Monday, August 22, 2011

What I Never Learned, Part V: Jesus as the "Lamb of God"

Years ago, I sent out some "catechesis emails" to interested friends and family. They, like me, never really learned much in Catholic religious education and CCD classes (I was catechized in the 1970s and '80s). What I wrote was pretty basic stuff, and I thought some of the Bubble readers might like the overview. 

Okay, let's get cracking with the next installment!

In the Gospels, we read some explosive words spoken by Jesus’ cousin, St. John the Baptist. John had been baptizing people in the Jordan River, preparing them for the Messiah (Jesus) who was to come:

The next day he [John the Baptist] saw Jesus coming toward him, and said, “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” -- John 1:29

And then:

The next day again John was standing with two of his disciples; and he looked at Jesus as he walked, and said: "Behold, the Lamb of God!" -- John 1:35-36

Why is this title so important, shocking, explosive? Because calling Jesus the "Lamb of God" implies that Jesus was to be sacrificed. John the Baptist was actually making a prophesy that Jesus would die as a sacrificial offering. Lambs were routinely sacrificed by the Jews in the worship of God, as you'll recall from the last installment, and that fact is of great significance to Christians.

"As an old saying put it, the New Testament lies hidden in the Old and the Old Testament is unveiled in the New" (CCC* 129). When something in the Old Testament foreshadows, or points to, something in the New Testament, we call that a prefigurement or a type. Typology (studying the prefigurements in the Bible) is the most exciting way to look at Scripture. I could give you a zillion examples, but today I want to show you some prefigurements of Christ as the Lamb of God.

Let’s look back a couple thousand years before Christ, to the story of Abraham and Isaac (Genesis, chapter 22).

Abraham and his wife Sarah were a very elderly couple who were finally blessed with a son, Isaac, whom they adored as you can imagine. One day, when Isaac was a boy, God tested Abraham’s faith. He asked Abraham to take Isaac to Mount Moriah and offer him (yep, his son!) as a sacrifice.

So, Abraham took his son (who had no idea that he was to be sacrificed -- yikes!) and went up the mountain. Isaac carried the wood for the sacrifice upon his back. Isaac was puzzled and asked his father, “Where is the lamb for a burnt offering?” Abraham answered, “God himself will provide the lamb.”  When they arrived, Abraham built an altar, placed the wood in order, tied up Isaac and laid him upon the wood, then lifted his knife to slay his son. At that moment, an angel of God called to him from heaven and told him, “Do not lay your hand on the lad or do anything to him; for now I know that you fear God, seeing you have not withheld your son, your only son, from me.” Just then, Abraham saw a ram in the distance that was caught in the thickets by its horns, and he offered the ram as a sacrifice instead of his son. After this, God made His profound covenant with Abraham.

Of course, there are oodles of things to analyze and discover in this passage, on many levels. But let’s see how it prefigures Jesus, as the Lamb of God:

In the Old Testament story, Abraham is to sacrifice his beloved son on Mount Moriah.
In the New Testament fulfillment, God’s beloved Son (Jesus), is sacrificed on the hills of the same mountain range as Mount Moriah (Jerusalem).

In the Old Testament story, Isaac carried the wood for his own sacrifice on his back.
In the New Testament fulfillment, Jesus carried the wood for His own sacrifice on His back.

In the Old Testament story, Abraham said that “God will provide the sacrifice.”
In the New Testament fulfillment, God did provide the real and perfect Sacrifice – Jesus.

In the Old Testament story, Abraham did not withhold his only beloved son from God.
In the New Testament fulfillment, it is God Who did not withhold His only beloved Son from us.

As we see from the story, God would never require us to sacrifice our own children as an offering to Him.** He tested Abraham to see if Abraham would put anything, even his dearly beloved son, before his love of God. When Abraham's actions proved that he loved God above all else, God blessed Abraham and all of his descendants (that’s us, by the way!).

When God and Abraham had this exchange, God already knew that one day, far in the future, He would provide His Son as the Sacrifice -- a willing Victim Who, for love of poor sinners, would take on our sins and save us. When we understand Jesus as the "Lamb of God", we can read this Old Testament passage with new eyes.

This story of Abraham and Isaac was really about Jesus Christ all along.

Next time, I’ll give you another powerful prefigurement of Jesus as the Lamb of God.  And it ties into the Mass and the Eucharist as well. Go here for Part VI.

