[Based in very large part on the article by Russ Ramsey (“Easter Week in Real Time,” The Gospel Coalition, April 10, 2017), with some additional discussion and personal commentary added] – Diane Rufino, April 16, 2017.
“Jesus’s resurrection is the beginning of God’s new project not to snatch people away from earth to heaven but to colonize earth with the life of heaven. That, after all, is what the Lord’s Prayer is about.” — N.T. Wright
How many of us have stopped to ponder the difference between “redemption” and “sacrifice”?
Redemption – The King James version of the Bible defines the verb “to redeem” as follows: To purchase back; to ransom; to liberate or rescue from captivity or bondage, or from any obligation or liability to suffer or to be forfeited, by paying an equivalent; as, to redeem prisoners or captured goods; to redeem a pledge.
Sacrifice – The King James version of the Bible defines “sacrifice” as follows: To offer to God in homage or worship, by killing and consuming, as victims on an altar; to immolate, either as an atonement for sin, or to procure favor, or to express thankfulness; as, to sacrifice an ox or a lamb.
On Palm Sunday, my pastor was talking about Jesus as “The Lamb of God” and how that phrase indicated that Jesus was a pure (without sin) sacrifice. He went on to emphasize the significance of the young donkey that our Lord asked his disciples to fetch for him to ride into Jerusalem – something I had never been given reason to consider.
In Biblical times, a donkey was a fairly common domestic animal. But it was regarded as ‘unclean’ (See Leviticus). As such it could not be either eaten or offered in sacrifice; it could only be retained by an owner for his use. But if an owner wished to keep the baby donkey for his use, he could only do so after first offering a “clean” or “pure” sacrifice for it. And so, in those days, a lamb would be sacrificed, or killed. It, however, could not be killed in the usual manner reserved for a true sacrifice; that is, there could be no spilling of blood. It would have to be sacrificed by breaking its neck. In truth, the lamb was not offered as a sacrifice but rather, the donkey was “redeemed” by the lamb.
To understand why the title “Lamb of God” is used for Christ, we must first appreciate the celebration of Passover. Recall that at about 1250 BC, the Israelites were slaves of Egypt. Almighty God heard the cry of His people: Exodus 2:24 stated, “He heard their groaning and was mindful of His covenant with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.” God sent Moses to deliver His people from their bondage. After Moses had performed nine signs, Pharaoh’s heart was still unmoved. Finally, God told Moses to have each family take a one-year-old, male, unblemished lamb; slaughter the lamb; and paint the door posts and lintel of every house with its blood. Inside, the Israelites would eat its roasted flesh with unleavened bread and bitter herbs. That night, the Angel of Death would “pass over” the homes protected by the blood, but take the lives of the firs- born children unprotected by the blood of the lamb. Because of that blood sacrifice, Pharaoh let the Israelites go. They were freed from bondage. They went from slavery to freedom, from a land of sin to the Promised land, and from death to new life. [The New Testament would teach of the new covenant – the “new and everlasting covenant.” It would explain how God’s people could be freed from a different kind of bondage… the bondage of sin].
The prophets used this image of the lamb to describe the Messiah. Isaiah prophesied, “Though he was harshly treated, he submitted and opened not his mouth; like a lamb led to the slaughter or a sheep before the shearer, he was silent and opened not his mouth” (Isaiah 53:7). However, the image is twofold: the Messiah would be both the sacrificial lamb to atone for sin and the suffering servant. Interestingly, when speaking to the Ethiopian eunuch who was reading this exact passage from Isaiah, St. Philip told how it referred to Christ and how He fulfilled it. (Acts 8:26).
Nevertheless, in the Gospels, Jesus is specifically identified as “the Lamb of God” in the sense of both the sacrificial offering for sin and the suffering servant. As John the Baptist was proclaiming the coming of the Messiah at the River Jordan, he saw Jesus approaching him and proclaimed, “Look! There is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1:29). After foretelling His passion, death, and resurrection for the third time, Jesus asserted, “Anyone among you who aspires to greatness must serve the rest, and whoever wants to rank first among you must serve the needs of all. Such is the case of the Son of Man who has come, not to be served by others, but to serve, to give His own life as a ransom for the many.” (Matthew 20:26-28).
