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Modern Reformation: Thinking Theologically

The Story of the Lamb

Published Saturday, October 31, 2015 By Nancy Guthrie

When I walked into the art gallery, it was the painting that simultaneously took my breath away and brought me to tears. It was a lamb, but it was like no other lamb. A slim stream of blood was draining from the lamb’s neck, and the title beside the painting read, ‘Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.’ When I describe it, perhaps it sounds more gruesome than beautiful to you. We like our lambs fluffy and white, frolicking in a field or nestled close to their mothers. But when we read the story of the Lamb that we find in the Bible, it is not a pretty story.

It would not be a stretch to say that the Bible is the story of the Lamb from beginning to end. At the beginning, when Adam and Eve sinned and realized they were naked, God made coverings for them from animal skins. We know that Adam and Eve’s son, Abel, was a keeper of sheep and brought an offering of his flock to God. From the first need for a covering for sin, the first sacrifice offered for sin, we see a lamb. But the story of the Lamb begins in earnest with Abraham.

The Ram in the Thicket

God promised Abraham he would have so many children that he wouldn’t be able to count them. But there was a problem. His wife Sarah was barren. Month after month they tried to hold on to God’s promise, but she still wasn’t with child. And then her child-bearing years came to an end. No wonder Sarah laughed when, at ninety years old, she overheard the Lord telling Abraham that in the next year she would give birth to a son. It was laughable. And that’s what they named him. This one whose name means laughter brought so much joy and laughter to their tent. Isaac was the child that God had promised would be the first of unnumbered descendants, so when God called to Abraham and told him to take his son Isaac to the land of Moriah and offer him there as a burnt offering, it simply made no sense.

Surely Abraham struggled to harmonize this command of God to sacrifice Isaac with the promise of God, who had said, ‘I will establish my covenant with Isaac’ (Gen. 17:21). On this day the laughter must have come to an abrupt end in Abraham’s life. His heart must have been broken. But Abraham also understood that God could require the death of any sinner and that the firstborn son was the representative of the family. As Ed Clowney writes, ‘For Abraham to give the fruit of his body for the sin of his soul would not be too great a price.’ (1) Genesis 21:3 records that ‘Abraham rose early in the morning, saddled his donkey, and took two of his young men with him, and his son Isaac. And he cut the wood for the burnt offering and arose and went to the place of which God had told him.’

Abraham fully intended to sacrifice Isaac as God had commanded, but after three days of thinking it through, his calm conclusion was that God would raise Isaac from the dead. His confidence in his conclusion, however, must have been tested when Isaac finally broke the silence of the climb, asking, ‘Behold, the fire and the wood, but where is the lamb for a burnt offering?’ (Gen. 22:7).

In Abraham’s answer to Isaac’s innocent question, we hear deliberate vagueness but also an element of hope: ‘God will provide for himself the lamb for a burnt offering, my son’ (Gen. 22:8).

Abraham and Isaac arrived at the place, built the altar, and arranged the wood. There was nothing left to do but bind Isaac and place him on the pile of wood and plunge the knife into his tender flesh. Only when the knife was lifted high did God restrain Abraham.

On that day, on that mountain, God provided a ram whose head was caught in a thorny thicket so that the father did not have to sacrifice his beloved son to pay the debt for his sin. It foreshadowed another day when God, the Father, would walk his own beloved son up that very same hill. This son too would carry the wood upon which he would be sacrificed. But for this son there would be no last-minute reprieve. It would be his head that would be bound by thorns. Jesus was the Lamb that God provided for himself as an offering for the sin of all Abraham’s descendants by faith. God ‘did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all.’

A Lamb in the House

The next chapter in the story of the Lamb takes place in Egypt, where Jacob’s twelve sons and their families lived and multiplied for four hundred years, going from welcome guests of the Pharaoh to Pharaoh’s slave labor force. But they were not forgotten or unseen by their God. God heard his people’s cries and sent a savior to them. Moses went to Pharaoh and demanded that he let the Hebrews go so that they could serve God and not Pharaoh. When Pharaoh refused to let God’s people go, God rained down judgment through a series of plagues. The first few plagues were a mess and a nuisance, but it was about to get worse. Egypt was reduced to an ecological, environmental, and economic disaster. And then the scene went dark. Really dark. But the final plague would be the worst. In Exodus 11:4, Moses tells Pharaoh, ‘Thus says the Lord: ‘About midnight I will go out in the midst of Egypt, and every firstborn in the land of Egypt shall die.”

Judgment was about to come down. But God also provided a way of salvation through judgment—the second chapter in the story of the Lamb’a lamb in the house. The congregation of Israel was instructed to ‘take a lamb according to their fathers’ houses, a lamb for a household.’ They were to ‘kill their lambs at twilight. Then they shall take some of the blood and put it on the two doorposts and the lintel of the houses in which they eat it’ (Exod. 12:3-7).

Because we have the benefit of hindsight, we think that certainly we would have taken Moses’ words to heart and killed the lamb and brushed the blood. But perhaps that is only because we have the whole Bible to help us put this story of the lamb into context. We have to admit, apart from the rest of the Bible’s story that shows us the picture again and again of a lamb being sacrificed in our place, we would find it difficult to believe that blood on a doorpost would have any saving power.

In the same way, many people today find it difficult to believe that blood shed on a cross two thousand years ago has any saving power for them. This makes sense only if we understand that God ‘made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God’ (2 Cor. 5:21). This is the substitution that saves us. Either the lamb dies or we die. The Lamb has died, God’s very own firstborn Son, in our place, so that we need not die.

