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THE PASSOVER LAMB
Exodus 12:1-13

23rd March 2003

The new Anglican Dean of Sydney, the Very Reverend Phillip Jensen, has been criticised in the secular media for asserting of the unique truth of Christianity. He said "We must stop the stupidity of stretching social tolerance into religious and philosophical relativism." In other words, if you believe you have the truth, proclaim it! Jesus Christ is the Saviour whose demands are absolute and final. "The Australian" newspaper warned, "The Dean needs to be careful that in his enthusiasm for his own cause, he does not give offence to believers as genuine about their different faith." Christians can never encourage antagonism towards Muslims or Jews but must always "speak the truth in love." Ephesians 4:15

What really upset the various editorial writers was the Dean saying there is only one way to God and quoting Christ: "I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father but by me." The newspapers reflect the modern attitude where all faiths are equal, all beliefs are acceptable, and the most important attitudes are those that affirm everyone one else. Strangely, the editorial writers do not apply this to Rugby League where enthusiasm and commitment to one team to exclusion of every other team is commended: "That's my team." In the same way, if you have a religious tradition that makes absolute and exclusive truth claims, one cannot passionately proclaim such claims without simultaneously offending those with opposing claims. Relativism no more works on the footy field than it does in the world's great belief systems. If you understand anything about Jesus, you become passionate and committed, and to call Jesus "the Lamb of God" is to understand why. This is the first of five sermons to help us understand His uniqueness.

1. JOHN'S INSIGHT.

The theme comes from John the Baptist's prophetic insight when Jesus of Nazareth came to him to be baptised: "The next day John the Baptist saw Jesus coming toward him and said, 'Look, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!'" John 1:29

Let's examine the words themselves. "Behold" means "Here is the Lamb of God..." John draws attention to Jesus and indicates that Jesus is the focus of his words which follow. Let's look at these words one by one. "Lamb" means a young sheep up to one year old. "of God" can mean either "sent from God" or perhaps "owned by God." John says that Jesus is in some way like a lamb sent by God himself. "Sin" means "to miss the mark, be mistaken." In the New Testament it occurs 173 times as a comprehensive expression of everything opposed to God. Sin and forgiveness of sin are major themes of the Bible, both Old and New Testaments. Our modern society really doesn't like the concept of sin at all -- though dealing with guilt is a major psychological problem that plagues people of all or no religions. If we are intent to understand what "Lamb of God" really means, we must be willing to discuss the forbidden "S" word.

"Of the world" refers here to "humanity in general." Jesus doesn't come to deal with just a single person, or the sin of just the Jewish people for that year, but for the sins of everyone in the whole world. "Take away" describes what the Lamb will do with sin: He will "take away, remove, blot out' your sin.

2. THE PASSOVER LAMB

What specific lamb is John the Baptist referring to? It was the Passover Lamb that Jews remember to this day, and which will be an event in every Jewish home in a few weeks. John indicates that Jesus is the Lamb of God in some sacrificial sense, since lambs were commonly used by the Jews for sacrifices to obtain forgiveness for sin.

Nearly every culture throughout the world has employed sacrifice, usually animal sacrifice, to somehow appease the anger of the gods. Many moderns have dismissed this sort of appeasement as a primitive and ignorant gesture. They are offended by the idea that blood must be shed to make atonement. To be faithful to Scripture, we cannot disregard sacrifice so cavalierly. Abraham, Isaac and Jacob sacrificed to God as part of their worship. We don't have any indication that they were trying to "appease an angry God." That applies to a pagan sacrifice rather than a Jewish sacrifice.

Yet anger must be part of our understanding. We live in a society that seeks to pull God down to its own level. But a careful reading of Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy make it quite clear that God is to be considered holy and righteous, separate from humans and human sinfulness. Human sin, breaking of God's laws, is deeply offensive to God. Unless their sins are cleansed, humans may not even approach His holy presence. God is angry -- not at humans for their own sake -- but at their sin. Such anger at sin shouldn't surprise us when you realise it's consequences.

Moral people are outraged at sin; immoral people are calloused with regard to sin. It's one thing to be angry, but anger must not lead to injustice. The God of the Old Testament cannot be accurately described as capricious, acting merely out of anger. Nor, for that matter, is He perpetually angry. He is described as: "The Lord, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness, maintaining love to thousands, and forgiving wickedness, rebellion and sin. Yet He does not leave the guilty unpunished." Exodus 34:6-7

God gives animal sacrifice as a way that justice can be done, that men and women's sins can be atoned for, and that they can approach God once more. We moderns are often repulsed by the very idea of killing an animal. The Israelites were herdsmen. Our forebears were farmers. But we city folk don't routinely butcher animals, drain out their blood, and cut them up. The closest we come is cold meat in a Styrofoam tray in butcher's wrap from the supermarket. We eat meat, but we are insulated from the killing that is required. Nevertheless, taking of any life should affect us as it affected the Israelites. The Israelites were very well aware that blood required taking of life. We do not need such an illustration these days to remind us of our sin and the cost of our forgiveness. What we need is to make sure we do remember.

