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Holding Out Hope

The Sin Atoner

Rev. Philip Miller | December 20, 2020

Scripture Reference: Genesis 22, Exodus 4:22—23, Exodus 12, Exodus 29, Leviticus 16, Isaiah 53, Matthew 27:51, Luke 22:19—20, John 1:29, John 3:16, John 19:14, John 19:30, John 19:33, Romans 4:24—25, 1 Corinthians 5:7, 2 Corinthians 5:21, Ephesians 5:2, Colossians 1:13, Colossians 1:15, Hebrews 9:11—12, Hebrews 9:22, Hebrews 9:26, Hebrews 10:10—12, Hebrews 10:14, 1 Peter 3:18, 1 John 1:9, 1 John 4:10, Revelation 5

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Scripture Reference: Genesis 22, Exodus 4:22—23, Exodus 12, Exodus 29, Leviticus 16, Isaiah 53, Matthew 27:51, Luke 22:19—20, John 1:29, John 3:16, John 19:14, John 19:30, John 19:33, Romans 4:24—25, 1 Corinthians 5:7, 2 Corinthians 5:21, Ephesians 5:2, Colossians 1:13, Colossians 1:15, Hebrews 9:11—12, Hebrews 9:22, Hebrews 9:26, Hebrews 10:10—12, Hebrews 10:14, 1 Peter 3:18, 1 John 1:9, 1 John 4:10, Revelation 5

Selected highlights from this sermon

John the Baptist announced Jesus to the world by saying, “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” In many ways, this is THE story of the Bible, the one that makes sense of all the other stories; it connects, undergirds, and unifies them.

In this message spanning seven passages from Genesis to Revelation, Pastor Miller takes us on an expedition from the missing lamb to the Lamb on the throne, showing us how this story of Jesus, the Lamb of God, resonates across all of Scripture.

The Sin Atoner

“Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!”

It was these words that John the Baptizer used to introduce Jesus to the wider world as the sin-atoning Lamb of God, and in using this phrase, John not only signals what Jesus has come to do to atone for sin, but he is also engaging and drawing upon one of the richest themes that is running throughout all of the Bible from Genesis to Revelation. It is the story of the sacrificial lamb, the story of the sacrificial lamb. And in many ways this story is the story that connects all the other stories in the Bible. It undergirds and unifies them. In many ways, this story is the key to unlocking all the other stories. And it is this story of the sacrificial lamb that I would like to share with you this morning. It has seven main chapters spanning the entirety of Scripture, and so we have a lot to cover this morning.

Let’s bow our heads and ask the Lord to be our teacher as we turn to His Word. Let’s pray.

Heavenly Father, we ask now that you would be our teacher, that you would guide us into all truth, that you would help us see Jesus, and walk in obedience and faith today. We pray this in Jesus’ matchless name, Amen. Amen.

So the story of the sacrificial lamb–chapter 1 is the missing lamb. You’ll find this in Genesis, chapter 22. The Lord appears to Abram, Abraham, and says in Genesis 22:2, “Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains of which I shall tell you.”

Now, pause for just a moment. When we read a passage like this through our late-modern Western eyes, we find it a bit shocking and honestly disturbing, don’t we? I mean we find ourselves thinking things like, “How could God possibly ask Abraham to do such a thing, to sacrifice his own son? I mean, how barbaric, how primitive, how monstrous is this?” But you’ll notice something. Notice who is not reacting with those same questions. Abraham.

Abraham just gets up and heads off and goes to do this. No protest, no objections, no indignation. If this is so obviously monstrous and barbaric, why doesn’t Abraham say so?

Now, I think much of the difference between our reaction and Abraham’s reaction lies in the fact that Abraham is not a late-modern Western person, but he is an ancient Near-Eastern person. And we have to get ourselves into the frame of mind that the ancient Near East offers if we’re to understand what’s going on here. We can’t bring our ethnic bias, or ethnocentrism, our cultural bias, to this moment. We have to understand it in its context. So ancient Near-Eastern peoples, for example, believed that the first fruits of everything belonged to the gods, so without the gods, they knew there was no life, no blessings, no provision, nothing. And so if they had an abundance of grain, a harvest, they would bring the first of that harvest to the deities. If they had a bunch of wine come in, the same thing. They were to make drink offerings. If they had animals that were born, the same thing. Firstborns were given over to the deities. It was kind of like a tax. You know the gods would take their cut, sort of, off the cuff, if you will. And the same thing was true, believe it or not, of human life.

