Bridge over Troubled Waters: God’s Scapegoat
“The next day John saw Jesus coming toward him and said, “Look, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” John 1:29
His Legacy Lingers!
How amazing that someone who lived so long ago would continue to have the kind of impact and influence that Jesus has to this day.
Who would have thought that someone who lived so long ago would still shape the thinking of modern people?
Most great men of history fade away with history, seldom to be remembered. But not this man; to this day we feel his impact.
Which brings me to the ‘why’ question: Why does he continue to stand out to this day? Why didn’t he quietly pass into the annals of history with the rest of the other great ones? What is it about him?
The answer that I suggest lies in his death, which seems bizarre at first glance, but only makes sense upon further reflection.
I realize that this may be difficult to believe since most people’s deaths have no lasting impact, certainly not for generations to come. We certainly will remember our own death when it comes, and most likely remember the death of our parents, and perhaps even grandparents; but for most of us that is where this runs its course.
But not so with Christ’s death. His death is remembered the world over and commemorated often and reflected on frequently.
In fact, here is the kicker: If it wouldn’t have been for his death, he too would have passed into the annals of history with barely a footnote.
It was his death that makes his memory and legacy so vivid the world over.
When we speak of his death, it was not in the manner in which he died (for many have died in the manner in which he did) but for the reasons, purposes and, most importantly, the accomplishments achieved in his death, that make his death so unique and lie at the core of why he is remembered the world over.
His death directly addressed humanity’s biggest problem in life; namely, this profound sense of ‘lostness’, doom and despair that hangs over people; this bent toward evil, given the right circumstances, and the hopelessness that permeates so much of life.
All of it and so much more, finding its roots in the sinfulness of humanity as Paul says in Romans: “For all have sinned and come short of the glory of God.” Rom. 3:23
Most, of course, don’t realize this and don’t even see it anymore.
In fact, if that is the only life you have ever known you can get used to it pretty quickly and think that is just how life is and that all this is normal.
In this ‘new normal’, humanity is in a continued state of separation from God and actually at enmity with God.
His death directly addresses this reality. John is very clear in making this link when he wrote, “He was manifested to take away our sin.”
I Jn. 3:5
Jesus, our Vicar
His death was much more than just an act of injustice and certainly not defeat nor failure. His death brought about concrete accomplishments and tangible benefits, including this idea of substitution.
That’s right, substitution. Just like you would go back to the store and exchange a broken thing with one that is not broken. Substitution.
On a cosmic level, his death served the purpose of substitution. There is a plethora of scriptural references that point to this:
“By the grace of God he might taste death for everyone.” Heb. 2:9
“Christ was sacrificed once, to take away the sins of many people.”
“He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree.” I Peter 2:24
“Christ died for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring you to God.” I Peter 3:18
All these hint at this same idea; namely that Jesus acted as a substitute for us and suffered what should have been the consequences of our sins.
“Man could atone for his sin personally only if he could suffer eternally the penalty that sin incurred. Man, of course, could never do this, so in his love and compassion, God stepped into a hopeless situation and provided a Vicar in Jesus Christ who did provide an eternal satisfaction for sin.” Charles Ryrie
While the language is a little archaic, I love the word “vicar” to describe this cosmic substitution.
What a quaint little term ‘vicar’ is. It conjures up images of a quaint Anglican vicar having afternoon tea with one of his elderly female parishioners, doesn’t it?
Hate to burst that bubble, but a vicar is far from a dithering British priest; a vicar is actually someone who steps in for someone else, someone who in essence becomes a substitute:
“A vicar (/ˈvɪkər/; Latin: vicarius) is a representative, deputy or substitute; anyone acting "in the person of" or agent for a superior (compare "vicarious" in the sense of "at second hand")” Wikipedia
I find it rather fascinating that a vicar acts as “an agent for a superior”; that the lesser stands in the gap for the greater. When I first saw that I wanted to take it out, since when is Jesus the lesser and we the greater?
But, on second thought, it makes sense – as uncomfortable as this makes me – because no one is going to send their superior to stand in, fill in or be a substitute. It is always going to be the servant who takes the place of the master.
Which makes this so remarkable. Jesus, our vicar and substitute, not only takes our place and thus his death is our death, but he does so as our servant.
I know we cringe at how counterintuitive this is, since we should be his servants doing his bidding; but when it comes to being our substitute he actually becomes our servant and, as a servant of man, carries our sin away.
