen? And yet, I so wanted to live, now that I had an inkling of how to live.
So many thoughts filled my mind that I could scarcely process them all. Who was this father? And who was the poor sucker who was unfortunate enough to be his son? If I were that son, I would refuse to come. Let the father give his own life! Why let his son take the punishment? I despised that father and what seemed to be his injustice in sending his innocent son to die in the place of a guilty son, and a stranger, at that. Why would this father care about me, anyway? I didn’t know any man, and particularly any stranger, that cared about me enough to even think to do that. Even my own father didn’t offer; he knew himself to be as guilty as I was. He feared what would happen to him after death, just as I feared the same thing.
The crowd and I waited for whatever would come next. The unseen father had offered his son, but was the offer accepted? Would the execution intended for me be legitimate in the eyes of the law if someone besides me was executed in my behalf? Would it even be permitted by the powers-that-be? And would the son agree to the whole thing? I could hardly imagine that. Those were the questions running through everyone’s heads. And yet, I could not dismiss that strong, confident voice….
We didn’t have long to wait for the answer. There was movement at the periphery of the crowd. People were straining, standing on tip toe, trying to see what was happening. From the platform, I had a clear view. A man about my age was clearly, intentionally, heading toward the platform where I stood. Who was it? Could this be the son? It must be! And he was coming alone; there was no one forcing him. Why was he cooperating with the father’s plan? I would have run in the opposite direction. I would have had to be tied up and forcefully carried to an undeserved death that someone else volunteered me to endure. And yet, he was coming voluntarily! This was entirely beyond my experience—almost beyond my ability to comprehend what was happening.
The crowd parted as he advanced toward me. He was an ordinary-looking man, but what was not ordinary about him is that his eyes never left mine, and he had such an expression of peace and love on his face—love for me!—that I had never seen before on a human face. And he had a gentle smile on his face, as if he was happy to see me! Who was he? I couldn’t look away—didn’t want to look away—but my mind was racing. What was going on? I didn’t know this man, and yet he seemed to know me—and care about me! Doesn’t he know about me? Doesn’t he know what I’ve done in my life? If he knew, he certainly would turn away from me. How could I let this man think to take my place—endure my deserved punishment—without telling him about me? I determined I wasn’t going to let him die for me unless he knew the kind of man he was replacing. He deserved a chance to change his mind.
The stranger reached the steps leading up to the platform. The crowd was actually silent again, eager to hear any verbal exchange between us. Before he took one step up, I spoke, telling him not to come any further, that I was guilty of all the charges against me, and deserved to die. I wanted him to know he was not rescuing an innocent person. I was guilty. The sentence against me was just.
In a gentle voice that was clear enough to be heard by the entire hushed crowd, he answered in the most astonishing words I’ve ever heard: “I know. That’s why I’ve come.”
Again the noise of the crowd swelled into a roar. This was pure theater for them—so long as it was I on the platform, and not them. But even they had to be wondering as much as I was. Again my mind became almost overwhelmed with my thoughts. “Who are you? Do I know you?” I asked as he climbed the steps. It was incomprehensible to me that a stranger would be doing this.
“No, but I’ve known you for a long time.”
“Do I know your father? Does he know me?
“You don’t know him, but he knows you and loves you,” he assured me with that gentle voice and smile. “That’s why he sent me.” What? This was an absolute mystery to me. What was he saying? How could someone I wasn’t even aware of know me well enough to do this for me? To give away his obviously wonderful son that I’m sure he loved dearly? People just don’t act like this! And if the father and the son really knew me, then how could they love me? That wasn’t natural, either! It would be more natural for them to dislike me and avoid me. Who were these men?
There was something about the son that drew me to him. He seemed so calm, so peaceful, so aware, so caring, so wise—I’d never met anyone like him. Could the crowd see in him what I saw in him?
“Why are you doing this?” I asked him, pleading for understanding. “If you know me, you know I’m guilty.”
“It’s because you’re guilty that I’m here. I want you to have another chance. There’s a better, happier way to live your life, and your life can have a better ending than death.”
It would have taken all day—perhaps all the rest of my life —for me to grasp the depth and height of what he was proposing to do, not to mention what his words meant. However, given the circumstances, I didn’t have all day—not even minutes of a day. I blurted out, “I can’t let you do this. You aren’t guilty; I am.”
