The Fox and the Fleas

I posted the other day about the illustration of the divine substitute in the law-court, Magistrate Nigel Allcoat, and a few thoughts from D.A. Carson that should make us stop and think through whether the metaphor makes sense. As I said at the time, I think the themes of justice, guilt, and substitution are important and biblical, and as Carson notes, the illustration is not wholly wrong… but it can be misleading.

Someone asked whether I had a better illustration that I would recommend. And my answer is… kinda. Because all metaphors break down at some point – none can perfectly illustrate a mystery so great as the atonement. But here’s an illustration that I borrowed from N.T. Wright and used in a recent talk on the Garden of Gethsemane from Matthew 26. You may want to check out the talk to see how I applied it. But in short, here’s the picture:

Do you know how a fox gets rid of its fleas? The fox goes along the hedgerow, and collects little bits of sheep’s wool. Then he makes it all into a ball of wool, which he holds in his mouth. Then he goes to the stream, and slowly, slowly, walks down into the water. He lowers himself right down into the water, with the ball of wool in his mouth, until at last he is totally submerged; then he lets go, and ball of wool floats away downstream, carrying all the fleas with it. The fox emerges, clean. In this image, Jesus is the ball of wool. The spotless Lamb allows the evil of the whole world to be concentrated on himself. He doesn’t keep it in circulation by reacting with violence; nor does he escape into the ineffective innocence of quietism. He takes the weight of the world’s evil upon himself, so that the world may emerge, clean.” (N.T. Wright, Following Jesus, p.48)

Now I don’t know if that’s really how a fox rids itself of fleas – I suspect not! And again, it’s not the perfect metaphor (the fox doesn’t become sin, or die, for example). But I like it nonetheless…

Image: A Simple Fox by Daniel Chang, used under CC-BY-NC-ND 2.0, cropped.