What Does It Mean that Jesus Is the Lamb of God?
It’s not easy to imagine Jesus as the “Lamb of God.” For one thing, animal sacrifice is so foreign to our modern minds. We can easily imagine Jesus as a powerful preacher and resurrected man, but a slain lamb is harder to think of when you think of Christ.
But to His followers, those three words, declared in the context of their Jewish history, revealed worlds to them about the character and fate of the One whom they were giving up their lives for. To understand Jesus as the Lamb of God, we must put ourselves in the mindset of a first-century Jew. In doing so, we will get a fuller picture of Jesus’s sacrifice on the cross, to which He went “like a lamb that is led to slaughter” (Isaiah 53:7).
Who First Calls Jesus the Lamb of God?
We first read of Jesus being referred to as the Lamb of God in the gospel of John when John the Baptist sees Christ and declares, “Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1:29).
But the picture of Christ as a lamb did not originate in John’s imagination. Centuries earlier, Isaiah prophesied about what would be required for our freedom. God’s Servant is central to the prophetic vision: a man “despised and abandoned, oppressed and afflicted, bearing the sins of many” (Isaiah 53:3, 7, 12).
Isaiah vividly described how He would be “like a lamb that is led to slaughter,” silently bearing the punishment we deserve. When Isaiah likened Him to a lamb being led to slaughter, he painted a picture that was all too familiar to his audience. For centuries, lambs had been routinely offered up to God as a sacrifice. That practice continued when Jesus walked the earth when John could be heard calling out to Him, “Behold, the Lamb of God!” Thus, the allusion to Isaiah’s prophetic pronouncement and the significance of a slaughtered lamb would not have been lost on the people who heard John’s cry.
What Kind of Sacrifices Did Jews Use Lambs For?
Exodus 7-12 describes a series of events known as the 10 plagues, dealt out against the Egyptians enslaving the Israelites. Before the night of the final plague, God had instructions on how to protect themselves from “the destroyer” who would take the lives of the firstborn sons in every home who chose not to obey God.
Following God’s instructions, they selected a lamb without defect, slaughtered it at twilight, sprinkled its blood on their doorpost, roasted the lamb’s flesh, and ate it with unleavened bread and bitter herbs (Ex. 12:1-8).
After being freed from Egypt, the Israelites commemorated Passover yearly with a lamb. They remembered their liberation from the forces of evil which had held them captive.
Lambs were also used daily for burnt offerings. Every morning and every evening, a spotless lamb was offered to Yahweh at the temple in Jerusalem (Ex. 29:38-42). Burnt offerings were the most common offering practiced within the Mosaic Law. They acted as a means of general atonement, allowing an unholy people to remain in relationship with a holy God. The daily offerings constantly reminded them of their need for God’s mercy and willingness to give it. They did not cleanse the people of their sins nor make them holy, but they provided a means by which they could dwell with God.
When Christ was sacrificed as the one perfect Lamb, He fulfilled the prophecy in Jeremiah 31:31: “Behold, the days are coming, declares the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah…”
Unlike the old covenant, in which sacrifices had to be offered daily, Jesus’ one sacrifice was sufficient for the continual forgiveness of sins. Moreover, “what the law could not do, weak as it was through the flesh, God did: sending His own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and as an offering for sin, He condemned sin in the flesh” (Romans 8:3).
The law, with all of its sacrifices, could not make people clean. It could not give them new hearts. Only Christ could do that—through His sacrifice on the cross as the spotless Lamb of God.
Did Jesus’s Audience Expect Him to be the Lamb of God?
Knowing the prophecy that all of the Jews would have been familiar with and witnessing John the Baptist’s readiness to refer to Jesus as the “Lamb of God,” one would assume that it would have been no surprise to the men and women who Jesus focused much of His ministry on that He was to be sacrificed like a lamb led to slaughter. Not if they took their professed beliefs seriously, at least. And yet, even John questioned whether or not Jesus was the real deal when His ministry did not align with John’s expectations (Matthew 11:3).
Despite the prophetic vision of a coming Messiah who would have to suffer and die for His people, Jesus, the Lamb of God, was not what people anticipated or hoped for. They wanted a powerful warrior, a mighty King. Someone who would rule according to their wishes. Someone to eviscerate their enemies. Not someone to die for them.
It was not until after His resurrection, when Jesus opened the minds of His disciples, that they understood His death had been written into their history from the beginning (Luke 24:44-46). Countless moments in the gospel narratives attest to their blindness. In all of these instances, Jesus could not fit into the mold that their biases had created.
