One of the things I love most about the Bible is that it is endlessly self-referential. This is part of its context and its poetry. Because the Bible draws largely on its own history and context, it can be quite daunting when you are faced with descriptions like “the lamb of God” and comparisons describing someone “like a lamb to the slaughter.” But it also means that the more we read and the more we learn, the more there is to learn. We begin with the assumption that the Bible is the divinely-inspired, authoritative Word of God, and from there, we understand that not a single word is wasted.
I'd like to take a moment to appreciate the Biblical imagery of the lamb, as we consider at Christmas the coming of Jesus Christ who was called the Lamb of God.
First of all, it is important to note that the imagery concerning lambs is largely different from that concerning sheep. A quick glimpse at the instances which mention sheep, depict them as large crowds of anonymous livestock always needing herding and guiding (see Psalm 119:176). “We all, like sheep, have gone astray," it says in my church’s prayer book, drawing from Isaiah 53:6.
Sons and Sacrifice
The imagery of the lamb is more frequent and more specific.
We set the scene in the time before Jesus. In Exodus 11 and 12, we read of the first Passover, an event that became a significant part of the Jewish calendar. The blood of a lamb, one for each family, signaled the Israelites’ faith in their God and by placing it on their home, they escaped the plague of death that carried away the firstborn sons of all the Egyptians. This becomes a recurring theme in the Old and New Testaments. It was law. In the times before Jesus, the sacrificial system required a lamb, pure and spotless, to be sacrificed, signifying an innocent party who died in the place of others.
You cannot expect to clean a dirty window with a dirty cloth. The cloth must be clean to clean the window. When the window is clean, the cloth is dirty. Similarly, the lamb needed to be without blemish to signify the same. Biblical language often speaks of this bloodshed as a ransom. Souls are ransomed from this deathly headlong plunge by the shedding of blood. It may seem extreme and brutal, and it is; the Bible is clear that the wages of sin is death (Rom. 6:23), and there is therefore no reconciliation or forgiveness, without the shedding of blood (Heb. 9:22). Clearly, separation from God is serious. Lambs are most frequently mentioned in conjunction with sacrifice; a sacrifice for purification (Ez. 6:20), re-consecration to purify themselves for the Lord after having disobeyed (2 Chron. 30:15, 17), for petitionary prayer (1 Sam. 7:9), for sin offerings, for guilt offerings, and in some cases to be done daily (Ezek. 46:13, 15). You come to God because of the lamb.
These sacrifices were designed to make intercession between God and His people, that is, to bridge a divide, to mediate, arbitrate, to intervene on our behalf. The separation from God was inevitable, unavoidable and deathly serious, and it required a ransom paid in blood because of the nature of this sin. Innocence and spotlessness were to take on the guilt and sin of others, and interestingly, it was often one lamb who provided for many, as at Passover.
You may have noticed how often the imagery of the lamb appears in the context of sonship as well. This is not an accident. The sacrifice of the Passover lamb saved the Israelites in Exodus 12 from the plague of death that killed every firstborn son. Think of Abraham’s near sacrifice of his own son in Genesis 22. Isaac asks “where is the lamb for the burnt offering” (verse 7), and Abraham answers, “God himself will provide the lamb for the burnt offering” (verse 8).
Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world
Now suddenly, when we come to Jesus, don’t you find this description of John the Baptist gloriously apt? John sees Jesus approach and says, “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1:29). The Lamb of God. There is so much here. 1 Corinthians 5:7 literally names Christ Jesus "our Passover lamb." He is the One who saves from death, sacrificed for many, whose blood washes us clean. Now those analogies take on a new depth. Isaiah 53 describes God’s Servant (in a passage prophesying about the coming of Jesus) like a lamb of God who suffered and is slaughtered for “the iniquity [the sin] of us all” (verse 6), whose life is intended for this “guilt offering” (verse 10). In verses 11 and 12, we see He is a “righteous servant [who] will justify many and He will bear their iniquities” (an innocent sacrifice bearing the sins of many), “pouring His life out unto death” (an image of bloodshed), who was “number among the transgressors” (who, by enduring the burden of sin, succumbed to the punishment and humiliation that sin deserved), who “made intercession for the transgressors” (opens the way to relationship with God, by forever removing sin and interceding for us), and will thereafter be exalted by God.
The lamb of the sacrificial system was only a shadow of things to come (as it is written in Hebrews 10:1). “We have been made holy through the sacrifice of the body of Jesus Christ once for all” (Heb. 10:10, my emphasis).
This is Jesus, the lamb for sacrifice, the lamb for atonement from sin, for purification, for intercession, for every day of our lives, but also notice this: that it is God’s lamb. It is not a ritual that must be frequently renewed and repeated, but it is God Himself who provides the lamb. It is not us reaching out in a limited and feeble attempt to patch things up with God anymore (while really waiting in faith for the promised One to come), it is God reaching out to us. God Himself provides the lamb of sacrifice, His Son. How rich and satisfying are these comparisons!
In their communion hymn, “Behold the Lamb,” Keith and Kristin have put it aptly:
Behold the Lamb who bears our sins away
Slain for us, and we remember,
The promise made that all who come in faith
Find forgiveness at the cross.
It deepens our understanding of who Christ is, and what He came to do, and then who we are by this act. But, given the spirit of the Christmas holidays, does it not give new, glorious significance to Christ’s coming to earth? He came to reconcile, to give peace with God—not with the pomp and ceremony of a vanquishing king returning to his kingdom, but humbly, peaceably, as an innocent and vulnerable child, like a lamb. And He came to bear away the sins of the world. So here is my favourite Christmas verse: “Thanks be to God for his indescribable gift!” (2 Corinthians 9:15).