[This post is part of a series of illustrations for, and analogies of, Jesus’ saving work in the medical substitutionary atonement paradigm. This series is especially designed for teachers and preachers.]
In January of 2007, I was recovering from surgery. I had donated one of my kidneys to my wife’s brother. My brother-in-law was at a crossroads. His kidneys were failing. Healthy kidneys normally filter out toxins from your bloodstream. The lactic acid that your muscles give off when you’re sore after a workout was not leaving his body, so he felt tired and sore. Potassium, which we need in small quantities, was building up in his bloodstream, and unfortunately potassium is what is injected into death sentence prisoners in large quantities to send their hearts into cardiac arrest. But my brother-in-law’s kidneys weren’t filtering those toxins out.
Although dialysis was an option, it wasn’t a good one in his case. His dad wasn’t eligible because he had had heart surgery before. My wife Ming was an option but she had already delivered each of our two children by C-section, and I felt like that was enough for her. I was the best option. I matched, fortunately. I was 34, and thus relatively young. And male kidneys are bigger and could filter more blood.
So we went to the hospital. I had never had surgery before, so I was nervous. The surgeon had told me what would happen. They would put me under. They would turn me on my side. He would make an incision right above my belly button, through my abdominal muscles, or what little I have left after my swimming days. They would put two catheters into my side which had small scissors at the ends. When the surgeon put his hand into my gut, the catheters would snip my left kidney loose, and it would roll into the surgeon’s hand. Then they would stitch me up and put the kidney in Paul’s right side, under his own kidney.
The day of the surgery, they wheeled me into the operating room. It was cold! It was also filled with people who looked young, like it was… a medical school training workshop. A young woman gave me the gas mask and I wondered, ‘Are you old enough to be here?!?’ I prayed, ‘Lord, help…’ and then passed out. Meanwhile they did the surgery.
When I got up and saw Paul, he looked great. His skin color was already looking normal. The surgeon didn’t cut through much muscle for him, since he went in right over his right hip bone, and put my kidney under his right kidney, so he didn’t feel much incisional pain. It was like getting a new oil filter in your car. And it was working. His urine was yellow. Within 48 hours, his creatinine levels dropped from 13 to 2, where normal is 1.6. He was feeling better than he had felt in months. But I felt AWFUL! I told the nurse, ‘Can you give me something stronger?!?’
I think that’s a good parallel because Jesus is our organ donor. All of us have a poison in our bodies, a disease called evil or self-centeredness. We need healing from it. The reason why God became a human being – why the Word became flesh (John 1:14) – was to acquire our disease and develop the antidote in himself. He acquired the disease that coursed in his veins, and he fought it at every moment. The phrase, ‘the faithfulness of Christ Jesus’ in Romans 3:22 and Galatians 2:20 refers to that struggle. And ‘he condemned sin in the flesh,’ in Romans 8:3, by never, ever sinning. In the physical body of Jesus, there was a struggle going on (Hebrews 4:15; 5:7 – 9; Matthew 4:1 – 11; Luke 4:1 – 13). Jesus won the battles we always lost. He lived the life we couldn’t live. He resisted the thing in us that resisted God. He loved the Father through the human nature that loves itself.
You and I might say, ‘Well, that must have been easy for Jesus. After all, he’s Jesus! Does Jesus know what it’s really like to be human?’ In fact, Jesus understands better than you what it means to be human, because he struggled harder than you and me, as a human being, to depend on God’s Spirit, which is what it means to be human. A former World War I veteran turned scholar named C.S. Lewis once said that the only way to know how strong the Germany army is, is to fight them down to the last man. If you surrender, you don’t know how strong that army is. And the same thing is true about sin and evil. You and I don’t know how strong sin and evil are, really, because we always give in at a certain point (Romans 7:14 – 25). We give up. We surrender. We don’t fight it enough. Jesus never gave in. Jesus knows what it means to be truly human. We know how to give in to temptation. Jesus only knows how to fight it. Therefore, the only thing we know more than Jesus is how to be inhuman.
Finally, Jesus killed the thing that was killing us. He did it all without anesthesia, fully focused, feeling every moment of the inner war. He died the death we should have died but couldn’t, because none of us could filter out the toxins. None of us could present our human nature back to God cleansed, healed, and perfected. Moses commanded Israel, ‘Circumcise your hearts,’ in Deuteronomy 10:16, which they were to do by internalizing the commandments of God all the way into the heart (cf. Jeremiah 4:4; 31:31 – 34). But no one could do that. None of us could present ourselves back to God at the end of a life lived entirely in love and faithfulness to God, with God, and for God.
But Jesus did filter out the toxins from himself. Jesus rose from the dead with a fresh, God-soaked, God-drenched, new humanity. Thus fulfills God’s promise to dwell among and dwell in humanity, to return humanity from exile, as God said, ‘the Lord will circumcise your hearts’ in Deuteronomy 30:6. And Jesus gives his Spirit to us, when we receive him. By his Spirit in us, he filters out the toxins from us. Spiritually, Jesus is our organ donor.
[This and other illustrations of the atonement can be found here.]