On the morrow he seeth Jesus coming unto him, and saith, “Behold, the Lamb of God, that taketh away the sin of the world!” (John 1:29).
Generally, when we think about lambs, we are not filled with fear or respect. We would perhaps consider them “cute” or something of the sort. We would think of a young and vulnerable animal, perhaps not the smartest, yet, above all things, harmless and innocent.
Therefore, there are good reasons why you do not see many high schools or colleges whose mascot is a lamb. The designation would be either ironic or all too appropriate. It is also a term that is generally not used to describe another person. You rarely hear someone who has been given the nickname “Lamb.” Even if such a one were to exist, he would not be someone whom you would fear!
Yet John the Baptist, on seeing Jesus, speaks of Him as the “Lamb.” Why would John say such a thing? Is it an insult? What is he trying to communicate?
While we may think of lambs as cute, young, harmless, and the like, an ancient Israelite would have added to all those things “a sacrifice.” Lambs were offered as sacrifices to God even in the days of Abraham (cf. Genesis 22:7-8). In order to mark out Israelite houses, God commanded Israel to sacrifice lambs and use their blood to mark the lintel and the side posts during the Passover (cf. Exodus 12:3-5). Lambs were the perpetual daily sacrifices for atonement (cf. Exodus 29:38-42). Lambs were sufficient sacrifices for sin and trespass offerings (cf. Leviticus 4:32, 5:6).
Yet why the poor lamb? What did it ever do to deserve such a fate? Absolutely nothing– and that was the point. As elaborated in Leviticus 17:11, the life of an animal was in its blood, and animals were offered on the altar in order to atone for the sins of the one sacrificing. The penalty for sin was death (cf. Genesis 3:3, Romans 6:23). For the penalty to be paid, something had to die– and in the old covenant, the innocent lamb was the one who paid the penalty.
This is the background behind John’s statement. By signifying that Jesus is the “Lamb of God,” John forecasts His life and death. Jesus, as the Lamb, would be sinless and innocent (cf. Hebrews 4:15, 1 Peter 2:21-22). Through His death on the cross He was able to take away the sin of the world– to be the sinless, innocent Life that would atone for all the guilty who believed in Him (cf. Matthew 20:25-28, Romans 5:5-11, 2 Corinthians 5:20).
The blood of lambs, in truth, could not take away sin (Hebrews 10:4). God passed over the sins of the righteous of old, looking forward to the propitiation that came through the obedience of Jesus the true Lamb of God (cf. Romans 3:25, Hebrews 5:7-10). In so doing Jesus broke down the barriers between Jew and Gentile and all people, allowing all to be cleansed of sin and reconciled to God through His blood (Ephesians 2:11-18).
We again see Jesus as the Lamb in Revelation 5:6-14, the One worthy to open the seven seals. The Lamb receives power and honor and glory for His life, death, and resurrection.
Therefore it is important for us to remember that Jesus, the Lamb of God, was not just a sacrifice– He was humble, meek, and lowly, One from whom you would not derive a mascot (cf. Matthew 11:28-30). His way is not the way of the world, but the way of love, humility, and service (Matthew 20:25-28). In order to be His disciple we must also become sacrifices, albeit living ones (Romans 12:1), and we must develop the humility and disposition of a servant as did our Lord (cf. John 13:1-17, Philippians 2:1-11).
The Lamb gave His life so that we could have abundant life, both here and in the hereafter. If we seek to obtain that life, we must give up our own lives and follow the ways of the Lamb of God!
Ethan R. Longhenry