The unique testimony of John the Baptist, the last prophet, about Jesus, “Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world” (Jn. 1: 29) has its solid background in the Old Testament. The Baptist announced this Messianic prophecy to the people of Israel. Lamb was not something new for the Jews and the people of Israel, and the sacrifice of the lamb was so common in the Jerusalem temple. Then what would be the real meaning of this proclamation of the Baptist? The key to understanding the meaning is supplemented in the title.
The title ‘Lamb of God’ is complemented by an indication of its mission of “taking away the sin of the world,” which provides a possible atoning perspective. Consequently, this chapter is analyzing the background of the testimony of John the Baptist in the light of the Old Testament. Therefore it includes a general understanding of sacrifices and lambs in the Jewish background.
Sacrifice is a ritual action of worship universally attested in ancient religions.
Sacrifices are symbolic actions that performed as liturgical rites in order to express man’s deepest deeds of devotion towards God. The sacrifice symbolizes man’s total dependence upon God. Throughout the Old Testament and New Testament, sacrifice is one of the primary means of ratifying, renovating and repairing the relational bond between God and His people. Sacrifices are not only the expression of man’s approach to God but also God’s readiness to bless man who has surrendered to God.
The objects of sacrifice were domestic livestock (cattle, sheep, goat, etc.), different species of birds (turtledoves, pigeons, etc.), crops of the field, wine, oil or bread, etc. which are lawfully declared as clean and permissible to eat (Lev. 11: 1-47). The book of Leviticus is giving some basic descriptions regarding five main sacrifices offered in ancient Israel (Lev.1-7). They are: the burnt offering, the cereal offering, the peace offering, the sin offering and the guilt offering.
The gift theory of Sir Edward Tylore claimed that sacrifices are gift offering to deity in order to please and gain more rewards. On the other hand, this theory argued that sacrificial victims formed a link between the profane and sacral worlds. This symbolic meaning is very important. By sacrifice, man recognize his total dependence upon the God and the gifts that surrenders on the alter representing the offerer. Sacrifice is prominently liberating and so it is costly. The essence of sacrifice is surrendering what is precious and valuable for a person to God. There are three purposes behind offering sacrifices: i.e. to bribe a deity, to give thanks for the gifts received and to atone for ruptures in the community’s relationship with the divine. The sin of the community is transferred to a scapegoat who is offered as a sacrifice in the temple. The Christian doctrine of atonement can be understood as this type of sacrifice.
The first pleasing sacrifice for Lord in the Bible is the sacrifice of Abel.The story of Cain and Abel depict the concept of the right offering which Israelites should have in the land of Israel. It was a model of the sacrifice to Yahweh. In each case the personality of the worshipper is mentioned. God did not consider Cain’s offering because he did not select the best of what he had for God. God knows that Cain’s heart was wicked. Abel’s offering accepted by God. He offered the firstlings of his flock, their fat portions (Gen. 4: 4). Abel’s offering from the choice of the flock is related to the Passover offering (Ex. 22: 28-29; 34: 19-20; Lev. 3: 16; Deu. 32: 38). God rejected the sacrifice of Cain in order to teach how he has to make an offering. Some scholars explain that the material of Cain’s offering was not in harmony with the primeval semantic concept of sacrifice. They hold the view that sacrificing of animals is precious to God than any other material.
Sheep is completely a very domestic animal which is incapable of surviving without the care of the shepherd. Rams are the male sheep and Ewes are the female sheep. Lamb is a young sheep (ram lamb and ewe lamb). Sheep and goat are different with regard to their appearance in wool, tail, and hair. Goats played an important role in the Jewish annual Day of Atonement. Scripture presents the different categories of sheep in connection with historical and theological motives. When a lamb becomes a year old it becomes as big as an adult one. It would be the reason for offering a one-year-old lamb which is considered as a perfect one. Under the various codes of the Mosaic Law the lambs became an integral part of sacrifices and offerings. Sheep appear in the ancient Near East as a symbol of gods. In Mesopotamia also the sheep was a popular sacrificial animal.
