Atonement in Scripture: Christ as Passover in John’s Gospel


I would also like to address the claim of Jeffery, Ovey, and Sach that John in his Gospel sees Jesus as a penal substitute in Passover terms.  Simply because John makes very rich literary connections between Jesus and the Passover lamb does not mean that the Pentateuch or John’s Gospel regards penal substitution as the mechanism for Jesus’ atonement.  Rather, I think the textual evidence overwhelmingly points us towards ontological substitution.  Jesus brought about a new, cleansed humanity in himself, which he shares by his Spirit, which John highlights by using the literary frameworks of new creation and new exodus.

First, let me highlight John’s overarching allusion to the Exodus.


Israel’s First Exodus Israel’s New Exodus
Name of God revealed:  “I AM” Name of Jesus:  “I AM” – Ten times?

·         I am the bread of life (6:35)

·         I am the light of the world (8:12)

·         Before Abraham was, I am (8:58)

·         I am the door (10:7)

·         I am the good shepherd (10:11)

·         I am the resurrection and the life (11:25)

·         I am the way, the truth, and the life (14:6)

·         I am the true vine (15:1)

·         I am (18:5)

·         I told you that I am (18:8)

Ten Miracles of Death Un-Creating Egypt and Creating Israel

·         First Miracle:  Water to Blood

·         Last Miracle:  Death of First Born Sons

Seven Miracles of Life

·         First Miracle:  Water to Wine

·         Last Miracle:  Raising of a First Born Son, Lazarus

Passover Lamb

·         One lamb per household

·         Surrounded by bitter herbs

·         Bones not broken

·         Pierced

Passover Lamb

·         Jesus is the Lamb of God (Jn.1:29, 36)

·         Surrounded by three women all named Mary, meaning ‘bitter’ (Jn.19:25)

·         Bones not broken (Jn.19:33, 36)

·         He was pierced (Jn.19:34, 37)

Deliverance from Egypt

·         Blessing of Peace/Shalom


Deliverance from Sin

·         Blessing of Peace/Shalom (Jn.20:19, 21)

·         Forgiveness of Sins (Jn.20:22-23)

Identity as the Covenant Community

·         Israel becomes God’s first-born adopted son (Ex.4:22)

·         New Family

Identity as the New Covenant Community

·         Believers in Jesus are adopted by God (Jn.20:17)

·         New Family: John and Mary are now son and mother (Jn.19:26-27)


But in what sense was Jesus a Passover lamb?  How exactly did John think that the atonement ‘worked’ or ‘works’?

The earliest reference in John’s Gospel comparing Jesus to the paschal lamb is found on the lips of John the Baptist, who says, ‘Behold the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world’ (Jn.1:29, 36).  The introduction, notably, does not say, ‘Behold the Lamb of God, who absorbs or turns away from us the wrath of God.’  The distinction is subtle but very significant.  It is a clue that does not fit as comfortably within the penal substitution framework.

As penal substitution proponents argue, the Temple sacrifices represented a ‘penal substitute’ symbolically.  John’s own understanding of the Temple’s purpose appears to undermine that interpretation.  How?  In John 2, there are literary and conceptual links made between the miracle at Cana (Jn.2:1 – 12) and the cleansing of the Temple (Jn.2:13 – 25).  (1) At Cana, the miracle happened on the third day.  At the Temple cleansing, Jesus points to a miracle yet to happen on the third day.  (2) Both occur in the joining of two:  marriage joins two people, the Temple joins God with humanity, heaven with earth.  (3) In both cases, something good is being made into something better, and both symbolize the filling of humanity by the Holy Spirit in the body of Jesus.  The six stone jars filled with wine represented the Spirit within Jesus (notice the chain of communication about Jesus which flows from John the Baptist to the first two disciples to the next two disciples in 1:35 – 51 is mirrored by the chain of communication about Jesus which flows from Mary to the servants in 2:5).  The presence of God in the Temple also represented the physical body of Jesus, as Jesus himself indicates when he says, ‘Destroy this temple and I will raise it up in three days’ (Jn.2:19 – 22).  (4) Both involve stone instruments of purification:  the stone jars of purification at Cana, the stone Temple at Jerusalem.  (5) At Cana, the stone jars of ‘purification’ (Jn.2:6) are ruined by being filled with wine, as they could no longer be used to hold the waters of purification.  At Jerusalem, Jesus implies that the Temple is ruined because its purpose has been fulfilled by him; he is the new Temple containing truly the presence of God.  (6) Thus, in both cases, something depleted or exhausted is being transplanted by something full.  I would argue that this link between the stone jars and the stone Temple is intentional in John, and it substantiates my argument that the Temple sacrifices were not ‘penal’ in their symbolism.  They served as symbols of ‘purification.’  Of course, there was an element of God’s judgment and the putting of something to death.  How else could purification occur?  But the Temple sacrifices were not substitutes for the worshiper; they were representatives of the worshiper’s sinfulness, which then was consumed by God.  Thus, the Temple sacrifices did not symbolically pay the human side of sin’s penalty; they symbolized the cleansing of humanity which God would enact in Jesus.

