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Christ’s Death For Us
By Anthony D. Palma
What is the meaning of the preposition for in the numerous biblical passages that speak of the death of Christ being “for us”? In English usage the word has two basic meanings that relate to the question. It may mean either “for the benefit of/for the sake of” or “instead of/in place of.” The meanings often intertwine, but an important theological difference exists between them. To put it another way, do the Scriptures teach that Christ died not only for our benefit but also in our place?
The focus of this article is on the Greek prepositions hyper and anti, which the New Testament utilizes to relate the death of Christ to us. We should first refresh ourselves on the basic meaning of a preposition—a part of speech that relates a noun or noun equivalent to some other word or words. For our purposes the question is, “How does the death of Christ relate to us?” How do these two prepositions contribute to our understanding of the matter?
The Preposition Anti
The basic meaning of this preposition is “instead of/in place of/in exchange for.” This is clear in passages like the following where it occurs: “Archelaus was reigning over Judea in place of his father Herod” (Matthew 2:22*); “Never pay back evil for evil” (Romans 12:17); “ ‘An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth’ ” (Matthew 5:38).
As used when referring to the death of Christ, the word plainly has this substitutionary meaning. Yet, surprisingly, even though anti is found 20 times in the New Testament, it occurs only twice in connection with Jesus’ death. Matthew 20:28 and Mark 10:45 record the same saying of Jesus that the Son of Man came “to give His life a ransom for [anti] many.” In reality, therefore, only once does the New Testament use this preposition to relate the death of Christ to mankind.
The Septuagint illustrates well the substitutionary meaning of anti in the account of the offering up of Isaac. The ram that Abraham found caught in the thicket was offered up “in the place of his son” (Genesis 22:13).
The Preposition Hyper—Primary Meaning
The most common meaning of this preposition is “for the sake of/for the benefit of/on behalf of.” Numerous passages employ the word when they speak of Christ’s giving himself for us (Titus 2:14; Ephesians 5:2), for the Church (Ephesians 5:25), for all (1 Timothy 2:6), for an individual (Galatians 2:20). The verb used in these passages is either didomi (to give) or its compound paradidomi (to give up, to deliver up); they speak of His death.
Other relevant passages in which this preposition is found say that Christ suffered “for you” (1 Peter 2:21), that He died “the just for the unjust” (1 Peter 3:18), that He died “for all” (2 Corinthians 5:14,15), that He became a curse “for us” (Galatians 3:13).
The Preposition Hyper—Another Meaning
Reliable lexicons, grammars, and exegetes assign to this preposition an alternate meaning of “in place of/instead of.” A number of passages bear this out. The statement of Caiaphas, the high priest, regarding Jesus is important: “It is expedient for you that one man should die for [hyper] the people, and that the whole nation should not perish” (John 11:50). And Peter stated, “Christ also died for sins once for all, the just for [hyper] the unjust” (1 Peter 3:18).
Paul’s personal statement in Romans 9:3 implies a substitutionary meaning of the preposition, notwithstanding translations like, “For I could wish that I myself were accursed, separated from Christ for the sake of [hyper] my brethren, my kinsmen according to the flesh.” In my judgment Paul wished that, if possible, the curse under which his Jewish brethren were living could be transferred to him. This verse somewhat parallels Galatians 3:13 which states that “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the Law, having become a curse for [hyper] us.”
We have seen that the meaning of hyper is more inclusive than that of anti. Hyper may mean either “for the sake of” or “in place of,” depending on context. Yet the two meanings are so closely interrelated when the Scriptures use it in connection with the death of Christ that it is difficult to assign one meaning to the exclusion of the other. This may be the reason for the biblical writers’ preference for hyper over anti, since the meaning of the former term is more inclusive. But there is an additional item.
A Rare Expression—Antilutron Hyper Panton
This phrase, found in 1 Timothy 2:6, says that Christ gave himself as “a ransom for all.” Antilutron, a rare word, occurs in all of Scripture, including the Septuagint, only in this passage. It is a compound word consisting of anti (in place of) and lutron (ransom). The word lutron in and of itself means “ransom,” yet Paul employed this compound form apparently to underscore the substitutionary nature of the ransom. He then followed with hyper panton—“on behalf of all.” In this three-word phrase Paul captured the essence of the atoning work of Christ—that it was in our place and for our benefit! Donald Guthrie, in his commentary on the pastoral epistles, said of this passage: “Christ is conceived of as an ‘exchange price’ on behalf of and in the place of all.” We note that these Pauline words echo those of Jesus quoted earlier that He came to give His life as “a ransom [lutron] for [hyper] many.”
This study has focused on prepositions. For those who believe in the verbal inspiration of Scripture, the study of words is important (understanding that the word verbal is the adjectival form of word). The concept of the Atonement must include more than a study of words, but this insight into relevant prepositions is one line of evidence pointing to the substitutionary nature of the death of Christ.
The history of Christian thought shows that numerous theories of the Atonement have been advocated over the centuries—some patently erroneous, some inadequate. A valid understanding of the atoning work of Christ must include the concept that He died not only for our benefit but also in our place.
Anthony D. Palma, Th.D., a longtime Assemblies of God educator, lives in Springfield, Missouri.
*Scripture quotations are from the New American Standard Bible.