Just like Peter, we want to stop Jesus from washing our feet; but in his role as vicar, we must let him be the servant-substitute.
Does the Scripture not tell us: “He made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death — even death on a cross!” Phil. 2:7, 8
So in that role of vicar or substitution, he acts as our servant. Has greater love ever been seen than this?
When it comes to substitution, we need to realize that it literally means substitution! You need to see this literally. He substituted for us; he took our place. One was exchanged for the other.
This idea of substitution is mentioned over 20 times in the New Testament, and every single time it’s about two objects side by side where the one is substituted for the other.
Let me give you a couple of quick examples from the Scriptures of this:
“When Joseph heard that Archelaus was reigning in Judea in place of his father Herod, he was afraid to go there.” Matt. 2:22
This means, Archelaus literally took over the throne from his father. That is substitution!
Another example is the bizarre story of Peter catching a fish with a coin in its mouth so as to pay a temple tax (“Take the first fish you catch; open its mouth and you will find a four-drachma coin. Take it and give it to them for my tax and yours.” Matt. 17:27) where the money is used in exchange of a debt owed. That is substitution.
So this idea of one thing literally exchanged for another is applied to Christ’s death. His death covered fully our penalty (it’s the coin that pays it in full). His death was in place of our own death (it’s Archelaus taking the place of Herod).
This is precisely what Jesus meant when he said: “The Son of Man came to give his life as a ransom for many.” Mk 10:45.
At the cross we exchanged places. We were on that cross, and we were guilty with sin; we were to pay the penalty for our own sin and what does he do but say to us: “Let me give my life as a ransom for many.”
This means one in place of the other, literally, completely and in its entirety.
In this matter, there can be no subtle alternatives, no other variations nor any other interpretations. Nothing can distort the image of the substitute.
Our Day in Court!
There are those who would suggest subtle adjustments to this; those who would say to us that his death was on behalf of us or was for our sake and benefit.
While all that may be true, it does not go far enough to capture what actually took place.
So let’s introduce a different scene. You are in a courtroom. You are charged with crimes against God. Your sins have brought great accusations against you and it is your day in court. What happens next?
There are those who suggest an alternative idea of Jesus as our legal council who represented us in a court of law and managed to exonerate us by his brilliant arguments. Jesus the superhero, the super lawyer!
What’s the problem with that, you say? Isn’t that what it was? I was accused and guilty of sin; I needed a lawyer and He became that. How is that a problem? He gets me off – isn’t that all that matters?
The problem is that he, at best, only represents you and speaks on behalf of you in God’s court; he never steps into your shoes. He remains the lawyer, and you remain the criminal who got away with it. Even though, through his brilliant arguments, he gets you off, he remains the lawyer and you the exonerated criminal.
Let me suggest an alternative image to one I just painted, one closer to the truth.
You are still in court and it is still your day. You are still as guilty as sin of the charges. You know you are a sinner; you know that you have violated God’s laws.
As you brace for the well-deserved sentence, Jesus enters the courtroom and says to the judge that he will take the place of the accused. He is not there to represent you nor to argue your case, but to be your substitute.
It’s not a prisoner box nor a debtor’s prison, but a cross. He tells you to get off the cross so that he can take your place on it.
When he dies, the debt is paid in full. Not his debt, not anyone’s debt but your debt. Paid in full. By Him because he took your place.
In many ways, in fact in every way, he becomes your scapegoat! He gets blamed, he takes the heat, he becomes the fall guy, and he is led to judgment guilty, while you walk away exonerated. He becomes your scapegoat.
You have heard of this idea of the scapegoat? In fact, some of you might have even found yourself in the shoes of a scapegoat. You got blamed for something you didn’t do or you took the heat, covering up for someone else. Some of you know what I am talking about; you have been there.
The interesting thing about the concept of the scapegoat is that it finds its origin in ancient Hebrew history.
The scapegoat finds its origin in this idea of an innocent goat over which the sins of the ancient Israelites were confessed and thus transferred.
This substitute was then released into the desert, presumably to die there as guilty as sin.
Let me read to you the story of the scapegoat from Lev. 16
“From the Israelite community he is to take two male goats for a sin offering and a ram for a burnt offering.
Aaron is to cast lots for the two goats—one lot for the Lord and the other for the scapegoat. Aaron shall bring the goat whose lot falls to the Lord and sacrifice it for a sin offering. But the goat chosen by lot as the scapegoat shall be presented alive before the Lord to be used for making atonement by sending it into the wilderness as a scapegoat.