Cleansing is implicit again in Jesus’ dialogue with Nicodemus, when Jesus speaks of new birth through water and Spirit (3:1 – 10), especially in contrast with another mention of ‘flesh’ (3:6).  Cleansing through the motif of water is also implicit in the transformation of the Samaritan woman (4:1 – 42).  It is also implied in Jesus’ teaching on coming out from the tombs (5:21 – 29), since death was understood to be a type of uncleanness.  The theme of death to life emerges after an interlude when Jesus raises Lazarus from the dead (11:1 – 44).  Then, Jesus lifts and basin and towel to wash his disciples’ feet (13:1 – 35) to model love and service but to also discuss his carrying of his human nature back to the Father (14:1 – 21), which means reciprocally the coming of the Holy Spirit upon the disciples, so that Jesus can be with his disciples by the Spirit, and vice versa; they can be with him by the Spirit.  But Jesus’ action carries with it the meaning that he is the servant who washes the feet (and more) of all who enter the Father’s house (14:1 – 3).  For all who desire to enter the Father’s house, the true Temple, must in reality enter into Jesus himself by the Spirit.  When we cleanse or purify someone, our wrath (so to speak) does not burn against their personhood, but against the dirt and impurity.  Jesus’ ability to cleanse the disciples is rooted in his cleansing of his own human nature.  This is, I argue, the only possible meaning of Jesus’ statement of his self-sanctification:  ‘For their sakes I sanctify Myself, that they themselves also may be sanctified in truth’ (Jn.17:19).

Near the end of the narrative, Jesus again draws Passover motifs into the service of cleansing and purification.  Jesus declared his thirst, which caused someone to lift a hyssop branch to him.  Hyssop branches were used at Passover to place the blood of the lamb onto the doorposts (Ex.12:22).  This is one more indication that Passover lamb imagery is being applied to Jesus.  But this time it is happening, I believe, in conjunction with his earlier saying, ‘I am the door’ (Jn.10:7).  He is being marked as the door through whom all may enter, and participate in him, in his personal deliverance through death and resurrection.  The Passover lamb imagery is already very strong in John 19:  three ‘bitter herbs’ (three women named Mary, which means ‘bitter’) surround him; his bones are not broken; he was pierced; even quotations from the Psalms of King David suggesting that David thought of himself as a ‘Passover lamb’ of sorts, acting as the focal agent by whom God was drawing the Israelites from out of own reign (Saul’s) into a new kingdom (David’s).  Therefore, Jesus calls for our participation in his death and resurrection, in much the same way as Paul’s union with Christ language would suggest.  Penal substitution advocates have tried to hold together the idea that ‘Jesus died instead of us’ with the idea that ‘we die and rise with Jesus,’ but there are fundamental logical, pastoral, and rhetorical problems that arise here.[1]

So how did Jesus take away the sin of the world?  Was Jesus the passive recipient of the wrath of God?  It seems much more responsible to say, in accordance with the narrative of John, that Jesus overcame ‘the flesh’ (sarx) he had taken to himself and cleansed his human nature.  In his introduction, John notes that the Word united himself to human ‘flesh’ (Jn.1:14) and presumably began to heal it from within.  John does not simply say that the Word became ‘a man’ (anthropos) or ‘a body’ (soma).  Instead, when describing the incarnation, John says that the Word took on ‘flesh’ (sarx).  ‘Flesh’ was potentially a very negative term to describe humanity in Greco-Roman and Jewish contexts.[2]  For example, Paul wrote, ‘I know that no good dwells in me, that is in my flesh’ (Rom.7:18).  By using this term, Paul appears to indicate not our physical materiality, which God affirmed from creation as being very good, but the corruption within our human nature, which was originally good but was marred by the fall.  Similarly, the Hellenistic Jewish commentator Philo Judaeus, a contemporary with both Jesus and John, wrote:


