This weekend we introduced a new song to Sun Valley Community Church, “Lion and the Lamb” that included these powerful lines:
Our God is a Lamb,
the Lamb that was slain,
For the sins of the world
You can watch the version from Leeland and Bethel Music, here:
In continuing last week’s post on the scandalous concept of atonement I want to look at the biblical foundation for these lines. Join me in this second part of a series on atonement leading toward our celebration of Easter.
At the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry he traveled to the wilderness of Judea where his famous cousin John was baptizing people (which is why he was called John the Baptist. Sorry to disappoint any Baptist friends who might have thought he was the founder of their denomination). Seeing Jesus, John shouted out, “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1:29 ESV). What is John talking about? To answer this let’s look at one key celebration described for us in the Old Testament, the Day of Atonement, or Yom Kippur.
First, a little historical context. Remember from last week that God had graciously chosen to reveal himself to one particular nation and make them a light to all the nations. This promise goes all the way back to Abraham and Genesis 12. Centuries later God renewed his promise to Abraham with Jacob, who God renamed Israel (see Genesis 35). It is Jacob’s twelve sons that become the nation of Israel. Jacob’s sons and their families move to Egypt where their descendants multiply and are eventually enslaved by Pharaoh. All of this leads to God working mightily through Moses, miraculously leading the nation of Israel out of Egypt. By God’s grace they escape enslavement.
God then forms a covenantal relationship with them and provides laws as a charter which outlines how their relationship should function and be maintained. The Law, then, was not a rulebook to follow so that Israel could have a relationship with God. Rather, it was a guidebook to define the relationship already established. Make sense so far?
Now, part of that law included a sacrificial system that God prescribed to compensate for the inevitable failures of his people. People sin. Period. God, graciously provided instructions for the people to follow through which he would atone for or cleanse them of their sins. This idea is summarized by Leviticus 17:11.
“For the life of the flesh is in the blood, and I have given it for you on the altar to make atonement for your souls, for it is the blood that makes atonement by the life.”
(Leviticus 17:11, ESV)
So, the offerings and sacrifices outlined in the Old Testament were not the people’s idea of bringing something to God that he needed. Rather, they were God’s gracious gift, providing for the need of his people to atone for sin.
As part of these instructions, God set aside one particular day out of the year to make atonement for the sins of his people collectively, Yom Kippur. This “Day of Atonement” was likely the most important day of the sacrificial calendar for ancient Israel for on this day all of the sins not otherwise atoned for throughout the year would be covered. You can read through Leviticus 16:1-34 to find the full outline of this day’s sacrifices. Here’s a quick highlight:
- The High Priest was the main actor in this day’s activities. The first emphasis is on the sacrifices necessary for the High Priest to allow atonement for his own sins and to cleanse all of the instruments used in the day’s activities.
- Also, on this day, two goats were selected. One goat was sacrificed as a purification offering. It is significant that alone on this day of the year the High Priest would enter the innermost part of the Tabernacle (or future Temple), to place blood from the sacrifices on the mercy seat (the lid of the ark of the covenant).
- The second goat, referred to as the “scapegoat,” has a different fate. The High Priest would confess over the scapegoat, “all the iniquities of the people of Israel, and all their transgressions, all their sins,” (Leviticus 16:21). This goat was sent away into the uninhabited wilderness, and released.
Think about the picture. The High Priest sacrificed one animal and offered its blood as a sacrifice. Over another the High Priest confessed the nation’s sins over it and it was sent away. The day’s activities modeled God’s grace as he provided a way to escape sin.
When you read of the multitude of sacrifices outlined in the book of Leviticus, here’s what you need to realize: the LORD provided Israel with a way to restore and maintain a harmonious relationship. The law was a great gift! He provided a clear pathway to forgiveness. Here’s the other thing you need to realize: the sacrificial system never the end-game, but was a sign pointing to Jesus.
The sacrificial system never the end-game, but was a sign pointing to Jesus.
In light of their understanding of the death and resurrection of Jesus, the New Testament celebrates a New Covenant. As the fulfillment of the entirety of the Old Testament sacrificial system, Jesus changes everything. In Hebrews 8-10 we learn that Jesus is the ultimate High Priest who ministers within the innermost holy place. He entered not by the means of the blood of goats and bulls, but by his own blood. In his sacrifice Jesus atones once and for all, for all sin, sanctifying for all time those who are his by faith.
In his sacrifice Jesus atones once and for all, for all sin, sanctifying for all time those who are his by faith.
You see, it is on the cross that the justice and love of God are fulfilled. Motivated by love, God provided the means to fulfill his justice. It is God himself, in the person of Jesus, who atones for our sins. In Jesus’ death he became the Lamb of God who took away the sins of the world.