The last book of the Bible, as you know, is the record of a vision that the Apostle John received while he was on the Isle of Patmos. As a vision it deals in pictures and images. Much of this is difficult to visualize even as we read it. People have often read Revelation as if it were a puzzle book or a code book, but it is better to think of it as a picture book. It is not a theological essay, such as Paul’s letter to the Romans or a history such as Luke’s two volumes, the Gospel and the Book of Acts. It is a philosophy of history, or better a theology of history painted in broad strokes and bright colors. It recounts the history of this world and of mankind in the world as the will and work of one single person, the King of Kings, who is also the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.
After being given letters to the seven churches, in his vision John was taken up to heaven, as we read in 4:1-2, and there he was shown three things. First he saw a throne with someone sitting on it. Seven prepositional phrases follow that emphasize the glory and the centrality of this throne. This throne is mentioned seventeen times in Revelation chapters 4-5. The churches of Asia Minor were small, seemingly insignificant, threatened in various ways and the power of Rome seemed invincible. But John’s vision of the throne reminds them that there is a far greater power, an absolute authority to which every earthly power whether it knows it or not is absolutely subject. If God is for us, who can be against us, Paul wrote to the Romans. John was given a picture of that same truth. Christians are being urged to remember that our vision of ultimate reality must always have the throne of God in the center.
The second thing John saw was a scroll, as we read in 5:1. It was held in the right hand of the one sitting on the throne. This scroll, as we learn as we read on is the book of history, the record of the unknown future. In John’s vision an angel cries out: “Who is worthy to break the seals and open the scroll?” which is the same thing as asking who is able to disclose the future, a future that is already fixed and determined, ordered and written by God himself? It is the fact that God not only knows the future but has ordered it that gives meaning to the church’s suffering and gives her hope in the midst of her trials.
The third thing John saw was “a Lamb, looking as if it had been slain, standing in the center of the throne…” As the vision unfolds it will be this lamb who will open the scroll; this lamb who will both disclose what is to come and control history as it unfolds. On this Palm Sunday I want to examine the world of theological reality compacted in that single phrase, “a Lamb, looking as if it had been slain…” Why a lamb? Why slain?
Any reader of the Bible knows that this picture of a lamb that had been killed sums up a great deal of biblical teaching and practice going all the way back to the very beginning. John saw a lamb, in other words, for a very specific reason. We are supposed to appreciate the meaning and the importance of the fact that John saw a lamb and one that looked like it had been slain. In the Bible a reference to a lamb such as we have here always suggests a sacrifice. As you know, the lamb was one of the animals appointed for sacrifice in the ancient epoch, indeed from the very beginning, long before the sacrificial rituals were codified in the Law of Moses. The reason this lamb that John saw looked as if he had been slain was because this lamb had been sacrificed.
The New Testament, as you know, over and over again and in many different ways, teaches us that Jesus’ death was a sacrifice. His was the sacrifice to which all the other sacrifices pointed. His death on the cross was the fulfillment of the promise of all the sacrifices of lambs, goats, birds, and bulls that had been made through the centuries according to the Law of Moses. The fact that Jesus’ death was a sacrifice is enormously significant and John expects us to appreciate that significance.
- It indicates that his death was substitutionary. In Old Testament sacrifice the animal was killed in the place of the worshipper. It died, as it were, for the worshipper, in his stead or place. This is a point the Bible makes in many ways about the death of Jesus. “Christ died for us,” wrote Paul, using a preposition that means, “on our behalf” or “for our benefit.” Elsewhere we read that Jesus gave his life a ransom for many,” there using the preposition that means specifically “in the place of” or “in exchange for.” In his death Jesus was representing his people; his death was, as the theologians say, vicarious; he was putting himself in their place and dying in their stead.
- To say that Jesus was a lamb and that his death was a sacrifice is also to say that his death was punishment. Or, as the theologians put it, his death was not only an act of substitution, it was an act of penal substitution. That is, in dying Jesus was not only placing himself in the stead of his people, he was suffering their punishment in their stead. He was being punished in their place. The OT sacrificial ritual indicated in unmistakable terms that the sacrifice was vicarious punishment. As often as this has been denied, so often has it been shown to be the obvious meaning of the biblical ritual and the explanation of that ritual. It began with the worshipper confessing his sins and then laying his hands upon the head of the sacrificial animal. The unmistakable meaning of that action was the transfer of guilt of the worshipper to the substitute. As we read in the liturgy of the ritual of the Day of Atonement in Leviticus 16:21, the priest
“…is to lay both hands on the head of the live goat and
confess over it all the wickedness and rebellion of the
Israelites – all their sins – and put them on the goat’s head.”
