The Lamb of God
by Robert Hamerton-Kelly
January 20, 2008
Scripture: 1 Corinthians 1:1-9; John 1:29-42
“Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!” — John 1:29
The phrase “Lamb of God” has a rich background in the scriptures of the OT: it is the lamb slain during the Exodus from Egypt (Exodus 12), and it is the “suffering servant of God” who was as humble before his persecutors as a lamb in the hands of its slaughterers (Isaiah 53:7). John the Baptist calls out this name for Jesus and follows up with the confession that this Lamb, Jesus, is the one greater than he, John, whom he came to announce and who is in fact the “Son of God.” He is the one upon whom the Spirit of God abides, not temporarily but forever, and who is therefore able to bestow the Spirit on anyone at any time (John 1:29-34).” He is the source of our eternal life.
The phrase “Lamb of God” comes from the world of sacrifice; the lamb is the sacrificial animal par excellence therefore John is saying that the work of Jesus, the Lamb of God, for us, is a sacrificial work. How shall we understand this? Clearly it refers to his coming death, but can we glean more from it than simply that soon he shall have to die? Let us take our cues from the OT uses of the term. In Exodus 12 the lamb is the lamb of the Passover. Each Jewish household slaughters a lamb and splashes its blood on the doorposts of its house. The angel of death sent by Israel’s God to kill every firstborn male in Egypt passes over the houses splashed with this blood and the Jews get away untouched. The Lamb of God as Passover lamb is therefore part of a morally dubious, nationalist, chauvinist, not to mention bloody and murderous, story of Jewish triumph over the Egyptians. I personally do not want to put the death of Jesus in such a context, and I don’t think the Gospel of John wants to either.
The other OT context is the songs of the Suffering Servant in Second Isaiah (53:7). This mysterious figure of the servant endures suffering in fulfillment of his duty to God to carry the knowledge of God to all the nations. His suffering is the work of “bearing our sins.” One can take this to mean that the suffering we deserve at the hands of the divine wrath is transferred to him, that is, God punishes him rather than us, or one can take it to means that our sins fall directly on him, and that our sins take the form of persecuting the defenseless and mauling the weak, that is, sins of deviated desire. I take, “bear our sins” to mean the latter, that is “bear the brunt of our violence:” like the scapegoat of old upon whom fell the violence of all against all, the surrogate victim who bore the brunt of the violence of all against one. Jesus the suffering servant bears the brunt of our relentless violence as he does the painful work of revealing the non-violent God to all the world.
“Lamb of God” is a sacrificial term but when applied to Jesus its sacrificial meaning is radically changed. No longer does it mean that the lamb bears the death God inflicts on sinners as punishment, instead of us sinners who actually deserve it. It is not sacrifice as substitution, him instead of me, but sacrifice as self-giving, all I have and am for you, O God. Sacrifice as utter self-giving, that is the true meaning of sacrifice as defined by Jesus through his death.
And the notion of “sin bearing” then has the force not of bearing a load of divine anger but rather of suffering the sharp points of our human violence against each other and thus against the God in whose image we are, being the victim upon whom the violence of all against all focuses as the violence of all against one. There on the Cross the Lamb of God absorbs into himself all the force of our rivalry and hatred, all our mutual cruelty and contempt. That ability to “draw all men unto myself,”(John 12:32: “Now is the judgment of this world, now shall the ruler of this world be cast out; and I when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all men to myself”), means not that he draws them as saints but as sinners, as violent competitors, who in the Cross may see what wrath they inflict on God and what love God renders in return.
So this Lamb of God is not the sacrifice we bring to God but the sacrifice God brings to us! This is God’s Lamb offered to us not our Lamb offered to God, instead of us. This is the sign and the substance of the fact that God gives and gives, to us who take and take, from him and from each other. This is a new covenant, that is a new way of being together, as givers, as imitators of the generous God whom Jesus described in his parabolic teaching and acted out dramatically in his life.
This all means that we must imitate God in Christ and be relentless givers of all we are and have to God who is the same to us; that we must accept his gift of himself who is Jesus, his offered lamb. “Here you are,” he says, “here is my lamb for you,” to which the only decent response is, “Here I am; please take all of me, whom you created and gave to me in the first place.” Thus your envious rivalry will end and the generosity of God will flow through you to others.
So think of the perfect sacrifice of God’s Lamb, who gave all to do God’s saving work for us, and imitate him. Become God’s Lamb yourself, utterly and relentlessly given over to the will of God. That is true sacrifice, and that way lies the power and the glory.