On Friday, March 23, an ISIS supporter launched a terrorist attack in the French town of Thebes. After highjacking a car and killing a passenger, he went to a supermarket. There he killed a staff member and a customer and wounded a dozen others, before taking a female clerk hostage to use as a human shield.

When the gendarmes arrived, the situation looked bleak for the woman identified only as “Julie.” Then something amazing happened. Lt.-Col. Arnaud Beltrame, the senior officer on site, offered to take the place of the hostage. He laid down his gun and walked into the market, and Julie was set free. Eventually, the terrorist was shot and killed, but not before fatally wounding the man who had offered himself as a substitute.

Throughout France and much of the world, Lt.-Col. Beltrame’s selfless act has been held up as representing the pinnacle of human merit. He would have been thought courageous had he made the exchange for his wife, or a child, or a close friend. That he did it for someone he didn’t even know showed a remarkable sense of his calling as an officer of the law, the pledge to “serve and protect.” His sacrifice was recognized during his state funeral in Paris, where his character and actions were honored by the entire nation. It was nothing less than would be expected for a man who was universally hailed as a hero.

On another Friday, the day that Jesus took my place on the cross, nobody called Him a hero. Quite the opposite: He was reviled by the mob, mocked by those in authority, branded a criminal. Those closest to Him, the very ones who had heard His teaching and saw Him put it into action, had deserted Him when he needed them most. He had tried to tell them what would take place and why, but they didn’t want to hear it – couldn’t begin to grasp it. So on that day, no one understood what was happening; neither His friends nor His enemies.

That day, Jesus was confronting the ultimate hostage situation, and freely offering himself as a substitute. From the beginning, all mankind has been held hostage to sin. God’s law had been given to make clear the requirements for right living, but the intervening time had only proven what God already knew: no person was able to keep the whole law the whole time. Most people weren’t even trying. They looked for other gods, flawed beings more like themselves, and gave them offerings that were more palatable than doing things God’s way. In exchange, they hoped to get what they wanted.

So sin continued to flourish and hold human beings in its death-grip.

On the day that Jesus went to the cross, He willingly laid down His life in exchange, not for one hostage, but for every hostage then and ever since. Not many knew Him then, but He knew every single one of them, and every one that would ever be born. He knew their sin and loved them anyway. He longed and still longs to be in right relationship with each one, but leaves the choice up to each individual. He offers to take off our dirty rags – smudged and stained with our failures and weaknesses, shredded and worn out by our futile efforts to be good enough on our own – and to put on us the robe of His righteousness, washed clean in His own blood. The offer was made that day, and it stands forever for each person who will accept it.

On Good Friday Jesus wasn’t hailed as a hero, but a failure, a desperate disappointment to his friends and all those waiting for God’s Messiah to deliver them. To them, His suffering and death were a tragedy, not a triumph. They didn’t know they were being held hostage, so they didn’t understand why the exchange was made and what it would accomplish. A short time later, they would begin to realize what had really happened; what amazing love and unflinching courage had done.

“Julie,” the French woman who is alive because Lt.-Col. Beltrame took her place, will be changed by what happened. She will look at this gendarme and wonder at his sacrifice for her. Her life will be infinitely more precious to her because of what he did. Perhaps she will vow to make his sacrifice count for something, to live her life in the most loving way possible in tribute to him. Whatever happens, her life will never be the same.

I pray that I also will have a profound and intensely personal sense of what Jesus has given so that I may live, not just now, but in close communion with Him for eternity. I pray that my life may honor that sacrifice, and be changed forever as I grow in relationship with Him.