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Arnion, Amnos Tou Theou — Lamb, Lamb of God

Ann Spangler
Ann Spangler
2022 24 May

Though one of the most tender images of Christ in the New Testament, the phrase “Lamb of God” would have conjured far more disturbing pictures to those who heard John the Baptist hail Jesus with these words. Hadn’t many of them carried their own lambs to the altar and watched the bloody sacrifice?

The lamb was in fact the principal animal of sacrifice, and two were offered each day—one in the morning and one in the evening (Numbers 28:1–8). The offering was doubled on the Sabbath. Lambs (or other animals) were also sacrificed on the first day of the new month and on such feasts as Passover, Pentecost, Trumpets, Atonement, and Tabernacles. Lambs were also offered in cleansing ceremonies after a woman gave birth and after the healing of a leper.

To the Jewish people the lamb represented innocence and gentleness. Because the sacrifice was meant to represent the purity of intention of the person or people who offered it, lambs had to be without physical blemish.

The New Testament uses two Greek words for Christ as “Lamb” or “Lamb of God”: Arnion and Amnos Tou Theou. The phrase “Lamb of God” is found only in John’s Gospel, though Jesus is often referred to as “the Lamb” in the book of Revelation, where he is portrayed as the Lamb who, though slain, yet lives and reigns victorious. The New Testament also refers to Christ’s followers as lambs.

By 70 BC animal sacrifices could no longer be offered, because the temple was destroyed by the Romans.

Praying to the Lamb of God

Imagine that you own a small flock of sheep. You have to choose one of the lambs, the most beautiful among them, your favorite, in fact. As you lift him, holding him snugly against your chest, you sense his naiveté as he rests calmly in your arms, unaware of your intent. But you know exactly what you are going to do. Step by step you carry him closer to his death, entering the temple courts where he will be slaughtered with thousands of lambs for the Passover meal. You do the deed yourself while a priest holds a bowl beneath your slaughtered lamb to catch the blood flowing out. There are many priests with many bowls, each of silver or gold, standing in a great line, passing the bowls along until they reach the last priest, who empties each, pouring the blood on the altar. As a sacrifice. For you, your wife, and your children, and for all who will eat the Passover meal with you.

This is the first time you have had to do this but it will not be the last. You will do it again next year and the year after that. An innocent lamb to take your place, over and over and over.

Now imagine that some time has passed. You have celebrated many Passovers. There is talk of a great prophet, a man who has lived for many years in the desert and who is not afraid to speak plainly. So you go down to the Jordan River where John is baptizing, and as his thunderous words roll on, piercing your heart, you notice a stranger approaching. He looks like a Galilean. As soon as John lays eyes on the man he begins to shout: “Look! This is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world….”

What can this mean, to call a living man the Lamb of God? It sounds appalling. You remember the cries of the thousands upon thousands of innocent animals slaughtered in the temple courts at Passover, their blood poured out on the altar. It will be some time before you understand exactly what John is saying.