Why is Jesus Called the Lamb of God?
I don’t believe in accidents. But, sometimes things happen that I didn’t plan, like the time Gary and I ended up on an all-Jewish bus tour of Israel.
When Gary retired from pastoring, our home church gave Gary a travel voucher as a retirement gift. After praying and researching our possibilities we decided to pursue a visit to Israel. So, we signed up for a tour that was canceled six weeks before our departure date. But, because our trip was already paid for, the travel agency bumped us up to a luxury tour, at no extra cost.
This is how we ended up on a tour bus filled with gracious, fun-loving, American Jews. But, it was not an accident. Journeying through Israel heralded for us just how long-range God’s timeless plans really are.
The early church was a very Jewish church. We sometimes forget this principle when reading the New Testament. In the very beginning the only scripture they had was the Old Testament.
Unfortunately, which theological views are currently in vogue often depends on what is happening within a society. I thought of this truth as I rode the bus with my new Jewish friends. Most pastors and church members are victims of the age they live in. Visiting a holocaust museum with Jewish descendants of the murdered sadly reminded me of how the majority of the churches in Germany capitulated under the Nazis’ regime.
We say we are people of the book; and yet when we study Christian history, we see the age we live in plays a key role in what passages we are willing to study.
With the rise of the scientific age, our popular theology increasingly chose a more scientific approach to Bible study. We wanted to know the historical background and customs revealed in a passage. We wanted to learn the meaning of the Greek or Hebrew words found within a verse. We wanted to dissect a passage like it was a frog in Biology class.
These attitudes were not wrong; in fact they were very helpful to the modern student who was so far removed from the first century. But, they were different from the way the early, very Jewish church examined scriptures.
Early Christians felt that the Old and New Testament was the story of God’s Son. They did not need someone to explain the language since they all spoke Greek. In addition, before the birth of Christ, the Old Testament had been translated into Greek for the now large Jewish population who lived outside the borders of Israel. Cultural and historical significance were a moot point to the first century believers. Keep in mind these Messianic Jews where eyewitnesses to the resurrection (1Cor. 15:6).
Instead they searched the scriptures believing the Bible in its entirety was the story of God’s Son, Jesus. In their viewpoint, there was no conflict in believing the Old Testament was a true record of Israel’s history, as well as recognizing within the Old Testament stories, pictures foretelling the coming of Christ.
For example in 1 Cor. 10:1-6 the Apostle Paul challenges us with the importance of Old Testament imagery.
I want you to know, brothers, that our fathers were all under the cloud, and all passed through the sea, and all were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea, and all ate the same spiritual food, and all drank the same spiritual drink. For they drank from the spiritual Rock that followed them, and the Rock was Christ. Nevertheless God was not pleased for they were over thrown in the wilderness. Now these things took place as examples for us, that we might not desire evil as they did. ESV
The Greek word translated “example” in verse 6 is the Greek word “tupos”. An English transliteration of the word “tupos” would be “typos” and our English word “type” is rooted in the ancient Greek word. The way Paul uses the word, “tupos” means: a pictorial symbol foreshadowing the future.
Saint Augustine, a Gentile leader of the early church, embraced this attitude and wrote, “The new is in the old contained, the old is in the new explained.”
If this feels like a unique way to analyze the scriptures, understand this is not a new teaching, but it might be a neglected one in our generation.
To be a true Old Testament “type” of Christ a picture must be validated in the New Testament. In John 1:29, John the Baptist says,
Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.
With this pronouncement, a picture of Christ is identified which can be found throughout the Old Testament narrative.
One key to understanding the Old Testament portraits of Christ is to see time in the Bible is best illustrated as a spiral. Not every culture describes time the same way. In the beautiful song, The Circle of Life, from The Lion King, time is portrayed as a circle where life is constantly being reincarnated. In the Western mindset, we often think of the chronological passing of time as a straight line with events beginning and ending along this line. But the biblical concept of time is more like a spiral. It has a curve like a circle because these beautiful metaphors of Christ tend to repeat themselves, but time also moves progressively forward.
Analyze how this spiral view of time is evidenced in the “Lamb of God” portrait. Time begins and on the first cusp of the curve, we have the story of Cain and Abel (Genesis 4:1-10). This is the first time we see the picture of a lamb sacrificed in history. Time spirals on and at the top of the next curve we see God providing a ram caught in a thicket for Abraham to sacrifice sparing Isaac’s life (Genesis 22). This is our second lamb portrait. Time advances and at the cusp of the third curve we see the Passover lamb protecting the Israelites from the death angel (Exodus 12).
The imagery of the lamb continues on throughout the Old Testament. With every Old Testament sacrifice, the people are reminded that without the shedding of blood there is no remission for sin. Finally, in John 1:29, John the Baptist identifies this lamb picture as a portrait of the Messiah.
The Lamb picture does not stop with Christ’s first coming, though. Twenty-five times the phrase “the Lamb” or “the Lamb of God” appears in the book of Revelation. So, these portraits or types reveal cohesiveness to scripture that we might miss without their study.
In the typology of the Old Testament, we see God as the author of time who has the ability to prophesy through actual history. Prophets foretelling the future write much of the Old Testament, but that is not the only way God prophesied in these ancient scriptures. Events like the Exodus, while historically accurate, also point to a coming Messiah, a lamb that would make a way for us to live in a right relationship with him.
As the creator of time, God is not bound by his creation, but rather time serves God’s purposes. The Old Testament portraits of Christ highlight a divine conspiracy of the Holy Spirit and showcase the glory of his long-range plans (Psalm 33:11).
The portraits of Christ also uncover the manifold wisdom of God. No one picture fully illustrates all of Christ’s work, character, or power. Think of the complete portrait of Christ as a multifaceted diamond, impossible to paint with one metaphor.
There is high value, though, in focusing on one plane of that jewel at a time.
As a daughter might leaf through her family’s photo albums searching for clues about her father’s military years, these portraits allow us to meditate on Jesus’ majesty in fresh ways. When we struggle to believe God could ever forgive us, or doubt he could rescue us from the mess we have made, these biblical portraits advance hope.
1) All of God’s plans are eternal. Why is this crucial to remember?
2) What might change if you believed this truth?