The Image Of The Lamb

            The final book of our Bible is filled with imagery and numbers.  One of the most prevalent is the image of the lamb.  This comes up over and over throughout the book.  The lamb is the salvific image.  At once, one with God and a separate part of God.  The sacrificial lamb and the triumphant lamb are one in the same.  The image of the lamb comes up twenty-eight times in the book of Revelation.  It is the most common picture of Christ in the book. 

            This paper will look at the use of the imagery of the lamb in Revelations.  In order  to build context, we will briefly journey into the Old Testament and the rest of the New Testament to encounter the Christological references to the lamb that reside outside Revelations. 

            The sacrificial nature of the lamb in the Old Testament begins in Genesis 4 when Abel brought the firstling of his flock to offer to God.  This was the first account of a sacrifice to God, and we are already introduced to the image of the lamb.  Abel offered a lamb as an offering to God and it pleased the Lord.  In Genesis 22, Abraham is instructed to offer Isaac, his only son.  Abraham lead Isaac to a mountaintop and as they approached the place of sacrifice, Isaac questioned his father.  He asked what they would be sacrificing to which Abraham replied, “God will provide for Himself the lamb.”[1] 

            The story of the Exodus introduces the reader to a new salvation by the shedding of the blood of a lamb.  Moses instructed the Israelites, who were enslaved by the Egyptians, to offer up a spotless lamb.  The blood was then to be spread over the doorway to the home.  This was a sign that no harm should come to the firstborn of the family within when the Angel of Death passed over.  This passover lamb became a Jewish tradition as a way to remember God’s deliverance and His mercy.

            Throughout Leviticus, the spotless, pure lamb is the sacrifice for sins, guilt, and any other type of uncleanness.  God had set up a system for purification predicated on the spotless lamb.  The only way to truly cleanse oneself of sin was to offer a sacrifice.  There was, as with Isaac, a substitution.  The lamb died so that the sinner could live.  The lamb is always the sacrifice, always the vehicle of propitiation.  Nowhere does this become more Messianic than in Isaiah.

            Isaiah 53 tells of a Messiah figure that is wounded and beaten for the iniquities of the world.  This man is led to slaughter as a lamb.  This Messiah is the new vehicle of propitiation.  Through Him, intercession is made.  The lamb being led to slaughter is the first time that the sacrificial lamb is associated with the Savior of Israel.  Once this lamb is put to death, there need not be another.

            The lamb is portrayed differently in Jewish, non canonized texts.  In 1 Enoch, the author states, “I saw, too, that a large sword was given to the sheep, who went forth against all the beasts of the field to slay them.”[2]  This is a conquering lamb.  This image does not meld with the sacrificial lamb per se, but it does give us insight into the imagery that John uses in Revelations.  The lamb of Revelations is not merely a sacrificial lamb. 

            It is only in the New Testament that a man becomes associated with this lamb figure.  John the Baptizer calls Jesus Christ “the lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world.”[3]  John is associating Jesus with the sacrificial lamb in the Levitical law.  He is calling Him the sacrifice needed to atone the sins.  However, this is not the Messianic figure that the Jewish people were necessarily looking for.[4]  The Israelite people were looking for a Messiah that would come not as a lamb, but as a lion:

And the lion, whom thou sawest rising up out of the wood, and roaring, and speaking to the eagle, and rebuking her for her unrighteousness with all the words which thou hast heard;  This is the anointed, which the Highest hath kept for them and for their wickedness unto the end: he shall reprove them, and shall upbraid them with their cruelty.[5]

            In the book of Acts, Philip and the eunuch discuss the prophet Isaiah.  Philip tells the man that the lamb of Isaiah was in fact Jesus.  This reference to Christ as the lamb also fits with Christ as the Passover lamb in 1 Corinthians 5:7.  The one who was sacrificed is the savior, the Messiah.  Peter refers to Jesus as the pure, spotless lamb in his first letter.  He tells his readers that they were purchased or ransomed not with gold but with the blood of the lamb.  This is the final time that Christ is referred to as the lamb outside Revelations. 

