There are few things more engaging in communication than a good metaphor. Not only do metaphors make what we’re saying more interesting, but they can often help to get across the emotion or experience of something better than a simple description. For example, a few years ago I described how I was feeling about life to my spiritual director like this: “I know I’m on the right road to get me where I need to go but not only is the road winding with lots of ups and downs, but a heavy fog has set in, so I can’t see my surroundings and it’s hard to know even what the next step should be.” It was a far more vivid way of talking about how I was feeling than “Circumstances are confusing and I don’t know what to do next even though I’m confident in the choices I’ve made to get me where I am.” But, helpful as they are, metaphors can ‘die’, that is, lose their power and fall into normal speech. I mention all this because today’s Gospel reading in large part revolves around (’revolves around’ is itself a dead metaphor, as it happens) a metaphor that I think has become dead to Christians, through both overuse and cultural change and misunderstanding: This is the image of Jesus as ‘the Lamb of God.’
After its famous prologue, the Gospel according to St. John begins with some scattered stories involving the relationship between John the Baptist and Jesus and their disciples, including today’s reading. It begins like this: “The next day he saw Jesus coming toward him and declared, “Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!” (1.29). For those of us who have grown up with Protestant theology, this image carries a lot of weight. To use another metaphor, the “penal substitution” model of the atonement is like a deeply carved rut on a dirt road in Western Christian thinking — easy to fall into and to follow and hard to get out of. We hear ‘Lamb of God’ and we immediately think ‘Jesus is the sacrificial lamb whose death is the perfect sacrifice God demands for our sins.’ But, whenever a word or expression brings so much other baggage with it, we would do well to pause and ask ourselves if some of that baggage needs to be unpacked and left behind. And I am convinced that this is an example where the answer to that question is yes.
The biggest reason for this is that this interpretation of the ‘Lamb of God’ image relies on a misunderstanding of the Jewish sacrificial system. As we saw back in 2021, the sacrificial system under the Law involved a lot of different types of offering, both of kind (grains and types of livestock) and purpose (thanksgiving offerings, guilt offerings, and sin offerings to name three). Moreover, the Scriptures also used very different metaphors to describe how sacrifice worked, including gift, payment of debts, cleaning, and more. Pushing back against the Protestant baggage of the ‘Lamb of God’ image even more is the fact that the killing of a lamb was most strongly associated with the feast of Passover, which existed largely apart from the sacrificial system: The Passover lamb was a symbol not of the removal of sins, but of God’s protection and deliverance — keeping outside evil away, not taking away evil within. Likewise, the most important ceremony for the removal of sin on the Day of Atonement didn’t involve a sacrifice at all, but rather the release of a ceremonially abused goat into the wilderness. (The sacrificial aspect of the Day of Atonement was about purifying the high priest and the Temple, not about payment for sins.) All this is to say we need to be really careful before assuming too much about how ‘Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world’ would have been interpreted by John’s disciples.
I think that there’s a strong case to be made that the image John is playing with here would have made his disciples think not of the Law and its sacrificial system, but of Isaiah’s Suffering Servant — a figure who’s come up a lot over the past few weeks here. Isaiah 53 describes the Servant of God like this:
He was oppressed and afflicted, yet he did not open his mouth;
he was led like a lamb to the slaughter,
and as a sheep before its shearers is silent, so he did not open his mouth.
By oppression and judgment he was taken away. Yet who of his generation protested?
For he was cut off from the land of the living; for the transgression of my people he was punished. (Isa 53.7-8)
Here we have God’s faithful Servant imagined as a lamb led to slaughter. The focus is not on any sacrificial context, but on the lamb’s innocence and vulnerability. We see this connotation elsewhere in the Gospels: In Luke, Jesus is said to send his disciples out to minister “like lambs among wolves” (10.3). Matthew plays with the same analogy, speaking of false prophets like “wolves in sheep’s clothing” (7.15). And Matthew also describes the people of Judea as “lost sheep” (9.36, 10.6, 18.10-13), and has Jesus utter the parable of the sheep and the goats, which contrasts the innocence and pliability of sheep with the self-will and stubbornness of goats (25.31-33). So when it comes to lamb imagery, we see that morality or posture in the world is at least as strong, if not stronger, than the sacrificial connotation. In Isaiah 53, to which John likely was alluding, the Servant is peaceful and tender, like a lamb, but is taken away by the forces of oppression and false judgment, and punished as a result of the people’s sins.
As John has it, this lamb is ‘of God’, which can be read in two complementary ways. The first is as a possessive: the lamb belongs to God. Note here then that if we think of it in terms of a sacrificial offering, God is the one making the offering, not the one demanding it. And second, it can be read as a complement: the lamb has the characteristics of God, is ‘godly’. Thus, it mirrors God’s own purity, vulnerability, and humility. If we put these together with the allusions to Isaiah 53, John’s words have a decidedly different ring from the one historical atonement theories have provided, something like: “Look! Here is the blameless Lamb who comes from the Father and will be returned to the Father in an act of violence by hateful people against God’s faithful, who will not speak up in his defense.”
In last Sunday’s reflection, I noted that during these weeks after Epiphany, the readings focus on ways God is revealed in the person of Jesus. It’s worth stepping back at this point to ask ourselves what does John’s proclamation here tell us about God. It turns out, quite a bit. In his desire to mark Jesus as special, John had an abundance of biblical and traditional images to play with. He could have gone with royal or priestly images, or something hearkening back to great leaders like Moses, Joshua, David, or Solomon. He could have chosen any number of images from the prophets. But the one he chose was the one that most reveals God as one who rejects violence and earthly power plays, and whose strength is revealed in vulnerability, weakness, and humility. It reveals God as the one who is more like a lamb than a lion. And it is this revelation of God, this way of living, through which the world’s sin is taken away.
This is truly beautiful and as counter-cultural today as it was two thousand years ago. Who is God? God is the one who humbly offers oneself up to take the brunt of the world’s hatred and violence, who is most fully revealed in the man Jesus, who will offer up his life for the life of the world.
Behold the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of he world!
Thanks be to God. Alleluia!