The Bible presents the lambs in a special way than any other animals. It has got a unique relation in the history of salvation. In the Old Testament, the Hebrew word kebes(f,b,K),means sheep or lamb, occurs 130 times including its derivative forms. Among 130 occurrences, 112 are in sacrificial context. “P uses kebes in the sense of a perfect male sacrificial lamb one-year-old.” The term śeh (ֶשׂה) also used 47 times in the Old Testament for the individual animal within a small livestock herd, including sheep and goats. Number of Greek words are used in the LXX forlamb; amnos(ἀμνός), aren (ἀρήν), arnion (ἀρνίον), probation (πρόβατον), etc. The LXX translates kebes into amnos by 82 times. The term śeh(ֶשׂה) is mostly translated in the LXX as probaton(πρόβατον). The term probaton means small cattle or small four footed domestic animal, specially used for offerings. The term amnos is used by the Baptist, which often refers to the lamb which was sacrificed daily as a gift offering to make atonement (Lev. 1: 4).
Shepherding was the most common occupation of ancient Israel. Most of the time the Old Testament accounts present sheep with its historical and theological significance. The lamb, which represented innocence and gentleness, was a principal animal of sacrifice for Jews. The lamb was used as a symbol for the relationship between God and human beings. The lamb was worshiped by the Egyptians since Jews were commanded to take the lamb for Passover sacrifice. The lambs were offered each morning and evening in the mosaic system (Ex. 29: 38-42), especially on the Sabbath. Lambs were also sacrificed on some special occasions such as the first day of the month (Num. 28: 11), each day of the feast of Passover (Num. 28: 16-19), at the feast of Pentecost (Num. 28: 26ff), the feast of Trumpets (Num. 29: 1-2), the great day of Atonement ( Num. 29: 7-8) and the feast of Tabernacle (Num. 29: 12-16). Thus by sacrificing the lambs, the Jews rejected the idol worship of the Egyptians and gave a new meaning of sacrifice to Yahweh, the ultimate and infinite source. The patriarchs of Israel; Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob were shepherds. The leaders of Israel like Moses, David, etc. were shepherds. Jesus is presented in the New Testament as the good shepherd (Jn. 10: 11) of the world and also ‘Lamb of God’ for the sin of the world.
Abraham was asked by God to sacrifice his only son Isaac (Gen. 22: 1-19). During their journey to Mount Moriah, Isaac asked a mind capturing question, “Where is the lamb for the burnt offering?” Abraham replied, “God himself will provide the lamb for a burnt offering, my son” (Gen. 22: 7-8). This question is answered by John the Baptist when he pointed to Jesus; ‘here is the Lamb of God’. God has provided His only son for the sins of the world. The significance of this story lies in the faithfulness of Yahweh and Abraham. Abraham was ready to offer his only son to his God. And Yahweh’s faithfulness to Abraham is exposed through providing a substitute for Isaac. This provided lamb is applied to Jesus and recognized correspondence to Jesus and Isaac. According to the Church fathers, carrying of the wood for his sacrifice is just as Jesus carried his wooden cross for his ultimate sacrifice for sin. Isaac received his life back as Jesus resurrected from the dead. So, for the historical fulfillment, a lamb was provided to Abraham and it was a messianic fulfillment that God the father provided the true Lamb for the whole world. Thus John the Baptist was witnessing Jesus as the lamb provided by God for the sacrifice of the entire world.
Passover was one of the most important Jewish festivals that celebrated as a memorial of the liberation of Israel from Egypt. The Paschal lamb was the chief requirement for the Passover ritual celebration. Passover was a liturgical feast involving sacrificial act. It celebrated by the community of the chosen people as a liturgical meal. They select a lamb on the 10th of the month of Nisan. The Israelites were asked by Moses to keep it for the fourteenth day of the month for slaughtering. God’s command to Moses regarding the lamb was: “Tell all the congregation of Israel that on the tenth of this month they are to take a lamb… your lamb (ֶשׂה, πρόβατον) shall be without blemish, a year-old male; you may take from the sheep or from the goats” (Ex. 12:3-5). “Take a bunch of hyssops and dip it in the blood… and touch the lintel and the two doorposts… the LORD will pass over (פסח) … and will not allow the destroyer to enter your houses to slay you” (12:22-23). “You shall not break any of its bones” (12:46). The people of Israel marked their houses with the blood of the sacrificial lamb in order to save them from the destroying angel. The angel ‘passed over’ the houses of Israel but got into the houses of Egypt and killed the entire firstborn. (Ex. 12: 1-28). The blood became a sign for them. Thus the day was a day of remembrance for them. The Paschal Lamb roasted over the fire with unleavened bread and bitter herbs were the paschal meal (Ex. 12: 8). At the time of Jesus, the Jews celebrated the Passover not only in remembrance of the pass over of the Lord in the houses of Hebrews but also of the Passover from Egypt, the land of slavery to the Promised Land.
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