In my course on New Testament Theology and History I pointed out that Mark’s Gospel depicts Jesus’ death primarily as a Passover offering, not as a sin offering. One student asked me to elaborate on this and I thought I would share my thoughts here as well.
If you go back to the book of Exodus you’ll remember that the killing of the first Passover lambs was not designed to deal with the people’s sin. The blood of those lambs, placed on Israelite doorframes, was to protect them from the angel of death as it ravaged the Egyptians. So the passover lamb in the later festival was not understood as providing atonement for sin. It was a commemoration of how God delivered Israel from the Egyptians and created them as a new nation. It was, at the same time, an anticipation of how God would in the future deliver Israel from all her enemies (including even death) and usher in a new age of peace (i.e., the kingdom of God).
By depicting Jesus as a Passover lamb, then, Mark isn’t saying that he died for our sins. He’s saying that Jesus’ death on the cross was God’s way of liberating us from our enemies (even Satan and death) and freeing us to enter the coming Kingdom.
This is not to say that Mark didn’t also think that Jesus’ death was the solution to our sin. But that idea of atonement just isn’t part of this particular metaphor for the cross. Other metaphors for the cross, emphasized more in other books, will depict the cross differently, e.g., as a sin offering. What is important for us to notice is that the dominant metaphor for the cross in the Gospels is not what we expect as Evangelicals. The dominant metaphor isn’t the sin offering or the sacrifice of the Day of Atonement. So, while the Gospels do take sin seriously, they think of the cross primarily as an act that liberated us from our enemies (spiritual and temporal). They think of the cross first and foremost as dealing with sin by liberating us from the hostile tempting power of Satan and his demons.
This is not to downplay the seriousness of human sin, but remember that Jews already had ongoing access to forgiveness in the sacrificial system of the temple. Much of what they needed was to be freed from the power that weakened their resolve and continually drew them back to sin again. This was sometimes described as a problem with the human constitution, an “evil inclination.” But it was just as often described as a problem that comes from outside of us, as our oppression by powers beyond us. By freeing us from Satan’s domination the cross deals with sin at that more fundamental level.
What you are going to find is that the NT writers don’t have one consistent, systematic theology of the cross. They present a series of different metaphors for what happened on the cross. One of these is the cross as Passover offering. But that doesn’t mean this one metaphor exhausts all the significance of Jesus’ crucifixion. So we recognize that the “Passover Lamb” metaphor is part of the truth about the cross, and we hold it together with other metaphors which emerge especially in the NT letters.
What we don’t want to do, though, is ignore the “Passover Lamb” metaphor because it doesn’t meet our theological expectations. Many of us have been taught to view the cross only as a sin offering or as the sacrifice of the Day of atonement. We have been taught to see the cross only as the solution to our individual guilt. What the “Passover Lamb” metaphor shows us is that our usual understanding of the cross is only part of a larger NT picture. The cross is not just atonement for our individual sin and guilt. It is also God’s conquest over the spiritual powers of evil, powers which have dominated humanity and perverted our relationships. So on the cross God offers us protection from the coming judgement on those spiritual powers, and liberation from them so that we (like Israel) can leave our captivity and inherit God’s Kingdom.
The Passover Lamb metaphor also helps us to remember that we are oppressed in this age by all kinds of injustice and suffering. The cross did not just liberate us from spiritual powers that try to corrupt us. The cross also marked the beginning of the end for all kinds of evil and injustice. Like in the Passover, Jesus’ death as Passover Lamb doesn’t transport us immediately to the Promised Land of God’s Kingdom. But we are now free to wander toward that fertile territory, learning how to live justly and rightly both as individuals and as communities. And the point of it all is not just forgiveness for its own sake. The end goal is that we enter that final Kingdom and enjoy being part of human community the way it was meant to be.