Lost in our theological discourses on original sin and universal guilt, our evangelical calls to the unregenerate world and our Easter services is a basic teaching of Passover – the required death of the firstborn at the hands of Yahweh.
Our theological understanding of substitutionary atonement is so vital to the Gospel Message – it underlies the basic doctrine that both ontological and presumptive sin is forgiven, covered, and atoned for through the death of a substitute – usually an animal. Jews and Christians get this for the most part – where we often miss the mark is when we believe that the death of an animal actually covers or forgives the sinner. This coverage does not come merely from the death of the animal, nor the blood of the animal – rather it is that the lifeblood of the animal stands in place of the human sinner’s lifeblood. Which means that when the animal dies – God literally sees the blood of the human sinner – his justice demands that blood, but his mercy provides a substitute. When we talk about Jesus being the substitution for sinners – we are correct, but we should not forget what substitution means nor what it meant to ancient Israel.
But this is what substitution means from a composite look at all of the relevant Old Testament and New Testament connections that culminate in Jesus’ death being the ultimate sacrifice. But what of Passover in specific? What of the apex of Old Testament redemptive history? How does the Passover lamb fit in with the idea of substitutionary atonement? How do we understand Paul when he tells the Corinthians that “For Christ our Passover lamb has been sacrificed” (1 Cor. 5:7)?
The tenth plague against Egypt is all about Yahweh demanding his rights over the firstborn of the families of the earth – both in Israel and Egypt. In the case of Israel, his destroyer passes over the firstborn sons because when it sees the blood of the passover lambs it sees the blood of the firstborn of each family. In other words, each Israelite family had in effect already carried out Yahweh’s requirement of a ritual sacrifice of the firstborn male of the family (albeit through a substitute) (Exodus 12). Whereas in the case of Egypt, there was no substitute to be found and they were forced to drink from the unbridled thirst of Yahweh’s wrath through the death of their firstborns including the heir apparent to the ruler of the world (Pharaoh’s own crowned prince). This event resonated through each of Israel’s high feasts – Passover, Pentecost and Tabernacles, through the prophets, the psalmists, and the kings of ancient Israel. All of Old Testament theology and history ties its spiritual and physical life back to the Passover event which brought about the Exodus from Egypt.
Fast-forward 1,500 years to A.D. 33 – to the death of the firstborn son of David (via Joseph) and the firstborn son of God. By being put to death at the hands of God – Jesus’ death in the Passover sense was not literally a substitution – rather it is the ultimate expression of Yahweh’s destruction entering the world by cover of night and slaying the death of the firstborn of the ruler of the universe – it is Yahweh claiming his rights over the firstborn of the earth. But in another sense, it is a substitution, for by the ritual sacrifice of the Son of God comes covering for the rest of humanities firstborn sons. That is those who cover the doorpost of their hearts with the blood of Yahweh’s sacrificed Son. This eternal covering provides salvation from the destroyer who will pass through the night of our lives.
But let us not forget the object of the substitution – lest the power of the sacrifice lose its full bloody power. This is where it is the most critical that we maintain the picture of the Israelite Passover. The object substituted still remains our firstborn sons! We are so quick to say that Jesus dies instead of you – his death pays for yours – this is correct, but it is not the exact picture in Passover. The first-born requirement did not change since there was a substitute – remember God viewed the blood of the lambs as the blood of the firstborn of Israel – so in his just eyes Israel has paid the price by offering its sons to Him. So then, whenever Christ dies on the cross His death stands in place of your firstborn son’s death!
The stakes are high when we are talking about our own death for our own sins – they are higher still, reaching the maximum height of human understanding, whenever it is the firstborn son that is demanded as the sacrificial offering and not the individual father or the individual members of his family. So I would challenge you this Good Friday – whenever you sit with your family – either at church or at home – look at your firstborn son, your firstborn daughter, look at your firstborn brother or sister, look at your firstborn father or grandfather, look at your firstborn selves and realize that they were the cost of passing over. Yahweh demanded their life (my firstborn life, my son, Sam’s firstborn life) and His justice-driven wrath against you and your family was only quenched whenever he by cover of night offered his own firstborn (Matt. 27:45-47), covered the doorpost of your heart and passed over.