Of all the blessed and powerful images in the Bible, the image of the lamb, the Paschal Lamb of God, touches me most deeply. None speaks more profoundly of our redemption from the slavery of sin. None inspires more confidence in God’s ultimate righteous rule on this planet. None concludes with greater certainty that the Lamb of God is also the Lion of Judah who will restore all that was lost and ruined in the fall.
The progressive revelation of the Lamb from Genesis to Revelation provides solid evidence that nothing will ever hinder God’s plan. From the earliest hints of the Lamb in Genesis to the full-blown glory of the Lion/Lamb in Revelation, we are treated to the drama of God’s unfolding plan for each of us, for our families, for our nations, and for our world. This great, unstoppable plan has one supreme goal: that in everything Jesus, the Lamb, will preeminence.
My own pale understanding of the symbol of the sacrificial lamb became strikingly vivid in 1979. Our tour bus stopped for a break in a small Syrian village. I got off the bus and was startled to see a man and his two boys preparing to slaughter an animal. I had never seen an animal’s throat cut. This was my first up-close encounter with the gory reality of animal slaughter. The goat struggled against its human captors but was quickly subdued. Then the man stretched back the goat’s neck and began to slit its throat. Again the animal kicked, shivered, and finally, after a while it stopped moving. The blood poured out from the goat’s throat and was caught by the boys in a basin.
I watched transfixed. The visual images of the pain and ugliness of death tumbled around in my brain, along with notions of economic necessity and the Old Testament’s insistence on animal sacrifice. At that moment the Scriptures came alive. “For the life of a creature is in the blood, and I have given it to you to make atonement for yourselves on the altar; it is the blood that makes atonement for one’s life” (Lev. 17:11). “When I see the blood, I will pass over you” (Ex. 12:13). “In fact, the law requires that nearly everything be cleansed with blood, and without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness” (Heb. 9:22). The death of a Syrian goat kindled a new understanding in my heart of the great lengths to which a holy God has gone to redeem enslaved people.
One way to express the preeminence of the Lamb in worship is to plan a whole service around the unfolding of this scriptural image. A worship service could be built by creating a handful of discrete sections, much like a service of lessons and carols, or a Lenten Tenebrae service. Each unit would include a Scripture reading, perhaps a brief commentary, a song, and a prayer. The service might fittingly culminate in the celebration of the Lord’s Supper.
There are dozens of hymns and songs that explore the image of Christ as Lamb of God, and not a few that extend the image in other directions, such as the ways in which we are like sheep and Christ is our shepherd.
Exploring this particular image would result in a service that dramatically unfolds God’s salvation history from creation through consummation, with Christ’s redemptive work as the Lamb of God at its heart.
Nine Scriptural References to the Lamb
The Invisible Lamb—Chosen Before the Creation of the World
Scripture: Genesis 3:8-21
“All Glory Be to God on High” PsH 247, PH 133, RL 620, TH 102, TWC 8
If you know where to look, you can find the Easter plot repeated early and often in the Old Testament. Before we get out of Genesis 4, God’s perfect creation and perfect couple are completely undone. Adam and Eve’s sin of disobedience closed the door of paradise and led them to destruction and death. Previously they had looked forward to meeting their Creator and Friend in the cool of the day; now they cower in the pristine foliage of Eden. Their clever couture of leaves is totally inadequate in the face of mounting fear, shame, and despair. Their dread in tensifies when God’s anguished voice finally reaches Adam, “Where are you?” (Gen. 3:9).
We can only dimly imagine the depths of God’s grief as he called out repeatedly, “Where are you?” to a silent and unresponsive Adam. God knew only too well the meaning of Adam and Eve’s silence. The Creator foreknew and foresaw the Judean cross, where earth would again hear the broken heart of the Son of God calling with unparalleled grief, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Mark 15:34).
Sin separates. It broke God’s heart, Eve’s heart, and Adam’s heart in Eden. And it breaks our hearts and separates our relationships today. In a blink of an eye, Genesis takes us from a perfect universe, a perfect world, and a perfect couple to a scene that looks very much like our world in a.d. 2000. Surveying the destruction, separation, shame, and fratricide in Eden, our Maker knew that only divine power could condemn the sin and rescue the sinner. The words of the prophet Isaiah echo beyond time: “The Lord looked and . . . was appalled that there was no one to intervene; so his own arm worked salvation for him, and his own righteousness sustained him” (Isa. 59:15-16).
What did God do to intervene for Adam and Eve in Eden? God provided the only valid covering that would redeem them from sin’s clutches. Genesis 3: 21 explains, “the Lord God made garments of skin for Adam and his wife and clothed them.” We don’t see the lamb. We don’t see the sacrifice. This first symbolic reference to the Lamb of God is all the more compelling for the mystery that surrounds it. And we can be sure that when God sacrificed the first, invisible lamb in the Garden of Eden, he saw his Son alone in the Garden of Gethsemane.
The Provided Lamb—Atonement for One Person
Scripture: Genesis 22
“Oh, for a Closer Walk with God” PsH 551, PH 396, 397, RL 437, TH 534, TWC 547
The story of Abraham and his son Isaac brings us many miles down the turnpike of human history—past the flood, past God’s rescue of Noah, past Babel and the call of Abraham. Mount Moriah is far removed from the mists of Eden. In calling Abraham, God restates the foundational lesson of Eden. Lest anyone should miss it, the progressive revelation of the Lamb now boldly articulates this central doctrine: God provides the Lamb. When Isaac does not see the sacrificial animal, he asks his father, “But where is the lamb for the burnt offering?” Abraham replies, “God himself will provide the lamb for the burnt offering, my son” (Gen. 22:7). And God did. At the last possible moment, God substituted a ram for the life of Isaac, the heir of God’s covenantal promises.
