In order to understand why Christ is the Lamb of God, we must first delve back into the Old Testament, which as we know prefigures the New. In the book of Genesis, chapter twenty-two, verses two and eight, we see two things: Abraham is commanded by God to offer his one and only son as sacrifice to God, and we see Abraham’s response to Isaac’s asking about the absence of the sacrificial lamb. “God will provide himself a lamb for a burnt offering” (Gen. 22:8) We also see Isaac carrying the wood of the sacrifice. Now, you take all these things together and you get Abraham, a type of the Father who offered his one and only son as sacrifice, you see Isaac as a type of Christ who is the one and only son and who was required to carry the wood of the sacrifice under instruction from his father, and you see that God provides himself the lamb, which in this instance was an ordinary ram. The language used here, though, can be taken in two ways. When saying, “God will provide himself the lamb,” we understand that God not only provides the lamb for sacrifice, but that he provides Himself as the sacrificial lamb. Throughout Sacred Scripture we see how God slowly begins to draw His people into this new covenantal relationship by revealing to them, through prophecy and implementation of the law, how Christ would fulfill this role as the sacrificial Lamb of God. If the Old Testament does, in fact, prefigure the New, as tradition upholds, we can go through and find parallels between the old and the new testaments, looking specifically in Exodus and Leviticus, the gospel of John, and the first letter of Peter.
In the book of Exodus, the Israelite people are enslaved to the Egyptians. For nearly four-hundred years the Israelite people endured the suffering of harsh, cruel, and inhumane treatment at the hands of the Egyptian people. God, however, remaining faithful to the covenant that he made with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, had not forsaken nor forgotten his beloved people. So, in order to liberate them, God worked many mighty deeds through Moses and his brother Aaron, devastating Egypt with ten awesome plagues. When discussing Christ as the Lamb of God, however, only one plague is truly necessary to investigate: the tenth plague. This isn’t to say that the other nine plagues are not important or worth noticing, because by all means they carry many theological truths, but for this particular discussion, only the tenth plague is necessary; and this is because of the institution of Passover. In reading Exodus, we see that the Israelite people are required to celebrate Passover in order to save themselves from death when the Angel of Death “passes over” them while going through the land of Egypt to kill the first born of all Egyptians. God gives specific instructions to Moses about how this feast is to be celebrated, but He is very particular about the lamb that is to be used and what it must be used for:
Your lamb will be without blemish, a male, a year old; you shall take it from the sheep or from the goats; and you shall keep it until the fourteenth day this month, when the whole assembly of the congregation of Israel shall kill their lambs in the evening. Then they shall take some of the blood, and put it on the two doorposts and the lintel of the house in which they eat them. They shall eat the flesh that night, roasted; with bitter herbs and unleavened bread shall they eat it. Do not eat any of it raw or boiled with water, but roasted, its head with its legs and its inner parts. (Ex. 12:5-9)
What does all this mean, though? Why so much specificity about the lamb in this passage?
First, we need to take this apart. Everything in the Old Testament is full of meaning, every detail. We know that the Law was what God used to bring His people up as His chosen people and to prepare them for the Messiah. The lamb used in Passover is Christ. The lamb without blemish is Christ, for Christ was without blemish in that he was free from all stain of sin. We see this from the first letter of Peter: “You know that you were ransomed from the futile ways inherited from your fathers, not with perishable things such as silver or gold, but with the precious blood of Christ, like that of a lamb without blemish or spot” (1 Pt. 1:18-19). Just as it was necessary that the lamb of the Passover be without blemish or spot to protect the people of Israel from death, so it was necessary for the Lamb of God to be without the blemish of sin so that He may save us from the death we have inherited by sin. “Then they shall take some of the blood and put it on the two doorposts and the lintel of the house in which they eat them” (Ex. 12:7). Here we have a pre-figuration of the cross. The blood of the lamb drenching the beams of the doorposts and the lintel foreshadows for us the blood of the Lamb drenching the beams of the cross. Then comes the matter of how the lamb should be eaten. First, it is to be roasted, not boiled, perhaps so that some of the lamb is not lost in the water when it is boiled or perhaps boiling it would require butchering the lamb, and that would be no good for, “nor shall they a bone of it” (Num. 9:12). Then it is to be eaten whole: “Do not eat any of it raw or boiled with water, but roasted, its head with its legs and its inner parts.” The whole lamb is to be eaten, none of it is to be left out nor omitted, or else it would be burned in the morning. This follows very closely the nature of the Eucharist. The Eucharist is not just the flesh of Christ, nor is it just the bone of Christ, nor is it just the blood of Christ, but it is the body, blood, soul, and divinity of Christ. None of the lamb of the Passover was left unconsumed, just as none of the Lamb of God is left unconsumed.
