Christ, the Rock
In his book, Who is Jesus? Greg Gilbert opens the chapter, ‘Lamb of God, Sacrifice for Man,’ with the following words:
“John the Baptizer knew why Jesus had come, and he knew what Jesus would have to do in order to save his people.
“Seeing Jesus walk down toward the Jordan River to be baptized, John pointed at him and cried out something that would have thrilled and confused the crowd all at the same time: ‘Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!’ The idea of a lamb being given to God in order to take away sin was intimately familiar to the Jews. But then again, why was John using that term to refer to a person? That was ominous. After all, everyone knew what happened to a lamb once it was given over to God as a sacrifice for sin.
“Its throat was cut, and it bled to death.”
Someone had to die. The Jewish sacrificial system is sometimes said to have its origin in Israel’s escape from slavery in Egypt, but its deepest roots actually lie all the way back in the garden of Eden, in the sentence of death God pronounced over Adam and Eve when they chose to rebel against him. If you’re going to understand the Jewish sacrifices – and ultimately the meaning of Jesus himself – you have to understand that when God said Adam and Eve would die if they sinned, he wasn’t making an arbitrary decision.
The reason God declared death to be the consequence for sin is that it was perfectly fitting and right for him to do so. As Paul would put it later on in the New Testament, ‘The wages of sin is death.’ It’s not hard to see why. First of all, when Adam and Eve sinned, they weren’t breaking some unimportant rule that God had put in place. They were choosing to throw off his authority over them. Essentially, they were declaring their independence from their God. Of course, the trouble was that it was that very God – the One from whom they were declaring their independence – who was the Source and Sustainer of their lives. He’s the One who had breathed the breath of life into their lungs and who held them in existence, so when their relationship with him was broken – that is, when they were separated and cut off from him – their connection to the one and only Source of life was broken, too.
Not only that, but it is also right and good that God should be wrathful toward rebels. The Bible tells us that God is perfectly good and righteous and just in his very character. Given that, it shouldn’t be surprising that he reacts with hatred toward sin, which is by its very nature an embrace of evil and a rejection of what is good and right and just. God’s wrath is an intense, settled opposition to sin and a commitment to destroy it. That’s why God told Adam and Eve that they would die when they sinned, and it’s why every human being now lives under that sentence of death: by our sin – by our exchange of the goodness of God for selfish evil – we have earned God’s wrath and cut ourselves off from the Source of life.
That’s the deepest origin of Israel’s sacrificial system. God was teaching his people that sin, by its very nature, deserves and demands death as its payment. But there was another principle God was teaching his people through the sacrifices, too, one that gave hope in the midst of what looked like abject hopelessness: the penalty of death did not have to be paid by the sinner!
Oh, it had to be paid by someone – death was still demanded for sin – but God, in love and mercy, allowed for the sentence of death to be executed on a substitute who would stand in the place of the sinner. This arrangement beautifully expresses both God’s unbending justice and his mercy. The penalty demanded by sin would be paid, and justice would be satisfied, but the sinner himself would not necessarily die.
As time passed, God instituted a whole system of animal sacrifices whereby his people learned that their sin – real and evil as it was – could be borne and paid for by a substitute. But he also began to teach them that it would not always be animals who would bear the punishment for their sin.
One of the most remarkable examples of this is actually easy to miss, because it is so subtle. And yet it makes one of the most profound and important points in all the Old Testament. In Exodus 17:1-7, the Bible tells us of a time when God was about to teach his people something spectacular and wholly unexpected. The staff of judgment is about to fall. But against whom does it fall?
Will you join us this week as we consider the ‘Lamb of God, sacrifice for man’? We have looked at who Jesus is and are now exploring what Jesus came to do. Pray for our services. Invite others to come along with you? Has it been a while since you’ve invited someone to join you? Why not this Sunday?
In Christ’s love,