            All of the references to the lamb in the New Testament (John 1:29. 36; Acts 8:32; 1 Peter 1:19) other than Revelations use the word amnos, which means young sheep.[6]  Young Sheep is used when comparing Christ to a lamb.  Amnos is used as a simile to compare Christ to sacrifice.  He is like the sacrificial lamb.  Christ is not a lamb, but He is the metaphorical lamb.  This is the way amnos seems to be used throughout the New Testament.

            John, the author of the Book of Revelations, uses the title lamb twenty-eight separate times.  It is the most common christological title in his writings.  However, John does not use the same word for lamb as the other authors in the New Testament.  He uses the word arnion which means little lamb.[7]  When John uses this word, he is referring to Christ the Lamb.  Not Christ as the Lamb.  It actually becomes a title for Christ here, not just an adjective or simile.  John does not describe Christ, but he describes the Lamb.  This Lamb is obviously Jesus, because it has the authority of God.

             This word is found only once prior to the Book of Revelations.  Jesus uses the word arnion when asking Peter if he loves Him.[8]  Jesus tells Peter to feed his arnion.  Here, Jesus is saying that His people, or sheep, are not apart from Him, but a part of Him.  The arnion actually share in the title of THE arnion.  The significance of the people of Christ, or the body of Christ, being one with Christ will become more evident as we journey deeper into Revelations.

            This word only occurs in the Gospel of John once and twenty-nine times in Revelations.  The number of times the word is used in the New Testament does not seem to be a mistake.  It is occurs thirty times in all.  According to the ancient art of gematria, the number thirty symbolizes both maturity and the Blood of Jesus[9].  With this number and meaning in mind, it is not hard to link this Lamb with other christological figures in the Bible.  Joseph was 30 years old when he came into the service of Pharaoh[10]. David became king at 30 years old[11].  Jesus began his ministry when he was 30 years old[12].  The final use of the word arnion is in Revelation 22:3, which is the culmination of God and the Lamb taking their seat on the throne in New Jerusalem.  This is the maturation of the Lamb.  If gematria is to be adhered to, the final use is the culmination of the maturity of the blood of Christ. 

            The first image of the arnion is in Revelation 5.  John is introduced to a dilemma.  The One seated on the throne is holding a sealed scroll.  An angel has declared that no one can open the seals.  John is distressed by this scene, having no way of revealing the writings of the scroll.  This is when an elder speaks to John:

And one of the elders said to me, “Weep no more; behold, the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, has conquered, so that he can open the scroll and its seven seals.”[13]

            The Jewish scriptures told of this Lion of Judah and the Root of Jesse and David.  This was understood Messianic writing in John’s day.  The texts of Isaiah 11 and Genesis 49 were in use at Qumran as Messianic warrior proofs[14].  This was clearly an intentional reference by John to draw the Jewish people in to his writing. 

            Immediately following the elders comment, John looks and sees the “Lion of the tribe of Judah.”  However, the Lion is not a ferocious conqueror.  The Root of David and the Lion of Judah is a Lamb.  Not an ordinary Lamb though.  This is a slain Lamb.  A Lamb that has been sacrificed. This juxtaposition, Lion and Lamb, is not what John or his readers are expecting.  Expecting a ravenous lion that would conquer the world for God, John sees a Lamb that has been slaughtered, executed.  However, the slaughtered Lamb is not helpless by any means.  It bears seven horns and seven eyes which represent the seven Spirits of God sent into the world.  This Lamb bears the authority of God.

