So often we hear this phrase said about Jesus, that he was “the lamb of God” and that he “takes away the sins of the world” — but what do those things mean and how did he take away sin?
The next day [John] saw Jesus coming toward him and declared, “Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world! (cf. Jn 1:36)
The New Testament writers repeatedly refer to Jesus as a lamb; but not only that — as a ransom too. Jesus even introduces himself that way at one point:
For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many. (cf. Matthew 20:28)
To better understand the terminology and analogy we need to go back to the Torah, the Old Testament, and look at this from a Jewish perspective and what the sacrificial lamb initially meant.
The main comparison that is drawn between Jesus and the old sacrifices, is that of the Passover lamb. The link between the two is really quite amazing and to be honest, I didn't realise just how much of this Jesus fulfilled in himself until I was writing this. First we need to go back to the very first Passover to see what it meant for Israel.
The whole story can be found in Exodus 12, but the relevant parts to the lamb are about how it should look and be prepared, and the reason for the blood covering:
Exodus 12:5-7, 13
Your lamb shall be without blemish, a year-old male; you may take it from the sheep or from the goats. You shall keep it until the fourteenth day of this month; then the whole assembled congregation of Israel shall slaughter it at twilight. 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. […] The blood shall be a sign for you on the houses where you live: when I see the blood, I will pass over you, and no plague shall destroy you when I strike the land of Egypt.
The instructions about the Passover meal also go on to say that no bones of the lamb may be broken (v. 46) and that nothing must be left overnight (v. 10). Already I’m sure you can see some of the parallels with Jesus and other prophecies and Scripture concerning him in these ways, primarily in the Psalms, and specifically John 19:33; Numbers 9:12 and Psalm 34:20 concerning his bones not being broken. But it doesn’t end there — even the day that Jesus was crucified aligned with the Passover sacrifice of the 14th of Nisan (by our calendar, April), and later died that evening. The Jews asked Pilate to let them take the bodies down that same day (which was unusual, but done because of the Sabbath), so that meant that Jesus wasn’t left overnight, thus fulfilling the obligations of the Passover ritual!
The apostles obviously recognised these parallels, as they refer to them in their epistles — see 1 Peter 1:18-20, 1 Corinthians 5:7 and basically all of Revelation. But how does this help us in our sins? The Passover wasn’t a sin offering, yet somehow the death of Jesus in this way saves us from our sins. To better understand this, and to grasp why in various places Jesus is called our “ransom”, we need to go back to the reason for the original Passover, not the ritual.
Passover was what God did when he delivered his people from the slavery of the Egyptians.
The blood of the lamb was the symbol that they belonged to God, and so escaped death.
Originally the paschal lamb was about Israel’s deliverance from Egypt and slavery, now Jesus is the greater lamb who rescues us from slavery and bondage to sin by his blood. The blood on the doorposts covered the Israelites from the angel of death, and now by Christ's blood that covers us, we are saved from eternal death (Hebrews 9:11- 14)!
Paul covers this topic of sin as our master which we are slaves to quite often (Romans 6:16-18), and how through Jesus we have been set free by being baptised into his death, so that we are dead to sin and alive in Christ (Romans 6:4-6).
So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus.
Sin was what led us to death, and the whole of the Law of God pointed this out: sin equals death (Romans 6:20-23). But now as Peter wrote, we “were ransomed from the futile ways inherited from your ancestors”, though not with money or earthly things, “but with the precious blood of Christ” (1 Peter 1:18-19). Christ’s life and death satisfied the requirements of the Law and with his blood we were ransomed for God from our slave-master, sin (Romans 8:2; 7:4).
There’s many theories about what exactly the apostles meant by the word “ransom”, and the most prominent theory of the atonement for the first one thousand years of Christianity is what is known simply as the “Ransom Theory”, followed by the later, related theory “Christus Victor”. Both attest to Jesus’ victory over sin, death and the devil/powers of evil, though the former has varying ideas about who the ransom was paid to. One of the popular theories was that the payment was to the devil, tricking him into freeing people from his power in exchange for Jesus – but death couldn’t hold him and so God wins, and the devil loses. Others say the debt was paid to God himself to free us from his wrath.
Personally, I think Revelation 5:9 gives us a hint because it says that the “four living creatures and the twenty-four elders” who are around the throne of God sing a new song in which they say: “by your blood you ransomed for God saints from every tribe”.
In a ransom situation, it is the bad guys, the kidnappers, who demand a ransom in exchange for freedom. If the ransom was paid to God, then that would make him the kidnapper and us his victims. But the song in heaven is about how Jesus was the ransom payment in order to get us saints back to him! God is the victim here, with his loved ones being held hostage; and what is the captor? Sin and death.
Jesus sacrificed himself and allowed himself to be the embodiment of the Passover lamb so that by his blood he could seal people and save them from death forever. He wasn’t a human sacrifice to God, but by God so that we can be set free from the slavery of sin and be raised to new life where “death will be no more” (Revelation 21:4)!
So if the Son makes you free, you will be free indeed.
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