The imagery of “Lamb of God” becomes clear in the Passion Narratives of the Gospels. In St. John’s gospel, Pilate condemned Jesus to death on the preparation day for Passover at noon (John 18:28, 19:14), the hour when the priests began to slaughter Passover lambs in the temple. After the crucifixion, the Gospel recorded that they did not break any of Jesus’ bones in fulfillment of Scripture (John 19:36); this reference corresponds to Exodus 12:46 and Numbers 9:12 where none of the Passover lamb’s bones were to be broken. After our Lord’s death, the soldier thrust forward his lance, piercing the heart of our Lord; out flowed blood and water (John 19:34), always interpreted as signs of the life-giving sacraments of Holy Eucharist and Baptism.
Ponder the depth of what Christ endured in his passion. At the crucifixion, Jesus, the innocent and sinless victim, takes all of our sins unto Himself. He though does not just bear our sins and suffer the punishment for us that is due for them; no, Jesus Himself expiates the sins. He as Priest offers Himself on the altar of the cross. Through His blood He washes away sin. However, unlike the Passover lamb that was slaughtered, roasted, and eaten, our Lord rose from the dead, conquering both sin and death. He has truly delivered us from the slavery of sin, shown us the path of salvation, and given us the promise of everlasting life. He has made a new, perfect, and everlasting covenant with His own blood. Therefore St. Peter exhorted, “Realize that you were delivered from the futile way of life your fathers handed on to you, not by any diminishable sum of silver or gold, but by Christ’s blood beyond all price, the blood of a spotless, unblemished lamb…” (I Peter 1:19).
Easter is about sacrifice and redemption —
Let’s begin with a look at Easter week, the holiest of the series of holidays we celebrate:
Palm Sunday —
When Jesus rode into Jerusalem perched on a colt, it was the first time since raising Lazarus from the dead that he’d shown his face in the city. The story of Lazarus’s resurrection had circulated so that many regarded Jesus as a celebrity. Everyone wanted to catch a glimpse. They went out to meet him and received him like a King, because they heard he had done this (John 12:18).
Jesus said Lazarus’s death would end in the faith of many, and in the “glory of God—that the Son of God may be glorified through it” (John 11:4). But the glory he had in mind was even more glorious than his triumphal entry into Jerusalem. In fact, he wasn’t referring to the glory these people gave him at all. Lazarus’s resurrection would steel the resolve of the religious leaders to hand Jesus over to a death he would embrace—a death he would conquer. That was the glory he meant. As he rode into Jerusalem, the people cried, “Your King is coming!” They praised his victory over Lazarus’s death. But the irony was that he wasn’t coming to claim his crown on account of Lazarus’s death and resurrection, but on account of his own.
[For a full account of the events of this day, see Matthew 21:1–11, Mark 11:1–11, Luke 19:28–44, John 12:9–19].
If Jerusalem was a beehive, with his triumphal entry Jesus had hit it with a stick. You could hear the buzz grow as the anger within got organized. His kingly arrival was a strong declaration about his authority over all the conventions of man.
On Monday, Jesus returns for more—this time to declare the failure of God’s people to live up to their covenant mandate to be a blessing to the world. Much of what the Gospels tell us about Monday centers on the theme of Jesus’s authority—both over the created world and his right to judge it. Everything Jesus did, he did with authority. So when he awoke his disciples Monday saying he wanted to go back into Jerusalem to teach, as risky as it sounded it wasn’t surprising. Everyone sensed something stirring, as if Jesus had rounded a corner and his end was coming fast. He was a marked man.
[For a full account of the events of this day, see Matthew 21:12–22, Mark 11:12–19, Luke 19:45–48].
If Monday’s arrival in the temple was an all-inclusive, living parable of cleansing God’s house, Tuesday’s entrance is a direct, verbal confrontation with the appointed leadership. After Jesus clarifies he doesn’t regard these leaders as having any authority over him, he spends the rest of the day right there in the temple to teach the people God’s Word. But Tuesday afternoon is the last time Jesus publicly teaches in the temple as a free man. His words on this day are his closing argument, his manifesto.
When Jesus leaves the temple on Tuesday, the chief priests and scribes are “seeking how to arrest him by stealth and kill him” (Mark 14:1). But they can’t take his life from him solely on the strength of the charges they plan to bring—not if he defends himself. But he won’t. Instead, by his silence, he’ll offer up his life for a world of blasphemers and traitors and liars. This was what he has come to do, and as he exits the temple that Tuesday afternoon, he knows he will do it soon.
[For a full account of the events of this day, see Matthew 21:23–26:5, Mark 11:27–14:2, Luke 20:1–22:2, John 12:37–50].
The past several days have been a rush of tension and anger for Jesus’s opponents—and of unflinching resolve for Jesus. Words have been his currency, and he’s spent piles of them. But on the Wednesday before his death, Jesus is still.