            The image of the Lamb is meant to draw the reader into a new understanding of the Lion of Judah.  As G.B. Caird put it, “Wherever the Old Testament says ‘Lion’ read ‘Lamb’.”[15]  This viewing of the Lion fits perfectly with the teachings of Christ.  The first shall be last, the weak shall be made strong, the poor made rich.  This flipping of worldly notions is woven into the revelation.  When we read of the victorious overthrow of the enemies of God, we should think of the cross.[16]

            John goes on to say that the Lamb takes the book out of the right hand of God.  Again, John is telling us that this Lamb is not weak, but holds the power and authority of God.  After the Lamb took the book, the four beasts and the twenty four elders began singing praises.  Angels soon joined in.  The angels were soon joined by all the creatures of heaven, earth, and sea.  The cacophony of praise climaxes with the four beasts and the elders exclaim an Amen and fell down worshipping God and the Lamb.  With this show of worship and praise, John is showing that God is in full control of the world and everything in it.  John is witnessing the throne room of God and all is in place, though all is not complete, for judgement has yet to be poured out.   Still, all is being set right.

            Throughout Revelation, the Lamb is referenced as the victorious, slain lamb.  Nowhere is this more evident than in Revelation 7.  Here, the faithful have come through a tribulation and are praising God and the Lamb.  These are not the 144,000 mentioned earlier in the passage, but those who have had to fight through trials and were stained from the process.  Yet here they are praising God, dressed in white.  As they praise God and the Lamb they say “salvation belongs to our God..and to the Lamb.”[17]  It is confirmed that the Lamb and God are the sole bearers of salvation.  Only through the Lamb’s sacrifice and blood are the worshippers made clean.  They have fought through the tribulation, but they have not achieved their own victory.  That was only achieved through the Lamb and His self-sacrifice.

            John uses the beauty of paradox to explain the cleansing of the worshippers: “They have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.”[18]  This is a clear reference to the sacrificial lamb of Levitical law.  The blood of the Lamb is representative of both the sacrificial lamb’s substitution and Jesus’ substitutionary sacrifice of His life on the cross.  The only way that these people can come through the tribulation at all is because Jesus had already conquered the forces of evil with His death.  There is nothing that can be accomplished without Christ’s victory, however there is still a responsibility on the faithful.  John says that they have “washed their robes.”  They have actually decided to follow Christ and take part in His victory.  There is nothing without the cross, but there must also be an alignment with the crucified. 

            In an interesting turn, those who have washed their robes now have the Lamb as their shepherd.  In verse 17 of chapter 7, the Lamb is named as the shepherd who will lead the faithful to springs of living water.  The imagery is directly out of the Psalms and is intentional to draw the listener in to the connection between the Lamb and God being the Good Shepherd.  This is yet another facet of the Lamb, shepherd.  The Lamb not only saves His people, but continues sustaining them and comforting them. 

            The Lamb takes the roll of bridegroom in Revelation 19.  Christ the Lamb is becoming one with His people, His bride.  The bride is dressed in fine white linen which John explains as the righteousness of saints.  As with the faithful washing their robes, John is implying that their is action that must be taken to partake in this marriage.  God granted the people of God the wedding, but the people must live righteously to become one with the bridegroom.  This is another paradoxical view.  The salvation of the Lamb is at once a gift and a demand of righteousness.  It is free, yet very expensive salvation that we take part in. 

            The imagery that John uses for this Lamb is diverse.  He is a victorious conqueror.  He is a slain sacrifice.  He is God.  He is ruler.  He is judge.  He is shepherd.  He is Jesus.  The final two mentions of the Lamb lie in the final chapter of Revelation:

Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb through the middle of the street of the city; also, on either side of the river, the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, yielding its fruit each month. The leaves of the tree were for the healing of the nations.  No longer will there be anything accursed, but the throne of God and of the Lamb will be in it, and his servants will worship him.[19]

John describes the beautiful, life giving water pouring out of the throne of God and of the Lamb out into the New Jerusalem.  Now the Lamb is also the source of life from the middle of the city garden.  The symbolism is two fold: the Lamb is ruling with God as Christ and their throne is centrally located to show that God and the Lamb are dwelling with the people.  This is not a temporary reign, but the final reign.  The throne of God and the Lamb is now and forever in control.  The curse is lifted.  Genesis 3:14 is reversed.

