The Lamb of God
Both Services on 15th January 2017
Christ Church, Stannington
Readings: 1 Corinthians 1:1-9
John the Baptist called Jesus the “Lamb of God”. He said it again the next day when two of his disciples were with him (John 1:29, 36). What do you think they thought? “Wow, here He is at last?” They were devout men who would have studied the Scriptures — our Old Testament, so they’d know all about it wouldn’t they? Well, no, they wouldn’t actually. How many times does the Old Testament mention “The Lamb of God”? Not once, so how did John come up with that title? As with most things in the New Testament, if we really want to understand the meaning or origin of a passage, we must first see where it comes from in the Old Testament. This phrase is no different, even though those exact words aren’t mentioned together.
To comprehend what the term “Lamb of God” meant to the Israelites, we have to go all the way back to Abraham who, because of his absolute faith in God, was prepared to offer his only son as a sacrifice to God in place of a lamb. When his son, Isaac, asked his father where the lamb was that was to be sacrificed, Isaac replied, “God himself will provide the lamb for the burnt offering, my son” (Genesis 22:8 NIV). Had God not intervened, Isaac would have been the first human “Lamb of God”. However, as we know, God did indeed provide the sacrifice in the form of a ram caught by its horns in a thicket (Genesis 22:13).
To see how Jesus became looked upon as the lamb, we must first appreciate the Jewish celebration of Passover. In around 1250 BC, the Israelites were slaves of Egypt and had been for 400 years. God heard the cry of His people. “He heard their groaning and He remembered His covenant with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob” (Exodus 2:24 NIV). He sent Moses to deliver His people from their bondage. Even after God had used him to perform nine miracles to try and convince the Egyptian ruler to let His people go, Pharaoh’s heart was still unmoved.
Finally, God told Moses to have each family take a one-year-old, male lamb without blemish, slaughter it and paint its blood onto the door posts and lintel of each person’s house, where they were to eat its roasted flesh with unleavened bread and bitter herbs (Exodus 12:3 – 11). Notice that the lamb had to be male and unblemished. This was the reason that only Jesus could be sacrificed for the sins of the whole world; only He was unblemished, because no one else was free from sin (Romans 3:23).
In Egypt that night, the Angel of Death would “pass over” the homes protected by the blood around their doors, but take the lives of the first born in all the houses not so protected. Because of that blood sacrifice, Pharaoh allowed the Israelites to leave (Exodus 12:29 – 32). They went from slavery to freedom, from a land of sin to the Promised Land, and from death to new life. Through the blood of Jesus, we can pass from the death caused by sin to a new life with Him. While the Passover celebration of the old covenant was among family members with the father presiding, the new Passover is celebrated among the members of the church with the Lord presiding.
The prophets used this image of the lamb to describe the Messiah. Isaiah prophesied, as we’ve just sung about, “He was led like a lamb to the slaughter, and as a sheep before its shearers is silent, so He did not open his mouth. (Isaiah 53:7 NIV). Centuries later, when speaking to an Ethiopian eunuch, who was reading this very same passage from Isaiah, one of the disciples of Jesus, Philip, told him how the prophecy referred to Jesus and how He’d fulfilled it (Acts 8:26-39).
As we’ve just heard in our Gospel reading, when John the Baptiser was proclaiming the coming of the Messiah at the River Jordan (John 1:26), he saw Jesus and announced, “Look! There is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1:29 NIV). The imagery of the “Lamb of God” becomes clear in the Gospels, as they describe the death of Jesus on the roman cross. After the crucifixion, John recorded that they didn’t break any of Jesus’ bones in fulfilment of Scripture (John 19:36) [Exodus 12:46, Numbers 9:12].
Let’s just think about what’s happening in the Gospel accounts. At the crucifixion, Jesus, the innocent and sinless victim, takes all of our sins to Himself. But He doesn’t just bear our sins and suffer the punishment that is due to us for them; no, as we hear in our communion liturgy, Jesus Himself becomes our expiation. My dictionary says that to expiate is: to make amends or reparation for (wrongdoing or guilt); to atone for; to pay the penalty of. Thus He suffers for our sins.
At The Last Supper Jesus shared with His disciples, He passed the cup to them saying “This cup is the new covenant in My blood, which is poured out for you” (Luke 22:20 NIV). And indeed it was a new covenant, because it wasn’t the first one God had made with His people. God’s first covenant was with Noah. He made that after everything that breathed on the earth was destroyed by the Great Flood, with the exception of Noah, his family and the creatures in the ark Genesis 7&8). His covenant with Noah and his descendants was that He would never again destroy all life by a flood (Genesis 9:8-17).
Much, much later God made a covenant with Abraham, or Abram as he was called before God renamed him (Genesis 17:5). It came about like this. In the days of Abram, it was very rare for there to be such a thing as a written agreement. Instead, important contracts were usually carried out in the form of a religious rite. Certain animals were slaughtered and cut into halves. Damien Hirst would have had a field day. These halves were arranged in such a way as to leave a passage between them. The person making the covenant would pass up and down this gap to ratify his solemn pledge. It actually signified an oath which said, “May it be so done to me if I do not keep my oath and pledge.” They were, in effect, agreeing to be cut in half if they reneged on the agreement.
God told Abram that his offspring would be as numerous as the stars (Genesis 15:5). To seal this promise, He told him to go through the process of killing and arranging the halves of animals. After he’d done that, God made him wait until it was dark and then “… a smoking brazier with a blazing torch appeared and passed between the pieces (Genesis 15:17 NIVUK). God had already told Abram that his descendants would own all the area, which became known as the Promised Land (Genesis 12:7). This was God’s covenant with Abraham and his descendants.
