Why did Jesus come to atone for our sins? And how did he do so? What we hope to do in the fourteen expositional messages in this book is simply to show that the doctrine of penal substitution is clearly taught in the Bible. Now, what we mean by “penal substitution” is simply that Jesus stood as a substitute for his people, taking the penalty that was due to those who actually deserved it. In other words, when Jesus died on the cross and bore the wrath of God, he was standing in our place.
For various reasons this traditional Christian idea has fallen on hard times in many quarters. Secular writers see the idea of Christ’s sacrificing himself for sinners as a vestige of primitive religion, one that should have been abandoned, as religion evolved to a more bloodless, humane theology and practice of peace and goodwill to all. After all, the argument runs, human sacrifice was eventually replaced by animal sacrifice, and even that was gradually phased out, too. Indeed human society has now largely evolved out of such superstition altogether. Belief in sacrifice fades with belief in God, which in turn fades into simple belief in ourselves. And that, people think, is the way of truth.
We are used to hearing such unbelief from unbelievers, but in recent years even some self-professed Christians have expressed great discomfort with the idea of atonement, and especially with the idea of penal substitution. Often, their discomfort is expressed in language objecting to anyone who would say that “penal substitution” is the only way to talk about the atonement Christ has made. That would be a sound objection, yet I don’t know anyone against whom it could justifiably be made. No one I know argues that “penal substitution” is the only way to talk about the atonement of Christ. Of course there are many images that the New Testament uses to talk about what Jesus accomplished on the cross: the language of redemption speaks economically about buying someone out of slavery; there is medical imagery about overcoming diseases, and martial language about victory and warfare as Christ leads us to triumph. But in addition to all these there is also a very clear theme in the New Testament of penal substitution, from Jesus’ explanation of his own death as a “ransom for many” to Paul’s declaration that Jesus the sinless one “became sin for us.” When we speak of Jesus as our substitute, therefore, we are speaking in a deeply biblical way about what Jesus accomplished for us at Calvary. In these studies of several crucial texts of Scripture, we hope to see this and understand it and exult in the richness of God’s love to us in Christ.
We begin our studies in the Old Testament book of Exodus. Exodus begins with Moses’ birth and calling in the first four chapters, and then, starting in chapter 5, Moses obeys God by confronting the great pharaoh of Egypt and demanding the release of the Israelites. At the same time, he declares God’s judgment on the pharaoh’s arrogant refusal to obey by announcing divine plagues on Egypt.
In chapter 12 we come to the tenth, the final, the climactic of those plagues, and the surrender of Pharaoh to God’s demands. As we look at this chapter, we want to answer four important questions:
A short answer to this first question is that the Passover, just as its name suggests, is God’s passing over someone as he judges, a benefit provided through a substitute.
Here is how the book of Exodus records God’s instructions to the Israelites about the first Passover:
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. 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.
“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. 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.
“This is a day you are to commemorate; for the generations to come you shall celebrate it as a festival to the Lord—a lasting ordinance. For seven days you are to eat bread made without yeast. On the first day remove the yeast from your houses, for whoever eats anything with yeast in it from the first day through the seventh must be cut off from Israel. On the first day hold a sacred assembly, and another one on the seventh day. Do no work at all on these days, except to prepare food for everyone to eat—that is all you may do.
“Celebrate the Feast of Unleavened Bread, because it was on this very day that I brought your divisions out of Egypt. Celebrate this day as a lasting ordinance for the generations to come. In the first month you are to eat bread made without yeast, from the evening of the fourteenth day until the evening of the twenty-first day. For seven days no yeast is to be found in your houses. And whoever eats anything with yeast in it must be cut off from the community of Israel, whether he is an alien or native-born. Eat nothing made with yeast. Wherever you live, you must eat unleavened bread.”
Then Moses summoned all the elders of Israel and said to them, “Go at once and select the animals for your families and slaughter the Passover lamb. Take a bunch of hyssop, dip it into the blood in the basin and put some of the blood on the top and on both sides of the doorframe. Not one of you shall go out the door of his house until morning. When the Lord goes through the land to strike down the Egyptians, he will see the blood on the top and sides of the doorframe and will pass over that doorway, and he will not permit the destroyer to enter your houses and strike you down.