So the firstborn sons in the ancient Near-East, in their minds, belonged to the gods. The firstborn sons were owned by the deities. And most of the time, what that meant was that they served as priests, and they would make atonement for the family, but sometimes it amounted to child sacrifice. The gods gave life, and so it was their right to take it if they wished. And in the Mesopotamian world a child sacrifice was not an uncommon thing. Some of the gods demanded it.

This is, by the way, why in Israel, in the Bible, you will notice that Israel had to redeem their firstborn sons from the Lord. They had to go to the temple and buy back their own children from the Lord. They had to purchase the firstborn sons back from the Lord. You can read about this in Exodus 13, 22, 34; in Numbers 3, 8, and 18; and in Leviticus 12 the redemption of the firstborn.

So when God comes and asks Abraham to sacrifice, to give up Isaac, his firstborn son, this is all in keeping with the cultural assumptions of the ancient Near East. This is what the gods required. It was their right to ask for these things. So Abraham here just assumes that God is like every other ancient Near-Eastern deity, that He is exercising His right to the life of the firstborn. And so off he goes. And they go up the mountain, father and son. Isaac is carrying the wood of the sacrifice on his back. Abraham is carrying the fire and the knife. Genesis 22:7 and 8 say this: “And Isaac said to his father, ‘My father’ (to Abraham)— ‘My father!’ And he said, ‘Here I am, my son.’ He said, ‘Behold, the fire and the wood, but where is the lamb for the burnt offering?’ Abraham said, ‘God will provide for himself the lamb for a burnt offering, my son.’”

And this is a very gripping, emotional moment. Here’s Abraham, the father. Isaac points out, “Father, you’ve got the fire, the wood; where’s the lamb? Where’s the lamb, Father?” “God, Himself, will provide the lamb.”

And then the suspense builds as they get to the top of the mountain. Abraham binds Isaac to the altar, raises the knife, and just in the nick of time, the angel of the Lord cries out, “Abraham, Abraham!” (Genesis 22:12–14) “Do not lay your hand on the boy or do anything to him, for now I know that you fear God, seeing you have not withheld your son, your only son, from me. And Abraham lifted up his eyes and looked, and behold, behind him was a ram, caught in a thicket by his horns. And Abraham went and took the ram and offered it up as a burnt offering instead of his son. So Abraham called the name of that place, ‘The Lord will provide.’”

And friends, don’t you see? The whole point of this story is that God is not like all the other ancient Near-Eastern gods. Although God has every right to the life of the firstborn, He’s the one who has given life in all of its abundant forms. He will not allow Abraham to go through with child sacrifice. He will not require Abraham to give up his son, his only son, the son he loves. Instead He provides a substitute, a substitutionary sacrifice to die in Isaac’s place and for his sake so that Isaac might live and not die. Chapter 1.

Chapter 2: The Passover lamb from Exodus 12. In Exodus, chapter 12, God speaks to Moses in verses— Actually let’s start in Exodus chapter 4 to set this up. Exodus 4:22 and 23. God is speaking to Moses and says, “You shall say to Pharaoh, ‘Thus says the Lord, Israel is my firstborn son, and I say to you,

‘Let my son go that he may serve me.’ If you refuse to let him go, behold, I will kill your firstborn son.’” He says, “Look, Israel, the people, all of them, are my firstborn son,” God says. “They are rightfully mine, and you’ve taken them, Pharaoh, as your slaves. You have what is mine. Let them go that they may serve me.” Serve is a very priestly word here. He says, “These are my priests, my firstborn son. Let them go so they can serve me, or I will kill your firstborn son. I will take your son in exchange for mine.”