The Jews, especially their religious leaders, always relied on this covenant, thinking that only they would be saved at the end of the world. They didn’t count the number of times they’d broken their part of the covenant by not obeying the Lord’s decrees and so counted themselves above the gentiles, or non-Jews. That must have been difficult during the Roman occupation. These religious leaders thought they had nothing to worry about because they depended on the promise made to the Patriarchs. But John the Baptist said to them, “…do not think you can say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ I tell you that out of these stones God can raise up children for Abraham (Matthew 3:9 NIV).
In spite of this faith, the people weren’t stupid enough not to realise that things were going from bad to worse for them. That’s why they would flock to anyone who told them how things could get better, as they did with John the Baptist. Those hearing him talk about a lamb may have thought he was referring to other sacrifices involving lambs, such as the daily sacrifice at the Temple in Jerusalem.
Every morning and evening, a lamb was sacrificed in the temple for the sins of the people (Exodus 29:38-42). These daily sacrifices, instigated by God like all others, were simply to point people towards the perfect sacrifice of Christ on the cross. To mention the reference again, the Jews at that time would have also been familiar with the Old Testament prophets, Jeremiah and Isaiah, who foretold the coming of One who would be brought “like a lamb led to the slaughter” (Jeremiah 11:19; Isaiah 53:7) and whose sufferings and sacrifice would provide redemption for Israel. Of course, that person was none other than Jesus Christ, the “Lamb of God”. There’s no longer a need for the daily sacrifice because Jesus died to pay for sin once and for all (Romans 6:10).
The Jewish High Priests offered the sacrifices to God on their altar. As our High Priest, Jesus, offers Himself on the altar of the cross. Through His blood He washes away sin. However, unlike the Passover lamb that was slaughtered, roasted, and eaten, our Lord rose from the dead, conquering both sin and death. We sang to Jesus, “You’re alive, You’re alive, You have risen. Alleluia, Jesus, to You.” He’s delivered us from the slavery of sin, shown us the path to salvation, and given us the promise of everlasting life. He’s made a new, perfect, and eternal covenant with His own blood.
Whilst the idea of a sacrificial system might seem strange to us today, the concept of payment or restitution is still one we can easily understand. We know that the wages of sin is death (Romans 6:23) and that our sin separates us from God. We also know the Bible teaches we are all sinners and none of us is righteous before God (Romans 3:23). Our sin forms a barrier between us and God and we all stand guilty before Him. Therefore, the only hope we can have is if He provides a way for us to be reconciled to Himself, and that is what He did in sending His Son Jesus Christ to die on the cross. Christ died to make atonement for sin and to pay the penalty due for the sins of all who believe in Him.
It is through His death on the cross as God’s perfect sacrifice for sin and His resurrection three days later, that we can now have eternal life if we believe in Him. The fact that God Himself has provided the offering that atones for our sin is part of the glorious good news of the gospel that is so clearly illustrated by Peter when he wrote, “For you know that it was not with perishable things such as silver or gold that you were redeemed from the empty way of life handed down to you from your forefathers, but with the precious blood of Christ, a lamb without blemish or defect. He was chosen before the creation of the world, but was revealed in these last times for your sake. Through him you believe in God, who raised him from the dead and glorified him, and so your faith and hope are in God” (1 Peter 1:18-21 NIV).
Yes, He was chosen before the creation of the world and will be here at its final demise. When the time comes, only He, in the form of a Lamb that has been slain, will be able to open the scroll in God’s right hand, with its seven seals (Revelation chapters 5-8).
The first four seals to be broken will release what are commonly known as the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. The first on a white horse will be sent to conquer; some regard him as bringing Pestilence. The second horse is fiery red. Its rider will be given the power to take peace from the earth – in other words he represents War. Then will come a rider on a black horse; he is thought of as bringing Famine. The fourth rider’s mount will be a pale horse. His name is Death and Hades will be following closely behind. (Revelation 6:1–8). The remaining seals can be dealt with at another time.
So, in the Book of Genesis, we see the beginning of the world and the relationship between God and the human beings He created. By reading the whole of the Bible – not difficult if you pace yourself – we see how that relationship developed with tremendous highs as God showered His blessings down on His people and devastating lows as He appeared to desert them altogether. Of course in the Old Testament, His people were the Israelites. When they stuck to their part of the covenant they’d made with God, all went well, very, very well. But when they turned their backs on Him, things went very, very badly for them. As you read, you keep thinking, “Why didn’t they ever learn?”
Well, because these ups and downs took place over hundreds of years and each generation thought they knew better than their parents, just as they do now. But when God punished His people, it was to try and guide them to get other things, especially false gods, out of their lives and to love and worship only Him. It never worked for long so, finally, He sent His only Son to take all the sins of the world on Himself, so that people wouldn’t have to die because of their sinning. The best thing about that for us of course is that this didn’t only apply to the Jews. They are still His chosen people, because He can’t go back on His word, by which He’d promised that they would be His people and He would be their God (Jeremiah 32:38). But the new covenant in the blood of Jesus opened the door to salvation for everyone.
And finally, as we read through the Bible, we get to the Book of Revelation, where Jesus is depicted as the King of kings, and Lord of lords (Revelation 17:14) who will be victorious against the powers of evil and invite the righteous to the wedding feast of the Lamb (Revelation 19:9); the union of the Church with the Lord, in heaven.
So, we should daily renew our relationship with our Lord Jesus and seek to do what He tells us. How do we find out what that is? In prayer, in studying the word, in having fellowship with other believers, learning from some and imparting our own experiences to others, coming to church, hearing the Word and singing His praises. We wouldn’t want the reserved place at the wedding feast, with our name on, it to fall off the table, would we now?