The sins of the people were transferred to the substitute and the substitute was killed or sent away as punishment for those sins. It is this penal substitutionary nature of Old Testament sacrifice that lies behind the prophecy of Isaiah 53 that the Lord would lay upon his servant “the iniquity of us all” and that “he would bear the sin of many.” Indeed one scholar points out that in Isaiah 53 there are twelve distinct and explicit statements “that the servant suffers the penalty of other men’s sins…” [J.S. Whale, Victor and Victim, 69-70] And so Paul, in summing up the Gospel in the opening verses of 1 Corinthians 15 says that Jesus “died for our sins” according to the Scripture.
- To say that Jesus’ death was a sacrifice which is what John intends us to understand by saying that he saw a lamb that looked as if it had been slain is also to say that its effect was the removal of sin and guilt. The fact that the sacrifice was bearing the punishment on behalf of the sinner is why the result of the sacrifice is always said to be that atonement was made for the worshipper, that is, God’s wrath was turned away, and reconciliation, the worshipper was restored to peace with God. The sacrifice removed the effect of sin and guilt. To be sure, animal sacrifice only accomplished this instrumentally. It is a fact, as clearly asserted in the Old Testament as in the New, that the blood of bulls and goats cannot take away sin. But the sacrifice to which those sacrifices pointed, of which they were an enacted prophecy and anticipation, could take away sin and that is what we are told times without number the sacrifice of Christ actually did.When John the Baptist identified Jesus as the Messiah in the opening chapter of the Gospel of John, he said specifically that he was “the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.” So we are told elsewhere in the New Testament that “Christ became sin for us that we might become the righteousness of God in him;” that “he redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us;” that “he himself bore our sins in his body on the tree so that we might die to sin and live to righteousness;” that “Christ died for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring you to God;” and on and on.
All of this is what is meant by the vision of a Lamb looking as if it had been slain. The one who stands over history who is able to open the scroll, the one who controls the unfolding future, is the very one who gave his life a ransom for sinners so that we might be forgiven and be reconciled to God. The Lion of Judah is the lamb who was slain but who is alive and ruling the world.
By saying that he saw a Lamb looking as if he had been slain, John so much as sums up the entire message of the Bible: the proclamation of the Savior who would die for the sins of his people and so secure their salvation, who would rise again to everlasting life and would rule over this world until he came again to judge the living and the dead. When Paul sums up his message by saying that he preached the message of the cross, he is saying that his message was first and foremost about Jesus Christ, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world. When he said on one occasion, “May I never boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ,” he was as much as saying that the sacrificial death of Jesus is the sum and the substance of his faith and the motive of all his living. We know very well how the death of Christ as our sacrifice for sin, his suffering God’s wrath in our place, has found emphatic expression in the hymns and the literature of the Christian faith, in the architecture of Christian churches, even in the jewelry that Christians wear. This is because of the central place the sacrificial death of Jesus has in our Christian faith.
But there have always been plenty of people who have been offended by this doctrine of Jesus’ death as a sacrifice as there are today even in the church. They have argued that the whole notion of offering sacrifices to God is unworthy; unworthy of God and of man. It is unworthy of God because, so they argue, that he can be bought off, or that he has to be persuaded not to punish us for our sins. It is unworthy of us as an attempt to buy God off. Is this not what the pagans think and do?
And it is certainly true that the pagans were and are still today trying to buy off God with their sacrifices; they think that by giving him gifts they can influence him to be generous toward them. They are, to be it bluntly, trying to grease the skids. And even sophisticated Western people try to do the same from time to time. When the soldier in his foxhole, terrified that he might be killed, when some other modern person facing a great trial or difficulty or shame asks God to help him and promises he will do such and such, this or that, if only he shall help him; what is that but trying to buy the Lord’s favor? And that is done in a great many ways. People who only go to church from time to time, if they ever thought about it, would have to confess that they are trying to get on God’s good side and that, to be honest, they think God the sort who is easily pleased. A few church services here or there is enough for him. They do not go to church because they themselves think it to be important – if they thought it important they would go every Sunday – but because they think God might think it important. And so they hedge their bets.
