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Jesus did many things while on earth, but the most significant of all was dying on the cross. But what exactly happened? What was accomplished? What does the Bible mean when it talks about Jesus being the “lamb of God”? Is there anything that can help me understand the significance of his death. Do I need to be reminded about it on a regular basis?
Learning More About God
III. What Jesus did
A. Jesus is the Lamb of God
B. Two Principles
C. Two Ramifications
1. “Lamb of God who takes away...”
2. “...the sin of the world”
a. It is finished!
b. Temple veil torn in two
c. Sew the curtain back up
d. Only one way -- only one Lamb of God did something about sin
D. We Must Respond to the Atonement
1. Egypt, 1400 BC
2. Jesus reinterprets Passover
Course: Life is a Journey
Lecture: What Jesus Did
There is a character in the New Testament called John the Baptist, and he was quite a character. Part of his job was to prepare the way for Jesus’ coming. When he did see Jesus coming, he cried out, “Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29); this is a tremendously important verse if we are going to understand what Jesus did on the cross. The technical term for what Jesus did on the cross is The Atonement, which is what actually affected, or happened, when the Lamb of God died on the cross and took away the sin of the world.
A. Jesus is the Lamb of God
When John calls Jesus a lamb, he’s not making reference to some cute farm animal, but he’s making reference to the fact that Jesus is the sacrificial lamb; Jesus was going to be a lamb who would be sacrificed. There is no better place to go to understand what that means than in the book of Leviticus in the Old Testament. Leviticus is all about explaining the holiness of God, the sinfulness of all human beings, and specifically how God goes about forgiving sin. Turn in your Bibles, please, to the book of Leviticus in chapter 1. The scenario is that someone has sinned, and in order to be forgiven of his sin, he’s going to make a sacrifice. The question is how do we make the sacrifice. Here is one of the many sets of instructions on how we do that: In Leviticus 1:10, it says, “If his gift,” the sinner’s, “for a burnt offering is from the flock, from the sheep or goats, he shall bring a male without blemish,” not defective, the best you have, “and he,” the sinner who is bringing the animal, not the priest, “shall kill it on the north side of the altar before the Lord, and Aaron’s sons the priests shall throw its blood against the sides of the altar. And he,” the sinner, “shall cut it into pieces, with its head and its fat, and the priest shall arrange them on the wood that is on the fire on the altar, but the entrails,” the guts, “and the legs he shall wash with water. And the priest shall offer all of it and burn it on the altar; it is a burnt offering, a food offering with a pleasing aroma to the Lord.” This is a rather graphic description of how people in the Old Testament went about being forgiven, yet the book of Leviticus is there for no other reason than to help us understand what it means for Jesus to be the Lamb of God—to be the Sacrificial Lamb.
B. Two Principles
There are at least two principles in this passage of Leviticus that come directly into John the Baptist’s pronouncement to help us understand. For the first principle, as we look at Leviticus, we understand that sin against the holy God is a very serious thing; it’s very clear, isn’t it? It is something that is punishable by death. We can just imagine going to the altar and slitting the animal’s throat and then hacking its body into pieces; we can understand how that would send a pretty strong message, couldn’t we? Sin is really, really bad and punishable by death. The second principle that comes out of Leviticus, which is just as important, is that God is a merciful God. As a merciful God, He will accept the death of a sinless substitute in place of the sinner, and He will forgive our sin. Sin is so horrible and vile that it requires death, but God, in His mercy, will accept the death of a sinless substitute in our place; these two principles help us understand what it means for Jesus to be the sacrificial Lamb of God. It means that we understand that our sin must be punished. As Paul tells the Roman church, “The wages of sin is death. As well, we also understand that God, in His mercy, will accept the death of Jesus in our place; that is why theologians sometimes will call it the “substitutionary atonement.” Atonement is what Jesus accomplished on the cross, and it was accomplished by His being our substitute; His being our sinless sacrifice, substituting for our own death. This is what the prophet Isaiah was talking about in Isaiah 53, some 700 years before the time of Christ. Isaiah knew that Jesus was coming and he knew that Jesus was going to die. He knew that Jesus was going to die as a substitute for our sin, and so he writes in Isaiah 53:5, “But He,” Jesus, “was wounded for our transgressions; He was crushed for our iniquities; upon Him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with His stripes we are healed. All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned—every one—to his own way; and the Lord,” God the Father, “has laid on Him,” Jesus, “the iniquity of us all.” Jesus is the Lamb of God; our sin requires death, but God, in His mercy, allows the substitution of a sinless sacrifice to pay the penalty for our sin, and that is why John the Baptist continues, “Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.” On the cross, God took our sin away from us and laid it on Jesus. Paul tells the Corinthians, “He who knew no sin was made to be sin so that you and I could be made the righteousness of God.” Our sin was taken away from us and laid on Jesus. He was made to be sin because He had lived a sinless life, and therefore, His sacrifice was perfect for our sin.
