Have you ever heard a marvelous piece of news that left you thunderstruck and open-mouthed with amazement? Those in the presence of John the Baptist must have experienced exactly that as they listened to his words recorded in John 1:29: “Behold! The Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!”
But what did John really mean? A brief survey of the Lamb and its multi-faceted identity in Scripture and the Jewish world may bring us a deeper understanding of Messiah’s fulfillment of John’s puzzling words.
The Sacrificial Substitute in Genesis
Sheep are among the earliest domesticated animals in the world, and it is not surprising that they play a prominent role in the ancient nomadic culture depicted in the Book of Genesis. The first references to the Lamb as sacrifice is in the powerful story of Abraham and Isaac. Genesis 22 tells us that God tested Abraham by commanding him, “…Take now your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains of which I shall tell you” (Genesis 22:2).
There is a world of unspoken communication in the exchange between father and son as Isaac asked, “Where is the lamb for a burnt offering?” Has there ever been a greater affirmation of faith than Abraham’s response? “My son, God will provide for Himself the lamb for a burnt offering” (Genesis 22:7-8).
We know that the Angel of the Lord stayed Abraham’s hand and that Isaac–a Messianic forerunner in his obedient submission–was spared. But the ram, an adult male sheep, was sacrificed in his stead.
The Passover Lamb
We next meet the Lamb as a presence of sacrificial covering in the Book of Exodus. To this day, the account recorded in Exodus 12 is read at Jewish tables at Passover celebrations throughout the world.
“Speak to all the congregation of Israel, saying: ‘On the tenth day of this month every man shall take for himself a lamb, according to the house of his father, a lamb for a household…Then the whole assembly of the congregation of Israel shall kill it at twilight. And they shall take some of the blood and put it on the two doorposts and on the lintel of the houses where they eat it’” (Exodus 12:3, 6, 7).
As the children of Israel awaited their deliverance from slavery to Pharaoh, they beheld the awesome power of the Lord and His judgment upon the Egyptians.
In the New Testament record of the Last Supper, it seems quite reasonable, as many scholars attest, to make the connection between John the Baptist’s words in John 1:29and the Gospel’s words in John 19:36. The words, “For these things were done that the Scripture should be fulfilled, ‘Not one of His bones shall be broken,’” are an explicit reference to the Passover Lamb in Exodus 12:46.
By the time we reach the Second Temple period, the number of lambs sacrificed for Passover would seem to us to be staggering. The historian Josephus asserts in The Jewish War that in the year 66 AD there were 256,500 lambs sacrificed at Passover. Even if we consider this to be an inflated figure, only one-tenth that number is scarcely imaginable.
But in Jesus’ day, the Lamb had already come to mean much more than a simple blood sacrifice–and the expanded meaning of this already powerful symbol may provide a key to our understanding of what the words of John could have meant to his listeners.
The Lamb in Pseudepigraphal Literature
The Lamb of God is a familiar biblical image of sacrifice and submission. We think of the Messianic “lamb led to the slaughter” in Isaiah 53:7, for example. Yet, by New Testament times, the Lamb had acquired an additional dimension–one of triumph!
The image of the triumphant Lamb of God appears in the apocalyptic literature of the Pseudepigrapha (“false” writings), written in the intertestamental and New Testament periods. This era of tumult, which also produced the Dead Sea Scrolls, was charged with Messianic expectation.
One such work, The Testament of Joseph, contains the verse “Do ye therefore, my children, observe the commandments of the LORD, and honor Levi and Judah; for from them shall arise unto you the Lamb of God, who taketh away the sin of the world, one who saveth all the Gentiles and Israel” (2 Joseph 77). The similarity of these words to those of John the Baptist is most striking. (Some scholars believe they may have been added later by Christians.)
Perhaps the best-known work in which the imagery of the victorious Lamb is found is the First Book of Enoch. This work, written before the first century AD, carried much weight at the time the New Testament was written, and is even quoted in the Epistle of Jude (Jude 14-15).
Although scholars may debate the fine points, these sources do provide a context for understanding the fifth chapter of the Book of Revelation–Scripture’s most powerful image of the triumphant Lamb. Here the Lamb of God is revealed as the suffering, resurrected and triumphant servant of the Lord–none other than Jesus the Messiah.
“And I looked, and behold, in the midst of the throne and of the four living creatures, and in the midst of the elders, stood a Lamb as though it had been slain…Then I looked, and I heard the voice of many angels around the throne, the living creatures, and the elders; and the number of them was ten thousand times ten thousand, and thousands of thousands, saying with a loud voice: ‘Worthy is the Lamb who was slain to receive power and riches and wisdom, and strength and honor and glory and blessing!’” (Revelation 5:6,11-12).
The Passover Lamb and the Redemption of the World
The image of sacrificial suffering and triumphant victory is perhaps most fully realized in the words of Revelation 13:8-“…the Lamb slain from the foundation of the world.”
Now we see the redemption of God at work not only through the eyes of the children of Israel delivered at the Exodus, not only through the eyes of those who witnessed the awesome power of the resurrection at the empty tomb, but as though through the eyes of the Lord Himself at Creation. We see redemption, if you will, as a foundational building block of reality.
The story of this sweeping vision is foretold in Scripture, demonstrated at Passover, and fulfilled at the Cross and the Resurrection. For Yeshua is truly the Lamb of God, whose blood has paid for our sins and has purchased our salvation.
Source consulted and for further reading:
- Skinner, Christopher, “Another Look at the Lamb of God”