*Catechism of the Catholic Church

**This episode certainly showed to Abraham and all his descendants that child sacrifice was never to be part of the worship of God; this was one of the many ethical truths that separated the Jews from the pagans. 



  1. The college class that made me decide to minor in religion (Christianity) was a "Bible as Literature" course taught by a practicing Episcopalian.
    One thing that was discussed (and I subsequently wrote a paper on it) was how JOHN the Gospel specifically is the one who drills home the point of Jesus as Lamb of God. And John's Gospel is ALSO the most symbolic in its use of language (not to be confused with symbolic in context). John, of all 4 Gospels, does not have the famous Last Supper in his Gospel... why not? Because in its place is the washing of the feet, and because more importantly, the disciples are not yet celebrating the Passover - Good Friday is, in John's version, the actual day of preparation. Hence, Jesus becomes, quite literally, the sacrificial Passover Feast... the Lamb of God.

    Just a brief synopsis of my paper for ya ;)


  2. Leila- you write, "**This episode certainly showed to Abraham and all his descendants that child sacrifice was never to be part of the worship of God; this was one of the many ethical truths that separated the Jews from the pagans."

    That's such an important comment, and I think it's a point that many people miss when hearing this story. The reason I know this is because I called Lauren confused and frantic one day after one of the kids was born, telling her that NO- if I thought I heard God asking me to kill my children, He could FORGET ABOUT IT because it wasn't gonna happen. Lauren reminded m hormonal-self that human sacrifice was a common element of pagan rituals and therefore not so scandalous an idea to the people of the time, but God STOPPED Abraham and let him know that He would not demand human sacrifices, but knowing that later He would have to sacrifice His own Son for the world.

  3. Once again, I have nothing of substance to say - just that I love you and I'm grateful for your simple, clarity!

    ~Rebecca @ The Road Home (I've figured it out - it's not just blogger, it's Blogger + Internet Explorer that won't let me log in!)

  4. Great post, I think about the story of Abraham and his son a lot. And I can't help thinking (not really trying to be funny here), that his son must have dealt with a lot of PTSD afterward!

  5. Thanks for the new indoctrination into our much better than kumbaya.

  6. Very informative!! You can add 90's CCD to that list too, I don't think I ever learned this stuff either. Or if I did, I forgot it. :)

  7. I've read somewhere (can't remember where, doesn't that always happen?!) that since there also wasn't punctuation like we have today when they first translated the Old Testament Scriptures, that the line 'God himself will provide the sacrifice" can also be read as "God, Himself, will provide the sacrifice" - which totally drives the point home that Jesus is GOD and He is sacrificing himself for ALL OF US!

    Looooove it :)

  8. Great post! I remember, however, a couple weeks ago the daily reading was: Judges 11: 29 – 39. In it Jephthah promises to sacrafice the first person to run out of his house when he returns from victory. His daughter ends up being that person...and he goes through with it!! Why do you think God let him go through with it? Maybe because Jephthah offered although God didn't ask?

  9. Chirp, it's so funny you asked that, because I recently (just this past week!) read a loooooong blog discussion about that very subject! Oh, I wish I could find it for you, but I'd be searching for hours. Basically, yes, Jephthah did that on his own… God did not and would not ask or require it!

  10. Becky, ha ha ha, true!

    And TCIE, that is awesome! I love John's Gospel the best… it's so sacramental.

  11. Wonderful post. So many Catholics, so much which they never learned. Beginning next month my parish will add an hour of education between Sunday masses, starting with the upcoming mass changes, but then continuing with adult education on our faith. It is needed, greatly. Thanks for taking the time here on your blog.

  12. Finally found the C.S. Lewis quote of which this post reminded me...

    If God then is omniscient, he must have known what Abraham would do, without any experiment. Why then this needless torture?” But as St. Augustine points out, whatever God knew, Abraham at any rate did not know that his obedience would endure such a command until the event taught him: and the obedience which he did not know that he would choose, he cannot be said to have chosen. The reality of Abraham’s obedience was the act itself; and what God knew in knowing that Abraham “would obey” was Abraham’s actual obedience on that mountain top a that moment. To say that God “need not have tried the experiment” is to say that because God knows, the thing known by God need not to exist. - The Problem of Pain


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