C. Two Ramifications
Now, I know that this is somewhat of a review because we talked about issues of conversion when we started this series. However, there are two ramifications that are tremendously important upon which to focus when we think about Jesus’ being the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world.
1. “Lamb of God who takes away...”
The first of those ramifications is that only the Lamb of God can take away sin; only the Lamb of God can take away sin. Jesus, and Jesus alone, is the acceptable sacrifice to pay the penalty for our sin. Sin is not taken away by being a good Muslim. Sin is not taken away by being a good Hindu. Sin is not taken away by being a good Buddhist or a Baptist. Sin is not taken away by being a nice person or being a religious person. Sin is not taken away by doing certain things like attending church or confessing to a priest or being baptized. Sin can only be removed by the Lamb of God, because only the Lamb of God was the sinless, substitutionary sacrifice for my sin and your sin. Jesus says, “I am the Way and the Truth and the Life. No one comes to the Father but by Me.” Peter says in Acts 4, “There is salvation in no one else for there’s no other name under heaven given among men whereby we must be saved.” Jesus is the only Lamb of God and only the Lamb of God can take away sin. Now, this notion of absolute claim to uniqueness and being exclusive is absolutely central and non-negotiable in our sharing of the Gospel, and it runs totally contrary to American culture. This notion doesn’t run contrary to a lot of other cultures, but it runs contrary to our culture; and as new Christians, we are going to start running up against this pretty soon, if we haven’t already. What our friends and co-workers will tell us is that there really is no such thing as absolute truth. They’ll say, “There’s nothing really right or really wrong.”
“There’s nothing that’s really true or really false.”
“Everything is relative.”
“Your truth is just as valid as my truth, and that’s okay because, in fact, my truth may change between this morning and this afternoon. It’s okay because there’s no such thing as absolute truth.” So look at them and pray a prayer and say, “No, there is only one way for sin to be forgiven because there is only one Lamb of God. There is only one Lamb of God who took away the sin of the world.” We will be told that all roads lead to heaven. Our answer is “No, all roads except one lead to hell.” Our answer is not because we’re arrogant, but because there was only one Lamb of God, only one God-man who did something about sin, and only one acceptable sacrifice; there is only one way for sin to be taken away. Only the Lamb of God can take away sin.
2. “...the sin of the world”
The second ramification is wrapped up in the phrase, “...the sin of the world.” “Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.” The Lamb of God takes away all of the sin of the entire world. John tells us in his letter that Jesus is the propitiation—or as the NIV translates it, the atoning sacrifice—for our sin, and not for ours only but also for the sin of the entire world. Jesus’ death is sufficient, and that’s the important word. Jesus’ death is sufficient to cover all of the sin for all of the world, for all who ask for forgiveness will receive. The theological phrase for this concept is the “sufficiency of the cross,” and it is tremendously important. The doctrine of the sufficiency of the cross is that Jesus’ work on the cross is sufficient to take away the sin of all who believe. To put a different emphasis on it: Jesus did everything that needs to be done in order to remove our sin. Jesus does not need our help; He does not need the help of priests; He does not need the help of the church. Jesus’ work on the cross was sufficient, and He provided the sacrifice that is sufficient to cover the sin of all who will but ask for forgiveness.
a. It Is Finished!