He is in the home of Simon the Leper, a man known by what’s wrong with him. During their meal together, Mary of Bethany—Lazarus’s sister (John 12:3)—comes to Jesus with an alabaster flask of perfume. She’s been saving this perfume, worth a year’s wages, for this exact occasion (John 12:7). She begins pouring it on Jesus’s head and feet, which requires breaking open its container (Mark 14:3). Like popping the cork on a $20,000 bottle of champagne, this was a deliberate act. She is offering Jesus everything she has. By giving her most valuable possession to him, she is expressing her knowledge that what he’s about to give of himself is for her.
What Mary does is beautiful, and Jesus wants everyone to know it. She is preparing him for burial. There is honor and kindness in her gesture. Jesus returns the honor by saying history will never forget her act of beauty. And we haven’t.
[For a full account of the events of this day, see Matthew 26:6–16, Mark 14:3–11, Luke 22:3–6].
The Thursday prior to Jesus’s crucifixion fills many pages in Scripture. It begins with John and Peter securing the upper room. There, Jesus washes his disciples’ feet, explaining he is there to make them clean.
As they begin to eat, Jesus announces one of them is about to betray him. Each wonders if he means them. Then he dispatches Judas to do what he intends.
During this last supper, Jesus sets apart the Passover bread and cup and reassigns—or better, perfects—their meaning. The bread is his body. The cup, his blood. This meal will no longer remind them of God’s deliverance primarily from the external tyranny of Pharaoh, but from the internal tyranny of their own guilt and sin against God.
Jesus prays for his friends and those who will come to know him through them—that his Father would make them one (John 17). Then Jesus and his friends leave for the Mount of Olives to pray (Mark 14:33). But he isn’t there only to pray. He is also there to wait. Soon a line of torches snake their way toward him in the darkness. This is what he has been waiting for.
[For a full account of the events of this day, see Matthew 26:17–75, Mark 14:12–72, Luke 22:7–71, John 13:1–18:27].
Good Friday —
On Thursday night in Gethsemane, Jesus was arrested—betrayed by one of his disciples and abandoned by the others. The chief priests and the Sanhedrin called for secret trials in the dead of night, and the verdict handed down was that Jesus would be crucified. This is something the Roman prefect, Pontius Pilate, has to execute. And reluctantly, he does.
After a severe beating, Jesus is nailed to a cross where he remains for six hours until dead. Never before or since has more been lost and gained at the same time. The world gained the atoning sacrifice of Christ. In the dying moments on the cross, Christ gives us the greatest display of love and the greatest illustration of forgiveness possible.
But for those present, either the significance of the moment is lost on them or their hearts break as the One they thought to be the Savior of the world dies at the hands of Rome. They can’t stop it, and they don’t realize it’s for them. They hoped in him, and though he’d told them he would suffer many things and rise three days later (Mark 8:31), how could they have possibly known this was what he meant?
[For a full account of the events of this day, see Matthew 27:1–61, Mark 15:1–47, Luke 23:1–56, John 18:28–19:42].
Saturday — The Forgotten Day
Less is written about the Saturday following Jesus’s crucifixion than any other in the scope of this week. Yet what makes it unique is that this is the only full day in history where the body of Christ lies buried in a cave.
Yesterday, he was crucified. Tomorrow, he rises from the grave. But what about today? Though we may not make much of this day, when we look at the few verses the Gospels give us about it, we find it was by no means forgotten by the chief priests who had handed Jesus over to death. During his earthly ministry, Jesus repeatedly said he would die in Jerusalem at the hands of the chief priests, yet on the third day rise again (e.g., Matt. 12:40; Mark 8:31; 9:31; 10:34).
Of course, the chief priests scoffed. But they didn’t forget it. On the day between Good Friday and Easter Sunday, Jesus’s prediction preoccupies their thoughts such that they simply can’t leave it alone. Matthew 27:62–66 tells the strange story of how they can’t dismiss out of hand the possibility that Jesus might know something they don’t.
[For a full account of the events of this day as found in the Gospels, see Matthew 27:62–66].
Resurrection Sunday —
Early Sunday morning, some of Jesus’s friends set out for his grave to anoint the body of their friend and teacher. When they arrive, however, they are greeted by what one Gospel writer calls “a man dressed in lightning.” He tells them Jesus is not there, as he said. He is risen.
In the week leading up to his death, the Good Shepherd went out to meet the wolves of judgment, sin, and death—and he did so with all authority. One might wonder, what good has it ever done anyone to die for some cause? This is the glorious beauty of the gospel. Jesus didn’t die as a martyr for a cause. He was never in the wrong place at the wrong time. He was never at the mercy of anyone. He lived, died, and was buried because he meant to be.
