Sunday, April 19, 2009

The Cross and the Kingdom (10)


The Gospel of John records an incident when John the Baptist saw Jesus coming towards him and he said: ""Look, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!" (John 1:29-35).

This is not the only time in the New Testament that Jesus is referred to as a lamb. Other places are:
The eunuch was reading this passage of Scripture:
"He was led like a sheep to the slaughter,
and as a lamb before the shearer is silent,
so he did not open his mouth." (Acts 8:32, quoting Isaiah 53:7)

For Christ, our Passover lamb, has been sacrificed. (1 Corinthians 5:7)

For you know that it was not with perishable things such as silver or gold that you were redeemed from the empty way of life handed down to you from your forefathers, but with the precious blood of Christ, a lamb without blemish or defect. (1 Peter 1:18-19)
The Revelation refers to "the Lamb" about 30 times, including the following verses which speak of a slain lamb, or the blood of the lamb:
"a Lamb, looking as if it had been slain" (5:6)

"Worthy is the Lamb, who was slain" (5:12)

"These are they who have come out of the great tribulation; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb." (7:15)

"They overcame him by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony" (12:11)

"... the Lamb that was slain from the creation of the world." (13:8)
In most places in The Revelation the term "the Lamb" is used as a title, rather than being a metaphorical reference to a slain animal. For example, chapters 19 and 21 refer to the Lamb's marriage and to his bride - hardly part of a slain lamb analogy!

So what do these passages mean?

It is commonly assumed that the slain lamb analogy is a reference to a sacrificial animal under the Law of Moses which was therefore a "type" of Christ, and that as the blood of the animal made an atonement for sins so the shedding of Christ's blood in crucifixion was a sacrificial atonement for sin.

However, there are a number of problems with this assumption.
  1. Almost all the NT references are alluding to the Passover lamb. The passage in 1 Corinthians is explicitly to "Christ our Passover" (strictly speaking, the word "lamb" is absent in the Greek - the translators have inserted it as it is implied) and 1 Peter speaks about being redeemed (set free, liberated) - an allusion to freedom from Egyptian slavery which Passover celebrates (and in the context of 1 Peter it is freedom from "the empty way of life handed down to you from your forefathers", almost certainly referring to Pharisaic Judaism).
  2. The Passover lamb was not sacrificed as an atonement or for the forgiveness of sins.
  3. It is sometimes assumed that the slain lamb analogy is an allusion to the Day of Atonement when Israel's sins were forgiven and blood was sprinkled on the Ark of the Covenant in the Most Holy Place. However, it was a goat that was slain on the Day of Atonement, not a lamb.
  4. For the daily sin offerings bulls and goats were most frequently sacrificed. Hence Hebrews says "it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins" (10:14). If a lamb was offered it had to be a female lamb (e.g. Lev 4:32; 5:6). Lambs were also offered as burnt offerings, but when they were they were distinguished from sin offerings (e.g. Lev 12:6 "a year-old lamb for a burnt offering and a young pigeon or a dove for a sin offering"; Num 6:14 when a Nazirite completed his vow he was to bring "a year-old male lamb without defect for a burnt offering, a year-old ewe [female] lamb without defect for a sin offering, a ram without defect for a fellowship offering ..."). Burnt offerings and fellowship offerings were not for atonement or forgiveness of sins.
  5. The Isaiah 53 reference to a lamb is to a sheep being led to its shearers or for slaughter, but not necessarily being led to the altar as a sacrificial victim. The metaphor (" like a sheep to the slaughter, and as a lamb before the shearer") were both in reference to the sheep/lamb being "silent" - "so he did not open his mouth". We should not push the metaphor beyond what the prophet clearly intended. The sheep/lamb was "before the shearer", not "before the priest". The metaphor was about being silent like a sheep, not being sacrificed as an offering.

So what did John the Baptist mean when he said "the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world"?

Geza Vermes, professor of Jewish Studies at Oxford University and a renowned scholar and expert in the Judaism and Aramaic of the time of Jesus, has pointed out that the title Lamb of God does not necessarily refer to the metaphor of a sacrificial animal. He points out that in Galilean Aramaic the word talya (literally "lamb") had the common meaning of "male child". This is akin to "kid" meaning "child" in modern colloquial English. The female equivalent of talya was talitha, literally "ewe lamb" and figuratively "girl" (the word is found in the narrative of the daughter of Jairus. Mark 5:41). It is a term of endearment. Thus, "Lamb of God" could have been a colloquial way of saying "Son of God" or "God's Kid".

Understood this way John the Baptist was saying "Look, the dear child of God, God's little pet-lamb, the one who will remove sin!"


Dave said...

Hi Steve.
Fantastic post!
God bless
Dave E.

Tim said...

Hi Steve.
I attend an Anglican church in the UK.
Does your meaning of the term "Lamb of God" indicate that Jesus was not the Passover Lamb, and that John did not want to portray him as such in his account of Jesus' death? I ask this because I have recently become aware of the fact that the synoptics have this as occuring after Jesus eats the Passover, whereas in John, the Jews have yet to eat the Passover when Jesus is on trial.