This doctrine of the sufficiency of the cross is powerfully illustrated at least two different ways in Scripture. The first way in which it is illustrated is Jesus’ final words from the cross. As Jesus bore the penalty for our sin, actually as He bore our sin, as He was made to be sin, we believe the presence of God the Father left Him for the first time in all eternity. On the cross, He cried out, “My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me?” “When is this going to be over?” “When will I have paid the penalty for all this sin?” When He realized that He had paid the penalty, when He realized that it was over, He cried out, “It is finished!” Then He bowed His head and He died. You see, when Jesus said, “It is finished,” He meant exactly what He said: It is finished. If we were to ask Him, “Jesus, what’s finished?” He would have answered, “The work that My Father sent Me to do is finished.” If we were to ask Him, “What was the work you were sent to do”, He could respond as back in John 6:40, “For this is the will of my Father, that everyone who looks on the Son and believes in Him should have eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day.” When Jesus cried out, “It is finished,” He was saying, “My work is sufficient so that everyone who believes on Me, I will grant them eternal life. Everyone who believes on Me will be raised up on that final Day of Judgment to spend eternity with our Father and our brothers and sisters in heaven. It is finished! I have done what only I can do and I have done everything that I need to do; such that if you believe in Me, your sin can be forgiven”; it’s a powerful statement.
b. Temple Veil Torn in Two
The other illustration of the sufficiency of the cross, and I think my favorite, is the fact that the temple veil (temple curtain) was torn in two when Jesus died. There is an area in the temple called the Holy of Holies; it’s the place where God’s presence used to dwell, and it was a very holy place. It was a place that only the High Priest could go in, and he could only go once a year, because he was going into the very presence of God. We know from secular sources that there was about a six-inch thick curtain that separated the Holy of Holies from the rest of the Temple. The curtain was incredibly important because it represented the presence of God on the other side of the curtain, and it represented our separation from God as we stood on this side of the curtain; we could not go directly into the presence of God the Father. When Jesus died, His death was sufficient to take away the sin of the world; it was sufficient to guarantee direct access into God the Father and to make it really clear that God ripped that curtain in two from top to bottom. We can now move directly into the presence of God because Jesus has done everything that was necessary to grant us full forgiveness of our sin, which enables us to come fully into the presence of God. You know, that curtain was torn from top to bottom; there was no partial tear—it was torn all the way. Why? Jesus’ death was sufficient to take away the sin of the entire world.
c. Sew the curtain back up
One of the sad commentaries on human life is that religion has been busy, ever since, trying to sew that curtain back up. So many times religion says, “Jesus’ death wasn’t sufficient; He didn’t quite do enough, and we have to help Him if, in fact, we are to be forgiven and come into the presence of God.” So religion likes to add on religious activity to salvation. “If we just do some things to earn God’s favor—perhaps go out enough and knock on doors and witness of Jehovah—then somehow we will have finished ripping the curtain and have forgiveness of sin.” I heard a man speak who had knocked on over 70,000 doors witnessing for Jehovah and then he became a Christian. He said the problem was on how many doors do I have to knock; maybe it was 71,000! So you see, he didn’t believe that Jesus’ death was sufficient and so he had to give God a helping hand by earning favor; by doing religious things; by witnessing for Jehovah—sewing up that curtain as fast as they could. Other parts of religion will tell you, “No. You can’t come into the presence of God.”
“That Temple curtain isn’t totally torn.”
“If you were going to confess your sin, you don’t confess them to God you confess them to a priest.”
