Thursday, February 2, 2017

The First Passover, Christ the Passover Lamb, and Us

The TEN plagues. Do you remember them from the book of Exodus? Of course you do. Do you remember why they were brought upon the Egyptians? Likely you do.

It is not hard to understand why God plagued the Egyptians. Their king was a cruel tyrant who tried to destroy the people of God. Pharaoh would not let them go, choosing instead to keep them enslaved in Egypt. And by refusing to let them depart, he was preventing them from giving glory to God the way that God intended. So God was justified in punishing the Egyptians with insects and amphibians, with disease and darkness.

By sending plague after plague—nine in all—God was showing his power over creation. What the Egyptians should have done in response was repent of their sins and join Moses in giving praise to the one true God. Yet the more Pharaoh suffered, the harder his heart became. This was because his heart was committed to serving other gods. So one by one God defeated the gods and goddesses of Egypt. The plague of blood defeated the river gods of the Nile, the locusts defeated the field gods of the harvest, the darkness defeated the gods of the sun and sky, and so forth.

Still Pharaoh refused to let God’s people go. So finally God sent the tenth and deadliest plague of all: the death of the firstborn. God told Moses, 
“On that same night I will pass through Egypt and strike down every firstborn—both men and animals—and I will bring judgment on all the gods of Egypt. I am the Lord” (Exod. 12:12). 
With this final plague God accomplished his objective—namely, to demonstrate his lordship over the Egyptians by defeating all their gods, together with the demonic powers they represented. With one deadly blow God achieved his conquest over Egypt’s gods, and in doing so, he gave the Egyptians what they deserved. The last plague was a glorious act of his sovereign justice.

The Wages of Sin is Death

What God did to the Egyptians was no surprise, but what may seem surprising is the way he treated his people Israel. Like the Egyptians, the Israelites were under a sentence of death. The same night that God brought death to every house in Egypt, he also visited the home of every Israelite (Exod. 12:13, 23), with the purpose of killing their firstborn sons. In his mercy, of course, God provided his people with a way to escape his wrath. But first we must reckon with the fact that “the destroyer,” as God calls him (Exod. 12:23), claimed the right to slay the children of Israel.

The Israelites must have been shocked to discover that their lives were in danger. All the previous plagues had left them unscathed because God had made a distinction between his people and Pharaoh’s people. While chaos engulfed their oppressors, the Israelites had watched from the safety of Goshen. From this they learned that they were God’s special people. This may have tempted them to believe that they were more righteous than the Egyptians, indeed, that they could do no wrong. But the truth was that they deserved to die every bit as much as their enemies. Indeed, if God had not provided a means for their salvation, they would have suffered the loss of every last one of their firstborn sons. The Israelites were as guilty as the Egyptians, and in the final plague God taught them about their sin and his salvation.

God’s people had sinned in several ways. One was to reject the word of God’s prophet. When Moses returned from his first audience with Pharaoh, the Israelites greeted him by saying, “May the Lord look upon you and judge you! You have made us a stench to Pharaoh and his officials and have put a sword in their hand to kill us” (Exod. 5:21). Neither the Egyptians nor the Israelites would listen to God’s word.

The Israelites were also guilty of idolatry. That sin is not specifically mentioned here in Exodus, but it was remembered for years to come. When the Israelites renewed the covenant at Shechem, Joshua said, “Throw away the gods your forefathers worshiped beyond the River and in Egypt, and serve the Lord” (Josh. 24:14). Not surprisingly, during their long centuries of captivity, the Israelites grew to love the gods of Egypt. And for this sin God would have been justified in plaguing them, even to the death of their firstborn sons.

However, apart from any particular sin they may have committed, God’s people were sinners by nature. The mere fact of their humanity meant that they participated in the guilt of Adam’s race. The Bible teaches that “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Rom. 3:23). The first Passover proved that fact by implicating Israel in Egypt’s sin, thereby showing that “Jews and Gentiles alike are all under sin” (Rom. 3:9).

The reason the avenging angel visited the Israelites was because, like the Egyptians, they were sinners, and sin is a capital offense. The proper penalty for it is death, which has always been “the wages of sin” (Rom. 6:23). When God planted Adam in the Garden of Eden, he said, “You must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat of it you will surely die” (Gen. 2:17). Sadly, this is exactly what happened. As soon as our first parents ate the forbidden fruit, they became mortal, and so did all their children, down to the present generation. This fact would seem to demand some sort of explanation. In the entire history of our race, no generation has ever avoided going down to the grave. Why not? The Bible explains it like this: “death came to all men, because all sinned” (Rom. 5:12). The tenth plague was a sign of God’s judgment against all humanity.

