So as we ponder the meaning of the atonement, we have to take up what is likely the most pervasive metaphor for Jesus’s role in the atonement — Jesus, the Lamb of God.
What does that mean? What are we to learn from the repeated references to Jesus as a “lamb”?
The Passover Lamb
The Synoptic Gospels refer to the Last Supper as occurring at Passover. It’s obviously important to all three writers. Indeed, a week earlier, Jesus enters Jerusalem on a donkey — on what the Jews call “Selection Day,” the day they selected a spotless lamb for the Passover meal.
You can hardly miss the comparison of Jesus to the Passover lamb in such poignant passages as —
(Mat 26:1-2 ESV) When Jesus had finished all these sayings, he said to his disciples, 2 “You know that after two days the Passover is coming, and the Son of Man will be delivered up to be crucified.”
(Luk 22:7 ESV) 7 Then came the day of Unleavened Bread, on which the Passover lamb had to be sacrificed.
(John 19:14 ESV) 14 Now it was the day of Preparation of the Passover. It was about the sixth hour. He said to the Jews, “Behold your King!”
At three different times, John’s Gospel declares that the “Passover of the Jews was at hand.” It seems that John measured years by Passovers.
(1Co 5:7-8 ESV) 7 Cleanse out the old leaven that you may be a new lump, as you really are unleavened. For Christ, our Passover lamb, has been sacrificed. 8 Let us therefore celebrate the festival, not with the old leaven, the leaven of malice and evil, but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth.
During the week between Selection Day and the Passover meal, each Jew was to cleanse his house of all leaven, and eat only unleavened bread at the Passover meal. Thus, Paul is pleading for purity based on the need to be pure in anticipation of eating the Passover meal.
In Revelation, Jesus is pictured as a slain lamb —
(Rev 5:6 ESV) 6 And between the throne and the four living creatures and among the elders I saw a Lamb standing, as though it had been slain, with seven horns and with seven eyes, which are the seven spirits of God sent out into all the earth.
So what does this mean? Well, we have to go to Exodus to find out.
(Exo 12:3 ESV) 3 Tell all the congregation of Israel that on the tenth day of this month every man shall take a lamb according to their fathers’ houses, a lamb for a household.
(Exo 12:5a ESV) 5 Your lamb shall be without blemish, a male a year old.
(Exo 12:7-8 ESV) 7 “Then they shall take some of the blood and put it on the two doorposts and the lintel of the houses in which they eat it. 8 They shall eat the flesh that night, roasted on the fire; with unleavened bread and bitter herbs they shall eat it.
(Exo 12:11-14 ESV) 11 In this manner you shall eat it: with your belt fastened, your sandals on your feet, and your staff in your hand. And you shall eat it in haste. It is the LORD’s Passover. 12 For I will pass through the land of Egypt that night, and I will strike all the firstborn in the land of Egypt, both man and beast; and on all the gods of Egypt I will execute judgments: I am the LORD.
13 The blood shall be a sign for you, on the houses where you are. And when I see the blood, I will pass over you, and no plague will befall you to destroy you, when I strike the land of Egypt.
14 “This day shall be for you a memorial day, and you shall keep it as a feast to the LORD; throughout your generations, as a statute forever, you shall keep it as a feast.
Notice that the Passover lamb is not a sacrifice in the usual sense. It’s not taken to the Tabernacle or Temple and burned on the altar. Rather, it’s roasted and eaten — with no leftovers. There is no priest. It is, but for the profound symbolism, a meal eaten at home.
Moreover, the Passover lamb does not take away sins. Rather, the lamb marks the people of God as separate from all others. Those who eat the lamb and mark their doorposts live, while death visits all others — as a defeat both of the enemies of God’s people and their gods.
But there is no sense of propitiation (a payment to God to avoid his wrath) or even cleansing. It’s a mark of God’s true people.
However, although the Passover lamb isn’t sacrificed to remit sins, Moses says,
(Exo 12:26-27 ESV) 26 And when your children say to you, ‘What do you mean by this service?’ 27 you shall say, ‘It is the sacrifice of the LORD’s Passover, for he passed over the houses of the people of Israel in Egypt, when he struck the Egyptians but spared our houses.'” And the people bowedtheir heads and worshiped.
