Silly me. I thought when I started writing last week that I’d only have one post on shepherd, sheep, and lamb imagery in the Bible when there’s enough verses on that topic that multiple books could (and have) been written. As you can see, we’re back on this topic again today.
In last week’s post, we went over the Hebrew words for “sheep” and how they’re used in scripture. We also looked at the word for “shepherd,” and discussed the roles and responsibilities of godly shepherds. But we started with Passover lambs, and that’s what I want to come back to today. One of the things we touched on last week is that because we’ve gone astray from God like sheep from their shepherd, the Messiah had to come and die in our place like a lamb.
Let’s think about that a little more. Because we’re wayward sheep, Jesus came as the lamb. He had to take on human nature so He could live like us and die in our place. He became like us–people compared to sheep, one of the animals sacrificed over and over in the Old Testament because of human sins–so He could die instead of us as the one sacrificed Lamb securing forgiveness forever.
I started digging into this topic because of how close we’re getting to Passover. Now, we’re less than five weeks away. So let’s talk about the Lamb who takes away the sins of the world.
Look, the Lamb of God!
John begins his gospel in a unique way. Rather than starting with Jesus’s miraculous birth, he begins long before that. “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was fully God,” John writes as he begins the gospel account, adding, “Now the Word became flesh and took up residence among us” (John 1:1, 14, NET). Only after establishing Jesus’s preexistence and divinity does he move into the familiar story of John the Baptist testifying that Jesus is the Messiah.
On the next day John saw Jesus coming toward him and said, “Look, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world! This is the one about whom I said, ‘After me comes a man who is greater than I am, because he existed before me.’ I did not recognize him, but I came baptizing with water so that he could be revealed to Israel.”
Then John testified, “I saw the Spirit descending like a dove from heaven, and it remained on him. And I did not recognize him, but the one who sent me to baptize with water said to me, ‘The one on whom you see the Spirit descending and remaining—this is the one who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.’ I have both seen and testified that this man is the Chosen One of God.”John 1:29-34, NET
We’ve likely read this or heard it dozens of times. Jesus came to die and take away our sins. We know this; it’s one of (if not the) central truths of Christianity. John the Baptist doesn’t stop with that truth, though; he keeps going deeper. Jesus “existed before,” He “baptizes with the Holy Spirit,” and He’s “the Chosen One of God.” And John begins these statements about Jesus by calling Him “the Lamb of God.”
Why A Lamb?
To understand why calling Jesus “the Lamb of God” was such an important statement, we need to look to the Old Testament that John’s Jewish listeners would have been so familiar with.
Gen 22:8 is an important passage in the background of the title Lamb of God as applied to Jesus. In Jewish thought this was held to be a supremely important sacrifice. G. Vermès stated: “For the Palestinian Jew, all lamb sacrifice, and especially the Passover lamb and the Tamid offering [daily burnt offering], was a memorial of the Akedah [binding of Isaac] with its effects of deliverance, forgiveness of sin and messianic salvation” (Scripture and Tradition in Judaism [StPB], 225).NET Study Note on John 1:29
I knew the moment when Abraham willingly offered his son Isaac and God provided a ram in his place was pivotal, but I guess I hadn’t thought about it as deeply as I could have (see Gen. 22). I wouldn’t have connected it with all the daily sacrifices, though it makes sense since all of them point to the Messiah. And as I think about why Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice Isaac and God’s provision of a ram instead was considered so important, I ask myself, “What would have happened if this situation had gone differently?”
If Abraham hadn’t sacrificed Isaac, the Messenger of the Lord couldn’t have said, “now I know that you fear God because you did not withhold your son, your only son, from me” (Gen. 22:11, NET). Abraham wouldn’t have pictured a father willing to give up his son’s life because of trust in the promise of a great future (Heb. 11:17-19; Jam. 2:20-22).
On the other hand, if Abraham had sacrificed Isaac without God stepping in to provide a sheep substitute, then that would have been the end. Israel wouldn’t have been formed because Isaac wouldn’t have had a son, Jacob, to inherit the promises God made to Abraham and found the nation of Israel. There wouldn’t have been a promise to save the whole world through Abraham’s seed in the Messiah (Acts 3:18-26; Gal. 3:15-17).
No wonder, then, that the Jewish people recognize this time when Abraham was about to sacrifice his son and God stepped in with a substitute as a key moment. Abraham’s assurance that “God will provide for himself the lamb for the burnt offering” (Gen. 22:8, NET) echoed down through the ages, pointing to the time when God would provide a Lamb to take away the world’s sins.
The Passover Lamb
Let’s think back to that first Passover. Generations after Abraham and Isaac, the people of Israel were enslaved in Egypt. They’d cried out to God for help, and He sent Moses as a deliverer. Plagues rained down on Egypt, and still Pharaoh refused to let Israel go. So now it was time for one last plague. God pledged to kill all the firstborn in Egypt, human and animal. But there was a way for His people to escape.