No one took his life from him. He laid it down. For his flock, his people. Because of Christ’s death and resurrection, here will never be any trial too great any burden too heavy, or any temptation too strong. The same power that raised up Jesus is available to all who believe.
And he laid it down only to take it up again (John 10:18). The point of the cross was not just to die, but to die and rise again, defeating the condemnation of sin, eternal separation from God, and death itself. The crucifix represents a dead Christ hanging languid on a cross of shame – an example of a zealot, a rabble-rouser, an enemy of the Roman empire. But our religion is not focused on a dead Christ but rather on a living Christ. He lives exalted at God’s right hand, and he “saves to the uttermost all who come to God by Him.”
[For a full account of the events of this day, see Matthew 28:1–20, Mark 16:1–8, Luke 24:1–53, John 20:1–21:25].
*** Sections “Palm Sunday” through “Resurrection Sunday” are taken almost exactly, and intact, from Mr. Ramsey’s article in the Gospel Coalition.
The Foundation of His Church —
A person who believes in a Christ who was not raised believes in a powerless Christ, a dead Christ. If Christ did not rise from the dead, then no redemption was accomplished at the cross and “your faith is worthless,” Paul said. “You are still in your sins.” (1 Corinthians 15:17)
Easter reminds us that the Church begins with witness: lives changed by an encounter with the Risen Lord; men and women who then transform others by the power of their testimony and the authority of their example. The Gospels are remarkably candid about the difficulty the first Christian witnesses had in grasping just what they had experienced. In John’s gospel, Mary confuses the Risen One with a gardener. In Luke’s resurrection account, two disciples walk a considerable distance on the Emmaus Road without recognizing their risen and glorified companion. In the Johannine epilogue, seven apostles on the Sea of Tiberias take a while to grasp that it’s the Risen Lord who’s cooking breakfast on the seashore.
This candor about initial incomprehension bears its own witness to the historicity of the Resurrection. For what happened on the first Easter Sunday was so completely unprecedented, and yet so completely real, that it exploded the expectations of pious Jews about history, the Messiah, and the fulfillment of God’s promises, even as it transformed hitherto timid followers of the Rabbi Jesus of Nazareth into zealous evangelists who set off from the edges of the Roman Empire to convert, over the next 250 years, perhaps half the Mediterranean world.
The witness of radically converted lives has been the lifeblood of Christianity ever since, for at the bottom of the bottom line of Christian faith is the encounter with a person, the Risen Lord, Jesus Christ. Christianity is also about creed, doctrine, morals, worship, and all the rest — but it is fundamentally about friendship with Jesus Christ and the transformation that engenders, and when it ceases to be that, it becomes the lifeless husk we see in too much of Western Europe. Where Christianity lives today, against all cultural odds, it’s because of witnesses like those initially confused souls in Judea and Galilee whose conversion began with life-shattering and life-changing encounters with the Risen One.
Christ is the New and Everlasting Covenant –
Jesus Christ came in fulfillment of scripture as the new and everlasting covenant. In simple terms, a covenant is an agreement between two parties. It can be an agreement between a husband and wife, a friendship pact between two people, an alliance between two nations, or an agreement between God and humans. The new covenant is an agreement between God and humans. God sets the terms, he makes the offer, and we respond to it with either cooperation or resistance.
The new covenant is, to use another nutshell, the gospel of salvation. It describes how we have been saved from sin and death so we can live forever in a loving relationship with God through the saving work of Jesus Christ for us. We always keep coming back to the center-point, Jesus Christ. He is God himself, who has offered himself to us. If we want eternal life with God, it must be through Jesus Christ. At its core, the new covenant is the gospel of Jesus Christ.
The new covenant was established in Christ’s own blood (Luke 22:20). This type of covenant was something dramatically new. Never before had God made a covenant using human blood. The previous covenants had used animal blood. God did not allow human sacrifices. Jesus was not announcing a renewal of the old covenant, or a slight revision. Instead, it was a completely new covenant, made in a way forbidden by the old covenant. Simply in making the new covenant, Jesus was announcing the fact that the old covenant no longer applied.
The new covenant has different blood, a different basis, and it presents a different basis of relationship between God and humans. The new basis is Jesus himself and his blood. Jesus did what we could not do, and he sacrificed himself for us as a gift, as grace. To enjoy the new covenant, we admit that we can’t earn our way into God’s presence; because we will never be good enough, we must rely on his mercy.
