Will we behold the lamb of God?
John the Baptist, on seeing Jesus, called out, “Look! The Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!”
But it is a strange expression is it not? Lamb of God? What does it mean, and how does it shape our understanding of this first century rabbi called Jesus?
Lambs feature a great deal in Jewish history. The Israelites were a nomadic people, and the flocks were vital to support the community, providing the valuable resources of milk, meat, wool, and skins. Lambs were used as sacrifices to atone for corporate or individual sins. This meant they were killed to pay the penalty for wrongdoing and used as a substitute for humans.
Lambs, being both valuable and vulnerable meant it was doubly hard to sacrifice them, especially as the law required the lambs to be in perfect condition — spotless and without blemish. It physically and emotionally hurt the community to make such devotions.
The use of lambs or sheep as an atoning sacrifice featured in two very well-known stories that became key in forming the Israelite community. The first was when Abraham was asked, by God, to sacrifice his own son, Isaac on Mount Moriah. God provided a lamb in place of Isaac.
“Do not lay a hand on the boy,” he said. “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.” 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.
The second was when the Israelites were in bondage to the Egyptians and God protected the households that had sacrificed a lamb and spread the blood on the doorposts. This became known as the Passover because God “passed over” certain houses.
“The blood will be a sign for you on the houses where you are, and when I see the blood, I will pass over you. No destructive plague will touch you when I strike Egypt.”
Lambs had a practical and religious purpose in the community, and they soon became used as a metaphor for people. The idiom, to be “led like a lamb to the slaughter” became commonplace for when innocent people had been duped, tricked, or unknowingly capitulated with an enemy's plans. It also became used as a metaphor to describe God’s special envoy, God’s Anointed One; the Christ or Messiah, the one that would establish God’s kingdom here on earth.
It is a reasonable question to ask why the metaphor of a lamb should be used to describe this special envoy, and apart from lambs being used to represent humans and humanity in religious ceremonies, and their purity and innocence, there is another reason.
The Jewish people were oppressed again and again by their enemies, and the hope was that one from among their community would rise up and defeat them. This person would be from among the oppressed and the afflicted community. He would be, if you will, what we would call an underdog. Therefore it is perhaps no surprise that this person would rise up from among the lambs to defeat the bulls and stags as recorded in the Testament of Joseph in approximately 100BC:
“And I saw in the midst of the horns a certain virgin wearing a multicoloured stole; from her came forth a lamb. Rushing from the left were all sorts of wild animals and reptiles, and the lamb conquered them. Because of the lamb the bull rejoiced and the cow and the stags were also glad with them. Honour Levi and Judah, because from them shall arise the salvation of Israel.”
Thus, the Lamb of God became a phrase synonymous with the one who would bring salvation to Israel and establish God's kingdom here on earth. Modern-day scholars call this the Triumphant Lamb, and at the time of John the Baptist, when the Jewish people were oppressed by a puppet government and the Roman overlords, John used this phrase of Jesus. John expected Jesus to be the one that would establish God’s kingdom and set the Jewish people free from their oppressors.
Yet, the prophecies of old still asserted that this Lamb of God would be slain for humanity. The prophet Isaiah writes: “He was oppressed and afflicted, yet he did not open his mouth; he was led like a lamb to the slaughter.“
And the Testament of Benjamin written about 100BC records: “In you will be fulfilled the heavenly prophecy which says that the spotless one will be defiled by lawless men and the sinless one will die for the sake of wicked men.”
Yet it appears that even Jesus’s own disciples did not make the connection that God’s Anointed One would be the spotless one that gave up his life and be led like a lamb to the slaughter.
One of the most exciting things for me, is how the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus connects all the dots and how he fulfils all the prophecies about God’s Anointed One.
Jesus is recorded as being without sin – spotless and blameless. He was crucified during the Passover festival. He was crucified on Mount Moriah, where Abraham was to sacrifice his one and only son. He was literally led like a lamb to the slaughter. He became the embodiment of both the expected triumphant lamb and the atoning or sacrificial lamb.
The first Christians joined the dots and made this connection. The apostle Paul, writing to the church in Corinth tells us that, “Christ, our Passover lamb, has been sacrificed.” And the apostle Peter writes, “You were redeemed from the empty way of life handed down to you from your ancestors with the precious blood of Christ, a lamb without blemish or defect.”
The final book in our Bibles is the Book of Revelation, a book written by a persecuted church. Using apocalyptic language, it is a book of hope and a metaphor that all evil will be defeated, with the triumphant and atoning Lamb of God, the king of kings, as its central character:
“Then I saw a Lamb, looking as if it had been slain, standing at the centre of the throne. Every creature in heaven and on earth said: ‘To him who sits on the throne and to the Lamb be praise and honour and glory and power, for ever and ever!’
“After this I looked, and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and before the Lamb. They were wearing white robes and were holding palm branches in their hands. And they cried out in a loud voice: ‘Salvation belongs to our God, who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb. For the Lamb at the centre of the throne will be their shepherd. He will lead them to springs of living water and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.’”
This season, will we hear those words from John the Baptist? Will we behold the Lamb of God that takes away the sins of the world?
• Reverend Gavin Tyte is the pastor at St Mark’s Anglican Church. Visit stmarks.bm