“Certainly you can’t come into the presence of God.” Even worse still, some religion teaches that the cross wasn’t sufficient; that Jesus’ death was not sufficient, and therefore, we have to keep killing Jesus every day in Mass. My nephew who serves at Mass will say, “Time to go to the sacrifice.” He understands very clearly that they think they are killing Jesus every celebration of Mass. These are all ways in which, frankly, we thumb our noses at the work of Christ. We say, “No, You did not take away the sin of the world.” “No, Your work on the cross was not sufficient to guarantee me forgiveness and full access to God.” The Bible says that Jesus died as the Lamb of God; He and He alone takes away the sin of the world—there is forgiveness of sin in no one or nothing else; Jesus did all that needed to be done. His work on the cross is sufficient to take away the sin of the entire world; this truth is just as true for us now as it was when we first believed. When presenting the Gospel, it’s important that people understand that the only way to the Father is through the Son. When we’re coming up to the point of conversion, it’s important that we understand “Jesus paid it all, and all to Him I owe,” as the songwriter says. As life continues, we’re tempted to forget the uniqueness and the sufficiency of the cross; that truth is just as true for us, who are children of God. There is a temptation to think, “Well, yes I became a Christian through the work of Jesus on the cross, but there’s other ways to get there; other ways to have sin forgiven.” As we move along in our Christian walk, we can easily think that God needs a helping hand. However, the cross is sufficient, both in conversion and in our walk as Christians, and we must never leave the hope to which we originally grasped—that “Jesus paid it all, and all to Him I owe.” That’s the doctrine of that atonement—what Jesus did on the cross—but the atonement does no good unless we respond to it.
D. We Must Respond to the Atonement
We are not universalists; we do not believe that Jesus’ death paid the penalty for all people, so all people automatically go to heaven; that’s never been Christian doctrine. Christian doctrine has always required that we respond to the message of the cross, and that we respond to the atonement. John 6:40 says, “For this is the will of my Father, that everyone who looks on the Son and believes in Him may have eternal life.” When Peter was preaching his great sermon in Acts 2, and they came to him saying, “What must we do to be saved?” He didn’t say, “Well, nothing! You know, Jesus paid the price of everyone’s sin so everyone automatically goes to heaven”; Peter did not say that. He said, “You must respond to the good news of Jesus Christ on the cross; you must repent and be baptized. Paul tells the Ephesian church, “For by grace you have been saved through faith.” Grace is God’s gracious gift of the Lamb, and faith is our necessary response; our believing that Jesus was the Lamb of God; our believing that He and He alone sufficiently paid the penalty of our sin. Conversion is such a crucial step, isn’t it? Conversion is absolutely crucial because no one is born a Christian. No one who was baptized as an infant automatically goes to heaven. My mom was a relatively young Christian when I was born and the church wanted to baptize me; they were insistent. Mom had to threaten to sue them if one drop of water touched her baby’s head, because being baptized as an infant doesn’t do anything but confuse people. There is no family plan; no one goes to heaven because of his mom or dad or his brothers or sisters or his uncles or great-aunts. Every one of us must respond to the message of the atonement for the forgiveness of sin to be applied to you and to me.
There is a wonderful teaching tool in scripture as we perhaps struggle to understand the immensity of the atonement; it’s also a good tool that reminds us all about what the atonement is. That teaching tool is Communion. Some churches have other names for it: some call it the Lord’s Supper, and some call it Eucharist—just different words to describe the same thing. Communion is a ritual; it’s one of the two rituals that Jesus gave us—He gave us baptism and He gave us communion. Communion is a good ritual, and it’s one of those good rituals because it’s there to teach us, as well as to remind us, about the nature of the atonement.