This is a reality that every individual must face. If all have sinned, that obviously includes us. And if death has come to all people, then we too can expect to die. It is as simple as that. We will never see our need of salvation until we accept that we are as guilty as everyone else, and that therefore our lives are forfeit to God.

The Lamb of God: God’s Gracious Provision

So, what’s the big deal about the lamb in Passover? Well, in his great mercy, God provided his people with a way to be safe. The reason he visited their homes was not to destroy them but to teach them about salvation. Like the Egyptians, the Israelites deserved divine judgment; but unlike the Egyptians, they would be saved by grace through faith.

What God’s people needed was atonement, which God provided in the form of a lamb—a lamb offered as a sacrifice for sin. First he gave them careful instructions about how to choose, care for, and finally kill the lamb:
The Lord said to Moses and Aaron in Egypt, “This month is to be for you the first month, the first month of your year. Tell the whole community of Israel that on the tenth day of this month each man is to take a lamb for his family, one for each household. If any household is too small for a whole lamb, they must share one with their nearest neighbor, having taken into account the number of people there are. You are to determine the amount of lamb needed in accordance with what each person will eat. The animals you choose must be year-old males without defect, and you may take them from the sheep or the goats. Take care of them until the fourteenth day of the month, when all the people of the community of Israel must slaughter them at twilight.” (Exod. 12:1–6)
Each household was to choose its own lamb, specifically a yearling. It had to be perfect. The lamb was destined to serve as a sacrifice for sin, and the only sacrifice acceptable to God is a perfect sacrifice; so the lamb had to be pure and spotless, whole and sound. Because God is holy, the only sacrifice that pleases him is the very best we have to offer. God then proceeded to explain what to do with the lamb once it was slain:
Then they are to take some of the blood and put it on the sides and tops of the doorframes of the houses where they eat the lambs. That same night they are to eat the meat roasted over the fire, along with bitter herbs, and bread made without yeast. Do not eat the meat raw or cooked in water, but roast it over the fire—head, legs and inner parts. Do not leave any of it till morning; if some is left till morning, you must burn it. This is how you are to eat it: with your cloak tucked into your belt, your sandals on your feet and your staff in your hand. Eat it in haste; it is the Lord’s Passover. (Exod. 12:7–11)
This meal was intended to serve as an annual reminder of what the Israelites suffered in Egypt. The bitter herbs would remind them how the Egyptians “made their lives bitter with hard labor in brick and mortar and with all kinds of work in the fields” (Exod. 1:14). The unleavened bread would remind them how they had to flee in haste. They ate the first Passover standing up, ready to leave Egypt at a moment’s notice. And there were no leftovers. Once it was roasted, the entire lamb had to be consumed. The Bible does not explain why, but presumably it was too sacred to be used for any other purpose. Perhaps eating the lamb also pointed forward to the coming of Christ, for as Jesus said, “unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you” (John 6:53).

All these details are important, but the most important thing was killing the lamb. When God saw its blood on the doorpost, death would pass over, and the firstborn would be saved. What God required for salvation was the offering of a lamb. This is what he has always required. God required a lamb in the days of Adam and Eve. The Scripture says, “In the course of time Cain brought some of the fruits of the soil as an offering to the Lord. But Abel brought fat portions from some of the firstborn of his flock. The Lord looked with favor on Abel and his offering, but on Cain and his offering he did not look with favor” (Gen. 4:3–5). Abel was the one who brought the lamb, and only his offering was accepted: God required a lamb.

In salvation God gives what God demands. So again and again through the history of redemption, God has always provided a lamb or other sacrificial animal to save his people. He provided a lamb in the days of Abraham. God told Abraham to go up and sacrifice his only son Isaac as a burnt offering. As the two of them went up the mountain, Isaac—who obviously was no dummy—realized that something was missing. “Father,” he said, “the fire and the wood are here, but where is the lamb for the burnt offering?” (Gen. 22:7). Isaac knew what God required. Abraham knew it too, and his faithful answer explained the plan of salvation. Abraham said, “God himself will provide the lamb for the burnt offering” (v. 8). That is precisely what happened. As Abraham took the knife to slay his son, he was interrupted by an angel, who said, “Do not lay a hand on the boy. Do not do anything to him. Now I know that you fear God, because you have not withheld from me your son, your only son” (v. 12). Then God provided a lamb for him to sacrifice instead: “Abraham looked up and there in a thicket he saw a ram caught by its horns. He went over and took the ram and sacrificed it as a burnt offering instead of his son” (v. 13). In other words, God provided what God required: a lamb to die in the place of Abraham’s firstborn son.