When Aaron has finished making atonement for the Most Holy Place, the tent of meeting and the altar, he shall bring forward the live goat. He is to lay both hands on the head of the live goat and confess over it all the wickedness and rebellion of the Israelites—all their sins—and put them on the goat’s head. He shall send the goat away into the wilderness in the care of someone appointed for the task. The goat will carry on itself all their sins to a remote place; and the man shall release it in the wilderness.” Lev. 16:5, 8-10, 20-22
While in the early years of this practice the animal would simply be released into a remote place never to be seen or heard of again, there was enough fear of the possibility of that goat wandering back that in later years the beast was taken not only into a remote desert but led up a mountain and thrown off the edge to its death:
“The man in whose charge the goat was sent out, while setting him free, was instructed to push the unhappy beast down the slope of the mountain side, which was so steep as to insure the death of the goat, whose bones were broken by the fall." (Twenty-one Years' Work in the Holy Land).
A Vigorous Confession!
This scapegoat became the only hope the people had that their misdeeds and sins would be carried away, and that, in some great cosmic way, the reset button would be pushed on their Day of Atonement. They could start over again with a clean slate.
This is why the language structure is such, that great passion and vigor was used in confessing the sins over the poor scapegoat.
“Aaron is to lay both hands on the head of the live goat and confess over it all the wickedness and rebellion of the Israelites—all their sins—and put them on the goat’s head.” Lev. 16:21
Hands were laid vigorously on the poor animal: “It was done with one’s whole force; as it were, to lay one’s whole weight upon the substitute.” Alfred Edersheim
There was nothing shy about this. With great passion, and with his whole weight and force, the priest would confess and transfer all their sins upon this animal. It was then led away to its death, to the shouts of jubilation from those who knew that this animal somehow carried away their sin once and for all.
Of course, throughout it all, there was a sense that this was happening in light of a Lamb of God that would one day come to accomplish in reality what these animals symbolically were achieving.
From Symbolism to Fact!
Fast forward to a day about 2000 years ago when Jesus appears in his public role for the first time and a great prophet of the day, John the Baptist, shouts out these infamous words: “Look, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” Jn. 1:29
He could have said ‘forgives the sin of the world’ or ‘atones for the sin of the world’, but instead says ‘takes away the sin of the world’. In that moment, the connection between symbolism or foreshadowing and reality was made.
Jesus is, in actuality, the Lamb of God who would take away or carry away into the desert of his own death the sin of the world including yours and mine.
And when Jesus died on the cross, it moved from mere symbolism of hope to the reality of fact.
I love the clarity the Letter to the Hebrews brings to this:
“The law is only a shadow of the good things that are coming—not the realities themselves. For this reason it can never, by the same sacrifices repeated endlessly year after year, make perfect those who draw near to worship.
First Jesus said, “Sacrifices and offerings, burnt offerings and sin offerings you did not desire, nor were you pleased with them”—though they were offered in accordance with the law. Then he said, “Here I am, I have come to do your will.” He sets aside the first to establish the second. And by that will, we have been made holy through the sacrifice of the body of Jesus Christ once for all.” Heb. 10:1, 8-10
We have been made holy. Our sins have been taken away. He has taken our guilt and we stand before God, his angels, the devil and his demons, exonerated and declared innocent of all charges.
“Jesus appeared so that he might take away our sins.” I Jn. 3:5
Confess Your Sins!
On this Palm Sunday, everything about this day points to that. The fact that he rode on a lowly colt points to the lowly vicar; the fact that he was determined to make his way to the Cross was the journey of the scapegoat to his own death. The shouts of the Hosanna’s, which literally mean ‘save us’, adds to the drama of the moment.
Yet none of that is realized until you confess or speak your sins over the head of the scapegoat, my friend. While the offer is for all, it is an offer that needs to be taken up by you!
“If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness.” I Jn. 1:9
Not halfheartedly, not casually nor as an afterthought but as though your life depends on it, which it does! Doing it in the spirit of Edersheim: “It was done with one’s whole force; as it were, to lay one’s whole weight upon the substitute.”
Lay the whole weight of your sin upon the substitute, Jesus Christ!
Your life, your eternity, your destiny depends on this! Make him your Lamb of God, who takes away your sins into the sea of God’s forgetfulness, to be remembered no more.
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