Pharaoh here refuses, and instead of God immediately bringing the judgment He promised and warned about here, that He would take the son, God sent a series of nine plagues, each as a kind of a warning shot over the bow of Pharaoh’s attention here to try to wear Pharaoh down. And Pharaoh continues to refuse. He’s calling God’s bluff repeatedly, and so finally God brings the tenth and final plague of judgment. But He devises a way to protect His people. This is Exodus, chapter 12. Now we get to it. Verses 3, 6, and 7: “Every man shall take a lamb according to their fathers’ houses, a lamb for a household...without blemish, a year old...the whole assembly of the congregation of Israel shall kill their lambs at twilight. Then they shall take some of the blood and put it on the two doorposts and the lintel of the houses in which they eat it.”

It goes on to give instructions about how they were to roast this lamb and not break any of its bones, and they were to consume it in haste because they were about to leave Egypt for freedom. God gives the reasoning down here in chapter 12, verses 12 to 13: “For I will pass through the land of Egypt that night, and I will strike all the firstborn in the land of Egypt, both man and beast; and on all the gods of Egypt I will execute judgments: I am the Lord. The blood shall be a sign for you, on the houses where you are. And when I see the blood, I will pass over you, and no plague will befall you to destroy you, when I strike the land of Egypt.”

Now, don’t you see that God is once again operating in ancient Near-Eastern categories here? Who did the firstborn sons of Egypt belong to theologically? They belonged to the deities of Egypt. That’s why Pharaoh calls God’s bluff repeatedly. He figures there’s no way the gods of Egypt would allow the firstborn sons to be unprotected. Those are the priests of the nation. They belong to the deities of Egypt. But God says, “Listen, I’m here to claim that which is rightfully mine. I am the giver of all life, including the life here in Egypt, and I am here to claim what is mine, the life of the firstborns, not just Egyptian firstborns, but all firstborns.” Which means that Israel’s firstborns are at risk as well, which is why God has provided a lamb, a Passover lamb, a substitute, a lamb that is slain at twilight, whose blood will serve as a sign. And He says, “And when I see the blood, I will pass over you.”

And friends, can you imagine if you were one of the firstborn sons of Israel the very next day, you realized you were alive only because of the blood of the lamb. The lamb died so that you might live. That’s chapter 2.

Chapter 3, the sacrificial lambs of Exodus 29. In Exodus 29 the big question is, “How will an unholy people, Israel, live before a holy God?” This was the fundamental problem, and God had provided a solution through Moses in the Mosaic Law. He had provided a temple where God would dwell in His holiness, and a sacrificial system by which the people could approach Him. So Exodus 29, verses 38 and 39, and 42 and 43 read this way:

“Now this is what you shall offer on the altar: two lambs a year old day by day regularly. One lamb you shall offer in the morning, and the other lamb you shall offer at twilight...It shall be a regular burnt offering throughout your generations at the entrance of the tent of meeting before the Lord, where I will meet with you, to speak to you there. There I will meet with the people of Israel, and it shall be sanctified by my glory.”

So every day there were sacrifices, morning and evening a lamb that was sacrificed as a burnt offering, morning and twilight, in order that the people of God may approach the holiness of God in the glory of His holiness at the entrance of the tent. And every day this cleansing, this work had to be done every single day. It was like daily cleansing in your house. You have to clean up every day. Right? It’s always getting dirty. But then once a year, maybe you do a deep clean. Right? You get in the really dirty parts of your house and clean it up, and that was what was called the Day of Atonement, which is chapter 4 of this story, the Day of Atonement, which we find in Leviticus 16. The purpose of the Day of Atonement is clear from verse 30 where it says, “For on this day shall atonement be made for you to cleanse you. You shall be clean before the Lord from all your sins.”

So once a year, on the Day of Atonement, what we know as Yom Kippur, the high priest would bathe, and then he would select a bull to sacrifice for his own sins. He would then select two goats, one that would become a sacrifice, and the other one that would become what we know as the scapegoat, the scapegoat. So the first goat was sacrificed as a sin offering for the nation. The high priest would go into the Holy of Holies; he was only allowed to go in on this very one day, the very holiest part of the temple, and he would sprinkle the blood of the bull and the goat that were together on the mercy seat to propitiate the wrath of God to make atonement before the Lord, for as Hebrews 9:22 says, “Without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins.” That was the first goat.

