Written by Grace Han, Pastor of Trinity United Methodist Church in Alexandria, VA.
“Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” – John 1:29
“Tell the whole congregation of Israel that on the tenth of this month they are to take a lamb for each family, a lamb for each household. If a household is too small for a whole lamb, it shall join its closest neighbor in obtaining one; the lamb shall be divided in proportion to the number of people who eat of it. Your lamb shall be without blemish, a year-old male; you may take it from the sheep or from the goats. You shall keep it until the fourteenth day of this month; then the whole assembled congregation of Israel shall slaughter it at twilight. They shall take some of the blood and put it on the two doorposts and the lintel of the houses in which they eat it. They shall eat the lamb that same night; they shall eat it roasted over the fire with unleavened bread and bitter herbs. Do not eat any of it raw or boiled in water, but roasted over the fire, with its head, legs, and inner organs. You shall let none of it remain until the morning; anything that remains until the morning you shall burn. This is how you shall eat it: your loins girded, your sandals on your feet, and your staff in your hand; and you shall eat it hurriedly. It is the passover of the Lord. For I will pass through the land of Egypt that night, and I will strike down every firstborn in the land of Egypt, both human beings and animals; on all the gods of Egypt I will execute judgments: I am the Lord. The blood shall be a sign for you on the houses where you live: when I see the blood, I will pass over you, and no plague shall destroy you when I strike the land of Egypt.” – Exodus 12:3-13
If you’ve been to church during Lent, you’ve most likely heard of Jesus referred to as the “Paschal Lamb” or “Lamb of God.” You have probably read scriptures with that reference or may have sung songs that use that image. You may have wondered it meant for Jesus to be compared to a lamb, or perhaps you never thought about it too much. But understanding the meaning of Jesus as the Paschal lamb is incredibly significant for us who are seeking to grow our faith this Lenten season.
To truly understand Jesus as the “Paschal Lamb” or the “Lamb of God,” we need to go back before the gospels to the very first Passover in Exodus 12. In fact, the word “paschal” means Passover (or in the Christian context, Easter) and calling Jesus the “Paschal Lamb” links him to the first Passover. Recall that when the book of Exodus began, the Israelites were enslaved in Egypt. God heard the cries of his people and sent Moses to deliver the people from the bondage of sin. While Moses performed nine signs, the Pharaoh was unmoved. The night before God freed the Israelites from slavery, God instituted the First Passover meal, where each family was to take an unblemished lamb, slaughter the lamb, and use the lamb’s blood to paint the door posts of every house where they would eat the flesh with unleavened bread and bitter herbs. That night, the Angel of Death would “passover” the homes protected by the blood, but take the lives of the firs-born children who did not have blood on its doors. It was after this final sign, that the Pharaoh finally relented and “let the people go.”
As this first Passover meal was instituted, the instructions were clear: this feast was to be kept “throughout your generations…as an ordinance forever” (Exodus 12:14), as a Day of Remembrance of their deliverance from slavery in Egypt. Because this Passover meal was not only a feast, but a religious ritual, the meal required specific rules for how the sacrificial animal was to be prepared. They were to choose an unblemished one-year-old male lamb. The lamb was sacrificed in the Temple and its blood was collected in silver basins and poured out on the altar by the priests. The Israelites were required to eat the flesh of the lamb to be in covenant with God. Most importantly, it was a day of remembrance, so the Israelites would always remember how God delivered them from slavery.
Later, in the gospel of John, when John the Baptist identifies Jesus as the Lamb of God–“Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1:29), this was an incredibly powerful identification. John understood that Jesus was no ordinary prophet, no ordinary religious leader. John knew and anticipated that Jesus was the Messiah who came to atone for our sins, to deliver us from sin and slavery, so that we could experience true redemption and new life.
That designation became much more acute in the Passion narrative as Jesus prepared for his death. As many of us know, Jesus came to Jerusalem because of the Festival of Passover, as many faithful Jews gathered together to celebrate that important holiday. On Palm Sunday, when Jesus rode into the city on a donkey, that fell on the same day that the lamb that was to be sacrificed for the Festival of Passover also came into the city. As the blood of the sacrificial lamb was poured out on the altar by the priests, similarly Christ’s blood was poured out for us. Just as the Israelites were required to eat the flesh to be in the covenant, Jesus instituted the Eucharistic meal, offering his body and blood to his disciples and to us, to bring us into covenant with Christ.
Perhaps, most important, is what the sacrifice of the Paschal Lamb achieved. In the first Passover, it was the blood of the sacrificed lamb that protected the Israelites from death. The meat of the lamb nourished and strengthened the Israelites for the journey ahead. Through the sacrifice of the lamb, they were redeemed from their past sins and led into the promised land. The Paschal Lamb was more than just a ritual, it paved a way for a new life.
When Jesus died on the cross, he died as our Paschal Lamb. Through his blood we are saved from sin and death. Through his body we are nourished and brought into covenant, and through his death, we are given a path toward resurrection, toward new life.
But while Jesus achieved the purpose of the original paschal lamb, he also went on to ensure that we would never need another Paschal lamb again. In Jesus Christ, the ultimate sacrifice was made. It is in his body and blood that we are atoned for again and again. It is in Jesus Christ that we are offered a second, third, and fourth chance. It is in Jesus Christ that we know and remember who we and whose we are.
God loved us so much, he sent his son to be a “Paschal Lamb” on our behalf. Jesus loved us so much that he was willing to be sacrificed for our behalf, so that we would be freed from sin and slavery and know new life.
Thanks be to God. Amen.