In the book of Leviticus, we see that Aaron is instructed to take two male goats from the whole congregation of the sons of Israel. Lots are to be casted for both goats. One receives the lot to the Lord and the other the lot to Azazel:
And he shall take from the congregation of the sons of Israel two male goats for a sin offering, and one ram for a burnt offering… and Aaron shall present the goat on which the lot fell for the Lord, and offer it as a sin offering, but the goat on which the lot fell for Azazel shall be presented alive before the lord to make atonement over it, that it may be sent away into the wilderness to Azazel… Then he shall kill the goat of the sin offering which is for the people, and bring its blood within the veil, and do with its blood as he did with the blood of the bull, sprinkling it upon the mercy seat and before the mercy seat… and Aaron shall lay both hands upon the head of the live goat, and confess over him all the iniquities of the sons of Israel, and all their transgressions, all their sins; and he shall put them upon the head of the goat, and send him away into the wilderness by the hand of a man who is in readiness. (Lev. 16:5, 9-10, 15, 21)
While it may seem grotesque, the manner with which Aaron is instructed to attain remission of Israel’s sin, it makes it even more clear to us how Christ is going to carry out his redemptive mission. The two goats, one slain the other sent out to the wilderness, are both types for Christ. On the one hand, the goat that is slain is the sin offering for all of Israel’s sins, and on the other hand you have the second goat taking on all the sins of Israel to be sent out into the wilderness where it will presumably perish, and the sins with it. With Christ, however, you have the roles of both goats being brought into the one God-man, who will both carry the weight of the sins of the world and be offered up as a sacrifice for the sins of the whole world, where he will perish, but the sins with Him as well. In Exodus, we have the ‘how’ the Lamb will be slain, on the cross. We even have, in Exodus, a type of the Eucharist in how we will come to consume the Lamb in His entirety. Here, in Leviticus, however, we receive the ‘why’. Why was the lamb slain? For the remission of sins. Why was the lamb burdened with the sins of the many? So that he could die and the sins die with him. Jesus Christ, the Lamb of God, fulfills both roles perfectly, the how and the why. We see this in the gospel of John, when Jesus first comes out to John the Baptist to be baptized: “The next day he saw Jesus coming toward him, and said, ‘Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world” (Jn. 1:29). When John says this, we are able to call back to mind the image of the scapegoat in Leviticus. Then in John 18:28 it says, “Then they lead Jesus from Caiaphas to the praetorium. It was early. They themselves did not enter the praetorium, so that they might eat the Passover,” and again in John 19:14, “Now it was the day of preparation of the Passover, it was about the sixth hour. He (Pilate) said to the Jews, “Here is your king!” Now we see clearly Christ fulfilling the role of the Paschal lamb as he is being prepared for the sacrifice, at the same time that the lambs for Passover would be slaughtered, and he is the lamb “chosen” by Israel, in that he is turned over to Pilate for crucifixion by them, for all the houses of Israel, the whole world even. It is in John’s gospel that we see most clearly Christ bringing to fruition and fulfillment the statutes of the Law, the ‘how’ and the ‘why’ of salvation. How will Christ die? He will die on the cross, His blood spilled out on the wood of the cross. Why will Christ carry our sins and die? So that through His sacrifice our sins will die with Him, and we may be brought to eternal life.
In summation, God has been revealing to man little by little His plan for Salvation. With Abraham and Isaac, we see that God Himself will provide the lamb, and that god Himself will be the Lamb. With Moses and the Israelite people, the way in which the Lamb of God will die is prefigured by the blood smeared on the door posts and the lintel; and the necessity of eating the flesh of the lamb is revealed. In Leviticus, with Aaron’s sin offering, we receive the ‘why’ of God’s plan for salvation. The ‘why’ to why Christ must take on the sins of all mankind and suffer and die for our sakes, the total remission of sin so we can enter eternity. Then, in John’s gospel, we see Jesus Christ pull all the pieces together in perfect and total fulfillment upon the cross.
- The Didache Bible: with commentaries based on the Catechism of the Catholic Church. 2nd Catholic ed.. San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2015.