Jesus: The Lamb of God
Why did Jesus have to die and why couldn’t God forgive us without a sacrifice? Anne le Tissier considers the great truths of Easter
Imagine walking through your locality to be confronted by someone pointing at a man saying, “Look, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” Folk without any experience of Church would be forgiven for wondering where the cute, fluffy white animal was hiding. But even as Christians, while we may recognise the scene as coming from the New Testament, it’s not always easy to explain its implications to an unbelieving generation; one which may even dismiss the practice of sacrifice as barbaric appeasement of brutal or imaginary gods.
So what exactly did John the Baptist mean when he spoke those words? And how can we explain this fundamental Easter message to our friends and family who’ve dismissed it as historic fable?
Why the analogy of a lamb?
Aside of the obvious provision of meat, lambs played an essential part in Israel’s history and religious life. When the people prepared to escape from Egyptian slavery, it was the blood of lambs without defect, painted on their doorframes, which protected them from the angel of death. For when the angel saw the blood, it passed over their homes without inflicting the plague on the firstborn (Exodus 11—12).
Furthermore, lambs without defect were used in a number of Levitical sacrifices. A person seeking God’s forgiveness, for example, could do so by offering the blood of unblemished lambs on the altar of burnt offering (Leviticus 4:32—35). And it was to such people familiar with the atoning blood of lambs, that John made his pronouncement, at a time when temple sacrifice was the heart of religious life.
“Look, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29). John’s analogy struck their hearts with its simple but profound truth - that here was a man who would provide a means to receive God’s forgiveness; and not just theirs, but that of the whole world.
The impact on his hearers was immense, even life-changing (verses 35-37), but today’s generation may well retort, “if God was really good and loving, why couldn’t he forgive us without the need for sacrifice?” So we need to take this one step further.
Why the need for animal sacrifice?
When God created humankind, he gave them the fruit of the tree of life by which we would live forever. But when Adam and Eve chose to disobey God - which is the essence of sin - they were banished from the Garden of Eden in which the tree of life grew, thereby succumbing to the consequence of their sin, which is death.
However, God didn’t banish them to punish them. He did it to protect them. His immense holiness is far beyond anything we can truly understand with our finite minds. It is all consuming. Sin cannot survive in the presence of God. To put it another way, because of his immense love for us, God will not live in the presence of sin (no matter how small or great we perceive that disobedience to be) for he knows we could not survive.
Nevertheless, we were not left in exile from his presence. God introduced the means by which our sin could be removed from his sight, thereby restoring that broken fellowship. And this he did through sacrifice.
God is perfect in every way, and that includes being perfectly just as well as forgiving. For God to forgive sin without justice being done - that is, without the consequences of sin being met (death) - would be a contradiction of his character. Consequently, it was out of love (not brutality) that God provided the means for the penalty of sin to be met by another; a principle introduced using animals, including lambs, offered in accordance with his holy code of law.
As a result of sacrifice, God was able to dwell among his people in the Most Holy Place of the tabernacle, and then the Jerusalem temple. Pilgrims would come to the altar, offer their sacrifices to the priest, and in so doing be acceptable to worship God in his house.
But, as satisfactory as that was externally to make them ceremonially clean, the blood of animals could never provide the inward cleansing from sin that true intimacy with God requires. In fact, only the High Priest, once a year, was permitted access to God’s presence, to sprinkle the blood of sacrifice on behalf of the people’s unintentional sins; and even that was imperfect as it had to be repeated, year after year.
And so, animal sacrifice was merely preparing the way for the perfect sacrifice that would enable us to draw near to God for ourselves.
Why the need for Jesus’ sacrifice?
The idea that God allowed his son to be offered as a sacrifice, and did so in such a bloody, horrific manner, is scorned by unbelievers, who cannot reconcile such a crude idea with a loving, heavenly Father. Comprehending the awesome righteousness of our holy God, however, isn’t easy even for Christians, so it’s understandable how apparently impossible that is for hearts still blinded to the reality that God even exists. Nevertheless, the fact remains that God’s perfect holiness necessitates an atoning sacrifice for our sin before we can be reconciled to him.
We are made in the image of God; the shed blood of animals would always be inadequate for such atonement. The condition of perfection that is necessary in order to be fully acceptable and reconciled to God could only be achieved through the blood of the perfect Lamb. Only this divine act of grace in the gift of God’s Son provides the necessary inward cleansing of conscience that unites us with our holy Father; a sacrifice made once and forever to purify the core of our being.
Indeed, when Jesus cried out from the cross, “It is finished”, the curtain in the temple that separated the Most Holy Place from the people was torn in two; tangible evidence that the spiritual gateway to God’s presence had been opened for all who would put their faith in his son’s sacrifice for their sins.
What is our response?
“God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16). We each have a choice to believe that we are exiled from a relationship with our heavenly Father God, and a choice to accept the Lamb of God as the only way by which our sin can be removed and that relationship restored. It is a gift. There is nothing we can do of ourselves to earn God’s forgiveness and cleansing from sin.
Once we have accepted this necessary sacrifice and appreciated its implications, we find ourselves in a position of seeming inadequate thanksgiving for Christ’s overwhelming love, evidenced by His inordinate suffering on our behalf.
Furthermore, we are the means to spread this essential message among our family and friends; a message explained in words, but evidenced through the ongoing transformation of our attitudes, priorities and behaviour as God’s Holy Spirit continues to bear his fruit through our lives.
And so, this Easter, let’s reflect on the suffering of the Lamb of God as we recognise our need of a Saviour; let’s take ample time for our hearts to express a depth of thanksgiving that supersedes words, and let’s seek to know our resurrected Lord in ever increasing measure through the Word and the Holy Spirit.
Indeed, “ . . . since we have confidence to enter the Most Holy Place by the blood of Jesus and since we have a great priest over the house of God, let us draw near to God with a sincere heart, in full assurance of faith, having our hearts sprinkled to cleanse us from a guilty conscience and having our bodies washed with pure water.
“Let us hold unswervingly to the hope we profess, for he who promised is faithful. And let us consider how we may spur one another on towards love and good deeds” (Hebrews 10:19—24).
Take it further
When we are sanctified - that is, made holy through Christ’s atoning death - we are subsequently called to be holy (1 Corinthians 1:2); set apart from the attitudes, behaviour and perspectives of a world that denies God’s existence. We cannot make ourselves holy in God’s sight, as that is only obtainable through Christ’s blood, but we can seek to bring him pleasure through dedicated, obedient, adoring hearts and lives; nurturing and taking care of his gift of divine relationship and eternal life. But it is only out of the depths of gratitude for the Lamb of God, who was sacrificed on behalf of our sin, that a sincere desire to please our resurrected Saviour wells up within.
Lord Jesus, once again I am brought to my knees in humble recognition of my life, ingrained with sin, and yet what you have so willingly done for me. I thank you - I love you - I worship you.
Hebrews 7:18—28; 9:1—10:18