“Obey these instructions as a lasting ordinance for you and your descendants. When you enter the land that the Lord will give you as he promised, observe this ceremony. And when your children ask you, ‘What does this ceremony mean to you?’ then tell them, ‘It is the Passover sacrifice to the Lord, who passed over the houses of the Israelites in Egypt and spared our homes when he struck down the Egyptians.’” Then the people bowed down and worshiped. The Israelites did just what the Lord commanded Moses and Aaron. (12:1-28)
Here the Lord instructs Moses about the Passover and especially about his people’s need for a substitute to die in their place. In verse 3 specifically, the Lord instructs Moses to “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.” A lamb would be needed, a Passover lamb that would die sacrificially so an Israelite family would be passed over in judgment.
The Israelites were to make a meal of the lamb. It was important that there be enough, verse 4 says, so that everyone could participate, but equally so that there not be too much, so that none would be wasted. Not only so, but the Passover lamb was to be special! Just like other sacrificial animals, this lamb was to be without defect (v. 5).
Now, the fact that the lamb was to be without defect makes you think of what? Peter wrote in 1 Peter 1:18-19:
For you know that it was not with perishable things such as silver or gold that you were redeemed from the empty way of life handed down to you from your forefathers, but with the precious blood of Christ, a lamb without blemish or defect.
Jesus is the one whom John the Baptist called “the Lamb of God” (John 1:29, 36). And John of the Revelation reported seeing in his heavenly revelation “a Lamb, looking as if it had been slain, standing in the center of the throne,” (Rev. 5:6). All these images were reflecting the Passover. Moreover, we see in Exodus 12:6 that the lamb was to be sacrificed “at twilight.” According to the historian Josephus the Passover lambs would be killed at about 3 pm, the same time that Jesus died (see Luke 43:44-46).
Something else about this slain lamb is that its blood seems to be especially significant. According to Leviticus 17:11, blood symbolized two things: the life of the victim and the life of those for whom it was substituted. Thus, in verse 7 comes the most important instruction of all: the Israelites were to take some of the slain lamb’s blood and put it around the entrance to the house, “on the sides and tops of the doorframes” of the house where they would eat the meal. It is in Exodus 12:12 that the Lord is clearest about why he instructs his people to do this: “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.” Yahweh, the one true God, the Creator and Judge of all, is executing judgment on all the gods of Egypt! The ones in whom the Egyptians’ hopes rested were to be killed, and in such a way that there would be no natural explanation for it. This was to be a clearly divine statement. The Lord would show publicly that the Egyptian gods were utterly powerless to protect them. That, by the way, may be why the animals were included in this fate, because many of the Egyptian gods were represented as various animals. So the Lord was making it crystal clear that even these animals—or more specifically, the gods represented by them—couldn’t protect them from the real God.
The Lord continues in verse 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.” The blood is a sign of salvation for the Israelites, but notice that it was not just the Egyptians who were subject to God’s wrath and deserved his punishment. God does not say that the Israelites were exempt from judgment just because they were Israelites, or because they lived better lives than the Egyptians. No, the Israelites themselves were under God’s wrath, and so they needed to be protected. If they would be saved, it would not be because God’s justice had no claim against them; it would be because when God saw the blood on the doorframes, the blood of the sacrificial substitute, he would in grace pass over that house as he judged. Spread upon the doorframes, the blood of the lamb symbolically covered those within whose own blood rightfully should have been shed in penalty for their sins.
In verses 8 to 11, the Lord specifies still more about this meal, and each detail points us to the salvation that God was giving his people through the death of the Passover lamb. In verse 8 he tells Moses: “That same night they are to eat the meat roasted over the fire, along with bitter herbs, and bread made without yeast.” The bitter herbs mentioned here were to recall the bitterness of Israel’s slavery (see Ex. 1:14), but their bitterness would be overwhelmed by the sweet taste of the lamb! Look also at the reference there to the bread made without yeast. In 1 Corinthians 5, Paul understands this as an image meaning “without sin,” and he calls the church to live up to that purity.
Then, in Exodus 12:9, some very specific instruction is given, which many have wondered about: “Do not eat the meat raw or cooked in water, but roast it over the fire—head, legs and inner parts.” Why would the Lord give such instruction? Well, perhaps eating raw meat was prohibited here in contradistinction to some pagan festivals with sacrificial meat eaten raw, including with the blood. God did not want his people to think that he was giving them magical powers of the slain victim somehow; nothing like this was going on with this sacrifice. But even more importantly, he was teaching them about some spiritual realities such as the connection of sin and death, and preparing them for the planned Messiah, who would come, who would be slain as a substitute for them. Thus the Israelites wouldn’t have before them on their festal table a stew made of unrecognizable meats, but rather a whole lamb—an uncomfortable reminder that they as a community were dependent on another being slain in their stead.
