As various aspects of the Person, saving work and fruit of the Lord Jesus unfolded throughout Old Testament redemptive history, one truth that continually rose to the forefront was the need for an atoning sacrifice. Sacrifice for the forgiveness of sins is as old as our first parents. God came and clothed Adam and Eve with the skins of an animal (i.e. presumably a lamb) with which He certainly taught them about the need for a blood offering. This, in turn, was passed down one generation of believers to another, from Adam to Abraham. From Abraham to the fulfillment of sacrifice in the atoning sacrifice of Jesus Christ on the cross the divine requirement for an atoning sacrifice is one of the marked features of God’s revelation to Israel. When we come to the New Covenant, we realize that God no longer required a typical animal sacrifice–He required the sacrifice of His eternal Son, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.
In his commentary, Exodus: Saved for God’s Glory, Phil Ryken, makes the fascinating observation that there is a biblical-theological development to the atonement in Scripture: “God provided one lamb for one person…Abraham offered one lamb in the place of his son Isaac…one lamb for one household…at the first Passover…one sacrifice for the whole nation…on the Day of Atonement…[and] finally…one Lamb to die for one world.” Ryken further explains this development when he writes:
“What God required for salvation was the offering of a lamb. This is what he has always required. God required a lamb in the days of Adam and Eve. The Scripture says, “In the course of time Cain brought some of the fruits of the soil as an offering to the LORD. But Abel brought fat portions from some of the firstborn of his flock. The LORD looked with favor on Abel and his offering, but on Cain and his offering he did not look with favor” (Gen. 4:3-5). Abel was the one who brought the lamb, and only his offering was accepted: God required a lamb. In salvation God gives what God demands. So again and again through the history of redemption, God has always provided a lamb or other sacrificial animal to save his people. He provided a lamb in the days of Abraham.
God told Abraham to go up and sacrifice his only son Isaac as a burnt offering. As the two of them went up the mountain, Isaac — who obviously was no dummy — realized that something was missing. “Father,” he said, “the fire and the wood are here, but where is the lamb for the burnt offering?” (Gen. 22:7). Isaac knew what God required. Abraham knew it too, and his faithful answer explained the plan of salvation. Abraham said, “God himself will provide the lamb for the burnt offering” (v. 8). That is precisely what happened. As Abraham took the knife to slay his son, he was interrupted by an angel, who said, “Do not lay a hand on the boy. Do not do anything to him. Now I know that you fear God, because you have not withheld from me your son, your only son” (v. 12). Then God provided a lamb for him to sacrifice instead: “Abraham looked up and there in a thicket he saw a ram caught by its horns. He went over and took the ram and sacrificed it as a burnt offering instead of his son” (v. 13). God provided what God required: a lamb to die in the place of Abraham’s firstborn son.
Every year God provided a lamb or similar sacrifice for Israel. On the Day of Atonement, the high priest would bring an animal into God’s presence and sacrifice it as a sin offering. These were his instructions: “He shall then slaughter the goat for the sin offering for the people and take its blood behind the curtain. . . . He shall sprinkle it on the atonement cover and in front of it. In this way he will make atonement . . . because of the uncleanness and rebellion of the Israelites, whatever their sins have been” (Lev. 16:15, 16a). God provided what God required: a substitute sacrifice to die for his people.
There is an obvious progression here, with the lamb serving as a representative for larger and larger groups of people. At first God provided one lamb for one person. Thus Abraham offered a ram in place of his son Isaac. Next God provided one lamb for one household. This happened at the first Passover, when every family in the covenant community offered its own lamb to God. Then God provided one sacrifice for the whole nation. On the Day of Atonement, a single animal atoned for the sins of all Israel. Finally the day came when John the Baptist “saw Jesus coming toward him and said, “Look, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!’” (John 1:29; cf. John 11:50-52). God was planning this all along: one Lamb to die for one world. By his grace he has provided a lamb — “the Lamb that was slain from the creation of the world” (Rev. 13:8).
The consistent message of the Bible is that anyone who wants to meet God must come on the basis of the lamb that he has provided. All the other lambs prepared for the coming of Christ. A theologian would call them types. In other words, the lambs were signs pointing to salvation in Christ. As the famous Jonathan Edwards wrote in his A History of the Work of Redemption, “Christ and his redemption are the subject of the whole Word of God.”4 Clearly this was true of the first Passover, which, like everything else in Exodus, was about Christ and his redemption. To be sure we don’t miss the connection, the New Testament says that “Christ, our Passover lamb, has been sacrificed” (1 Cor. 5:7b).”1
1. Philip Graham Ryken Exodus: Saved for God’s Glory (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2005) pp. 329-330