At this point in our series, we turn our attention to some of the different “theories” of atonement. But the word “theory” makes all of this sound a bit too abstract, in my opinion. Perhaps it would be better to speak of different pictures of atonement. The writers of the Bible give us several different images to consider when they explain the meaning of the cross.
Scot McKnight uses a helpful analogy here. An avid golfer, McKnight notes that playing the game properly requires a variety of different clubs. You use a driver in the tee box; a 7-iron at mid-range; a sand wedge when you end up in the sand; and you reach for the putter when you (finally) make it to the green. If you were to hack your way through a round of golf using only your driver, your long game would be impressive, but you’d struggle with other aspects of the game. You also wouldn’t want to tee off with a putter, unless you really wanted to annoy the people playing behind you. You need a variety of clubs to play effectively.
The same is true with understanding the cross. The Bible doesn’t offer up a singular way of understanding the atoning work of Jesus. There’s no “one size fits all” story that helps make sense of the cross. Instead, we find a variety of different pictures, different ideas, different teachings. The Bible is kind of like a bag of golf clubs; it holds these various images to help us understand everything that happened when Jesus died on the cross. And we need each one of these images in order to see the fullness of what happened on the cross.
As we move forward, we will focus on some of these individual “clubs” in the bag. We’ll focus on a different atonement picture each week that helps us understand the impact of the death of Jesus.
Today we begin with the idea of Jesus as our Passover Lamb. This is probably the “oldest” golf club in the bag.
This metaphor has deep roots in the Old Testament. It goes back to the sacrificial system in the Temple, but even further to the Exodus story. Jesus chose Passover as the moment to do what He came to do. The Gospel writers are clear in pointing out that the death of Jesus corresponds to the death of the Passover Lamb. That’s why the earliest Christians looked back to Passover to help them understand the meaning of His death.
The Passover is the greatest story of redemption recorded in the Old Testament. The Israelites had spent hundreds of years as slave labor in the land of Egypt. But at Passover, God acted to liberate His people from bondage. He instructed every Israelite household to slaughter a lamb without blemish on the evening of the Passover.
Your lamb shall be without blemish, a male a year old. You may take it from the sheep or from the goats, and you shall keep it until the fourteenth day of this month, when the whole assembly of the congregation of Israel shall kill their lambs at twilight. 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. They shall eat the flesh that night, roasted on the fire; with unleavened bread and bitter herbs they shall eat it ….
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. 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. 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.Exodus 12:5-8, 11-13
I guess you could call the Passover meal a “fast food” meal because the Israelites were to eat it in haste as they anticipated what God was about to do. This was going to be their last meal in Egypt. God promised to come that night to free His people from their bondage.
As you can see, there are two parts to this. The first was the shedding of the blood of the lamb. The lamb was to be consumed as part of this memorial feast, which required that this blood be shed. But there is also the second part: the application of the blood. If the Jewish people had merely shed the blood and done nothing more, they would not have been delivered from Egypt. The people had to apply the blood on the doorposts of their homes. And of course, this was an act of faith. This was how the Israelites showed that they put their trust in the promise of God to deliver them from slavery.
Jesus died a similar death — the death of the Lamb of God. The crucifixion began at 9am on the first day of Passover, the same time that the priests offered up the special Passover sacrifice inside the city. With the shedding of His blood, deliverance is now possible — deliverance from the Powers of Sin and Death. We no longer have to be slaves anymore — this is why Jesus chose to die at Passover.
But just like the death of the lamb in Egypt, the mere shedding of blood is only one part. There must be the application of the blood. Only those who personally apply the blood will receive the salvation it secures. The way the blood is applied is through a similar act of faith — through putting one’s trust in Jesus as the Messiah and the Savior. It comes through believing that He died for our sins, that He was buried, and that He rose again. This act of faith culminates in one’s baptism — where we bodily identify with the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus as we are immersed into His story.
When Paul and other biblical writers talk about people being set free from slavery, they are echoing this Passover story, the Exodus narrative.