            John’s image of the Lamb is immaculate.  However, the lamb image was not necessarily a messianic symbol in the Old Testament.  It seems to be a new symbol which is completely foreign to the Jewish traditions of Messiah.  When read through the lens of Revelation though, the symbolism becomes much more apparent.  Abrahams consolation to Isaac that God would provide for Himself a lamb takes on multiple meanings.  The Levitical practice of sacrificing a pure, spotless lamb becomes clear.  The suffering servant of Isaiah is personified.  The Passover Lamb is also clarified and reinvented through this lens of Christ the Lamb. 

            It is not a surprise that the Israelites were expecting the Lion of Judah.  They were hoping for a messiah that could right all their wrongs by destroying their opposition with war and violence.  They wanted a conqueror.  They wanted a king.  They wanted a repayment of oppression.  They got a lamb.  John juxtaposes this desire for a Lion with the reception of a Lamb beautifully.  The elder speaks of the Lion of Judah and Christ is that Lion.  Christ is a conqueror.  John sees a Lamb though.  The Lion is the Lamb.  The conquering can only be accomplished with self-sacrifice.  The violent end to all the oppressors is actually a non-violent submission to God.  The kingdom they so desired was greater than they could have imagined, in a way they never wanted.  The Israelites wanted to rule the world with their messiah.  Their Messiah ruled the universe.  The sacrificial Messiah was just not on the minds of pre-Christian Jews.  It was not the accepted way to run the world.  It was, however, God’s way.

Bibliography

Bauckham, Richard. The Climax of Prophecy. Edinburgh: T&T Clark LTD, 1993

Caird, G.B.  A Commentary on the Revelation of St John the Divine.  London: A&C Black, 1966

de Jonge, Marinus. Christology in Context: The earliest Christian response to Jesus.              Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1988

Large, James. Two Hundred and Eighty Titles and Symbols of Christ. Grand Rapids:             Baker Book House, 1959

McArthur, Peter. Biblical Numbers: The meaning of numbers found in the Bible             Carnarvon, Australia: Issachar Ministries, 2005

Metzger, Bruce M.  Breaking the Code: Understanding the Book of Revelation.              Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1993

Reddish, Mitchell G.  Revelation.  Macon, Georgia: Smyth and Helwys Publishing, 2001

Thayer, Joseph. Thayers Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament. Edinburgh:             Hendrickson             Publishers, 1996

Footnotes:

[1] Genesis 22:8 (English Standard Version)

[2] 1 Enoch 89:27

[3] John 1:29 (ESV)

[4] Mitchell G. Reddish, Revelation (Macon, Georgia: Smyth and Helwys Publishing, 2001) 109.

[5] 2 Esdras 12:31-32

[6] Joseph Thayer, Thayers Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament (Edinburgh: Hendrickson Publishers, 1996)

[7] Joseph Thayer, Thayers Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament (Edinburgh: Hendrickson Publishers, 1996)

[8] John 21:15 (ESV)

[9] Peter McArthur, Biblical Numbers: The meaning of numbers found in the Bible (Carnarvon, Australia: Issachar Ministries, 2005), 80

[10] Genesis 41:46 (ESV)

[11] 2 Samuel 5:4 (ESV)

[12] Luke 3:23 (ESV)

[13] Revelation 5:5 (ESV)

[14] Richard Bauckham, The Climax of Prophecy (Edinburgh: T&T Clark LTD, 1993), 181

[15] G.B. Caird, A Commentary on the Revelation of St John the Divine (London: A&C Black, 1966), 75

[16] Richard Bauckham, The Climax of Prophecy (Edinburgh: T&T Clark LTD, 1993),179

[17] Revelation 7:10 (ESV)

[18] Revelation 7:14 (ESV)

[19] Revelation 22:1-3