Every year God provided a lamb or similar sacrifice for Israel. On the Day of Atonement, the high priest would bring an animal into God’s presence and sacrifice it as a sin offering. These were his instructions: “He shall then slaughter the goat for the sin offering for the people and take its blood behind the curtain.… He shall sprinkle it on the atonement cover and in front of it. In this way he will make atonement … because of the uncleanness and rebellion of the Israelites, whatever their sins have been” (Lev. 16:15, 16a). In other words, God provided what God required: a substitute sacrifice to die for his people.

There is an obvious progression here, with the lamb serving as a representative for larger and larger groups of people. At first God provided one lamb for one person. Thus Abraham offered a ram in place of his son Isaac. Next God provided one lamb for one household. This happened at the first Passover, when every family in the covenant community offered its own lamb to God. Then God provided one sacrifice for the whole nation. On the Day of Atonement, a single animal atoned for the sins of all Israel. Finally the day came when 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). God was planning this all along: one Lamb to die for one world. By his grace he has provided a lamb—“the Lamb that was slain from the creation of the world” (Rev. 13:8).

The consistent message of the Bible is that anyone who wants to meet God must come on the basis of the lamb that he has provided. All the other lambs prepared for the coming of Christ. A theologian would call them types. In other words, the lambs were signs pointing to salvation in Christ. 

As the famous Jonathan Edwards wrote in his A History of the Work of Redemption, “Christ and his redemption are the subject of the whole Word of God.” 

Clearly this was true of the first Passover, which, like everything else in Exodus, was about Christ and his redemption. To be sure we don’t miss the connection, the New Testament says that “Christ, our Passover lamb, has been sacrificed” (1 Cor. 5:7b).

For Jesus to be our Passover lamb, he had to meet God’s standard of perfection. Back during the exodus, the Passover lamb had to be physically flawless. In the case of Jesus, the perfection God required was moral: Jesus had to be utterly sinless. The Bible is careful to show that this was indeed the case. By virtue of his virgin birth, his nature was free from the corruption of original sin. Nor did Jesus commit any actual transgressions. Peter said, “He committed no sin, and no deceit was found in his mouth” (1 Pet. 2:22). The book of Hebrews says that he was “tempted in every way, just as we are—yet was without sin” (Hebrews 4:15). Even Pontius Pilate said, “I find no basis for a charge against him” (John 19:6b). Jesus was morally perfect. Therefore, when it came time for him to die, it was as an innocent victim—he “offered himself unblemished to God” (Heb. 9:14). Hebrews uses the word “unblemished” because the writer was thinking of the kind of sacrifice that God required in the Old Testament: a perfect lamb, without spot or blemish.

It is theologically significant that Jesus was crucified right at the time of the Passover feast (see John 13:1; 18:28). This helps us see the connection between the first Passover and the final Passover—the Passion of Christ. The day that Jesus made his triumphal entry into Jerusalem was the very day that the Passover lambs were driven into the city, and when Jesus celebrated the Last Supper with his disciples, he was celebrating the Passover (Matt. 26:17). He said, “This is my body.… This is my blood” (vv. 26–28). His disciples didn’t understand it at the time, but Jesus was really saying, “The Passover is all about me. I am the sacrificial lamb.”

Then Christ was crucified. It was late in the afternoon on the eve of Passover. At twilight, lambs would be sacrificed by every household, according to the Law of Moses. All over the city fathers were getting ready to make the offering, gathering their families together and saying, “God has provided a lamb for us.” Over at the temple the high priest was also preparing a lamb to present as an atonement for Israel’s sin. Then there was Jesus, hanging on the cross, with the sacrificial blood flowing from his hands and side. He was the Lamb of God taking away the sins of the world.

It is necessary to mention the blood of Jesus because the Passover regulations explicitly required a blood sacrifice. This is something that Steven Spielberg learned when he produced The Prince of Egypt, a film based on the life of Moses. The original script had God saying, “When I see the mark upon the doorframe.” However, the religious leaders hired to consult with the film studio objected that this was not specific enough. They insisted that the mark had to be made of blood. So the line was changed to “When I see the blood.”

Nothing but the Blood Of Jesus Will Suffice

And if you read it, there is blood spilling all over Exodus 12. The Israelites were commanded to slaughter their lambs (v. 6), and of course there was no way to do this without shedding blood. Once the lamb was sacrificed, they were to take its blood and paint it on their doorframes. This too was absolutely essential, because God said, “The blood will be a sign for you on the houses where you are; and when I see the blood, I will pass over you” (v. 13).

