The penitent rebel’s substitute

Where better than tribal Africa to see biblical truths enacted in vivid meaningful drama in real life situations? W F P Burton was a Pentecostal missionary who spent most of his adult life in what was then known as the Belgian Congo.

He used to tell of significant events in one large area of country ruled over by a tribal chief. Some of his territory lay across the river from the village that was his ‘capital’. His young son was approached by rebels who lived in this territory beyond the river asking him to become their chief, independent of his father – no doubt to be able to stop paying taxes and instead to start raising taxes to make them rich and famous. And he accepted.

His father was extremely angry and sent ambassadors threatening war by the chief’s glorious warriors. The young man was given a deadline date to appear before the great chief with his decision.

When the day arrived, the chief sat on his throne by the river bank and waited for his son to appear on the opposite bank, for the young man had said he would accept his father’s terms of peace. At last he could be heard walking smartly up the other side of the river’s opposite embankment by the loud squeak of his brand new Western leather shoes. Soon his head and shoulders appeared as he reached the top of the rise. Waving and smiling he swaggered in his Western suit, head held arrogantly high as he descended to a place directly opposite the chief’s seat.

Warriors raised their weapons, awaiting their master’s command to cross the waters and strike the rebel dead. But the angry chief told him he would give him a second chance to make things right, and to return to this same spot in just seven days.

On this next occasion the young man crawled down the same slope on his belly and lay face down with his forehead in the brink of the water directly before the chief, clothed appropriately this time in rags. He pleaded for mercy, confessing that he had been very wrong to have led part of the chief’s kingdom into rebellion.

As he lay there pouring forth these words of humility, two of his retainers led into the river a magnificent ram with a long black shiny fleece that flowed right to the ground. Willie Burton reckoned they had searched all over the nation to find it; and he himself had never seen such a splendid beast in all his many years in Africa, describing it ‘as large as an ox’. Then, two of the chief’s guards stepped into the river and plunged their spears into the heart of this sacrificial victim causing its blood to pump out, turning the waters into a crimson flow – its death being accepted as a substitute for the young man.

Forgiven and reconciled, he lived to serve his father faithfully through the years that followed, governing part of the kingdom in his father’s name – a region whose people honoured the great chief gratefully and loyally in every way.

‘Christ died for the ungodly…[W]e have now been justified by his blood, … we are reconciled to God by the death of his Son’ (Romans 5:6-10).

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