Two Goats at the Tabernacle

Once God’s people were brought out of Egypt to be a holy nation, God’s treasured possession, God gave to them his law so they would know how to live as his people in the land he was giving to them. He gave them instructions for offerings and sacrifices, feasts and festivals that would mark them as his own.

Throughout the year, the Israelites brought the prescribed sacrifices for sin and presented them to the priests. The priests would sprinkle the blood of the animals against the veil of the tabernacle and upon the horns of the altar of incense, symbolically transferring the sins of the people into the sanctuary. But there was one day a year when the sanctuary was ceremonially cleansed of the accumulated sins of the people: the Day of Atonement.

On this day two goats were brought to the High Priest. The people saw the high priest slit the throat of the first goat and carry its blood behind the veil into the Most Holy Place. And they thought, ‘That should be our blood. That is what our sin deserves. But God has allowed the death sentence we deserve to be passed onto this animal instead of us.’ As the priest sprinkled the blood over the mercy seat and on the horns of the altar, it became a cleansing agent, washing away the collected sins of the people in the sight of God.

Then the high priest put his hands on the second goat’s head and began to confess the sins of the people, ceremonially transferring their guilt to the goat. They would have watched as this goat, on which all of their sin had been laid, was led away through the sea of tents, outside the camp, and into the wilderness, never to be seen again, and they would have felt relief that their sin-guilt had been carried far away.

Throughout the Old Testament this is pictured again and again—that anyone who wants to be made right with God can do so only on the basis of the lamb that God has provided. Isaac was spared when God provided a lamb to be sacrificed instead. In that case, God provided one lamb as a substitute for one person, Abraham’s son Isaac. In Egypt at the Passover, God made provision for one lamb to be sacrificed for one household. On the Day of Atonement, a single animal was sacrificed, and its blood sprinkled against the veil of the tabernacle and upon the horns of the altar of incense, for the sins of the whole nation of Israel. (2)

But all these lambs were merely preparing God’s people to recognize God’s provision in Mary’s little lamb. Finally the day came when John the Baptist stood by the Jordan River and ‘saw Jesus coming toward him and said, ‘Look! The Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1:29). Jesus was God’s provision of one Lamb to die, not for one person, or for one family, or for one nation, but for one world.

The Lamb at the Table

From the time of Moses up to the time of Jesus, the Israelites celebrated the Passover each spring. People from all over the country would go to Jerusalem to sacrifice a lamb for the Passover feast. In fact, the day Jesus made his triumphal entry into Jerusalem was the very day herds of Passover lambs were being driven into the city to be sacrificed. Later that week Jesus told his disciples, ‘You know that after two days the Passover is coming, and the Son of Man will be delivered up to be crucified’ (Matt. 26:2). Ever since John the Baptist identified Jesus as the ‘Lamb of God,’ Jesus’ entire ministry had been driving toward this day, this celebration of Passover when Christ, ‘our Passover Lamb’ (1 Cor. 5:7), would be sacrificed. Luke 22 tells us, ‘When the hour came, he reclined at table, and the apostles with him. And he said to them, ‘I have earnestly desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer” (Luke 22:14-15).

At this point they expected him to do what the patriarch leading the Passover meal always did—pick up the bread and say the familiar words of the Passover feast: ‘This is the bread of affliction that our ancestors ate in the land of Egypt.’ But instead, Luke 22 tells us,

He took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and gave it to them, saying, ‘This is my body, which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me.’ And likewise the cup after they had eaten, saying, ‘This cup that is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood.’

At the Last Supper, Jesus endowed the Feast of the Passover with new meaning. Instead of celebrating the redemption of Israel from Egypt, it became clear that these elements now symbolize redemption from the slavery of sin—redemption provided by his death as the Lamb of God. His death was the central event toward which all of history had been moving and from which it draws its meaning.

The Lamb on the Throne

The Lamb of God will still be at the center of God’s purposes in his world when he brings human history to a conclusion. When John was enabled to see into the heart of ultimate reality, the center of everything, he saw the Lamb on the throne, ‘a Lamb standing as though it had been slain.’

Before this Lamb gather two different groups of people—those who have been washed in the blood of the Lamb so that their robes are white, and those who see no need to be washed in that blood and covered in his robes. The former have nothing to fear—the latter have everything to fear. There are those who have hidden themselves in the Lamb and those who try to hide from the Lamb. Those who persisted in their sin, who saw no need for confession or cleansing, will have no ability to stand before the throne of God and will fall down in terror, hoping the rocks and mountains will fall on top of them. But those who submitted to his cleansing work and fall on their faces before the Lamb will fall down, not in terror, hiding from the Lamb, but in adoration, praising the Lamb (Rev. 6:15-17).

Those who have been cleansed have no need for protection from the Lamb but will be protected forever by the Lamb. The blood of Christ that not only covers but also conquers sin will have completed its sanctifying work, and they will live forever in a purified environment as purified people (Rev. 7:14-17).

The new heaven and new earth will be populated by flagrant but forgiven sinners who have been washed with the only cleansing agent that has the power to eradicate sin and enable us to stand before our holy God: the blood of the Lamb. The final chapter in the story of the Lamb is actually the beginning of a far greater story:

No longer will there be anything accursed, but the throne of God and of the Lamb will be in it, and his servants will worship him. They will see his face, and his name will be on their foreheads. And night will be no more. They will need no light of lamp or sun, for the Lord God will be their light, and they will reign forever and ever. (Rev. 22:3-5)

  • Nancy Guthrie

1 [ Back ] Edmund Clowney, The Unfolding Mystery (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 1988), 54.
2 [ Back ] Philip Graham Ryken provides this insightful tracing of the story of the Lamb throughout God's story in Exodus: Saved for God's Glory (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 2005), 330.
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