The second goat became the scape goat. We read about this down in Leviticus 16:21: “And Aaron shall lay both his hands on the head of the live goat, and confess over it all the iniquities of the people of Israel, and all their transgressions, all their sins. And he shall put them on the head of the goat and send it away into the wilderness.”

So the one goat was sacrificed, and the blood of that goat made atonement for the nation, made peace with God. The other goat bore the sins of the people, was driven outside of the camp, where it died alone and bore those sins to death. This is chapter 4.

Now chapter 5, the suffering servant. This is Isaiah 53. Isaiah made a prophecy that one day the servant of the Lord would come who would bring full redemption to Israel. Listen to these words from Isaiah 53:6 and 7. “All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned—every one—to his own way; and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all. He was oppressed, and he was afflicted, yet he opened not his mouth; like a lamb that is led to the slaughter.”

There is a metaphor going on in these verses. He says, “We’re like sheep. We’re like sheep that have gone astray. We turned our own way. We are rebellious and sinful, and the Lord has laid upon Him, the servant of the Lord, the iniquity of us all.”

Do you hear the language there? He has laid on Him the iniquity of us all. This is scapegoat language. We just read about it. This is the scapegoat. He was oppressed and afflicted like a lamb led to the slaughter. Now the metaphor shifts. This is now sacrificial language. So scapegoat language at first, and now sacrificial language. If you look down at verse 8, I don’t have it printed on your screen, but it says “He was cut off out of the land of the living, stricken for the transgression of my people.” That’s again scapegoat language.

Verse 10 says his soul makes an offering for guilt, which is again sacrificial language. Verse 11 says, “He shall bear their iniquities.” “He poured out his soul to death” (verse 12). He bore the sins of many. Again, scapegoat language.

So what we have here, you put it all together. The servant of the Lord, Isaiah says, will bring redemption to Israel as He suffers in her place and for her sake as both sacrifice and scapegoat. And it says, the synopsis phrase is: “He will be led like a lamb to the slaughter,” which prepares us now for chapter 6, the Lamb of God, Jesus Himself.

John 1:29. We read it earlier. “Behold, the Lamb of God,” John says, “who takes away the sins of the world!” Behold the Lamb, God’s perfect spotless One, His servant in whom His soul delights, come to take away the sin of the world. But how? How will this happen?

Now, fast forward to the night before Jesus was crucified. He celebrated the Passover meal with His disciples in the Upper Room. And there they are, celebrating the life and freedom of their heritage because of a lamb, a lamb whose body was slain, whose blood served as a sign that God’s judgment, would pass over them, that their lives would be spared. And Jesus says this in Luke 22:19–20: “And he took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and gave it to them, saying (Here’s Jesus’ statement), ‘This is my body, which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me.’ And likewise the cup after they had eaten, saying, ‘This cup that is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood.’”

Do you realize what Jesus is saying, friends? He’s saying, “This meal is about me. This meal that you commemorate that is looking back to the lamb all those years ago, this meal has actually always been looking forward to the real lamb, my body which will be slain for you, my blood which will be poured out for you.”

Isaac’s question, “Father, where is the lamb?” “Behold the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” It is the Father’s Son, His only Son, the Son He loves.

John 3:16 says, “For God so loved the world, that He gave his only son that, whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.”

Friends, God showed Abraham the kind of God that He was, that He would not be a God who would take the firstborn son from Abraham. No, He is a God, now that we see, is a God who gives His own firstborn Son. Colossians 1:13 and 15 describe Jesus as His (the Father’s) beloved Son, the firstborn of all creation. See God who has the right to the life of the firstborn sons, instead gives His own firstborn Son who will walk up another hill with the wood upon His back, like a lamb led to the slaughter.

