One of the most familiar stories in the Bible is the Passover narrative in Exodus 12:1-42. In God’s dramatic deliverance of Israel from Egyptian captivity and slavery, and his protection of them from the death plague about to fall on all the first born males in Egypt, he commanded them to sacrifice lambs as follows:
Ex. 12:5-13 The animals you choose must be year-old males without defect, and you may take them from the sheep or the goats. 6 Take care of them until the fourteenth day of the month, when all the members of the community of Israel must slaughter them at twilight. 7 Then they are to take some of the blood and put it on the sides and tops of the door frames of the houses where they eat the lambs. 8 That same night they are to eat the meat roasted over the fire, along with bitter herbs, and bread made without yeast. 9 Do not eat the meat raw or boiled in water, but roast it over a fire—with the head, legs and internal organs. 10 Do not leave any of it till morning; if some is left till morning, you must burn it. 11 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. 12 “On that same night I will pass through Egypt and strike down every firstborn of both people and animals, and I will bring judgment on all the gods of Egypt. I am the Lord. 13 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. No destructive plague will touch you when I strike Egypt.
Later, when other aspects of Israel’s sacrificial system were implemented, for instance in Exodus 29:1-46, and Leviticus 1:1-4:35 and 16:1-34 etc. there are even more instructions and occasions for the use of living animals to be killed and used in various aspects of consecration and worship in Israel.
Before all of this there are other noteworthy references to the use of living animals as sacrifices, offerings, symbols of covenant, etc. For instance, in God’s own intervention after the fall of Adam and Eve in the garden (Gen. 3:21), in the offerings of Cain and Abel (Gen. 4:1-6), in the sealing of God’s covenant promise to Abraham (Gen. 15), and Noah’s sacrifices after his exit from the ark (Gen. 8:20-22).
There’s no way around it. The use of living animals which are sacrificed in acts of consecration, covenant, and worship, are inseparably linked in Israel’s history to the ideas of sin, forgiveness, atonement (or propitiation), redemption, cleansing, and salvation. Why? Is it because dead animals, or better yet, the killing of the innocent, is what is needed to appease the angry God? The short answer is simple. No. But a longer answer is needed. What follows is a starting place for thinking about this more carefully.
To hear some of my fellow Christians tell it, the lambs are standing in for humans. God, they reason, is having the priests kill them so that He doesn’t kill the people instead.
They are not symbols of sinful people and what ought to be done to them by an angry and blood-thirsty God.
That’s paganism. God is not like that.
Jesus is what God is like… so…
Bloody, dying, and dead lambs do not point to us (symbolic victims of the anger of a blood-thirsty God). As it turns out, they point forward to Jesus, the incarnation of God himself, giving his whole life (every drop of it until there was nothing left to give!) to restore relationship with his people, not counting their sins against them, but rather taking the whole burden of removing sin from humanity upon himself — AS humanity.
They were, in the worship of Israel, symbols of a saving God who would come to save his people without complaint, through self-giving, anger-absorbing love and forgiveness (just like a lamb led to slaughter does not open its mouth — Is. 53:7).
“The loving Jesus” is not saving us from “The angry God” (all my fellow Trinitarians, that’s your cue to say “AMEN!”). The message of salvation is not that Jesus died to save us from God. No, God was in Christ-Jesus reconciling the world to himself (2 Cor. 5:19).
This is why John the Baptizer could say, pointing to Jesus — “Look there. It is the lamb of God who does away with the sins of the whole world.” (Jn. 1:29)
And this is why John, the apocalyptic visionary calls Jesus “the Lamb” about 30 times in the book of Revelation.
The blood soaked garments of Jesus in Revelation 19:11-16 (the chapter where he comes out like a conquering king, riding on a white horse, drenched in blood) should not be mistakenly understood as Jesus wearing garments soaked in the blood of his conquered foes.
That’s his blood (a counter-narrative to the kings who conquer their enemies by cutting them to pieces). The power of Jesus to conquer enemies is “Lamb Power.” He removes the power of sin through forgiveness of sin. And he forgives sin by taking the weight of removing the presence, the penalty, and the power of sin from the human race fully upon himself. This self-giving God does himself what he commands his people to do.
“Love your enemies.” (Mat. 5:44)
After all, it was while we were still sinners that God showed us how much he loved us through the death of Jesus for our benefit. (Rom. 5:8)
No, we don’t serve a blood-thirsty God. We serve a self-giving God. A forgiving God. A loving God. A God who, through his own gift of himself, “buries our sins in the depths of the sea” (Micah 7:19) — and removes them from us “as far as the east is from the west.” (Ps. 103:12).
Lamb of God, you take away the sins of the world. Have mercy on us.