Was the Passover sacrifice an atoning sacrifice?



This came up today due to a recent series on Christianity Today’s site. The series has good intentions. “Christ is our Passover Lamb” is a series of entries organized by Ed Stetzer. Part 8 was “The Atonement and the Passover: Exodus 12 by Matt Capps.”

UPDATE: It appears that CT removed my comment from their site. The substance of it remains below.

I posted a rather long comment on their site, but it doesn’t seem to be appearing for some, so I will include my critique here. But first, a little background so you do not have to click through. Mr. Capps’s error is in conflating atoning sacrifice with the Passover sacrifice.

Israel’s involvement in the last plague is significant. If the Israelites did not trust in God’s word and follow His instructions; their firstborn would also die. The need for salvation is made clear and the atoning sacrifice is provided on Israel’s behalf (Ex. 12). The conditions for atonement are laid out, but Israel must respond in faith.

Undoubtedly he is correct about Israel’s involvement, but the problem is his identifying this as an “atoning sacrifice.” So without further preamble, my comment left on CT’s site:

This piece (part 8) is interesting but VERY misleading. Passover, the Exodus account, is NOT an atoning sacrifice. It is NOT about atoning for sins or the purification from sin. (That offering comes later, in Lev. 16.) The author is reading back into Ex. 12ff the NT understanding of Jesus’ sacrifice. This is highly problematic and, as I said, misleading. So let’s walk this back a bit.

Exodus 12ff speaks of the Passover sacrifice. As Mr. Capps points out, unlike the other plagues, in this case the Israelites were required to follow God’s command rather than be automatically spared. If they were obedient then the angel of death would passover their household. The lamb is thus not an “atoning” sacrifice for the sins of the Israelites, but rather simply offered in obedience to God’s command, similar to peace offerings or grain offerings. (The consequences in this case would be more dire, presumably, than missing a peace offering…) It is later, in Lev. 16 that we find the “kippur” offering instituted.

It is on this “day of atonement” that the sacrifice was offered which would “atone” for the sins of Israel. Literally, covering over their sins. Tyndale rendered the Hebrew kippur as “at-one-ment” translating the concept of the action rather than the literal meaning of the terms. This is a VERY different sacrifice than the others and than the Passover lamb specifically.

So let’s now jump to the NT. Jesus goes up to Jerusalem and is crucified at the time of Passover. Thus, Paul equates Christ’s sacrifice with the Passover offering. But the author of Hebrews also sees Jesus as the atonement sacrifice, the one and only sacrifice offered in the Holy of Holies (Heb. 9:12). So Jesus is both/and the Passover sacrifice and our atoning sacrifice. BUT this does not mean that we should conflate the two in the Old Testament.

I have explored this before in my Easter sermon several years ago. I do think there are very important reasons why Jesus chose Passover as the time to offering himself up and it is important to meditate upon Ex. 12 and its relevance for us as Christians. But we also should understand the differences and uniqueness of each sacrifice. And the fact that Jesus uniquely fulfills them both.

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