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
· One lamb per household
· Surrounded by bitter herbs
· Bones not broken
· 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.
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. 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.’
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.
 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.
 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.’
 Philo, ‘On the Giants,’ Commentary on Genesis, V.19 – 21.