The Lamb of God: A Pattern of Redemption
We have witnessed one of the myriad of ways God unfolds his plan of redemption in salvation-history. This pattern of redemption is not God’s backup plan but his “plan for the fullness of time” (Eph 1:10). Indeed, before the foundation of the world, John speaks about “the book of the life of the Lamb who was slain” (Rev. 13:8). We worship the Lamb especially at Easter, not only because he died in our place as the lamblike Servant, but also because he is “standing after having been slain” (Rev. 5:6, my translation).
The apostle John’s title for Jesus as “Lamb of God” (John 1:29) has caused interpreters to puzzle, as Dr. Seuss once put it, “till [their] puzzlers were sore.” They puzzle because there are many possibilities to which this phrase may refer. Is this the lamb of Genesis 22:8, the Passover lamb of Exodus 12:21, or some other lamb? Rather than saying that John created a novel composite metaphor, I suggest that he just read his Bible well. I propose in this article that in John 1:29, the apostle John evokes a pattern of redemption in the Old Testament that culminates in the Servant of Isaiah 52:13–53:12 (esp. v. 7) understood in his proper canonical context.
To explain this, I will highlight key developments in the pattern depicted below before returning to John’s Gospel.
Genesis 22: A Substitutionary Type
In Genesis 22, the Lord tests Abraham by commanding him, “Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains of which I shall tell you” (Gen. 22:2). The language of “only son” (Gen. 22:2, 12, 16) accents how Isaac is Abraham’s firstborn child from Sarah, his only child of promise, the one he had waited over 25 years to meet. In route to obey God’s command, Abraham responds to Isaac’s query about why they didn’t bring a lamb for the sacrifice: “God will provide the lamb for the burnt offering, my son” (Gen. 22:8). God would see to it that there was a lamb, and Abraham’s faith was rewarded by the sight of a ram, which he offered “as a burnt offering instead of his son” (Gen. 22:13). In this episode, we see the expectation for God to provide a lamb which would die in the place of Abraham’s firstborn child of promise—a clearly substitutionary sacrifice.
Two details merit additional comment: (1) Why might Moses insist so repeatedly that it was a burnt offering (Gen. 22:2, 3, 6, 7, 13)? And (2) What significance may the Lord intend in appointing a ram (ʾayil)? First, the burnt offering is consumed entirely by fire upon the altar before the Lord, that is, it is completely devoted to him. This suggests what the Pentateuch confirms, namely, that the Lord intends for the children of promise to be wholly devoted to him. Second, the provision of a ram is intriguing for at least three reasons: First, the Lord will later prescribe a ram for priestly ordination offerings (Lev. 8:22). Since the Lord intends for his people to be wholly devoted to him and the ram is later employed this way, perhaps this foreshadows the Lord’s declaration of his people as a “kingdom of priests” (Exod. 19:6). Second, a ram is the prescription for the guilt offering (ʾāšām, Lev. 5:16), which Isaiah says is the kind of offering that the Servant is (ʾāšām, Isa. 53:10). Third, the term ram is also used metaphorically in the OT for a ruler or leader (e.g., Exod. 15:15; 2 Kgs. 24:15; Jer. 25:34). Taking this observation in hand with the previous, Gentry observes, “Since this same word for ram is often used metaphorically of community leaders, the ʾāšām [=guilt offering] is perfectly suited to describe a sacrifice where the king suffers the penalty on behalf of his people.” Therefore, we are warranted to see in Genesis 22 the seeds of future sacrifices.
The significance of this event is far-reaching in the OT. After observing that Mount Moriah is the place the temple was built at the direction of the Lord (2 Chr. 3:1; cf. 1 Chr. 21), Michael Morales writes, “the entire cult of Israel—that is, the temple system of priesthood and sacrifices—was built on an event, narrated in Genesis 22, where Yahweh God had provided a substitute, an animal replacement, for the seed of Abraham whose utter consecration to himself he had commanded.” Yet, before the temple was built on that mount—before even the tabernacle service was instituted—God would again see to it that a lamb would die in the place of his firstborn.
Exodus 12: Variation on God’s Provided Lamb
The exodus from Egypt was determined in the mind of God before Isaac was even born (Gen. 15:13–16). Likewise, while Moses was still in Midian, God disclosed his plans beforehand that he would harden Pharoah’s heart until the plague on the firstborn liberated God’s firstborn Israel (Exod. 4:21–23). Specifically, it would be by the blood of the lambs upon the doorpost (Exod. 12:13, 22–23) that God would bring about Israel’s redemption.
But why require blood?