‘It is impossible for the Spirit of God to remain and to pass all its time, as the law-giver himself shows.  “For,” says Moses, “the Lord said, My Spirit shall not remain among men forever, because they are flesh.”  For, at times, it does remain; but it does not remain forever and ever among the greater part of us; for who is so destitute of reason or so lifeless as never, either voluntarily or involuntarily, to conceive a notion of the all good God.  For, very often, even over the most polluted and accursed beings, there hovers a sudden appearance of the good, but they are unable to take firm hold of it and to keep it among them; for almost immediately, it quits its former place and departs, rejecting those inhabitants who come over to it, and who live in defiance of law and justice, to whom it never would have come if it had not been for the sake of convicting those who choose what is disgraceful instead of what is good.’[3]

I have italicized the words ‘flesh’ and ‘polluted’ to highlight the connection between the terms that existed in Philo’s mind:  because of a corruption that has set into humanity, God’s Spirit would not abide forever.  This is Philo’s explanation of Genesis 6:3, where God, before the flood, speaks of limiting the life of humanity.  Thus, the apostle John appears to have chosen the most negative and provocative way to describe Jesus’ incarnation.  He chose the word that connotes the tainted ontological nature of humanity.  By taking on this sarx, forcing it into compliance, forcing it to be transparent to the love of God (‘I only do what I see my Father doing’, etc.), passionately struggling against it (John’s parallel to the Synoptics’ Gethsemane story is Jesus angrily weeping by the tomb of Lazarus in John 11 because he knows that he too will taste death), and ultimately putting this sarx to death in an act of purification, Jesus cleanses his humanity of it.  Thus, when he shares his Spirit after his resurrection, it is a purified humanity he shares by the Spirit.  Sharing in Jesus’ own purified new humanity is what liberates the disciples from the dominion of Satan and sin and death.  We will explore this connection between Passover in the Old Testament and Jesus’ portrayal as a Passover Lamb in the New.


[1] The question comes in how one can integrate penal substitution, with all of its attendant implications, and union with Christ, with all of its implications.  For my treatment of this problem, please see this past blog post.

[2] N.T. Wright, Paul and the Faithfulness of God, Book I (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2013), p.490 – 492, says, ‘The ‘flesh,’ however, though itself neither good nor bad, comes to connote the whole human being seen from the angle of being essentially corruptible, decaying, a quintessence of dust that has no permanence or stability. Paul’s critique of ‘works of the flesh’ and the ‘mind of the flesh’ is thereby linked with his critique of idolatry: ‘flesh’ draws attention to the creaturely existence which, owing its life to God the creator, has none in itself apart from him. That is near the heart of Paul’s analysis of ‘sin’ seen as a human propensity and action.’

[3] Philo, ‘On the Giants,’ Commentary on Genesis, V.19 – 21.


8 Comments Add yours

  1. Totally concur with the connection between Exodus and the ministry of Jesus, however I believe you are missing the true thrust of why. In Jewish theology, Moses is the First Redeemer and Messiah is the Final Redeemer. The pattern of redemption is entirely found in the Exodus narrative, and Jesus fulfills the ministry of Moses. However, I think you are misrepresenting the Temple worship by suggesting that Jesus “fulfills” it. The Temple was not destroyed because it no longer served a purpose. The atonement of Christ has nothing to do with the sacrificial system of the Temple worship. In fact, prophetically, Ezekiel declares that one of the jobs of the Messiah is to rebuild the Temple and reinstitute the Temple service. John’s Apocalypse mirrors the prophecy of Ezekiel quite closely, and his gospel does as well. Otherwise I think you have made a very thought-provoking analysis of atonement and there have been excellent observations in each piece.


    1. makonagasawa says:

      Thanks David. If you have anything you’ve written on the Epistle to the Hebrews, I’d be glad to consider your thesis. Given my current understanding of Hebrews’ discussion of sacrifices, priests, and sanctuary, I’m surprised that you’d say that Jesus’ atonement had nothing to do with the sacrificial system of the OT. I’d also be grateful for your thoughts on pages 1 – 3 of the literary analysis of the Torah: I contend that the tabernacle-temple structure itself, and the sacrifices with it, was a temporary concession to Israel’s failure to come up Mt. Sinai and meet with God face to face, as Moses did. If so, then Ezekiel’s vision of a new temple would have to be interpreted as not being a physical building, but a temple-people. This seems to be what both John’s Gospel and Paul’s letter to the Ephesians confirm. On Ezekiel in John: On Temple language in Ephesians:

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Appreciate your humility. Let me read your links before I respond. I respect your work and I’ve been greatly impressed to reconsider some things based on your analysis. We do have a vastly different interpretation on some of the specifics. Allow me some time to respond, but I do think I have some valuable insights I can add to your thought process on this. I will say right off that the Temple worship has never been considered a temporary concession from God by the Jewish people and certainly Jesus and the apostles did not think so. I also disagree that this would be what either John or Paul would have contended, especially in light of Acts 21, the events of which occurred decades after the resurrection of Christ.