The Passover Lamb—Atonement for Each Household
Scripture: Exodus 12
“My Faith Looks Up to Thee” PsH 262, PH 383, RL 446, TH 528, TWC 552
In this key Old Testament passage, God frees the Hebrew people after four hundred years of backbreaking slavery in Egypt. “At midnight the Lord struck down all the firstborn in Egypt, from the firstborn of Pharaoh, who sat on the throne, to the firstborn of the prisoner, who was in the dungeon, and the firstborn of all the livestock as well” (Ex. 12:29). None escaped except those covered by the sacrificial blood of the lamb. God will not tolerate sin. No exceptions. But God does provide the Passover Lamb. “The blood will be a sign for you on the houses where you are; and when I see the blood, I will pass over you” (Ex. 12:13). This key biblical event of redemption in the Old Testament points to another key biblical event in the future that will involve the Lamb.
The Unblemished Lamb—Atonement for the People
Scripture: Leviticus 1:2-4
“What Wondrous Love Is This” PsH 379, PH 85, SFL 169, TH 261, TWC 212
“When any of you brings an offering to the Lord, bring as your offering an animal from either the herd or the flock. If the offering is a burnt offering from the herd, . . . offer a male without defect.” This passage highlights the perfection of the sacrifice and points to the flawless character of a future sacrifice.
The Promised Lamb—Atonement for Israel’s Redemption
Scripture: Isaiah 53
“There Is a Redeemer” (Maranatha! Praise Chorus Book 3, 244; Renew, 232; see also p. 28)
The progressive revelation of the Lamb takes two amazing turns here. First is the clear statement that “the Lord has laid on him [the Lamb] the iniquity of us all” (v. 6). Second, the lamb is identified as a person who would be stricken “for the transgressions of my people” (v. 8). After millennia of animal sacrifice, how could God’s people accept this step in the progressive revelation of the Lamb? “Who has believed our message and to whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed?” (v. 1). Indeed!
The Pinpointed Lamb of God—Atonement for the World
Scripture: John 1
“O Christ, the Lamb of God” PsH 257
(or any setting of the Agnus Dei)
Once the progressive revelation identifies the Lamb as a person, God leaves it to John, a rough and tough prophet of the Most High, to make the I.D. John was fearless and insightful, and he deeply desired the coming of Israel’s Messiah. “The next day John saw Jesus coming toward him and said, ‘Look, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!’” (v. 29). John’s clear pronouncement that Jesus is God’s Lamb is worthy of our attention, and the Lamb he identifies is worthy of all our adoration!
Jesus Identified as the Lamb of Isaiah 53
Scripture: Acts 8: 26-40
“Just As I Am” PsH 263, PH 370, RL 467-68, TH 501-02, TWC 445
In this portion, Philip the evangelist clearly ties the Lamb of God, Jesus, with the lamb promised in Isaiah 53. No wonder angels long to look into this Bible that we hold in our hands!
The Holy Lamb
Scripture: 1 Peter 1:18-21
“Now Behold the Lamb” RW 54:38, This Far by Faith 128
The character of the lamb sacrifice that Leviticus talked about is now fulfilled in Jesus—“the precious blood of Christ without blemish or defect.” In his book Following Jesus: Biblical Reflections on Discipleship, N. T. Wright explains,
When humans sinned, God chose the nation of Israel to be the priests of the human race, offering up human praise and putting into operation God’s solution to the problem of sin. Israel herself, however, was sinful; God chose a family of priests (the sons of Aaron) to be priests to the nation of priests. The priests themselves failed in their task; God sent his own Son to be both priest and sacrifice. The inverted pyramid of priesthood gets narrower and narrower until it reaches one point, and the point is Jesus on the cross. The sacrifice of Jesus is the moment when the human race, in the person of a single man, offers itself fully to the Creator (p. 10).
The Ruling Lamb
Scripture: Revelation 5; 22:1-5
“Crown Him with Many Crowns” PsH 410, PH 151, RL 600, TH 295, TWC 92
The revelation is complete. The Lamb hinted at, pointed to, and then clearly articulated as Jesus Christ is at last enthroned in heaven. He alone is worthy to take the scroll of the revelation of the future as determined by God and reveal it to humanity. As N. T. Wright says,
The Lion, the King of Kings and Lord of Lords, has become a Lamb, a sacrificial Lamb, the Paschal Lamb; and by his death he has conquered the powers of evil; so that now the plan of God, God’s rescue operation for the whole cosmos, can be unrolled and put into dramatic operation” (p. 56).
No wonder the living creatures and the twenty-four elders fell down before him in adoration. Dare we sing a hymn and be bored? Holy, Holy, Holy is the Lord Almighty!
Graphic art from More Clip Art for the Liturgical Year, by Placid Stuckenschneider Collegeville: The Liturgical Press).
He Is Coming Soon!
Just about the time you say to yourself, “I understand the image of the Lamb and its importance,” I would pose one caution. In the first century the Jewish leaders were looking for a warrior savior to come and rescue them from the hands of the Romans. They missed the Lamb of Isaiah 53. The Scriptures were replete with images of the Paschal Lamb who bore our sin, carried our sorrows, whom we esteemed not, who was like a root out of dry ground, a suffering Savior. But the Jewish leaders couldn’t see it. They missed him. Lest we become distracted from the great movement of God, let us remember that the Lamb and the Lion proved to be one and the same in Revelation 5:4-6. The image of the Lamb of God prepares us to consider the image of the Lion of Judah—who is coming soon. Let’s make sure we’re ready!
— Robert A Charnin