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If you were a Jew in the Old Testament, you would have been familiar with the lamb. You would have chosen one for your family every year at Passover (Ex. 12:3). It would have been a perfect lamb with no blemishes, a male of the first year, taken away from suckling at its mother’s breast (Ex. 12:5; I Pet. 1:19). You would have looked at its snowy white wool and into its large brown eyes before taking a knife and letting out its blood with a stroke to the neck. The flesh of the lamb would then be roasted and eaten by the whole family, its blood struck on the door frame of the house (Ex. 12:7, 8).

The sacrifice of the lamb was so common in the Old Testament (every morning and every evening of every day! Ex. 29:39) that we in the New testament might not appreciate the sense of unfairness and tragedy that came with each death. The lamb is the picture of vulnerability and gentleness, which is why it is so shocking to think of them lying in peace next to hungry lions and wolves in the kingdom to come (Is. 11:6, 65:25). The lamb is white, snowy innocence, which is why David was so outraged when he heard of the rich man sparing “to take of his own flock” and instead making a feast out of “the poor man’s lamb” (II Sam. 12:4). A lamb is for gently gathering up in the arms of the shepherd (Is. 40:11), not for leading off to the slaughter (Is. 53:7)!

Ah, but the Lord God was making a salient point when he called His people to sacrifice the lamb. He wanted them to feel that sense of unfairness and tragedy. He wanted His people to walk away from the altar with a tremble in their step. Could a man sacrifice a lamb, hear its feeble bleating, watch its blood run in the temple court, and not be touched in the deepest way? In the eyes of God, he may as well have cut off a dog’s neck or slain a man in cold blood as far as the condition of his heart is concerned (Is. 66:3). The Lord was communicating something important through the lamb, which is the high cost of sin. Sin—whether the original sin in conception (Lev. 12:6), the sin of loathsome corruption like leprous flesh (Lev. 14:10), the sin of ignorance (Lev. 4:32), or the sin of knowledge (Lev. 6:6)—the high cost was a lamb without blemish and without spot. The innocent and the vulnerable for the violent and the guilty.

Yet for all the gentleness of thousands upon thousands of little lambs slain in the temple, not one of them really took away the sins of those who offered them (Heb. 10:4). The question of the believer in those days was always the question of Isaac walking by his father’s side up the hill of Moriah: “My father…behold the fire and the wood: but where is the lamb for a burnt offering?” And the answer to that question was always the answer of a father’s burdened heart: “My son, God will provide himself a lamb for a burnt offering” (Gen. 22:7, 8).

God did provide Himself a lamb. It was not the ram that Abraham spotted in the thicket as Isaac lay bound on the altar beneath his quivering knife. It was a man of about thirty years old who walked openly into the circle of an astonished John the Baptist. Astonished John surely was, for he had waited his whole life for the moment when he could raise his finger to point out this very person and declare in the voice of a herald, “Behold the Lamb of God, which taketh away the sin of the world” (John 1:29).

Like all lambs before Him, this Lamb too was led away to the slaughter with a silent mouth (Is. 53:7). With Him in His silent suffering were the names of every one written in His book as He made the sacrifice ordained by God from the foundation of the world (Rev. 13:8). The chastisement of our peace was upon Him, and the wounds of our transgressions He accepted as His own. And therefore, the new song of praise resounding in the church forever is the song of heaven’s triumph: “Worthy is the Lamb that was slain to receive power, and riches, and wisdom, and strength, and honor, and glory, and blessing” (Rev. 5:12).

You see how apparent weakness is turned by God into strength and triumph. The Lamb that was slain is also the Lion of Judah’s tribe who prevailed to open the book that no other man even dared to look upon (Rev. 5:6). He is the Lamb whose blood overcomes the accuser of our brethren (Rev. 12:11), who destroys all who make war with Him because He is “Lord of lords, and King of kings” (Rev. 17:14). He is the Lamb who needs not soldiers to defend Him with sword and shield, but who sends His followers out instead as “lambs among wolves” (Luke 10:3). This is how you will wage my wars, says the Lamb-King: by giving attention “to the least of these my brethren” (Matt. 25:40). “Do you love me?” says the risen Lamb to His disciple. This is how you will show it: “Feed my lambs” (John 21:15).

In fact, this is the striking characteristic of all who follow the Lamb, that they begin to look just like Him. Not only do they wear robes that have been washed white in His blood (Rev. 7:14), but coming out of tribulation they love not their lives even unto death, and even lay them down for the sake of the Lamb (Rev. 12:11). They have no fear to do so, for their great hope is not in the kingdom of a counterfeit lamb who speaks like a dragon (Rev. 13:11), but in their calling to “the marriage supper of the Lamb” (Rev. 19:9). They look for the coming of a new world where no sun is necessary, for the Lamb is the light thereof (Rev. 21:23), and no temple, “for the Lord God Almighty and the Lamb are the temple of it” (Rev. 21:22).