In verse 11, the Israelites are instructed to eat in a hurry and with trembling, with alarm at all that was going on and perhaps also in anticipation. This was the night of their deliverance, their liberation, their redemption, their salvation! Passover is the oldest of the Jewish festivals. It is their founding festival, their July 4th, and it is fixed as firmly in the Old Testament mind as anything could be. And what is at the very center of that festival? The lamb without defect that is slain as their substitute.
So did God intend the Passover lamb as a preview of Christ? Yes! The apostle Paul could not be clearer than in 1 Corinthians 5:7-8: “Christ, our Passover lamb, has been sacrificed.” Christ is the only-begotten Son of God, and the seed of Abraham, and also the Passover lamb.
You and I need deliverance from bondage to sin and from the fatal judgment of God, and that deliverance will come only through the blood of the firstborn lamb without blemish. Just as the Passover lamb was a substitute for sinners, so too is the Lamb of God. You see, all this was done for Israel so that they—and we—would see and know that God’s people would be saved by a substitute. That’s what God is teaching his people here as he instructs Moses about the Passover.
Do you see what is going on here? Deep in the story of the Bible we see that while the Israelites were just as subject to God’s wrath and judgment as the Egyptians, the lamb became a substitute for them, and the application of its blood became the only way of their salvation. While there may be no explicit mention of the lamb bearing the sins of many, that is implicit in the lamb bearing the punishment for the Israelites’ sins, and in those who are marked by the lamb’s blood being delivered from the penalty they justly deserved. In the death of the Passover lamb, therefore, God was laying down part of the most basic vocabulary by which we were later to understand the death of Jesus, the Lamb of God, the Messiah.
In Exodus 12:14-20, the Lord instructs Moses about the Feast of Unleavened Bread, by which the Israelites were to remember the results of the substitute. They are to memorialize forever the deliverance that God is about to perform for them in the exodus.
Now, Christian, what does this remind you of as you’re seeing this memorial meal here? Yes, the Last Supper. In fact, remember that Jesus’ sacrifice was made during the Passover festival in Jerusalem. That was no mere coincidence; it happened at that time for a reason. Just as the Passover meal was to aid the memory, so is the Lord’s Supper. In remembering what God has done for us, we come to believe in what he has promised he will do for us! That’s what the Lord is making sure here his people will do.
That is also why, in verse 15, the person who does something as insignificant (we might think) as eating leavened bread during these days is treated so severely—he must be cut off from Israel. Not to keep this festival is to begin to forget the Lord’s deliverance of his people, and that is to lead them ultimately to stop worshiping the Lord. To forget what the Lord has done is a kind of blasphemy, a denial of God in his goodness. That’s why the punishments for violating the feast were so severe. The Lord was making sure that his people would always remember this night when they were delivered from their bondage immediately by the power of God.
In verse 21, the Bible says that Moses obeyed the Lord in all of this. He instructed the elders of the Israelites about the Passover, and thus instructed them about their need for a substitute. The Lord would only bring death if it was deserved. He is a good and just God. What had the firstborn done to so specially deserve death? Nothing especially. But they stood for the whole. They stood for the strength of the people and for their future hopes. The Israelites did not deserve God’s deliverance. That was pure mercy, as was this instruction to them about a substitute. The Lord wanted them to forever remember what he in his grace had done for them; he had provided them a substitute. So he gave them this meal, and then this special week, to act as a reminder to them, to teach successive generations the truth about himself and his kindness to them and to help them reflect upon all this year after year.
Isn’t that what the Lord Jesus did for us in giving us baptism and the Lord’s Supper? Both ordinances—baptism as the initial rite and the Lord’s Supper the repeated rite—remind us of the great deliverance the Lord has wrought for us in saving us from our sins, in delivering us from the penalty we deserve. That’s exactly what we see here in Exodus 12. See what the Bible says in verse 24: “Obey these instructions as a lasting ordinance for you and your descendants.” We obey these commands of Christ as one way of passing the gospel message down to the generations to come. How would they explain such actions? They’re going to have to know the gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ to make sense of all this. So we obey, and we continue to show that the Lamb of God was slain for the sins of all those who would trust in him.
