#1. The Lamb of God
Basic Concepts of Sacrifice

by Dr. Ralph F. Wilson
Audio (20:17)
Part of JesusWalk -- Behold the Lamb of God

Francisco de Zurbaran (1598-1664), "Agnus Dei" (1635-40) ,Canvas 38 x 62 cm. Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid. Larger image.

Today we are beginning a journey of discovery, to learn what it means to call Jesus "the Lamb of God."

I hope you'll begin with an open heart and mind. Some of you have heard all this before. For others it will be brand new -- and a little disturbing. My goal for us is to understand at a deeper level just who Jesus is and what he did for us -- not only to understand it, but to internalize its values and commitment.

But to get to this place, we need to begin slowly and carefully. I don't want to assume that you know anything already. Nor do I want to overwhelm you. The Bible is full of literally thousands of verses bearing on the themes we'll be studying. Some of you can quote many of them from memory, but I'll be purposely resisting the temptation to give you all the cross references that prove or illustrate every point. Rather, my method will be to look deeply at a few passages of scripture. It's simpler that way for you to learn.

To begin, let's examine our theme passage.

John the Baptist's Prophetic Insight

John the Baptist is preaching a message of repentance and baptism for the forgiveness of sin. Thousands have come to him as he is baptizing along the Jordan River. One day, John speaks about the Messiah, for whom he has been sent to prepare. Now our theme verse:

"The next day John saw Jesus coming toward him and said, 'Look, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!'" (John 1:29)

John repeats this saying a little later (John 1:36). The context of these verses doesn't tell us a great deal about what John the Baptist actually meant when he said this. So let's examine the words themselves.

"Behold" (KJV) is the Greek particle ide, which can be taken two ways. (1) to point out something to which the speaker wishes to draw attention. "look! see!" and (2) to indicate a place or individual, "here is (are)".1 So the NRSV translates John 1:29, "Here is the Lamb of God..." John draws attention to Jesus and indicates that Jesus is the focus of his words which follow. Let's look at these words one by one.

"Lamb," the Greek noun amnos, refers to a young sheep, including at least up to one year old.2 In the Book of Revelation the noun arnion is used to designate a sheep of any age.3

"Of God" can mean either "sent from God" or perhaps "owned by God." John says that Jesus is in some way like a lamb sent from or provided by God himself.

"Sin" is the common Greek noun harmartia. Originally it meant "to miss the mark, be mistaken." In the New Testament it occurs 173 times as a comprehensive expression of everything opposed to God.4 Sin and forgiveness of sin are major themes of the Bible, both Old and New Testaments. Our modern society really doesn't like the concept of sin at all -- though dealing with guilt is a major psychological problem that plagues people of all religions and no religion. If we are intent to understand what "Lamb of God" really means, we must be willing to discuss the forbidden "S" word -- "sin."

"Of the world" employs the Greek noun kosmos, which refers here to "humanity in general."5 Jesus doesn't come to deal with just a single person, or the sin of just the Jewish people for that year, but for the sins of everyone in the whole world for all time.

"Take away" describes what the Lamb will do with sin, employing the Greek verb airō, which means generally "to lift up and move from one place to another." Here it means "to take away, remove, blot out."6

"Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world."

What specific lamb is John the Baptist referring to? It could be the Passover Lamb or the lamb described in Isaiah 53, or perhaps he is using it in a general sense.7 The context doesn't help us pinpoint it further. But clearly, John indicates that Jesus is the Lamb of God in some sacrificial sense, since lambs were commonly used by the Jews for sacrifices to obtain forgiveness for sin. Our next step is to try to understand animal sacrifice.

Q1. (John 1:29) How do you know that John the Baptist's statement about the Lamb of God refers to sacrifice?. How was the comprehensiveness of "sin of the world" so radical a concept?




Ancient Animal Sacrifice

Nearly every culture throughout the world has employed sacrifice, usually animal sacrifice, to somehow appease the anger of the gods. Many moderns have dismissed this sort of appeasement as a primitive and ignorant gesture. They are offended by the idea that blood must be shed to make atonement and have searched for other theories of the atonement that provide simpler explanations. However, to be faithful to Scripture, we can't disregard sacrifice so cavalierly. (See the Appendices for my essay "Classic Protestant Liberalism and the Atonement: A Plea for Reconsideration," "Theories of the Atonement," and a brief quote from C.S. Lewis on "Boys Philosophies")

Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob sacrificed to God as part of their worship. We don't have any indication that they were trying to "appease an angry God." That explanation is a straw man that applies better to pagan sacrifice than Jewish sacrifice. At Mt. Sinai, God gave Moses explicit instructions to build an altar of burnt offering in the tabernacle (Exodus 27), as well as rather complex instructions concerning types of sacrifices appropriate for various kinds of offences (Leviticus 1-7).

