Tonight I was reading that book, Engaging the Doctrine of God, and I was in D. A. Carson’s chapter on “The Wrath of God.” In it he discusses his belief that the substitutionary atonement is the best frame from which the “other theories” of the atonement can find their respective shapes; he says:

. . . In the past, many scholars have set forth the various theories of the atonement that have been developed over the centuries—the Christus Victor theory, the satisfaction theory, the moral example theory, and so forth—and sometimes treated them as equally valid intepretations of the cross. After all, something of their voice can be heard somewhere or other in the New Testament, and each one has been defended by various voices in the great atonement traditions that have come down to us. But this pick-and-choose approach is methodologically and theologically bankrupt. We will be more faithful to Scripture if we seek to determine when and where each atonement emphasis is taught in the text and then determine how they hang together (see, e.g., the careful linking of substitutionary penal authority and exemplary ethical model to constrain conduct in 1 Pet. 2). But on two grounds, I suggest that if any of the atonement models . . . must have precendence, it must be substitutionary atonement. First, only this model adequately handles the massive biblical insistence on the righteous wrath of God, which is so much a part of the Bible’s story line. Otherwise put, only this preserves the centrality of God, the raw fact that whatever else the cross achieves, it must reconcile us to God while vindicating God’s justice. Second, I think it can be shown that all the other atonement models can be derived from this understanding of the cross and can add their own perspective and coherence; I doubt that this can be done by placing any other model at the core. (Bruce McCormack, ed., “Engaging the Doctrine of God [Chapt. 2 D. A. Carson],” 60, 61)

I am so inclined towards Carson’s accounting here, and believe that “substitution” is indeed at the center of the biblical narrative unfolded throughout salvation history. Without reconciliation to God, through Christ, there indeed is no “victory,” and no “satisfaction” in the throne-room of heaven for God’s meted justice and holiness.

After reading this chapter, from Carson, it prompted me to pull out an old dusty exegetical paper I had written on this while in seminary (way back in the Spring of 2003); I think it dovetails nicely with Carson’s points above. So the following is a reproduction of that paper for your reading pleasure; I tried to blow off all of the dust, but if you have a sneezing attack, it might mean there is still a little cyber-dust remaining—sorry 😉 !

Matthew 20:28 provides teaching that has been the point of much controversy. There is argument over what anti, should mean. Depending on the meaning of this word, there is support for the notion of Christ’s death as substitutionary for all men; or rather that Christ’s death was only “for the sake of”—i.e. as an example for how others should live their lives before God.

Therefore understanding the way this word can function will provide necessary insight on what position of the atonement this passage supports: substitution for example. Hence this study provides lexical analysis of anti, as well as interaction with particular scholars; for the purpose of ascertaining the best reading of this word (i.e. anti), and passage (i.e. Matt. 20:28).

Thesis Statement:

Jesus’ ultimate gift of service was to provide comprehensive substitutionary atonement for all humanity.

My Translation:

Just as the son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve and to give His life a ransom in-the-stead of the many. Matthew 20:28.


The broader context of Matt. 20:28 is found in the preceding verses 20-27. In vss. 20-23 the mother of James and John approaches Jesus and requests that her sons be allowed to sit and rule with Jesus in His coming kingdom. Verses 23-28 provide the response of the other ten disciples as they realize James and John are trying to get on the inside track of everyone else in the company of Jesus. Verse 28 is the climax of Jesus’ response back to the apostles, and what it means to be a true follower of Him.

Lenski points out, in vs. 28, that Jesus’ attitude was not how much He could get (i.e. like the disciples were demonstrating, cf. vss. 20-24), but rather how much He could give for others (R. C. H. Lenski, The Interpretation of St. Matthew’s Gospel, 792). Thus the language of service and servant-hood substantiates Jesus’ purpose for coming to earth. Many scholars agree up to this point (see Lenski, The Interpretation of St. Matthew’s Gospel, 792; Leon Morris, The Gospel According To Matthew, 512-13; Robert Gundry, Matthew, 404; Ulrich Luz, Matthew 8—20, 546).

The difference arises after the epexegetical kai. (See Lenski, Matthew, 792) is given. Luz argues that the intent of the passage is only to highlight the example of service that Jesus provides for the disciples to follow. And that this passage does not heavily emphasize the idea of lytron (=ransom, BAG=price of release, the ransom money for the manumission of slaves, 483). Nor does this passage, according to Luz, emphasize anti (=in the stead of or substitution, see lexical analysis provided later in this study). Note Luz:

For Matthew the idea of a ransom or “substitute” is probably less important here than the radical nature of Jesus’ service. Jesus took his service to others so seriously that he gave his own life for “many.” (Ulrich Luz, Matthew 8—20, 546).[1]

To the contrary many other scholars believe that this passage has everything to do with the notions of both ransom and substitution. The thought reflected is that lytron and anti explicitly point to the fact that Jesus truly served as the substitutionary ransom to the Father. And that this in fact serves to provide the substance for “what kind” of service Jesus came to provide. Note Blomberg’s comment as representative of this position:

The word “ransom” (lytron) would make a first-century audience think of the price paid to buy a slave’s freedom. “Life” is the more correct translation here for psyche, which in other contexts sometimes means soul. Though it has been disputed, anti (“for”) means instead of or in the place of. (Craig Blomberg, Matthew, 308; see also Leon Morris, Matthew, 512-13).

