Christians are obsessed with the idea of salvation. Fair enough, salvation is essential. The problem, however, is that everyone has different opinions on what salvation actually is. Different traditions tend to emphasise and even make exclusive claims to their own definition of salvation at the expense of others. So in this series, I aim to explore the different facets of salvation so that we may better understand what it really is. Here are the salvific themes we’re going to explore:
- Liberation and Exile
- Sin and Judgement
- Substitution and Sacrifice
- New Creation
Each motif plays a pivotal role in demonstrating what salvation is, how it is achieved and received, and how it is lived out by the believer. In this post, we will be exploring substitution and sacrifice.
So far, we’ve explored some essential themes. However, substitution and sacrifice sit right at the centre of all these themes as it is how exile and liberation, sin and judgement are dealt with. Without sacrifice and substitution, there would be no forgiveness of sin, there would be no freedom from guilt, death and the satan, and there would be no new creation.
“With the other New Testament writers, Paul always points to the death of Jesus as the atoning event, and explains the atonement in terms of representative substitution – the innocent taking the place of the guilty, in the name and for the sake of the guilty, under the axe of God’s judicial retribution”
– J. I. Packer
Like every other theme, substitution and sacrifice first appear on the first few pages on the Bible. In Genesis 3, Adam and Eve are presented with a choice to either eat from the Tree of Life or to eat from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Bad. In the form of the serpent (Genesis 3:1), temptation draws humanity to eat from the Tree of Knowledge which they were told to not eat from (Genesis 2:17) and as a result, they’re cursed, the earth is cursed, and they are exiled from the Garden of Eden (God’s presence). Now sin has entered the world (Romans 5:12; 1 Corinthians 15:21) and corrupts all things (Romans 8:19-23). However, instead of leaving humanity to its own devices God promises that there will be a seed from the woman that will crush the head of the serpent while the seed is wounded by the serpent (Genesis 3:15). Before throwing them out, God clothed them in animal skins (an apparent reference to substitution and covering) and then drives them eastward (Genesis 3:20-24).
Next, we find Cain and Abel offering up gifts and sacrifices to God (Genesis 4:1-7). Strangely, at this point in the narrative, God hasn’t required any sacrifice to be made. Yet Cain is offering fruit and grain (a clear connection to Leviticus 2), and Abel offers up the firstborn of his flock. The idea of offering and sacrifice is a recurring theme throughout the biblical narrative, where we next see it with Noah:
- The earth is increasingly sinful and wicked, God destroys the planet with a flood (Genesis 6-9) yet saves humanity through one family and an ark. After the flood, Noah sets up an altar and offers up sacrifices of clean animals which leads God to make a covenant with humanity to never destroy the earth again (Genesis 8:20-22).
- God promises that through Abrahams seed all the nations will be blessed (Genesis 12:3, 18:18, 22:18), yet as a test of faith, God asks Abraham to offer up his firstborn son as a sacrifice to Him (Genesis 22:1-2). However, instead of Isaac dying, God provides a substitution (Genesis 22:10-14).
- Through Moses, God sets free His people by sending plagues on the Egyptians finally culminating in the Passover (Exodus 12). Because of the lamb’s blood being painted on the doorpost of Israelites God’s people are identified, their firstborns are spared, God’s people are literally passed over by the angel of destruction, and eventually, they’re lead into the wilderness to worship God.
- We also see examples of substitution in Numbers 3:12-13; 1 Samuel 17:9; 1 Kings 20:42; Ezekiel 4:4 and of course famously in Isaiah 53. Here we have one of the most prominent passages of substitution and sacrifice foreshadowing the Messiah.
Surely he has borne our griefs
and carried our sorrows;
yet we esteemed him stricken,
smitten by God, and afflicted.
But he was pierced for our transgressions;
he was crushed for our iniquities;
upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace,
and with his wounds we are healed.
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,
and like a sheep that before its shearers is silent,
so he opened not his mouth.
By oppression and judgment he was taken away;
and as for his generation, who considered
that he was cut off out of the land of the living,
stricken for the transgression of my people?
And they made his grave with the wicked
and with a rich man in his death,
although he had done no violence,
and there was no deceit in his mouth.
Yet it was the will of the LORD to crush him;
he has put him to grief;
when his soul makes an offering for guilt,
he shall see his offspring; he shall prolong his days;
the will of the LORD shall prosper in his hand.
Out of the anguish of his soul he shall see and be satisfied;
by his knowledge shall the righteous one, my servant,
make many to be accounted righteous,
and he shall bear their iniquities.
– Isaiah 53:4–11
Moving words. This passage prophetically sheds light on the meaning of the coming Messiah’s mission. In light of Jesus, it becomes clearer that even the New Testament authors considered Jesus to be the lamb of God that was to take away the sins of the world (John 1:29, 3:17; Acts 2:23–24; Romans 6:9; 1 Corinthians 15:4; 2 Corinthians 5:21; Ephesians 1:5, 9; 2 Thessalonians 1:11). As one author explains:
The old-covenant-era hearers would have understood what this meant, for guilt offerings were sacrificed to God as substitutes in place of those who had sinned against him, so that the sinners themselves would not bear God’s righteous anger. And the old covenant foreshadowed the new covenant (Jeremiah 31:31; Luke 22:20; Hebrews 12:24), where the great Servant, the great Propitiator, would offer himself as the final once-for-all substitutionary sacrifice in the place of sinners (Hebrews 9:26).
– Jon Bloom
- Finally, we see the Lamb of God, Jesus, who was our substitute and sacrifice being worshipped and praised (Revelation 5:6-12, 7:9-17, 15:3, 17:14, 22:1-3).
Every other theme in the Bible hangs off the idea of sacrifice and substitution for it is how every other facet of salvation is achieved. Our King gave up His life willingly so we wouldn’t have to. He died to forgive sins, to set us free from our exile, to lead us into our new humanity, vocation, and new creation.