What was so important about the blood? It represented the taking of a life. Notice that this was a sign both to the Israelites and to their God. God said, “The blood will be a sign for you … and when I see the blood” (v. 13). What the blood signified to the Israelites was that they had a substitute, that a lamb had died in their place. Their sin was a capital offense. God was coming in judgment, armed with a deadly plague. But when they looked up and saw the blood on the door, they knew they were covered. To use the technical term for it, the blood of the lamb was the expiation for their sins.
The importance of the lamb as a substitute would not have been lost on the firstborn son. Once the lamb was chosen, it was kept in the house for four days, during which time the family fed it, cared for it, and played with it. In that short time they would have identified with the lamb, so that it almost became part of the family. “This is our Passover lamb,” they would say. Then it was slaughtered, which was a messy, bloody business. The head of the household took the lamb in his arms, pulled back its head, and slit its throat. Red blood spurted all over the lamb’s pure white wool. “Why, Daddy?” the children would say. Their father would explain that the lamb was a substitute. The firstborn did not have to die because the lamb had died in his place.

On the first Passover the Israelites huddled in their homes, waiting for God to come in judgment. That night he would claim a life from every household in Egypt. All over the land they could hear the wailing of their enemies, who were mourning the death of their firstborn sons. But the children of God were saved by the blood of the lamb. Death passed over them. The reason death passed over them was because they were under the blood. When God came to the home of an Israelite, he could see the blood on the door. When he looked at it he said in effect, “Someone has died in this house. The penalty has been executed.” 

To use the technical term for it, the blood was a propitiation—it turned away the wrath of God. The doorpost put blood between God and the sinner. When the people looked up, they saw that they had an expiation—a covering for their sin. When God looked down, he saw that they had made propitiation, and thus his wrath was turned aside.

Over the centuries this sacrifice was repeated millions of times. To give just one example, when King Josiah celebrated the Passover, he slaughtered more than 37,000 sheep (2 Chron. 35). Imagine all those sheep and all that blood! According to Josephus, the ancient historian, several hundred thousand lambs were herded through the streets of Jerusalem every Passover. Yet not even the blood of all those animals could atone for sin. In Hebrews we read that “it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins” (Hebrews 10:4). What was needed was a more efficacious sacrifice, the offering of a more precious blood.

What was needed was the blood of Jesus, our Passover Lamb. In other words, as Christians, we believe in the doctrine of the substitutionary atonement: Jesus shed his own blood for our sins. The New Testament is very specific about this. When it explains the meaning of the crucifixion, it constantly draws attention to the blood of Jesus: “We have now been justified by his blood” (Rom. 5:9). “In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of sins” (Eph. 1:7). “Jesus also suffered … to make the people holy through his own blood” (Heb. 13:12). “You were redeemed … with the precious blood of Christ, a lamb without blemish or defect” (1 Pet. 1:18, 19). “The blood of Jesus … purifies us from all sin” (1 John 1:7).

The reason for all this talk about blood is very simple: “Without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins” (Heb. 9:22). Therefore, in order to be saved from death, we need the blood of a perfect substitute to interpose between our sin and God’s holiness. The sign that we have a substitute is the blood of Christ. When we look up to the cross, we see that payment has been made for our sin. And what does God see when he looks down at the cross? He sees that it is stained with the blood of his very own firstborn Son. God does not have a substitute to offer in place of his Son; his Son is the Substitute! And when God sees the blood of his Son, he says, “It is enough. My justice has been satisfied. The price for sin is fully paid. Death will pass over you, and you will be safe forever.”

The blood on the cross has the power to save because it is the blood of Jesus, who is the very Son of God. There is no more precious blood than this in all the universe. Unlike the blood of even the most perfect Passover lamb, it has infinite value. The only way to be saved from sin and delivered from death is by Jesus Christ, the Lamb of God. God calls everyone to trust in his blood. This is what the Israelites did at the first Passover: They trusted in the blood. Putting blood on the doorpost was an act of faith. In order to be delivered from death, they had to believe God’s word, and that meant doing what Moses said. It was by faith that each family chose a perfect lamb, by faith that they took its life and roasted it with bitter herbs, and by faith that they spread its blood on the door. The blood was a public confession of their faith, a sign that they trusted in the atoning efficacy of the sacrificial lamb. Thus they were saved by grace through faith. God provided the lamb—that’s grace—but the Israelites had to trust in the lamb, which is where faith comes in. “By faith,” the Scripture says, “he [Moses] kept the Passover and the sprinkling of blood, so that the destroyer of the firstborn would not touch the firstborn of Israel” (Heb. 11:28).

If you had been there for the first Passover, would you have sacrificed a lamb? Of course you would have! So, will you trust in the blood that Jesus shed on the cross? The Bible says that “God presented him [Jesus] as a sacrifice of atonement, through faith in his blood” (Rom. 3:25a). God has provided the Lamb who takes away the sins of the world, and everyone who trusts in his blood will be saved.