“You must let me,” he told me. “I want to do this. I want you to live, and you’re already learning how to live a better life. But the law must be satisfied, and I want to take your punishment. If you, in your second chance, live according to the realizations you had since you’ve been on this platform, it will be worth it to me. And it will turn out wonderfully.”
Then he embraced me—drew me close to his heart. He not only touched me; he genuinely hugged me! He embraced the outcast, talked gently to him, and my sinner’s heart softened—melted—as I sensed the trueness of his love for me. Words escaped me, but my tears of regret and gratitude were unstoppable. “I wish there were time for me to know you better,” I told him.
“There will be time,” he said, “soon. Soon we will talk more.”
What did that mean? He was about to die! How could there be more conversation between us? I opened my mouth to ask him, but he indicated our discussion was over as he knelt down near the executioner. I had expected the crowd’s bloodlust to reach a fever pitch as the death of the unusual stranger appeared imminent, but they became quite unexpectedly silent. This death was not that of a “bad guy.” This was the “good guy” voluntarily dying for a “bad guy.”
In my focus on this loving and very lovable stranger—for that is how I felt toward him, though I’d never laid eyes on him till a few minutes before—I had forgotten the crowd, but I realized they had listened closely to our entire conversation. Like me, they had never heard such things before. Selfish as I had been, they had never conceived of anyone doing such a thing for someone else, and the wonder of it left them lost in their own thoughts as they watched the final proceedings intently.
I heard him speak to his unseen father; the whole crowd did, and still without a sound system. His words are etched on my memory forever: “Father, not as I will, but as you will. Forgive them, for they know not what they do. Into your hands I commend my spirit.” And with that, the blow of the executioner fell, and my friend the stranger—the one who loved me despite my sins—who came to die in my place, that I might live— lay lifeless at my feet.
This whole matter had happened so fast—my thoughts were so new to me–and this gentle stranger-son who had showed me such love–that I simply stood transfixed. I didn’t even think of my undeserved freedom; I don’t think I wanted to leave the presence of the stranger—or maybe I didn’t want anything to intrude on my thoughts about what had just transpired. Such new thoughts—someone I didn’t know loved me enough to die for guilty me! His own father sent him! I needed to think….
The crowd gradually melted away, my father with them, perhaps to mull over himself what he’d just heard and seen. As they went on their way, the majority talked excitedly among themselves about what had just occurred, but a few separated themselves from the rest, reluctant to leave, wanting to hear and know more. They drew near the platform. Some of those few were weeping, knowing the ugliness of their own past, and wishing someone would love them as much as the stranger obviously loved me. They sensed something remarkable had happened—something wonderful and transformational that had awakened a deep desire in their own hearts.
I could not leave the stranger-son. Even in death, he was beautiful to behold, because his death was for me. I determined that henceforth in my life, I would honor his hope for me. I would not let him die in vain for me. I would live to reflect the incredible love he had shown me. I would tell others about what he had done for me.
It wasn’t long before his body was removed, and I had to leave the platform so it could be dismantled. I had no destination in mind; where does one go to begin an altogether new life? I hadn’t had time to think about that yet. But when I left that platform, I did have an objective. The son was dead, but the father wasn’t. Where was the father who sent his son to die in my place? The father and son were obviously in agreement, because the son came willingly. So where was the father who loved me enough to give his son for me? I had to find him. Desperately I hurried through the remnant of the crowd, asking whoever I encountered, “Do you know the father who offered his son for me? Do you know where I can find him?” They all shook her heads; none of them knew him, and none seemed to share my interest in finding him.
How could I find the father? I became obsessed with my need to find the Father. I knew I would never rest until I found him—until I heard from him personally why he had done as he had concerning me. Scanning the area desperately, I finally spotted a small group of people off by themselves. All of them were looking at me; they seemed to be waiting for me. Who were they?
And why did they seem to be expecting me?
As I approached them, their faces broke into smiles. I had never seen any of them before, but they seemed genuinely happy to see me! Would the wonders of this day never cease? Eagerly I asked them, “Do you know the father? Do you know where I can find him? I have to find him!”
With indescribable joy I heard their answer. “Yes, we know him,” they said. “We will show him to you.” I joined myself to that little band, and we made our way on a narrow path that leads to the Father.