If we are to understand the reason for Jesus' coming as a man, we must understand the reason for His death on a cross as a condemned criminal. Either His death had no meaning at all, or it gives meaning to everything else in the universe. And if it is true that His death gives meaning to everything else in the world, then the purpose of our lives is bound up with the question of His death as well. So, this is a crucial question.
We find the answer in the way that Jesus is first identified by His own divinely sent announcer, John the Baptist. When John the Baptist first saw Jesus Christ, he said, "Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!" (John 1:29)
Now, if the story of Jesus Christ began right here, we would have no way to understand what John meant by calling Jesus a Lamb. But the story does not start here. Before the curtain opened to Jesus' arrival, there were several acts in God's story of salvation, which set up His coming as the "Lamb of God." For the background, we go to the Old Testament, the books of the Bible that lead up to Jesus' coming.
In the first three chapters of the Bible, Genesis 1-3, we learn that God made the world, and He made the world as a home for men and women, whom He made in His image, to reflect His glory and goodness into the world. He gave them everything for their happiness, including Himself. They were only to trust His Word. When they rebelled, just as God promised, they died. And this death entails the just judgment of God. It means our just judgment under the eternal fury of God's wrath. This is what Jesus means when He spoke about "eternal fire" reserved for sinners (Matthew 25:41). This kind of death is what they deserved. But they did not die right away. Their death came slowly, in part, because God had a plan. Though they were sinners, God promised to turn back all that they had done. He promised that one of Eve's sons would crush the head of the Devil and turn back the curse of death.
As God's story of salvation unfolds, God gives to His people several pictures to help them understand their problem and what this promised savior would save.
As it turns out, lambs figure prominently in God's story of salvation. God required His people to sacrifice many lambs over many years to cover their sins. When God accepted the death of a lamb in the place of a sinner, He was teaching His people that sin deserved death. He was teaching them about His holiness and His determined opposition to human rebellion, and He was teaching them about His love, His mercy, and His grace to provide a way to Him. The repeated sacrifices of many lambs pointed to a day when God would provide a perfect substitute lamb for His people.
This could not be clearer than when God spoke through His messenger, Isaiah. In Isaiah 53, God hinted that the promised son of Eve would actually die like a lamb, but that through this act of weakness, God would rescue sinners.
- Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows; yet we esteemed him stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted. But he was wounded for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his stripes we are healed. All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned—every one—to his own way; and the LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us all. He was oppressed, and he was afflicted, yet he opened not his mouth; like a lamb that is led to the slaughter, and like a sheep that before its shearers is silent, so he opened not his mouth. – Isaiah 53:4-7
Humanity wrestles for an answer to the problem of guilt. Not everyone would state it that way, but every religion humans invent is an attempt to solve the problem of what is wrong with us.
In these verses of the Bible, we see the extent of our problem. We go astray. We are filled with iniquities. We transgress God's perfect law. Our rebellion against God is so great that when He sends one to suffer in our place, we do not esteem Him. We crucify Him. But in His death, Jesus, the Lamb of God, was taking away our sins. He was bearing our iniquities. He was afflicted for us. He was crushed for us. He was smitten by God for us.
Jesus was not a criminal. But He died as one condemned. As Peter puts it, "Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God" (1 Peter 3:18).