Growing up, one of my favorite movies was The Prince of Egypt. Countless times, I witnessed the story of the Passover unfolding before my eyes. Moses returns to the land he fled from, bringing a message from the God of Israel: “Let my people go” (Ex. 5:1). Pharaoh refuses. Moses continues to demand the release of God’s people as the Lord makes his will known through plagues.
At Pharaoh’s final refusal, God strikes down the firstborn sons of Egypt, leaving death in every house (12:30). But the children of the Israelites are spared. When the dust settles, the only difference between the dead and defeated Egyptians and the newly freed Israelites is blood—the blood of an unblemished lamb (12:5).
As well as I knew the story of the Passover, one question perplexed me: Why did God command the Israelites to put the blood of a lamb on their doorposts? This made no sense to me until I met the greater Lamb, the One this story is really about.
Before college, I thought I was a Christian because I believed in God, followed the rules, and was generally nice to people. When I sinned, I either denied my wrongdoing or assumed God would overlook my shortcomings on account of my overall good behavior. I vaguely felt that God loved me but had no real understanding of what it would mean for my life if I truly believed it.
That all changed when I attended a Navigators group at my college where new friends gave me a Bible and began to share their lives with me. When I read God’s Word for the first time, the gospel became real to me. My standing with God wasn’t based on my good works but rather on what Jesus accomplished on the cross. He paid the full price for my sin, and I could walk in the joy of forgiveness and reconciliation—this is the essence of substitutionary atonement. For someone used to self-justification, this truth was a breath of fresh air.
For someone used to self-justification, substitutionary atonement was a breath of fresh air.
But even as I came to know Jesus as my Savior, the temptation remained to view my or others’ works as “good enough” for God. It wasn’t until I began to see Jesus’s life, death, and resurrection as the fulfillment of God’s ancient promises of redemption that I could appreciate the beauty of God’s character in atonement doctrine.
Two years ago, I read the Bible chronologically over five months, taking in the full picture of Scripture. Afterward, I made a list of key takeaways. This was the first thing I wrote down: “Man’s history is consistently repetitive but God’s history is consistently redemptive.”
Shortly after God revealed his faithfulness to the Israelites by bringing them through the Passover and out of Egypt, Moses found God’s people worshiping a golden calf (32:19). Afterward, the history of Israel repeated itself, with brief periods of devotion to God quickly marred by injustice and idolatry brought about by the misdeeds of leaders who were supposed to be seeking the Lord.
Yet throughout their rebellion, a merciful and gracious God refused to destroy Israel and instead relentlessly pursued them. He made a covenant with Israel, giving them his law, a new land, and the promise to be their God. No sinner could look upon the holy, righteous God and live (33:20), so God instituted a system of animal sacrifices by which Israelites could commune with God.
Man’s history is consistently repetitive but God’s history is consistently redemptive.
But Israel fell short of following God’s law, and temple sacrifices were soon tainted with injustice and wicked intentions. Still, God pursued his people—calling them to repent, carrying them through exile, and returning them to the land they once possessed.
Finally, John the Baptist proclaimed the beginning of God’s ultimate solution to humanity’s biggest problem: “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1:29). Just as those first lambs were deemed acceptable sacrifices to God on the basis of their physical perfection, so Jesus was an acceptable sacrifice on account of his perfect righteousness. Innocent and blameless, he was a sheep led to slaughter, sentenced to death for our sin (Isa. 53:5–7). And like the lambs of old, his blood covers his people, a sign to God to pass over our sin.
Following the Good Shepherd
But the beauty of the atonement doesn’t end there. Jesus is not only our Passover Lamb but also our Good Shepherd (John 10:11). He willingly laid down his life for the sheep (John 10:18). Jesus went to the cross “for the joy that was set before him,” enduring suffering with the knowledge that those who are called by his name would soon be free from sin and fully reconciled to the Father (Heb. 12:2).
Growing in my understanding of substitutionary atonement has left me in awe of God’s goodness and mercy to me. Like Pharaoh, my heart was hardened toward the Lord. Atonement doctrine revealed both the seriousness of my sin and the incredible love of the Lamb who died in my place. What a joy to now follow the Shepherd who relentlessly pursues his people!