Your lamb shall be without defect, a male a year old. You shall take it from the sheep or from the goats. You shall keep it until the fourteenth day of the same month; and the whole assembly of the congregation of Israel shall kill it at evening. They shall take some of the blood, and put it on the two door posts and on the lintel, on the houses in which they shall eat it. They shall eat the meat in that night, roasted with fire, with unleavened bread. They shall eat it with bitter herbs. … This is how you shall eat it: with your belt on your waist, your sandals on your feet, and your staff in your hand; and you shall eat it in haste: it is Yahweh’s Passover. For I will go through the land of Egypt in that night, and will strike all the firstborn in the land of Egypt, both man and animal. I will execute judgments against all the gods of Egypt. I am Yahweh. The blood shall be to you for a token on the houses where you are. When I see the blood, I will pass over you, and no plague will be on you to destroy you when I strike the land of Egypt. This day shall be a memorial for you. You shall keep it as a feast to Yahweh. You shall keep it as a feast throughout your generations by an ordinance forever.Exodus 12:5-8, 11-14, WEB
Thousands of years later, Jesus kept the Passover with His disciples and then died as the Passover lamb (Hebrew days begin at sunset, so when he kept the Passover in the evening and then died the next afternoon, it was all on a single day). In 1 Corinthians, Paul reinforces our understanding of how Jesus relates to Passover when talking about how we now observe Passover and the Festival of Unleavened Bread.
Clean out the old yeast so that you may be a new batch of dough—you are, in fact, without yeast. For Christ, our Passover lamb, has been sacrificed. So then, let us celebrate the festival, not with the old yeast, the yeast of vice and evil, but with the bread without yeast, the bread of sincerity and truth.1 Corinthians 5:7-8, NET
Pretty much all of the 1 Corinthians letter links to Passover and Unleavened Bread. Here in this passage, Paul clearly identifies Christ as our Passover lamb or simply “our Passover,” since the Greek word for “lamb” isn’t specifically in this passage. Jesus fulfilled (i.e. filled up to the fullest extent) all that the Old Testament Passover pointed to. He’s the one whose sacrifice makes God “pass over” punishment for our sins. He saves our lives. And He’s the lamb that dies in our place.
Messianic Promise For Our Futures
In addition to being the Passover Lamb, Jesus’s coming was a direct fulfillment of promises God made to Abraham. Jesus’s mother Mary and John’s father Zacharias were well aware of this, and highlighted God’s covenant faithfulness to provide a Lamb and once again save Abraham’s children (Luke 1:46-55, 67-75). We also benefit from God’s faithfulness to do that right now. But Jesus’s role as a Lamb isn’t only about what happened in the past or about prophecies that have already been fulfilled.
Jesus is called the Lamb 33 times in Revelation. Here, we see the Lamb opening seals, pouring wrath on a wicked earth, and conquering as Lord of lords and King of kings. We also see Him receiving worship and praise, providing salvation, washing people clean in His blood, acting as their shepherd, and standing with those redeemed from the world.
After these things I looked, and here was an enormous crowd that no one could count, made up of persons from every nation, tribe, people, and language, standing before the throne and before the Lamb dressed in long white robes, and with palm branches in their hands. They were shouting out in a loud voice, “Salvation belongs to our God, who is seated on the throne, and to the Lamb!” …
“These are the ones who have come out of the great tribulation. They have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb! For this reason they are before the throne of God, and they serve him day and night in his temple, and the one seated on the throne will shelter them. They will never go hungry or be thirsty again, and the sun will not beat down on them, nor any burning heat, because the Lamb in the middle of the throne will shepherd them and lead them to springs of living water, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.”Revelation 7:9-10, 14-17, NET (italics mark allusions to Isa 49:10 and Isa 25:8)
This the future we have to look forward to. When we walk with the Lamb now, following our Shepherd as faithful sheep, we’ll get to stay with Him forever in the future (Rev. 21:9-11, 22-23, 27; 22:1-3). We can even become His wife.
For the Lord our God, the All-Powerful, reigns!
Let us rejoice and exult
and give him glory,
because the wedding celebration of the Lamb has come,
and his bride has made herself ready.
She was permitted to be dressed in bright, clean, fine linen” (for the fine linen is the righteous deeds of the saints).
Then the angel said to me, “Write the following: Blessed are those who are invited to the banquet at the wedding celebration of the Lamb!” He also said to me, “These are the true words of God.”Revelation 19:6-9, NET
It would have been a huge blessing on its own just to have Jesus as our Passover lamb. Yet here He is shaping our future as well. In Jewish tradition, a song called “Dayenu” has been part of Passover celebrations for over a thousand years. The title means “it would have been enough.” This song lists 15 gifts of God (including deliverance from slavery, the Red Sea parting, and giving the Torah), saying even one of those gifts would have been enough by itself, yet God keeps giving more. When speaking of the Messianic Passover Lamb, it would have been enough if Jesus had died for us but He doesn’t stop there. He’s the Lamb of God yesterday, today, and forever. He’s our savior and our good shepherd. And when we follow in His footsteps as the Lamb, we’ll have Him as our shepherd and guardian for ever (1 Peter 2:20-25).
Featured image by Anja from Pixabay
Song Recommendation: “Lamb Of God / Amen (Total Praise)” by Matt Redman & David Funk