3. THE PASSOVER

Exodus 12:1-28 The instructions for the Passover and the Unleavened Bread feasts were the only regulations given while Israel was still in Egypt. These included the following that Jews observe every year: -

  1. Preparations were to begin on the tenth day of the month. v3 
  2. The head of each household was to select a "lamb".v5 It would have to be big enough for the number of people who would be present. v4 
  3. The animal was to be a year old, without any defects v5 
  4. Each animal was to be slaughtered at twilight on the fourteenth day. v6 
  5. The blood from the animals was to be applied to the doorframe of each house. v7 
  6. That night each family was to eat roast lamb along with bitter herbs and unleavened bread. v8 
  7. The meat was to be roasted whole. 
  8. All leftovers were to be burnt. 
  9. The meal was to be eaten with an air of haste and expectancy.

Thus the whole nation would meet as a family, with the head of the family acting as a priest. There was to be no other priests, no altar, no tabernacle; families were communing in the presence of God and around the sacrificial lamb that was the substitute for each member of that family. The lamb was to be a year-old because it was taking the place of Israel's firstborn males who were young and fresh with the vigor of life. The bitter herbs, lettuce, egg and horseradish were to recall the bitter years of servitude, and the unleavened bread was to reflect this event's haste on that first night. No yeast was to be used, so the bread could cook quickly.

4. THE ATONEMENT.

Taking life, even to eat, is never a trivial thing. God tells Moses: "For the life of a creature is in the blood, and I have given it to you to make atonement for yourselves on the altar; it is the blood that makes atonement for one's life." Leviticus 17:11

The word translated "atonement" means to "make an atonement to make reconciliation." "Reconciliation" expresses the result of an atoning sacrifice. To comprehend the basics of sacrifice, let's look carefully at a sacrifice for purification from sin by a common person. When anyone is guilty in any way, he must confess in what way he has sinned and, as a penalty for the sin he has committed, he must bring to the Lord a lamb or goat from the flock as a sin offering; and the priest shall make atonement for him for his sin. Leviticus 5:5-6 "If he brings a lamb as his sin offering, he is to bring a female without defect. He is to lay his hand on its head and slaughter it for a sin offering at the place where the burnt offering is slaughtered. Then the priest shall take some of the blood of the sin offering with his finger and put it on the horns of the altar of burnt offering and pour out the rest of the blood at the base of the altar. He shall remove all the fat, and the priest shall burn it on the altar on top of the offerings made to the Lord by fire. In this way the priest will make atonement for him for the sin he has committed, and he will be forgiven." Leviticus 4:32-35

From this analysis of a sacrifice for sin I see several principles: confession or acknowledgement of sin is a necessary part of the sacrifice. A sacrificial animal is costly to the sinner. Forgiveness is not free. There is a close identification between the sinner and the sacrifice. The imparting of sin by the laying on of hands suggests that the animal becomes a substitute for the sinner. Killing the animal is very personal. It is not done for the sinner but by the sinner himself. So our sins can be forgiven, but only at a cost that is borne by another.

5. THE GRACE OF GOD.

This atonement is only possible for the great love and grace of God. In spite of this elaborate sacrificial system, the Hebrews became aware that all these sacrifices alone were inadequate to really cleanse their sins. God did not "owe" them forgiveness because they went through some ritual. Nor was God impressed or gratified by all this killing of animals. In fact, the author of Hebrews rightly declares, "it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins" Hebrews 10:4 for the "lesser" animal cannot really substitute for the "greater" human being. Man needs someone greater than himself to actually atone for and do away with sin. "There was no other good enough to pay the price of Sin, He (Jesus) only, could unlock the gate of heaven and let us in."

God used the sacrificial system to teach Jews lessons of sin, holiness, confession, forgiveness, sin's costliness, and sin's horror. God, in his mercy, allows these sacrifices to purge their sins, but the only fully adequate sacrifice for sin is still to come. That is the context from which John the Baptist speaks when he says, "Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world" John 1:29 Jesus is greater than our analogies. But there is a sense in which the analogy of the sacrificial Lamb fits Jesus accurately, since he, as Son of God and Son of Man is the only being perfect and great enough to actually atone for sin and, at the same time, represent and substitute for all men in this atonement -- once and for all. "Look! This is the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!" To all who look to Jesus, there is the offer of salvation, forgiveness and reconciliation!

REFERENCES.

  • George R. Beasley-Murray, John: Word Biblical Commentary 36 (Word, 1987), pp. 24-25;
  • Raymond E. Brown, The Gospel According to John (Anchor Bible vol. 29; Doubleday, 1966), 1:58-63;
  • C.K. Barrett, The Gospel According to St. John Westminster Press, 1978), 175-177.
  • Jesus' Atonement for our Sins by Dr. Ralph F. Wilson
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