In the third chapter of John’s gospel, John recognizes Jesus as the Messiah. John, in ecstatic praise, twice announces that Jesus is none other than the “Lamb of God” (John 1:29, 36).
The title, “Lamb of God,” was not a familiar, well-worn title back then. It was more the stuff of prophetic poetry than common Jewish vernacular, a title rich with meaning and profound theological depth. What did John mean when he called Jesus God’s lamb?
Any talk of a lamb in a religious context recalled the great Exodus event of God’s liberation of Israel out of Egypt. It was the tenth plague–the night in which the angel of death passed over Egypt–that forced Pharaoh’s hand to let God’s people go.
God gave Moses strict instructions before that night: Have the Israelites put the blood of a lamb on their thresholds so that the angel can “pass over” that household and spare the inhabitants.
Exodus then goes on to tell how God commanded the Israelites to remember that day both in celebration and in sacrifice: On the day of atonement, the Jews were to sacrifice a lamb (a “paschal”–meaning passover–lamb), yet again for the removal of sins against God and neighbor.
That John calls Jesus the “Lamb” is rich with this history and theology. Jesus was the one who embodied the paschal lamb by giving himself as the sacrifice for the “sins of the world” (John 1:29).
Yet, being the “Lamb of God” also had ethical meaning. By being a lamb–passive and unobtrusive, gentle and obedient–Jesus shows us how to be nonviolent followers of God the Shepherd.
Throughout John’s gospel, Jesus reminds his disciples that he is merely following the will of God and, like Jesus, we are expected to follow the will of God in everything we do. We are to sacrifice our own lives for others and to be the gentle ones who can hear the Master’s voice, obey, and follow no matter the cost.
The title of “lamb of God” also has pastoral implications. I’ve always liked the metaphor of Jesus as lamb because it draws me in and creates a sense of solidarity with my life. The image makes Jesus approachable.
I can’t help but think that this was the case for the early church. In Revelation 5:1-6, John (not John the Baptist) has a vision of the throne room of God. There is a scroll that cannot be opened by any mere being in heaven or on earth.
A heavenly messenger assures John that there is one who can open the scroll, the “Lion of Judah, the root of Jesse” (Rev. 5:5).
We expect a loud roar to fill the vision and scare John. Instead, when Jesus appears in the vision, he is not a lion but a lamb “as though slaughtered” (Rev. 5:6).
This was a critical image for John’s audience because they were going through severe persecution. To have Jesus appear as a lamb who suffered showed Jesus’ solidarity with the community. Jesus knew what they were going through for he too suffered as a result of his sacrifice.
If God resurrected Jesus, then God would surely resurrect Christians who were dying at the hands of the Romans.
Sometimes we need Jesus to be the lion who comes as a strong victor who takes leadership to the front lines; but often in the midst of hardship and brokenness, we need Jesus to walk beside us as a lamb who experienced the very same things we go through.
By now, calling Jesus the “Lamb of God” seems cliche and antiquated in many ways. Yet, when we look at the deeper meaning of this profound and rich title, we can experience the fullness of the very God whom Jesus embodied in the first place.