“Behold, the Lamb of God!”

January 4, 2016

I sometimes wish I were one of those megachurch pastors who was able to preach for 45 minutes or more, because yesterday would have been a good time to do so. My sermon text, John 1:19-34, was rich with meaning, to say the least. And I never got to the best part of the text: John 1:29, in which John the Baptist says, “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world.” 

The good news, since this is just the beginning of a sermon series on John’s gospel, is that I will have another crack at this “Lamb of God” metaphor in next week’s scripture (John 1:35-51). In verse 36, John says to two of his disciples, “Behold, the Lamb of God!”

I was surprised to learn in my research last week that there is some controversy surrounding the meaning of the “Lamb of God.” Some New Testament scholars doubt that it refers to Christ’s atoning sacrifice on the cross. After all, in the Old Testament sacrificial system, goats and bulls were sacrificed for sins, not lambs.

This strikes me as a bizarre objection by scholars motivated by a refusal to believe in substitutionary atonement. There are at least three very clear atonement-related Old Testament passages that relate to John’s metaphor. The first is the binding of Isaac in Genesis 22.

And Isaac said to his father Abraham, “My father!” And he said, “Here I am, my son.” He said, “Behold, the fire and the wood, but where is the lamb for a burnt offering?” Abraham said, “God will provide for himself the lamb for a burnt offering, my son.”

After God stops Abraham from killing his son, scripture says:

And Abraham lifted up his eyes and looked, and behold, behind him was a ram, caught in a thicket by his horns. And Abraham went and took the ram and offered it up as a burnt offering instead of his son.

Can I confess with embarrassment that I only learned last week that a “ram” can be either a male goat (as I always pictured it) or a male sheep?

Regardless, here we have a lamb sacrificed in exchange for the Isaac’s life, just as Christ is sacrificed in exchange for ours. While this passage doesn’t mention propitiation for sins (which doesn’t necessarily mean that Abraham didn’t understand it that way), we have other scripture passages that point to propitiation: Exodus 12 and Isaiah 53.

In the Exodus passage, the blood of the lamb, sprinkled on the lentil and door posts, is a propitiation—for the sins of the Egyptians, obviously, but also for the sins of the Israelites.

I think we often miss this point. Although the occasion for the Passover was to punish Egypt, both Israel and Egypt are guilty before God and deserving of judgment, wrath, and death—as are all human beings (see Romans 3:23 and 6:23). So if the angel of death is going punish for sin, God is nothing if not fair: Israel isn’t exempt from this judgment, either. The only reason that Israel is spared is by the blood of the lamb.

In Isaiah 53, which prophesies Christ’s substitutionary death explicitly, we’re told that the Suffering Servant, who carries our iniquities, is “like a lamb that is led to the slaughter, and like a sheep that before its shearers is silent.”

Finally, if the John who wrote Revelation is the same author of the gospel (as tradition holds), we’re not surprised that atonement imagery for the Lamb of God returns (Revelation 5:12, among others).

Am I missing anything else?

2 Responses to ““Behold, the Lamb of God!””

  1. Tom Harkins Says:

    Yes, it is a bizarre objection. How else was it that Christ “took away the sins of the world,” except as he was “slain”? So, if John is referencing Christ’s death, as he must be, and he refers to Jesus as the “Lamb” in that context, then certainly it is appropriate to associate a lamb (THE “Lamb”) with being slain for our sins. Your OT passages simply reconfirm this. Just an argument for argument’s sake to suggest otherwise.

    • brentwhite Says:

      Unfortunately, I know firsthand how objectionable penal substitution is for liberal academics. I wonder if it’s not because they don’t really believe that sin itself is a big problem.


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