It is a sacrifice, but not a sacrifice to obtain forgiveness. Rather, it’s a sacrifice that shows whose God’s people are.
And Moses calls the sacrifice a “service,” which in the Greek is latreia, meaning an act of worship.
So what did the New Testament authors mean to convey by referring to Jesus as the Passover lamb? Not that he was a sacrifice given for sins (they said that, but not by this metaphor). No, the thought is that Jesus separates those who are saved from those who are not. Those who “eat” the body of the Lamb are marked as free from death, whereas those who have no share in the blood of the Lamb will be judged — as will their gods.
When Phillip met the Ethiopian eunuch, we read —
(Act 8:32-33 ESV) 32 Now the passage of the Scripture that he was reading was this: “Like a sheep he was led to the slaughter and like a lamb before its shearer is silent, so he opens not his mouth. 33 In his humiliation justice was denied him. Who can describe his generation? For his life is taken away from the earth.”
This is, of course, taken from Isaiah 53 —
(Isa 53:6-7 ESV) 6 All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned–every one–to his own way; and the LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us all. 7 He was oppressed, and he was afflicted, yet he opened not his mouth; like a lamb that is led to the slaughter, and like a sheep that before its shearers is silent, so he opened not his mouth.
We are all sheep who’ve gone astray, but Jesus became like us — a sheep. And for us, he was slaughtered.
The NET Bible translators note,
This verse emphasizes the servant’s silent submission. The comparison to a sheep does not necessarily suggest a sacrificial metaphor. Sheep were slaughtered for food as well as for sacrificial rituals, and tevakh need not refer to sacrificial slaughter (see Gen 43:16; Pro 7:22; Pro 9:2; Jer 50:27; note also the use of the related verb in Exo 21:37; Deu 28:31; 1Sa 25:11).
Indeed, the parallel with being sheared makes this appear to be a farming metaphor, not a Levitical sacrifice.
Peter comments on this passage —
(1Pe 2:21-25 ESV) 21 For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you might follow in his steps. 22 He committed no sin, neither was deceit found in his mouth. 23 When he was reviled, he did not revile in return; when he suffered, he did not threaten, but continued entrusting himself to him who judges justly.
24 He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness. By his wounds you have been healed. 25 For you were straying like sheep, but have now returned to the Shepherd and Overseer of your souls.
In this passage, Jesus’ death on the cross is held up as an example of how to meet suffering and death. Of course, it’s also true that Jesus “bore our sins in his body.” He went to the cross because of our sins. But this is not a propitiation passage. There is nothing here about requiting God’s wrath.
Odd, isn’t it? I mean, I’ve always assumed that “Lamb of God” refers to the sacrifices of lambs under the Levitical system.
Now, there are New Testament references to the cross as a “sacrifice,” and we’ve already considered the most obvious ones in the Hebrews. My point isn’t that Jesus wasn’t a sacrifice on the cross. He was.
But “sacrifice” carries a much wider range of meaning in Hebrew than in English. In English, to sacrifice is to give something up — either as an offering to a deity or out of love for someone else. I “sacrifice” for my children by staying up late to tend to their illnesses.
The Passover sense of “sacrifice,” however, is not an offering to God in the sense of giving something up. The family eats the lamb — a delicacy in a society where common people might eat meat only once a week. This “sacrifice” was a luxury!
No, this meal is most like a thanks offering — a meal eaten to give thanks to God, with a portion shared with the priests on behalf of God, as though God were eating there with the worshiper.
Thus, the image seems to be that God’s people, by eating symbolically with God, are marked as God’s own and thereby kept safe. This is not so much as a sacrifice as a sign and — later — a remembrance.
And all this tells us something else about the Lord’s Supper that’s maybe new to the readers. The Lord’s Supper is also a meal eaten to mark God’s people as saved by the blood of the Lamb. It separates the saved from the lost — and the absence of the mark condemns the false gods of those who do not participate in the meal.
You see, I think our focus on Jesus as sacrifice has blinded us to other lessons. Having a narrow, forensic, courtroom view of the atonement means we often don’t even notice what else God is teaching us through the scriptures about the cross.