In one example, while walking with James and John, Jesus confronted their assumptions about His intentions. “Do You want us to command fire to come down from heaven and consume them?” They asked, referring to the Samaritans that had just refused to receive Christ. Rebuking their hard hearts, Jesus responded, “the Son of Man did not come to destroy men’s lives, but to save them” (Luke 9:54, 56). They evidently did not understand His mission.
In another instance, Jesus spoke to His disciples about His coming death and met with pushback from Peter: “God, forbid it, Lord! This shall never happen to You” (Matthew 16:22). Peter clearly could not conceive of His Master being led like a lamb to the slaughter. After years of ministering side by side, Jesus’ intimate friends were confused by his attempts to forewarn His coming crucifixion (John 16:18). How could one die victoriously?
The time came that Isaiah’s words were realized, and Jesus was led to slaughter. His disciples still did not understand what was happening—Peter denied him three times.
After his resurrection, Jesus crossed paths with some of His disciples. They did not recognize their risen Savior. When Jesus asked why they were mourning, they told Him about “Jesus the Nazarene, who was a prophet mighty in deed and word in the sight of God and all the people. And how the chief priests and rulers delivered Him to the sentence of death, and crucified Him.” Then they lamented, “We were hoping that it was He who was going to redeem Israel” (Luke 24:19-21). Jesus told them they had misunderstood the prophets’ words about the Messiah.
Had they truly believed the words of the Law, the Prophets, and the Psalms (Luke 24:44), had they humbled themselves and laid aside their preconceived notions to accept Christ as He had revealed Himself to them, then His death would not have come as such a grievous surprise. Had they truly put their hope in what was “written, that the Christ would suffer and rise again from the dead on the third day” (Luke 24:46), then even His death could have been reason for hope.
Who is the Lamb of God in Revelation?
Nowhere else in Scripture will you find “the Lamb” referenced more often than in the book of Revelation. As is true of all references to the Lamb of God in Scripture, Jesus is being spoken about. No longer, though, do we see Him slaughtered, crucified on a cross. In John’s prophetic vision, Jesus more closely reflected the glorious ruler that His followers had anticipated. Rather than a wounded body, laboring for breath on a tree, John saw a lamb “standing, as if slaughtered,” triumphantly on His throne (Rev. 5:6). All around Him the angels declared “Worthy is the Lamb that was slaughtered to receive power, wealth, wisdom, might, honor, glory, and blessing” (Rev. 5:12), and all created beings on heaven and earth shouted forth “to Him who sits on the throne and to the Lamb be the blessing, the honor, the glory, and the dominion forever and ever” (Rev. 5:13).
In this very chapter, the portrait of Christ is painted by two other vivid descriptors. He is called “the Lion that is from the tribe of Judah” and “the root of David.” Both of these titles can be found all over the Old Testament, giving us a better understanding of why first-century Jews might have been anticipating a more ferocious warrior, a lion laying in wait for its prey.
But they did not understand that the forces that needed conquering were not from without (formidable armies or barbaric leaders) but from within (the evil running through each person’s blood). They were not physical but spiritual. The “ruler and authorities” whom Jesus disarmed and “put to open shame” (Col. 2:15) were the forces of evil that reigned before His coming through each person’s enslavement to sin. To defeat the darkness, He needed to set captives free. The Lion of Judah conquered the blood of the Lamb.
Photo Credit: © iStock/Getty Images Plus/kevron2001
Meghan Trapp earned her Masters of Arts in Applied Theology from Heartland School in Ministry in Kansas City in 2021, and is now joyfully staying home to raise her daughter. When she is not reading children’s books or having tea parties, Meghan is volunteering with a local anti-trafficking organization, riding bikes with her family, writing or reading (most likely Amy Carmichael or C.S. Lewis). Her deepest passion is to share the heart of Christ with teenagers and young adults.
This article is part of our People from the Bible Series featuring the most well-known historical names and figures from Scripture. We have compiled these articles to help you study those whom God chose to set before us as examples in His Word. May their lives and walks with God strengthen your faith and encourage your soul.
The views and opinions expressed in this podcast are those of the speakers and do not necessarily reflect the views or positions of Salem Web Network and Salem Media Group.
If you’ve ever felt like Jesus couldn’t love you, then please keep reading. The Bible is filled with unlikely people Jesus loved. Has life tarnished you, and perhaps you feel unworthy of God’s love? I certainly didn’t live a saint’s life, but I believe God forgave me and loves me. I just didn’t understand the depth of His love, nor the power of it.
While all of us can be unlikely candidates for the love of Christ, we will focus on the unlikely people Jesus loved.
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