  2. Okay I read your paper/notes on your literary analysis of Torah. It’s very good, but contains certain presuppositions which I believe are the source of our disagreement on these issues. I would contend that these presuppositions have their roots in Replacement Theology, or Triumphalism, though I am not asserting that you hold those views, simply that your conclusions seem to stem from general agreement with the ideas presented in those theologies. I have just posted a new blog on my site ( which has my notes from a lecture I did on the connection between the Garden of Eden, the Tabernacle and the Third Temple of Ezekiel. It is not comprehensive, but since I only had an hour to present the information I did what I could. You may find it interesting. I will need to work through some notes I took on your paper but I would like you to read the blog first if you are willing.


  3. makonagasawa says:

    Thanks for offering the resources, David. I’ll give ’em a read!

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Okay, I’ll hold off on my other commentary until you’ve had a chance to do so. I believe a literal reading of Hebrews in context with the period will fly in the face of most analysis of the Temple. The church has performed a violent eisegesis of Hebrews over the centuries based upon various and erroneous assumptions, in my opinion.


  5. I await your response……. ::::::hears crickets:::::: 🙂


  6. makonagasawa says:

    Thanks for your patience. 🙂 I did read your blog post and am still mulling it over. Not just in the conclusions but in your methodology. The use of rabbinical opinion and commentary on the OT texts is intriguing, but in my mind indeterminate. One example might be illustrative. When some rabbis say that the tree of life is the word of God, or even the Torah, there is a historical-redemptive sense in which I would agree, but these terms really need to be cleared up. God’s verbal investment of Himself into the tree of life made the fruit into an invitation into the “life of God” in a very special sense, yes. But I do not believe that “tree of life” means “Torah” in the sense of “the written Pentateuch” as such, because that would give that literature a pre-existence similar to the Islamic doctrine of the pre-existent Qur’an. Not only would that run us into the problem of how could God enact a pre-determined narrative complete with sin and evil, that doesn’t help us answer the question of why did God cut off access to the tree of life after the fall. In my view, the tree of life became dangerous because fallen humanity must not immortalize sin in human nature. I don’t think we want to say that the exile is God withdrawing His word or teaching in a broader, general sense?

    Your concern about Replacement theology is well taken. However, isn’t the real question what exactly is being replaced? As a preliminary point, I’d like to get your opinion about Rashi, on Exodus 19, on Israel not going up Mount Sinai, because the debates about it highlight something quite important about why Moses went up and came back with face aglow, and why God veiled His glory. John Sailhamer engages quite extensively with the Jewish commentaries on that. And I think that issue winds up supporting my case. I submit that textually, Exodus shows us that God narrowed the covenant down to Moses. The rest of Israel benefited from it by virtue of their following of Moses. Hence, we already get the sense that the Sinai covenant is always centered around a mediator, to make up for the failure of the people. This is true in Moses’ case. It also becomes true for King David. God refocused the covenant around David, which led to David seeing himself as a type of passover lamb “delivering” the people out from the reign of King Saul, and into his reign (Ps.34, 22), similar to how Moses led the people out from the reign of Pharaoh. This dynamic occurred again in Kings and especially Chronicles, which see the Northern Kingdom as problematic for its rejection of the Davidic line, and the Temple as the place of worship. But “refugees” (if we can call them that) came from the North to the South as the covenant was refocused. In Second Temple Judaism, the Qumran community saw themselves as the advance guard of the messianic kingdom by being a holiness movement, literally a Holy Spirit community, because they considered the rest of Israel to be apostate. So Jesus’ claim to be the true Israel and to be regathering a true Israel around himself might be considered “supercessionist” in the same sense that the Qumran community thought of themselves. But it was a “supercessionism” that opened itself up again based on the pattern given in the Old Testament, where God consistently used a human mediator to refocus the covenant. If genetic descent from Abraham and Sarah did not by itself constitute covenant membership, then there must be an alternate method, a theological-historical method, and that method is covenant mediation, isn’t it? So when I do suggest that Jesus replaced the Temple, I do not mean to say that Jesus replaced Israel. Rather, God recentered the covenant around Jesus as the true “temple person” and redefined Jesus as Israel, which he then opened up again to both Jew, Samaritan, and Gentile to the ends of the earth. I think we can say that Jesus replaced the Temple, but did not replace “Israel” per se. Thoughts?


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