Lamb of God?
The Messiah showed the power of paradox
by Gary B. Swanson
By this time in his life, Abraham was used to obeying God without question. So when the command came in the night “Go to Moriah and sacrifice your son,” Abraham set out. For him it was just that simple.
When he and his son Isaac reached the place on Mt. Moriah, Isaac noticed that they had brought no animal to sacrifice. Odd that he hadn’t thought of it before this, but Isaac was probably as used to obeying his father as his father was to obeying God. Yet now as everything seemed to be in place, Isaac asked, “Where is the lamb?”
This is the first time the word lamb appears in the Bible, and its connection with sacrifice is one of the earliest foreshadowings of the coming Messiah. The answer to Isaac’s question is occasionally hinted at by Old Testament prophets. Jeremiah the prophet describes a “gentle lamb led to the slaughter” (11:19). Another prophet, Isaiah, gave an almost identical description: “He was led like a lamb to the slaughter” (53:7).
Not a pretty picture.
This is an ironic way to describe a Messiah who is supposed to come and set everything right. Hardly the stirring promise of victory one would expect or hope for. Why not something more appropriate to an image of power and might? Why not a lion, for instance? And what’s all this talk of bloodshed?
Certainly the religious leaders of Jesus’ time were caught off guard when John the Baptist pointed directly at Jesus and finally answered Isaac’s question. “Behold! The Lamb of God,” he cried (John 1:29, NKJV). Though his hearers were steeped in the tradition of lamb sacrifice, knew all about the story of the Passover lamb, this is the first time in the Bible that the expression Lamb of God appears.
Problems of paradox
Why would John the Baptist introduce Jesus in this way? What was he thinking? A lamb is weak, submissive. Why not, at least, the Ram of God? Now there’s a good, forceful way to describe a coming Messiah. After all, wasn’t Isaac’s place on the altar on Mt. Moriah taken by a ram caught by its horns in a thicket?
But God often uses irony and paradox, not just for effect, but because His way is so diametrically opposite the world’s way. A casual sampling of the sayings and doings of Jesus bears this out:
“The last will be first, and the first will be last” (Matthew 20:16).
“Whoever tries to keep his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life will preserve it” (Luke 17:33).
Jesus told Nicodemus, a religious leader who apparently had it all together, that he had to be born again — to begin all over. Then He dismissed an adulterous woman who was caught in the very act, telling her simply, “Go and sin no more” (John 8:11, NKJV).
Importance of innocence
A paradox works most effectively when it juxtaposes seemingly contradictory statements to communicate an even greater truth. The whole is greater by far than the sum of its parts.
So we can expect a sense of paradox when it comes to God’s promise of a Messiah. The prophets Isaiah, Jeremiah, and John the Baptist refer to the Messiah as a Lamb because they want to express the importance of His innocence. Only if He is free of sin — completely innocent — can He save us from our sins. In that case, innocence assumes a power of its own.
For this reason, John, who wrote Revelation, described Jesus as a lamb repeatedly. Up to this point, this image occurs only sparingly throughout Scripture, but in Revelation it bursts over us like fireworks. It lights up the landscape and celebrates the victory of innocence. The Lamb of God will triumph over all that is evil and will rescue us from our sinfulness.
John adds that the only way for us to be forgiven of our sins is to have our robes washed “white in the blood of the Lamb” (Revelation 7:14). Paradox again. From a human viewpoint, blood isn’t exactly what we’d call a stain-remover. Yet this is God’s way.
“There is sheer wonder in this phrase, The Lamb of God,” writes William Barclay. “It becomes one of the most precious titles of Christ. . . . It sums up the love, the sacrifice, the suffering and the triumph of Christ.”*
*William Barclay, The Daily Study Bible: The Gospel of John, vol. 1, p. 82.
Scripture quotations are from the New International Version, unless otherwise noted.