Holiness, Anger, and Justice

Yet anger must be part of our understanding. We live in a society that seeks to pull God down to its own level. But a careful reading of Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy make it quite clear that God is to be considered holy and righteous, separate from humans and human sinfulness. Human sin, breaking of God's laws, is deeply offensive to God. Unless their sins are cleansed, humans may not even approach his holy presence.

God is angry -- not at humans for their own sake -- but at their sin. Anger at sin shouldn't surprise us. If your spouse lies to you, shouldn't you be angry? Sad, yes, but angry, too. If your spouse is unfaithful to you, shouldn't you be angry? Or should you be passive in the face of immorality and deceit? Moral people are outraged at sin; immoral people are calloused with regard to sin.

It's one thing to be angry, but anger must not lead to injustice. The God of the Old Testament cannot be accurately described as capricious, acting merely out of anger. Nor, for that matter, is he perpetually angry. He is described as:

"The LORD, the LORD, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness, maintaining love to thousands, and forgiving wickedness, rebellion and sin. Yet he does not leave the guilty unpunished." (Exodus 34:6-7)
Q2. Why is anger an appropriate response to sin? What is the difference between capricious or uncontrolled anger and anger that brings about justice?





God provides animal sacrifice as a way that justice can be done, that men and women's sins can be atoned for, and that they can approach God once more.

The Repulsiveness of Animal Sacrifice

We moderns are often repulsed by the very idea of killing an animal. The Israelites were herdsmen. Our forebears were farmers. But we city folk don't routinely butcher animals, drain out their blood, and cut them up. The closest we come is cold meat in a Styrofoam tray or butcher's wrap from the supermarket. We eat meat, for the most part, but we are insulated from the killing that is required.

Nevertheless, taking of any life should affect us as it affected the Israelites. The Israelites were very well aware that blood required taking of life.

Q3. Why is animal sacrifice repulsive to modern people? How much of this has to do with a city vs. a farming way of life?





And taking life, even to eat, is never a trivial thing. God tells Moses:

"For the life of a creature is in the blood, and I have given it to you to make atonement for yourselves on the altar; it is the blood that makes atonement for one's life." (Leviticus 17:11)

The word translated "atonement" here is the Hebrew verb kāpar, kipper, "to make an atonement, make reconciliation, purge." An equivalent Arabic root means "cover" or "conceal," but evidence that the Hebrew root means "to cover over sin" is weak. Rather, the root idea of kipper seems to be "to purge," related to an Akkadian cognate kuppuru meaning "to wipe clean."8 Our English word "atonement" comes from the Middle English "at-one-ment" or "reconciliation," which expresses the result of an atoning sacrifice. To sum up, "atonement" in Hebrew seems to mean "to wipe clean, purge," a sacrifice that cleanses from sin.

Basic Elements of Sacrifice for Sin

There were five types of sacrifices in the tabernacle (and later in the temple) -- burnt offering, grain offering, peace or fellowship offering, sin (purification) offering, and guilt (reparation) offering. To comprehend the basics of sacrifice, let's look carefully at a sacrifice for purification from sin by a common person which displays the typical elements. Here a female goat or lamb (Hebrew kebeś, keśeb9) is referred to:

"When anyone is guilty in any of these ways, he must confess in what way he has sinned and, as a penalty for the sin he has committed, he must bring to the LORD a female lamb or goat from the flock as a sin offering; and the priest shall make atonement (kāpar) for him for his sin." (Leviticus 5:5-6)

"If he brings a lamb as his sin offering, he is to bring a female without defect. He is to lay his hand on its head and slaughter it for a sin offering at the place where the burnt offering is slaughtered. Then the priest shall take some of the blood of the sin offering with his finger and put it on the horns of the altar of burnt offering and pour out the rest of the blood at the base of the altar. He shall remove all the fat, just as the fat is removed from the lamb of the fellowship offering, and the priest shall burn it on the altar on top of the offerings made to the LORD by fire. In this way the priest will make atonement (kāpar) for him for the sin he has committed, and he will be forgiven." (Leviticus 4:32-35)

Here are some of the key elements of sacrifice as they appear by the time the Mosaic Law is given -- simplified a bit:

  1. Confession of the sin (5:5)
  2. Bringing an animal that has no defect that might decrease its market value (4:32). It must be healthy and whole or it is not fit to offer to God. An animal like this could be rather costly, though a poor person might bring a pair of pigeons or doves instead.
  3. Lay his hands on its head (4:33a). There seems to be a sense in which the offerer's sin is imparted to the animal through the laying on of hands (see Leviticus 16:21).
  4. Slay the animal by cutting its throat (4:33b).
  5. Blood is collected by a priest, put on the horns of the altar, and poured out at the base of the altar (4:34)
  6. Remove the fat portions, which are given to the priest and burned on the altar (4:35). (In the case of burnt offerings, the entire animal would be burned on the altar.)
  7. The meat is eaten by the priests in the case of a sin offering (6:24-29). (In case of a peace or fellowship offering, most of the meat would be eaten by the offerer and his family as a kind of sacred meal.)