1. Egypt, 1400 BC
Very briefly, when the Jewish nation was enslaved in Egypt around 1400 BC, God saved His chosen people through a series of plagues, which became known as the Exodus—the going out of Israel out of slavery and out of Egypt. The Jews rightly look back at the Exodus as the greatest salvation act in the history of reality. We read in the book of Exodus, Chapter 12, the instructions that God gave His children to get ready for the tenth plague, the most horrible plague. I’m going to skip around a bit, but these are the instructions starting in Exodus 12:3: “Take a lamb according to their fathers’ houses, a lamb for a household. And if the household is too small for a lamb, then he and his nearest neighbor shall take according to the number of persons;” they wanted to make sure that there were enough people there to eat the whole lamb, “according to what each can eat you shall make your count for the lamb.” It was a family affair; they got a group of people together. Now verse 6, “... 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,” the area over the top of the door, “in which they eat it. They shall eat the flesh that night, roasted on the fire; with unleavened bread and bitter herbs they shall eat it.” The unleavened bread was symbolic of the fact that God was going to save them quickly; there wasn’t even time for the bread to rise. The bitter herbs are there to remind them of their bitter years of slavery in Egypt. Verse 11 goes on to say, “In this manner you shall eat it: with your belt fastened, your sandals on your feet, and your staff in your hand. And you shall eat it in haste. It is the Lord’s Passover. 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.” Verse 13, “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.” As the instructions continue, God makes it clear that this was to be a yearly festival, a yearly celebration of the salvation of the Lord. Among other things, it was to continue to be a family time of instruction. Verse 25 says, “And when you come to the land that the Lord will give you,” the Promised Land, Canaan, “ as He has promised, you shall keep this service,” this yearly festival. “And when your children say to you, ‘What do you mean by this service?’ you shall say to them, ‘It is the sacrifice of the Lord’s Passover, for He passed over the houses of the people of Israel in Egypt, when He struck the Egyptians but spared our houses.’”
2. Jesus Reinterprets Passover
That’s the background to the story of Passover. On the night that Jesus was betrayed, it was that Passover meal that they were celebrating together. It’s interesting as Paul writes to the Corinthian church in 1 Corinthians 11 that as Jesus was celebrating the Passover, He was reinterpreting the Passover. Jesus was reinterpreting the Passover in a way that the Passover meal, now what we call Communion, would be this teaching tool to help us understand all about what the atonement is. Paul says in 1 Corinthians 11:23-26, “For I received from the Lord what I also delivered to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when He was betrayed took bread, and when He had given thanks, He broke it, and said, ‘This is my body, which is for you; do this in remembrance of Me.’ In the same way also He took the cup, after supper, saying, ‘This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of Me.’ For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until He comes.” Jesus is reinterpreting the Passover meal and He’s saying that the cross is now the greatest act of God’s salvation. The Passover bread now points to Jesus’ death, Jesus’ body broken on the cross. When Jesus says “...this is my body and this is my blood,” we don’t believe that it literally becomes flesh and blood. We believe that the elements, as we call them, represent Christ’s body and Christ’s death. Sometimes we use unleavened bread in reflection on the historical antecedents of Communion. Sometimes we use crackers that break, and sometimes we use bread that tears—they are all ways to help us understand that this stands for Christ’s body, which was broken and torn on the cross for you and for me. The Passover Cup now points to Jesus’ death, His blood spilt on the cross; it is why we use a dark liquid and not a light liquid. The dark liquid helps us remember Christ’s blood—the blood of the Lamb of God, who died for you and me as a substitution to pay the penalty for your sin and mine. Jesus is the Lamb of God. He’s the only one who ever died for your sin and mine. His death is sufficient to cover all of your sin and mine; all of the sin of all who believe and will come to Him. The Gospel is good news indeed, is it not?
700 years before Jesus was born, the prophet Isaiah wrote about Jesus’ death and what it would accomplish. Read Isaiah 52:13-53:12 and see what he tells you about Jesus, whom Isaiah calls God’s “servant.”
The Bible says that only Jesus’ death on the cross makes it possible to have our sins forgiven, and for you and me to be given access directly into God’s presence. What are some ways that the world says our sins can be forgiven? Why do most people think that we should all get to go to heaven?
Reflect on the imagery of a lamb being slaughtered by the hand of a sinner, which is you. What do you learn from the imagery?
Write out and memorize John 1:29.
Is there some way in your own culture to explain to someone else the significance of the temple veil ripping in two? Is there some way to use images common to where you live that might explain the same truth of the sufficiency of the cross?
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