In a financial metaphor, Christ has paid for our sins. This is the “benefit” of the covenant, as there is a benefit in all “agreements.” There is no more debt. We have been forgiven. Our works cannot add anything to it. God has in Christ acted unilaterally, reconciling all things to himself (Colossians 1:20).
Jesus embodies everything the new covenant is. He is the Word of God and the Son of God, made human for us. He is the Message of God, the Mind of God, the Meaning of God, made flesh for us to see and know and love. In himself, he enables us to be friends with God. In Jesus Christ, God has given us a new basis for our relationship with God. This is the covenant God has given; we respond to Christ with either yes or no.
You might ask, ‘How can Jesus, a person, be an agreement?’ In a prophecy about Christ, Isaiah 42:6 says that the Messiah, or Christ, would be made a covenant. The Bible calls Jesus a mediator, a go-between. A mediator’s purpose is to get two parties to relate positively to each other. His work is what causes the barriers to come down and the relationship to bear positive fruit. Jesus was the greatest diplomat, the brilliant negotiator of the greatest covenant, or agreement, in human history. Jesus could do that because he was both God and human. He was not only able to represent both parties, he was able to be both parties. As God, he did what only God could do: forgive us. As a human, he did what humanity was supposed to do: respond perfectly. Just as his death counts for all humanity, so does his perfect response.
How does Jesus accomplish this? We find the answer in Romans chapter 5. Romans 5:8-10. puts it like this: Christ died for us, and because of his death we are now justified before God, saved from any fears of punishment and reconciled to God as one of his dearly loved children. Through the death and life of Christ, God has provided the one and only means by which we can be the faithful and loving friends and children he created us to be.
Our Response –
First, we must realize what is foundational in Christ’s death and resurrection. The gospel tells us that we can live forever with God – NOT because of good things we have done, but because of what Jesus Christ did for us. God gives offers us forgiveness and sets us right with the Father. And as such, we can have everlasting life. This is why we emphasize faith and grace. That is why we emphasize the new covenant, the gospel and eternal life. All these are bound up with each other.
This is why we emphasize Jesus Christ. This is why we celebrate Easter.
So how should we respond to what Jesus has done? We should turn away from self-reliance and put our confidence completely in Christ to wash us clean of sin, clothe us with righteousness and bring us into the family, the household, the kingdom of God. One way to describe it is that we quit doing things the devil’s way (relying on self) and do things God’s way. We stop building our own kingdom and accept the kingdom he has built for us. We accept the covenant-promise he has given us. That is how we can be in harmony and allegiance with him.
The kingdom is not good news unless we can be part of it. The gospel is a message about how humans receive intimate loving fellowship with God, how they enter his kingdom—something that is made possible only by the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
We should be “living sacrifices to God,” as Paul preached.
But what does it mean to be a “living sacrifice?” In Romans 12:1, Paul says, “I beseech you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God to present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, pleasing to God, which is your reasonable service.” Paul’s admonition to the believers in Rome was to sacrifice themselves to God, not as a sacrifice on the altar, as the Mosaic Law required the sacrifice of animals, but as a living sacrifice. The dictionary defines sacrifice as “anything consecrated and offered to God.” As believers, how do we consecrate and offer ourselves to God as a living sacrifice?
Under the Old Covenant, God accepted the sacrifices of animals. But these were just a foreshadowing of the sacrifice of the Lamb of God, Jesus Christ. Because of His death and resurrection, his once-for-all-time sacrifice on the cross, the Old Testament sacrifices became obsolete and are no longer of any effect (Hebrews 9:11-12). For those who are in Christ by virtue of saving faith, the only acceptable worship is to offer ourselves completely to the Lord – to honor his laws and to serve him in as many ways as we can. Under God’s control, the believer’s yet-unredeemed body can and must be yielded to Him as an instrument of righteousness (Romans 6:12-13; 8:11-13). Our honor and service are “reasonable” because of Christ’s sacrifice.
“I am the resurrection, and the life: he that believeth in me, though he were dead, yet shall he live: And whosoever liveth and believeth in me shall never die.” (John 11:25-26)
Russ Ramsey, “Easter Week in Real Time,” The Gospel Coalition, April 10, 2017. Referenced at: https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/article/easter-week-in-real-time
The New Covenant in a Nutshell. Referenced at: https://www.gci.org/law/nutshell
“Why is Jesus Called ‘The Lamb of God’,” Catholic Straight Answers. Referenced at: http://catholicstraightanswers.com/why-is-jesus-called-the-lamb-of-god/