As Easter week winds down I wanted to take a moment and reflect upon the importance Passover plays in the atonement message of all four Gospels. It is significant that each of the four Gospels places Jesus’ death at Passover, for Passover had specific implications for understanding what God was up to in the work and life of Jesus. When a detail is consistent across all four Gospels, we should sit up and pay attention.
Over the years there have been many different theories on how the atonement of Jesus works. Was it based on penal substitution, Christus Victor, or some other concept? Or was it a combination of them? My personal preference for understanding the nature of Jesus’ sacrifice is to view it through the lens of Passover, since that is a detail common to the four Gospels and consistent with the Exodus-like story of what transpired afterward in Acts. So, first I’ll step back into Exodus and review the importance of Passover to the Jews.
If we remember, Passover was a celebration of God’s aid and support in helping Israel overcome Pharaoh and escape captivity in Egypt. After performing many signs to impress Pharaoh, Moses promised that God would kill the first born sons in Egypt, and that this final sign would be the proof Pharaoh needed to let the Israelites leave. In order to protect the first born of Israel, God commanded that they sacrifice a male lamb, without blemish, and smear the blood on their door mantles, causing the angel of death to pass by their house. In the morning, the first born of all of Egypt, with the exception of the Israelites, were dead, and Pharaoh let Israel leave Egypt to their freedom.
Following this horrific event, Israel advanced into the desert and were chased by Pharaoh’s army. The Red Sea (or, according to manuscripts, the Reed Sea) was parted, Israel passed through on dry ground, and Pharaoh’s armies were destroyed in the sea, ensuring Israel’s freedom.
Israel then moves on to Sinai and obtains a covenant from God that they will be his chosen people and reflect his image into the world. He gives them a way of life which will prepare them for his presence, and a “garden” in the tabernacle/temple (you’ll notice that the instructions for the construction of the tabernacle are quite similar to the description of the creation of the cosmos in Genesis) where God’s presence could be among the people, symbolized by the pillar of fire. God sought to be among his creation.
Now, I don’t really want to dive into the historical accuracy of the Exodus account. There are some great scholarly works on the topic; however, the historicity of the story is not important for my purposes here. Instead, I’d like to focus on the symbols of the myth.
- Israel was enslaved to a great earthly power
- Israel suffered at the hands of this great power
- Someone was called to free Israel from that power (“moses” is Egyptian for “son of”, and he was a covenant member of God living as an alien in the house of that power)
- The power of God cut off the future of that power (first born sons were heirs to the estates and power of their fathers – their death meant that line was disrupted and removed)
- A symbol of unblemished innocence purchased the continuation of Israel’s covenant relationship through the preservation of their first born
- That symbol of unblemished innocence thus purchased Israel’s freedom from slavery (redeemed Israel) to the power
- Israel went to freedom and was ultimately saved by the destruction of that power in the sea, the symbol of chaos, as God displayed his triumph over chaos and the powers of this world
- Israel was baptized into a new life through the Red Sea experience
- A new garden was placed among the new creation, a place where God could walk among his people
This is the symbolism of Passover, so it seems quite important that Jesus would die at Passover and be referred to as the Lamb of God. This gives us a clue as to the nature of Jesus’ atoning sacrifice, pointing us to the important detail that it was a redemptive sacrifice – substitutionary in the way that a redeemer would purchase the freedom of a slave. This isn’t referring to someone upon whom the sins would be placed, for there was a ritual for that called the Day of Atonement, where the scapegoat had Israel’s sins placed upon its head and it was sent into the desert. Perhaps there is symbolism related to Jesus in that ritual as well, but importantly that is not the symbolism of Passover, and the Gospels all place Jesus’ sacrifice at Passover, urging us to view Jesus’ work through a Passover lens.
We also see in Jesus’ resurrection story the new creation of God, bringing the Exodus/Passover story alongside the creation story of Genesis, with a few slight twists.
- There was a reconstitution of the Twelve Tribes of Israel (calling of the Twelve Apostles to head the new family of God)
- There was a rebirth of creation through the waters of baptism
- The powers of this world – the powerful empire, death, religious authority – were brought to one place and concentrated upon one person
- That person was without blemish and innocent (God himself)
- The blood of Jesus was spilled due to the obstinacy of the powers of this world, which were willing to ignore God’s miracles and do anything to hold onto power – including kill
- Through the death of Jesus (again, God himself – see Philippians 2:1-11), the powers are defeated and cut off from the new creation, for they judge themselves and show themselves without love
- Jesus’ resurrection vindicates the Son of God (Adam was a son and Moses meant “son of”) and he becomes the first fruits of the new creation, heir to God’s covenant, and continuation of the line of God (we join Jesus as heirs through him, expanding and continuing that line of God and fulfilling the promise to Abraham)
- God comes again to be among his people within a garden (Jesus’ tomb was in a garden)
- God again walks among his people in a garden, though in the light of day rather than at night, as it was in the Garden of Eden
- Instead of the woman being the first to “fall”, a woman is the first to behold God in the garden and becomes the first witness (i.e., apostle) of the new creation, including becoming the first to embrace it/him
- The new temple is built in the body of the church of God (see many references to the church as the body of Christ, Jesus referencing his body as the temple that will be raised, etc.)
- God fills his temple with his presence, the fire of the Holy Spirit
I could go on. There are many correlations between the creation story, Exodus, the atonement/resurrection of Jesus, and the establishment of his church. The point of it all is for us to be part of that new creation – the one that is now, and still not yet. We’ve all been invited to become people of the new creation – Easter people – through baptism, unity in community, partaking of the body and blood of Christ (he becomes one with us, and we do this as a body of disciples), and then taking the story and God’s presence (Holy Spirit, us as image bearers) to the rest of creation. This is all a new creation, right under our noses.
For the love of Christ urges us on, because we are convinced that one has died for all; therefore all have died. And he died for all, so that those who live might live no longer for themselves, but for him who died and was raised for them.
From now on, therefore, we regard no one from a human point of view; even though we once knew Christ from a human point of view, we know him no longer in that way. So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new! All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us.2 Corinthians 5:14-19, NRSV