In church, we likely have sung lyrics that contained the phrase “lamb of God.” In fact, in some more liturgical denominations, we may have even sung or said the entire, “Behold the lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world” followed by a “have mercy on us.” But what does this phrase mean when John the Baptist said it in John 1:9? We know Jesus often refers to people as sheep or lambs, but does this description also fit the Son of Man?
In this article, we’ll explore the meaning of the phrase “lamb of God” and why John the Baptist used it when he saw Jesus approaching right before Jesus’ baptism. Let’s dive in!
Why Did John Say ‘Behold the Lamb of God’
John the Baptist, the cousin of Jesus, sees Jesus approach in the desert. We know Jesus has gone by many different names in the Bible such as Prince of Peace and Wonderful Counselor. So it seems a little odd that John would choose to introduce him to the crowd as a lamb.
According to this article by Meg Bucher, “We know in the Gospel of John that John the Baptist was referring to Jesus when he exclaimed, "Behold the Lamb of God!" There were also Old Testament prophecies concerning the sacrifice of a servant for his people. Jesus was prophesied as the Lamb of God in Isaiah 53:7 and Isaiah 53:12, which reads: “Therefore I will give him a portion among the great, and he will divide the spoils with the strong, because he poured out his life unto death, and was numbered with the transgressors. For he bore the sin of many, and made intercession for the transgressors.”
The lamb, first of all, served as a sacrifice to atone for the sins of the people, especially during Passover. We’ll discuss how this ties into the life and death of Jesus in a moment.
The “lamb” also fulfills Old Testament prophecy, as explained above by Bucher.
Here’s what Matthew Henry has to say about this name: “John saw Jesus coming to him, and pointed him out as the Lamb of God. The paschal lamb, in the shedding and sprinkling of its blood, the roasting and eating of its flesh, and all the other circumstances of the ordinance, represented the salvation of sinners by faith in Christ. And the lambs sacrificed every morning and evening, can only refer to Christ slain as a sacrifice to redeem us to God by his blood.”
In other words, this name comes with a rather painful reminder of what Jesus must endure at the latter half of John and the other Gospels. The Jewish people would’ve had a distinct familiarity with the sacrificial lamb they had chosen each year to slaughter. One without blemish. Perhaps one they’d even given a name.
From the beginning of Jesus’ ministry in John 1, after his baptism and temptation in the desert, John declares Jesus’ ultimate mission. To die on a cross, to take away the sin of the world.
What Does the Bible Say about the Lamb of God?
Can we find the term lamb of God anywhere else in the Bible? The specific phrase? Not really. But the Bible does have a lot to say about sacrificial lambs, especially pertaining to the life of Jesus.
1 Peter 1:19: “But with the precious blood of Christ, like that of a lamb without blemish or spot.”
Jesus’ blood cleanses us of all sin and unrighteousness, should we choose to come into a saving relationship with him. In Old Testament law, a sacrificial lamb had to have no blemish. It had to be perfect in order to symbolically atone for the sins of a family for that year. In the same way, Jesus was without blemish. He lived a perfect life, and therefore, served as the perfect sacrifice for our sins.
Isaiah 53:7: “He was oppressed, and he was afflicted, yet he opened not his mouth; like a lamb that is led to the slaughter, and like a sheep that before its shearers is silent, so he opened not his mouth.”
Known as the suffering servant chapter, Isaiah 53 prophesies what would happen during Jesus’ death. We see that he does not battle his false accusers in court. Even though he could have defended himself and found himself acquitted, he did not open his mouth. So that he could proceed with his horrific death to offer a way of salvation for us.
1 Corinthians 5:7: “Cleanse out the old leaven that you may be a new lump, as you really are unleavened. For Christ, our Passover lamb, has been sacrificed.”
Notice the language of the Passover lamb. Passover celebrated the Israelites’ escape from slavery in Egypt. During the final plague, they placed the blood of a slain lamb over their doorposts. The Angel of Death would pass over the house that contained this blood.
Little did they know that they foreshadowed what Christ would do on Passover. He died so that we could cover our “doorpost” with his blood and receive life instead of death.
He saves us from an even deadlier plague, sin.
Why Is Should Christians Know about the Lamb of God?
Christians should know about the phrase “behold the lamb of God” for a number of reasons.
First, because many of us don’t have an agricultural background, the imagery may not hit home as much as it had for Jesus’ audience. Most of the people would’ve cared for some sort of livestock. Agriculture is, after all, the foundation of civilization. Who knew how the families felt when they brought the perfect lamb to be slaughtered at the Jewish festival? Had they grown attached to it? Did the children watch it die to fully understand the consequences of sin?
We may not know, but Jesus’ audience would’ve had a distinct familiarity with lambs. So, when John called Jesus “the lamb of God” we have to wonder if in the back of their heads they understood that meant a sacrifice of some kind.
Secondly, Old Testament law makes it clear that sacrifice requires a lamb without blemish. In the world of sin, no number of good deeds can un-blemish us. Sin has tarnished us like rust, and we need a perfect Savior to take our place.
I think Jesus’ temptation in the desert is clearly placed in conjunction with his baptism. He shows us that he does not bow to the ways of sin, even after fasting for 40 days (Luke 4). He proves to us that he will live the life we ought to have lived. A perfect lamb.
When we analyze the cultural context in which Jesus came, this makes John’s statement all the more powerful when he introduces Jesus. What better way to kick off Jesus’ public ministry than to remind the public how his ministry would conclude—through his death and resurrection? Even though the Israelites wanted a conqueror, an insurrectionist to topple Rome, they got the opposite. They got a Prince of Peace, a Lamb who would not open his mouth when accused at the slaughter.
Jesus did conquer, but not Rome. He toppled a greater evil: sin. And he did so through his perfect, unblemished life and then sacrifice on the cross. Behold, the lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world.
Photo credit: ©GettyImages/KristiLinton
Hope Bolinger is an editor at Salem, literary agent at C.Y.L.E., and a graduate of Taylor University's professional writing program. More than 1,000 of her works have been featured in various publications ranging from Writer's Digest to Keys for Kids. She has worked for various publishing companies, magazines, newspapers, and literary agencies and has edited the work of authors such as Jerry B. Jenkins and Michelle Medlock Adams. Her modern-day Daniel trilogy released its first two installments with IlluminateYA, and the final one, Vision, releases in August of 2021. She is also the co-author of the Dear Hero duology, which was published by INtense Publications. And her inspirational adult romance Picture Imperfect releases in October of 2021. Find out more about her at her website.
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