This is an immense week, it is, by far, the most important week of the year for Christians, as we journey deeper into the Passion of Our Lord and Saviour. It is a week to grow in faith, a week to immerse ourselves in scripture, and a week to ask some hard questions. Each night we are going to talk about Jesus, to discover something more of his life, his mission, his teaching, his role, his destiny. We are going to look at different pictures, images that John uses to talk about Jesus. Tonight let’s start with a simple, but powerful picture, “behold, the Lamb of God.”
At the very beginning of the gospel, John the Baptist points his disciples to Jesus as the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. When I think of Lamb I think white, cuddly, fluffy, gambolling round the fields. So let me challenge you to dig into the scriptures to see what a Lamb means. There are four pictures I want to reflect on.
First is the Passover Lamb. The children of Israel had lived in Egypt for centuries, they had become assimilated into Egyptian culture. But there arose a new Pharaoh who knew not Jospeh, and who forgot the service the Israelites had rendered to him. He made them slaves, and as time went by their conditions worsened. God sent Moses to this new Pharaoh with a message to “let my people go.” The story progresses through each of the 10 plagues until the final, devastating one, the death of the firstborn. The Children of Israel are instructed to sacrifice a lamb, to cook and eat it, and to smear its blood on the lintels and doorposts. The blood of the lamb is a symbol to the Angel of Death to pass over that house and not slay the firstborn. This final, devastating plague led to the Children of Israel being allowed to leave Egypt, to throw off the yoke of slavery and return to the Promised Land. In Judaism the Passover became the key event which celebrated their deliverance and God’s faithfulness. Still today Jewish people celebrate the Passover each year, and the lamb is the symbol of sacrifice and deliverance.
The second picture is the altar in the great Temple of Jerusalem. Every morning and every evening the temple priests would sacrifice a lamb on the altar, to make atonement for the sins of the people. Jesus has not even begun his ministry, and John the Baptist is already foretelling all that is to come, that Jesus is the lamb who will be sacrificed, and that his sacrifice will deal, in a decisive, once-for-all way with the sin of the world.
The third picture is from the prophets, from Jeremiah chapter 11 and Isaiah 53, one led like a lamb to the slaughter. Both of these prophets spoke of one who, by his sufferings and sacrifice, meekly borne, would redeem his people. Those verses from Isaiah in particular became very precious to the early church as one of the most detailed forecasts of the sacrificial death of Jesus in the Old Testament. John the Baptist is drawing together prophecy and reality, and pointing ahead to Calvary as Jesus embarks on his mission.
The fourth picture is less well known to us, though it was important to the Jews in Jesus’ day. Between the end of the Old Testament writing and the coming of Jesus was the period of the Maccabees, a Jewish kingly family who led insurrections against the Romans. In those days the lamb, particularly the horned lamb, became the symbol of a great conqueror. It was the symbol of Judas Maccabaeus, of Samuel, David, and Solomon. The lamb was not a picture of gentleness and meekness, but of conquering majesty and power.
The picture John the Baptist draws for us pulls together all of these images, the Passover, the temple sacrifices, the prophecies of Isaiah and Jeremiah, and the horned lamb of the Maccabees, and each describes the person and the ministry of Jesus.
As John the Evangelist tells his gospel story, he includes some small yet important details. John describes Jesus’ death as taking place on the day before the Passover ceremony, in other words, at the moment when the lambs to be used in the Passover were being slaughtered. For John this is the controlling narrative, the key picture. Thousands upon thousands of lambs being sacrificed to remember the Passover. Jesus being sacrificed to reenact the Passover at a new level. Here is the Passover par excellence. In the first Passover the blood of the lamb served as a protection against death, in this new Passover the blood of Jesus serves as protection against eternal death. In the first Passover the children of Israel were delivered from slavery in Egypt, in this new Passover all creation is delivered from its slavery and bondage to death and corruption. This new sacrifice breaks the power of sin, the law, and the grave, and opens up to us the way into the presence of God for eternity.
1 Corinthians 5:7 says, “Christ our Passover has been sacrificed for us, therefore let us celebrate the feast. Not with the old leaven of malice and wickedness, but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth.” In the story of the Passover in Exodus the Children of Israel had to prepare hurriedly for their flight from Egypt. They did not have time to allow the bread they were to bake to rise, and were instructed to bake bread without leaven. Writing to the Corinthians Paul picks up in that image and calls on them to abandon the leaven of malice and wickedness, and to replace it with sincerity and truth, the unleavened bread.
Jesus Christ is our Passover Lamb, sacrificed to take away the sin of the world, to save us from eternal death and damnation. That should be a cause for celebration for us. His death has done what the sacrifice of millions of lambs could not do, it has made atonement with God. That might sound like a big concept, and it is. But at its heart jt is simply making us at-one with God. Before the death of Jesus our sin separated us from the presence of God. From the Garden of Eden humanity thought it knew better than God, we followed our own lusts, passions and desires. Sin entered into the world, and a barrier was erected between the holiness of God and the sinfulness of man, a barrier which we did not have the power to demolish. Christ, our Passover Lamb, by his pure and undefiled sacrifice, has pulled down that dividing wall and opened up access to the presence of the divine glory. When we come to him in faith and trust we are washed, we are cleansed from sin, we are made holy and worthy to stand in the presence of God, not in our own strength, but by his blood, shed on the cross to make atonement. He is the Lamb of God who has taken away the sin of the world.