From this analysis of a sacrifice for sin I see several principles:

  1. Confession or acknowledgement of sin is a necessary part of the sacrifice.
  2. A sacrificial animal is costly to the sinner. Nothing free here.
  3. There is a close identification between the sinner and the sacrifice. The imparting of sin by the laying on of hands suggests that the animal becomes a substitute for the sinner.
  4. Killing the animal is very personal. It is not done for the sinner by a third party but by the sinner himself.
Q4. (Leviticus 4:32-35; 5:5-6) What are the basic elements involved in a sacrifice for sin? Which of these are still necessary for forgiveness of sins today? Which are no longer necessary? Why?





Forgiveness and Grace of God

Five-week Bible study for the Lent or Easter season, Lamb of God, is available in PDF, Kindle, and paperback. Videos are available on YouTube.

In spite of this elaborate sacrificial system, the Hebrews became aware that all these sacrifices alone were inadequate to really cleanse their sins. God did not "owe" them forgiveness because they went through some ritual. Nor was God impressed or gratified by all this killing of animals. (See Hebrews 10:8; 9:9, 13; Psalm 50:8-12; 51:16; Isaiah 1:11-15; 66:3; Jeremiah 6:20; 7:21-22; Hosea 6:6; Amos 5:21-22; Micah 6:6-8; Mark 12:33.)

In fact, the author of Hebrews rightly declares, "it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins" (Hebrews 10:4), for the "lesser" animal cannot really substitute for the "greater" human being. Man needs someone greater than himself to actually atone for and do away with sin.

There is a real sense in which God uses the sacrificial system to teach the Jews lessons about sin, holiness, confession, forgiveness, sin's costliness, and sin's horror. God, in his mercy, allows these sacrifices to purge their sins, but the only fully adequate sacrifice for sin is still to come.

Behold, the Lamb of God

That is the context from which John the Baptist speaks when he says, "Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world" (John 1:29). Jesus is greater than our analogies, of course. But there is a sense in which the analogy of the sacrificial Lamb fits Jesus accurately, since he, as Son of God and Son of Man is the only One perfect and great enough to actually atone for sin and, at the same time, represent and substitute for all men in this atonement -- once and for all.

Look! This is the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!


Father, I'm aware again of how horrible all that killing and blood must be. It forces me to think about the horror of my own sin and rebellion against you -- and the horror of sacrifice that my sins require so that I might be cleansed and stand before you forgiven. I've passed over sin, made it something trivial when it is not. Forgive me, Lord, for my sins. In the name of the Lamb of God, Jesus my Lord, I pray. Amen.

Q5. In what sense is God's provision of animal sacrifice for forgiveness of sins an expression of his mercy? Were animal sacrifices actually adequate to atone for human sin?





Q6. What do you think God intended animal sacrifice teach us about sin? What do they teach us about holiness? What do they teach us about God's nature?





Key Verse

"The next day John [the Baptist] saw Jesus coming toward him and said, "Look, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!'" (John 1:29)


  1. Ide, BDAG 446.
  2. Amnos, BDAG 54.
  3. Arnion, BDAG 133.
  4. Walther Günther, "Sin," NIDNTT 3:573-583.
  5. Kosmos, BDAG 562.
  6. Airō, BDAG 28. Joachim Jeremias, "airō," TDNT 1:185-186, indicates that airo can refer here to either the substitutionary bearing of penalty (if the Suffering Servant of Isaiah 53 is in mind) or "the setting aside of sin by the expiatory power of the death of Jesus." Jeremias prefers the latter approach.
  7. George R. Beasley-Murray, John: Word Biblical Commentary 36 (Word, 1987), pp. 24-25; Raymond E. Brown, The Gospel According to John (Anchor Bible vol. 29; Doubleday, 1966), 1:58-63; C.K. Barrett, The Gospel According to St. John (Second Edition; Westminster Press, 1978), 175-177.
  8. Richard E. Averbeck, "Sacrifices and Offerings," DOTP 706-732, especially p. 710. R. Laird Harris, kāpar, TWOT #1023.
  9. kebeś, keśeb mean "lamb, sheep." Of the 128 occurrences, only 17 do not occur in the context of sacrifice. The root in Akkadian means "lamb," in Arabic the root refers to "young ram." TWOT #949. "Lamb" in BDB 461.

Copyright © 2024, Ralph F. Wilson. <pastor@joyfulheart.com> All rights reserved. A single copy of this article is free. Do not put this on a website. See legal, copyright, and reprint information.

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