I recently saw Ian Thorpe interviewed on TV and I was reminded of how he was disqualified from the Olympic 400 metres freestyle back in 2004. He overbalanced on the blocks and fell into the water before the start of his qualifying heat. As a result, he was unable to defend his title. The discussion that followed served as a beautiful example of why Christ needed to die on the cross on that first Good Friday. Let me explain.

First, the law brought down by the swimming authority (FINA) was clear: no false starts are allowed in swimming competitions. Ian Thorpe had clearly broken that law and the penalty had to be applied. 

Like many, I thought the law was stupid until I found out that, before it was introduced, swimmers were psyching each other out by causing false starts to gain an advantage over their competitors. The law was a good one, issued to protect swimmers from being manipulated.

Was there any way that justice could be served and yet mercy shown too? It turned out there was! It required a substitute who would wear the penalty.

We also reluctantly conceded that the law needed to apply to everyone if there was to be justice. As much as we loved Ian Thorpe, he couldn’t be given special treatment. 

And yet, while justice pushed us in one direction, mercy pulled us in the other. Ian Thorpe was much loved and we wanted him to be forgiven. (And, to be honest, I think we wanted it for ourselves as much as for him because he seemed like a certain gold medal for the 400 metres.)     

So the question was, was there any way that justice could be served and yet mercy shown too? And it turned out there was! It required a substitute who would wear the penalty, and allow Ian to be shown mercy. 

In this case, the logical substitute was Craig Stevens. He was the one who had qualified second for the event and was now headed for Athens—even though he was less likely to win a medal. If he stepped aside, his friend could take his spot. 

You can imagine, given the Australian obsession with sport, how much pressure was brought to bear on Craig Stevens to relinquish his spot. Yet, as others pointed out, Stevens had trained just as hard as Thorpe over the previous decade years to gain his spot on the Australian Olympic team. He had no obligation to make the exchange and it was unfair to make him feel that he did. 

Nevertheless, do you see the similarity between this situation and the cross of Christ? 

The Law of God which all of us had broken. The law was good and holy and, when the law was broken, there needed to be punishment: “the wages of sin is death.” God’s integrity demanded that justice be done and the guilty be punished. As God declared about himself to Moses, he “will not leave the guilty unpunished.” (Ex 34:7)

Yet, at the same time, as a God of mercy, wanted to show compassion and forgive those he loved. As with the Ian Thorpe situation, justice was pushing in one direction and mercy was pulling in the other. 

And, once again, that tension could only be resolved by means of a substitute. There needed to be someone who fulfilled the Law, but would willingly make a swap with us. Of course, for us, that person was Jesus: “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us,” writes Paul in Galatians 3:13. Or, as the prophet Isaiah put it centuries before:

… he poured out his soul to death and was numbered with the transgressors; yet he bore the sin of many, and makes intercession for the transgressors. (Isaiah 53:12)

God handed over his own Son, the Lord Jesus to take our place as a propitiation at the cross. Justice and mercy kissed when Jesus died in our place: our sins were punished (justice) so we could be forgiven despite our guilt (mercy).

In the end, Craig Stevens was willing to be a substitute and to surrender his place to Ian Thorpe (who went on to win gold). I would not have blamed Craig if he refused. 

But I am so much happier that Jesus, our champion, was willing to make his infinitely more costly sacrifice to let us share in an infinitely greater prize: 

… you were ransomed from the futile ways inherited from your forefathers, not with perishable things such as silver or gold, but with the precious blood of Christ (1Pet 1:18-19)