In verses 26 and 27 we see clearly this concern that the truth about God and his great acts be faithfully passed down to the generations to come. The Lord is concerned about the children, even if some of us too often aren’t. He builds into the very structure of things reminders that will go on beyond our generation, because he cares about the rising generation and the generation to come. The Israelites were spared because the lamb was sacrificed. That’s the story that keeping this meal tells people.
And then, in verses 27 and 28, we see the response of the people to all this. “Then the people bowed down and worshiped.” The words bowed down and worshiped are used in parallel, which tells us that they refer to the same thing. “The Israelites did just what the Lord commanded Moses and Aaron.” This is a kind of repentance and faith. They killed the animal, had the meal, marked the doors, and stayed in their houses. This obedience was a placing of their confidence in God’s promise that this substitutionary sacrifice would be for their redemption. They were showing that they had faith. They were doing what the Lord had called them to do.
My friend, if you’re not a Christian, God is calling you to trust him, to believe that One has been sacrificed to pay your penalty, to bear your burden, to save you from God’s judgment for your sins. That’s the message that this Passover account has for us. The Lord God made us all in his image and yet we all deserved to be judged, even as God judged the Egyptians. Indeed we all deserve that judgment totally and forever because of our rebellion against him. But God in his great love caused this punishment to fall on Christ. The Son of God voluntarily laid down his life for us if we would trust him and repent of our sins. Jesus Christ is the Passover Lamb sacrificed for all who will be his people. The Lamb without defect became our substitutionary sacrifice, if we will repent and believe. As John Stott has said, “The concept of substitution lies at the heart of both sin and salvation. For the essence of sin is man substituting himself for God, while the essence of salvation is God substituting himself for man.... My contention is that substitution is not another ‘theory’ or ‘image’ to be set alongside the others, but rather the foundation of them all.”
So yes, let’s speak well of Jesus. Let’s admire his exemplary life, and imitate it. But let’s also remember that we have nothing unless he is our substitute. If Jesus has simply come to teach us how to live, then we all fail. And we all fail eternally. Let us therefore praise him that he has become our substitute, when we were utterly helpless, prostrate before God’s just claims.
“But,” I can hear someone say, “I don’t need a substitute. I don’t even know if that is fair! I can get everything I need from reading my Bible, from my own interior sense of right and wrong, and from reading and watching others.” But, oh, my friend, the point of the Christian good news is not so small a thing as to give us what we think we need or want. Do you know how some people get religious because they kind of want to use God to have a little bit more peace in their life? They just need a little moral sense of some forgiveness from God, a little sense of order, a little religious pick-me-up. That’s not Christianity. If that’s how you’ve thought of Christianity, that’s not really it. There is much better news out there than that. God has come not to provide what you want or what you think you need—a little peace and order in your life, a little hope in a dim and dismal time. No, God has come to meet a much deeper, much more profound need than you may have even known that you have.
I love what Jim Packer wrote years ago about this, contrasting our slighter man-centered gospels with the real God-centered gospel of the Bible:
Without realizing it, we have during the past century bartered that gospel [the biblical gospel] for a substitute product which, though it looks similar enough in points of detail, is as a whole a decidedly different thing. Hence our troubles; for the substitute product does not answer the ends for which the authentic gospel has in past days proved itself so mighty. The new gospel conspicuously fails to produce deep reverence, deep humility, a spirit of worship, a concern for the church. Why? We would suggest that the reason lies in its own character and content. It fails to make men God-centered in their thoughts and God-fearing in their hearts because this is not primarily what it is trying to do. One way of stating the difference between it and the old gospel is to say that it is too exclusively concerned to be “helpful” to man—to bring peace, comfort, happiness, satisfaction— and too little concerned to glorify God. The old gospel was “helpful” too— more so, indeed, than is the new—but (so to speak) incidentally, for its first concern was always to give glory to God. It was always and essentially a proclamation of Divine sovereignty in mercy and judgment, a summons to bow down and worship the mighty Lord on whom man depends for all good, both in nature and in grace. Its center of reference was unambiguously God. But in the new gospel the center of reference is man. This is just to say that the old gospel was religious in a way that the new gospel is not. Whereas the chief aim of the old was to teach men to worship God, the concern of the new seems limited to making them feel better. The subject of the old gospel was God and his ways with men; the subject of the new is man and the help God gives him.
Here in Exodus 12 we are introduced to that old gospel, the biblical gospel. God would deliver us—not because of anything we have done or because of anything that we are—but solely because of Christ’s substitutionary sacrifice for us.