Q & R: How is Christ a “sacrificial lamb”? Brad Jersak
I am a Presbyterian minister in South Africa. I cannot express enough gratitude to you for your help in moving me away from Penal Substitution theory and all its tentacles… it never really sat well with me. I have been buying and reading your books, watched so many clips, listened to audio recordings but cannot find an answer to a question I have.
The “sacrificial system” was introduced and practised in the Old Testament, all pointing to the lamb of God who would be sacrificed for our sin. At least, that was my “legal understanding” until recently. How am I to understand this practice in the light of what I am learning from you now about the “beautiful gospel”?
Thanks for the excellent question. I cover this a bit in A More Christlike God in the chapters concerning biblical metaphors.
When the New Testament interprets the meaning of the Cross, it does so according to the Scriptures (1 Cor. 15:3-4), which is to say by the Holy Spirit through the prophets (Rom. 16:26; 2 Pet. 1:16-21). The Scriptures the apostles refer to are the Law, Psalms and Prophets in what we call the Hebrew Old Testament. And this is what the Creed means when it says that Christ came, died and rose again “according to the Scriptures” and by the Holy Spirit, “who spoke by the prophets.”
The “sacred tradition” concerning Jesus is not the Scriptures alone (Old Testament) nor is it something separate from the Scriptures (Old Testament). Rather, the “sacred tradition” (or “canon of faith”) refers to how the New Testament apostles interpreted Christ’s work through the symbols and narrative of the Old Testament. The Evangelists (Matthew, Mark, Luke and John) aren’t attempting to reconstruct an objective “historical Jesus.” Rather, through the illumination of the Holy Spirit, they perceive and proclaim the meaning of the life of this Jewish itinerant healer as it was anticipated in sacred Jewish imagery. One central guiding OT image is the nature and function of sacrifice–and specifically the Exodus Passover Lamb.
What does the Passover Lamb of Exodus reveal and foretell of Christ’s death?
We need to review the central themes of the first exodus. Here are the highlights through which the apostles interpret Christ’s work:
- Just as the people of God were in bondage to Pharaoh in Egypt, so the whole world has been in bondage to death and the fear of death, through which Satan held us in slavery all our lives (Heb. 2:15). Satan is our Pharaoh in the land of Death.
- Moreover, just as the Destroyer (over-translated “destroying angel”) was coming to rain death down on those who defied Yahweh, so the Destroyer continues to bring death to those who reject Life in Christ (John 10:10).
- Just as the people of God found salvation from the Destroyer and Death by the blood of the Lamb smeared horizontally and vertically on their household doorposts, so now, we find salvation from the Satan, sin and death by the blood of the Lamb shed on the horizontal and vertical beams of the Cross.
- Just as the people of God received life by receiving God into their midst in the hospitality meal of the unblemished Lamb (Exod. 12:3-10), so now we receive the life of God, expressed in partaking of the body and blood of the sinless Christ in the Eucharistic meal–the Last Supper of the Passover Feast.
- Just as Yahweh subsequently ransomed (Isa. 43:3) or redeemed (Mic. 6:4) out of Egypt, so Christ gave his life as a ransom (Matt. 20:28) and redeemed us from slavery to the world (1 Pet. 1:18), the curse of the law (Gal. 3:13) and the power of sin (Eph. 1:7).
- And yet when we think of ransom or redemption, we often mistakenly ask, “Who was paid?” God? God is not the slaveholder or hostage-taker! Satan? No, God owed that thief nothing. Death? Perhaps, in that Christ gave his life, but No, he took it up again. Rather, just as Pharaoh and Egypt were plundered (Exod. 3:22) of their gold and even their people, so Christ “bound the strongman [Satan], broke into his house [hades] and plundered his goods [us!!] (Matt. 12:29).
- Certainly for John, Christ is the Passover Lamb whose sacrifice is laying down his life to save us from the Destroyer and free us from death.
Note what neither the Exodus account nor its New Testament interpreters imagine this “sacrifice” in terms of punishing the lamb or appeasing Yahweh. Rather, Christ is the sacrificial lamb in that he offers his life to enter and deliver us from death. And we partake of the Lamb as an act of trust.
How does the Day of Atonement interpret Christ’s sacrifice?
The New Testament authors’ use of sacrificial symbolism focuses primarily on this Passover reality. However, the Epistle to the Hebrews also picks up on elements of Israel’s Day of Atonement. The author interprets the meaning of Christ’s death, resurrection and ascension in terms of the annual tabernacle/temple ritual (comparing Lev. 16 and Heb. 9). Discussions about the old sacrificial system get very complex because: 1. There are sin offerings and guilt offerings (not the same). 2. Some offerings cleanse the temple while others cleanse the people. 3. On the Day of Atonement there are two goats and no lamb. 4. One goat takes away sin but is not slain, while the second goat is sacrificed. 5. The second goat is offered by the priest to sprinkle (cleanse) the people rather than offered by the people in tribute to God. As I say, it’s complex.
But we needn’t get lost in all these details or infer parallels that Hebrews leaves alone. As with the Passover lamb, there is no association whatsoever of punishment or appeasement in the Day of Atonement sacrificial ritual. So let’s stick closely to what the author saw.
How does the Day of Atonement interpret Christ’s sacrifice?
- The earthly tabernacle is a type of God’s heavenly throne.
- Christ is the perfect high priest who represents both God and humanity.
- Christ is also the sinless and unblemished lamb, who sweeps away the offense of sin and washes away the dust of death.
- Christ’s broken body is the veil that has been torn to give us access to the Holy of Holies.
- Christ has reconciled us to God, allowing us to draw near with confidence rather than terror. Note: God never needed to be reconciled to us.
Those, like me, who have been indoctrinated with paganized notions that sacrifice = punishment and atonement = appeasement need not abandon the sacrificial metaphor altogether. Yes, in some ways Christ is the ultimate sacrifice, but not because he received God’s ultimate punishment or finally satisfied God’s need for appeasement. That’s the wrong God! In those ways, Christ is the END of sacrifice.
But a more redemptive vision of sacrifice exists when we think of the sacrifice of love a mother makes in giving birth to an infant or the sacrifice a first responder makes when rushing into a burning building to save those trapped in flames. This use of ‘sacrifice’ reflects the self-giving love of those willing to lay down their very lives to save the life of another. This, I think, is how the New Testament read the Christ’s work on the Cross through OT sacrificial imagery.