And Abraham was right, friends. God will provide for Himself the lamb. Just like He provided the lamb at Passover whose blood on the doorframe served as a sign, a sign pointing to the true and greater Lamb who would come. Paul describes this in 1 Corinthians 5:7. He says, “Christ, our Passover lamb, has been sacrificed.” That’s why John 19:14 notes that Jesus’ sentence was carried out at about the sixth hour, at about noon, just as the Passover lambs were being sacrificed in the Temple Mount.

In John 19:33, John goes out of his way to point out that Jesus’ legs were not broken on the cross, just as the Passover lamb’s bones were unbroken. Friends, Jesus is our Passover Lamb. But more than that, Ephesians 5:2 says, “Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.”

Friends, this is the language of burnt offering, of the twice-daily sacrificial lambs, morning and evening. Friends, Jesus is the lamb sacrificed so we can meet with God. He’s our burnt offering, the sweet smelling aroma to the Lord who covers us morning and evening and every moment in between.

First John 4:10 says, “In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins.” This is the language. Propitiation is the language of atonement. God’s wrath has been satisfied. Atonement and forgiveness have been made. We are now clean and right before God, not through the blood of bulls and goats, but through now the perfect blood of the Lamb, Jesus Christ, who loved us and gave Himself up for us.

This is why in John 19:30, Jesus cries out from the cross, “It is finished,” Tetelestai. It is done! His final, full, forever sacrifice has been made. He is the atoning sacrifice for our sins. Romans 4:24–25 say, “Jesus our Lord, who was delivered up for our trespasses...”

You see, friends, now this language, “He was delivered up for our trespasses...” This is the language of the scapegoat, that Jesus has been delivered up and driven out. He dies outside of the camp for our trespasses. Second Corinthians 5:21 says, “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.”

Remember Isaiah 53? “The Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all.” And not only has He taken our sin upon Himself, it says that He has exchanged with us, given us His own perfect righteousness, so that in Him we might become the righteousness of God.

First Peter 3:18 says “For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God.” This is why Matthew 27:51 tells us that when Jesus died the temple veil (curtain) was torn in two. The barrier separating humanity, the high priest, from the holy of holies where no one could go except once a year, all of a sudden with the death of Jesus Christ the veil is rent in two, and access to the holiness of God is now possible, through the once-and-for-all atoning sacrifice of Jesus.

This is why Hebrews 9:11, 12, and 26 say this. “But when Christ appeared as a high priest...he entered once for all into the holy places, not by means of the blood of goats and calves but by means of his own blood, thus securing an eternal redemption.” He has appeared once for all at the end of the ages to put away sin by the sacrifice of Himself. Friends, Jesus is the final, full, and complete atonement of sin. He’s The Sin Atoner. He has secured for us an eternal redemption. He has put away sin by the sacrifice of Himself by means of His own blood.

Hebrews goes on in chapter 10, verses 10 to 12 and 14: “We have been sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all. And every priest stands daily at his service, offering repeatedly the same sacrifices, which can never take away sins. But when Christ had offered for all time a single sacrifice for sins, he sat down at the right hand of God....For by a single offering he has perfected for all time those who are being sanctified.”

Every priest, friends, made an offering and got back in line. It was a perpetual unending revolving door of unending sacrifices. But when this priest came and offered a single sacrifice for sins, He sat down, for His once-for-all-time sacrifice is enough. And notice the verbs in verse 14. He says, “He has perfected (past tense) for all time (future) those who are being sanctified (present).”

Friends, Jesus’ sacrifice covers our past, present, and future. It is a once-for-all-time sacrifice, for all time and all eternity, which is why chapter 7 ends this way. This is the lamb on the throne in Revelation, chapter 5. Listen as I read verses 9 to 10, 12 and 13. This is the praise around the throne:

“Worthy are you to take the scroll and to open its seals, for you were slain, and by your blood you ransomed people for God from every tribe and language and people and nation, and you have made them a kingdom and priests to our God, and they shall reign on the earth… Worthy is the Lamb who was slain, to receive power and wealth and wisdom and might and honor and glory and blessing… To him who sits on the throne and to the Lamb be blessing and honor and glory and might forever and ever!”

Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world! This is the story of the sacrificial lamb. It’s a story of Jesus, and what does it mean for you and me? It means exactly what Jesus said it meant. It is finished! Tetelestai! It is finished!

Friends, do you believe that? Do you believe that Jesus has done everything to make you right with God, that you cannot add to or subtract from His final, full, finished work on the cross, that it is done, that it is finished? Do you believe that?

You know, I think sometimes we don’t believe that because we think we don’t need forgiveness. Some of us don’t think we need forgiveness. We think, “Well, I’m a decent fellow. I’m better than most people. You know, I’m doing my best. I’m not a murderer or a serial whatever. I’m okay, you know? And all this sacrificial stuff that God has in the Bible, these animals dying, and the blood on the floor everywhere, Jesus on the cross, boy that just seems like a bit much to me­–excessive.”

Well, think about it with me for a second. Think about the language we use when we talk about sin. You say, “Somebody stabbed me in the back.” “Somebody put a dagger in our heart,”

“Those words they cut me deep, man.” Those are words of violence. Do you see that? When we betray and hurt the people we pledge to love, they don’t bleed out. They bleed in. Do you see this? We die a little bit every time someone sins against us.

Imagine just how horrific it would be that whenever you use cutting words a slash appeared on someone’s face. But these are spiritual wounds, not physical ones, when we hurt each other with our sin. And what’s happening in these sacrifices, friends, is, what God is doing is He’s taking, He’s physically displaying what’s happening spiritually. He is putting on display the spiritual bloodiness and deadliness of our sin, that whenever we sin we are in fact, taking life, wounding, and destroying one another. And it’s not just the person we harm. We harm ourselves as we dehumanize ourselves living in sin. Friends, sin is always murderous. It is always violent. It is deadly to the image of God in others and ourselves. And so God the Father rises to defend His children. He’s rightfully angry at the destruction we wreak upon each, and yes, we are all abused, but we are also abusers, and we all desperately need forgiveness.

Now sometimes I don’t think we believe in the final, finished work of Jesus because we believe we are beyond the reach of forgiveness. Maybe that’s you. Maybe you tell yourself, “Listen, I’ve gone too far. I’ve done too much. I’ve been too bad. If people knew who I really was, they’d never love me, never accept me. God knows I don’t deserve forgiveness.” And then you feel the weight and the shame of all of this. But don’t you see, friends, that the story of the Lamb means that you are known completely, that you are loved utterly, and you can be forgiven entirely because of what Jesus has done. Friends, God saw you at your worst, and He loved you anyway. “While we were yet sinners Christ died for us,” which means no one is beyond the reach of forgiveness.

Finally, some of us don’t believe in the full, finished, final work of Jesus, His forgiveness, because we think maybe we’ve worn out God’s forgiveness. Maybe that’s you. Maybe you keep doing the same thing again and again, the same stupid messed up stuff. And you come back to God and you beg for forgiveness, and then you do it again, and you beg for forgiveness, and do it again, and you beg for forgiveness, and eventually at some point you say, “Surely I’m going to run out of God’s good graces. Surely at some point God’s going to say, ‘Enough! I’m done with you.’” But friends, don’t you realize that that thinking is not right? Jesus has appeared once for all time to put away sin forever by the sacrifice of Himself. He covers your past, present, and future, which is why 1 John 1:9 says, “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness,” because friends, there is far more mercy in Christ than there is sin in us.

Won’t you believe this, that Jesus has done everything to make you right with God, that there’s nothing that you can add to or subtract from His final, full, and finished work, that it is done, that it is finished? Tetelestai!

Behold the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!

Won’t you believe?

Let’s pray.

Father, help us to throw the entire weight of our souls, our lives, on the final, full, finished work of Jesus Christ. He is our only hope. He is our only redeemer, our only sacrifice, our only atonement, our only propitiation. He alone is enough. None of us would live, none of us would survive without the blood of the Lamb, His body broken for us, His blood poured out for us. May we cling to our beautiful Savior, the Lamb of God. For it’s in His name we pray, Amen. Amen.

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