Therefore Blomberg represents this passage as a straightforward statement of Christ’s substitutionary atonement.

Lenski similarly comes to the same conclusion as Blomberg, but he does not believe that anti can be translated as “instead of,” rather he believes that contextually the relationship of the two substantives lytron and pollon point to the substitutionary understanding in this passage. Note Lenski:

On the root idea of anti.: “face to face,” . . . “The idea of ‘in the place of’ or ‘instead’ comes where two substantives place opposite to each other are equivalent and so may be exchanged.”—thus the ransom is exchanged for the many. . . . “These important doctrinal passages teach the substitutionary conception of Christ’s death, not because of anti of itself means ‘instead,’ which is not true, but because the context renders any other resultant idea out of the question.” . . . The efforts to overthrow these findings are to a great extent not exegetical but dogmatical . . . . (Lenski, Matthew, 794).

Thus Lenski provides nuanced argument, from the context, of how and why anti should be highlighting the substitutionary nature of Christ’s atonement. This is not in disagreement with Blomberg, but rather points out how the context, as a principle, determines the precise meaning of anti.

Lexical Analysis of anti

Liddell and Scott, 153:

Liddell and Scott provide the semantic range from the classical perspective as:

. . . of place, opposite, over against, formerly quoted from several place of Hom. . . . in Hom. often to denote equivalence . . . he is as good as many men . . . a guest is as much as a brother . . . to denote exchange, at the price, in return for . . . for money paid . . . in preference to . . . .

The classical meaning can carry the notion of in exchange or in return for. This provides legitimate semantic domain for the nuance of substitution as some argue for in Matthew 20:28’s usage of the word.

BAGD, 72:

Bauer, Arndt, Gingrich, and Danker provide the semantic domain from the Koine perspective:

. . . in order to indicate that one person or thing is, or is to be, replaced by another instead of, in place of . . . in order to indicate that one thing is equiv. to another for, as, in place of . . . Gen. 44:33 shows how the mng. in place of can develop into in behalf of, for someone, so that av. becomes=uper . . . lytron av. pollon a ransom for many 20:28; Mk 10:45 . . . .

BAGD substantiates the discussion provided by Lenski, that the two substantives, lytron and pollon in relationship with anti indeed provide this word with the notion of substitution.


Provided the two positions presented above (i.e. Luz and Blomberg/Lenski), and coupling these positions with the lexical analysis; it is the belief of this study that indeed 20:28 is explicitly discussing the substutionary nature of Christ’s ultimate service for humanity.

Luz’s and the other scholar’s position, show a position that is informed by a dogmatic theological position. And each of these scholars proceed to impose their dogmatism onto passages such as Matthew 20:28, thus producing an interpretation that fits their presupposed theological grid (i.e. Christ was only providing an “example” to follow, not the nature of  His atonement).

The plain reading of the passage is to recognize that indeed Christ is emphasizing service, but that that service is defined by His substitutionary atonement at the cross.

Selected Bibliography

Bauer, W. A Greek-English Lexicon Of The New Testament: And Other Early Christian Literature. Translated by W. F. Arndt and F. W. Gingrich. Chicago: University Of Chicago Press, 1957.

Blomberg, Craig L. Matthew: An Exegetical and Theological Exposition of

Holy Scripture NIV Text. The New American Commentary, ed. David S. Dockery. Nashville: Broadman Press, 1992.

Gundry, Robert H. Matthew: A Commentary on His Handbook for a Mixed Church under Persecution. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing, 1994.

Keener, Craig S. The IVP Bible Background Commentary: New Testament. Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 1993.

Lenski, R. C. H. The Interpretation of St. Matthew’s Gospel. Ohio: The Wartburg Press, 1960.

Liddell, Henry George and Robert Scott. A Greek-English Lexicon. Great Britain: Clarendon Press, 1968.

Luz, Ulrich. Matthew 8—20. Hermeneia—A Critical and Historical Commentary on the Bible, ed. Helmut Koester. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1989.

Morris, Leon. The Gospel According to Matthew. Grand Rapids: Eerdman Publishing, 1995.

________. The Apostolic Preaching of the Cross. Eerdmans Publishing, 1956.

Ryrie, Charles C. Basic Theology. USA: Victor Books, 1986.