The notion of offering sacrifices to God, giving him gifts in hopes of receiving something in return, is as ancient as man himself. Certainly the Israelites were not the only people who offered animals in sacrifice to God. All around them throughout the history of the Old Testament were people who also offered sacrifices to their gods. Everywhere you find human beings you find this notion and practice of sacrifice. In 1999 in an icy pit atop a mountain, a volcano, in Argentina the remains of three children were discovered: those of a fifteen year old girl, a six year old girl, and a seven year old boy. They were apparently sacrificial victims. They were dressed in fine clothes, had been given corn alcohol to put them to sleep, and then were left to die at an elevation of 22,000 feet up where the gods were supposed to live. The body of the fifteen year old girl – remarkably preserved in the cold dry atmosphere high on the mountain – was recently displayed in a museum in Argentina. Seated with her legs bent and her arms resting on her stomach, her body was still covered with a gray shawl and bone and metal ornaments. Her face was daubed with red pigment and around her mouth scientists found flecks of coca leaf, which is chewed by highland Indians to blunt the effects of high altitude. The Incas sacrificed this girl, made a gift of her to the gods in hopes of securing from them a good harvest. Think about that girl’s parents!
Is this what the Bible gives us: such a sacrifice, such a view of man’s relationship to God? Some have argued so, but it is absolutely not so. The lamb that looked as if it had been slain is by no means a gift offered to God in hopes of securing his good will. That is altogether clear.
- First, Jesus’ sacrifice was not man’s sacrifice to God. The lamb who was slain was not given to God by others; God gave Jesus himself. The girl frozen on the mountain top was the Incas gift to their gods. Jesus Christ was God’s own gift to his people. “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son that whoever believes in him should not perish but have everlasting life.” The terrible tragedy of the cross was not borne by men for God but by God for men. There is, I have read, a picture of the crucifixion in a church in Italy in which behind the figure of Jesus hanging on the cross is a vast shadowy figure, representing God the Father. In the picture the nail that passes through the hand of Jesus is shown going through the hand of God the Father as well. The spear thrust through Jesus’ side goes through into God’s. [Cited in Stott, The Cross of Christ, 158] Jesus was God’s sacrifice for man, not man’s sacrifice for God.
- Second, Christ himself offered himself as the sacrifice. The Incas chose this girl and exposed her to the elements, thinking that that she would make a proper present to their gods. Christ was not offered by others; he offered himself. “The Son of Man came not to be served, but to serve and give his life a ransom for many.” “I lay down my life for the sheep…” The people who witnessed the crucifixion of Jesus and the people who clamored for it and the people who put him to death had no idea what was really happening. They thought they were executing a criminal. Only Jesus was fully aware that he was laying down his life to save others. That is the reason why the Gospels are so careful to say that no one took the Lord’s life from him; he laid it down of his own accord. He had come into the world for no other purpose but to do this.
- Third, Jesus is himself God and thus himself the party offended by human sin. In Christ’s suffering and death the God/Man himself bore the penalty of sin on behalf of his people. God is both the giver of the gift and the gift; he is both the offended deity demanding retribution for sin and the one offering the substitute who will bear that retribution in himself so that we may not have to ourselves. In giving up his son to death, God was meeting the demands of his own justice! What we have in Christ’s death is justice being executed, punishment being imposed upon crime. Every human being and every human culture anywhere in the world lives with the inescapable conviction that crime deserves punishment. Human civilization would collapse overnight were that principle to be genuinely rejected. Our systems of criminal law, of retributive justice are based on this ineluctable conviction of all human life: wrongdoing should be punished. That conviction is universal because God implanted it into our very nature, because we have been made in God’s image and it is part of his nature. We can no more escape the moral character of human life than we can escape the force of gravity or the passage of time. The relations between man and his creator are moral. When man violates God’s law there is an inevitable and perfectly righteous reaction in God himself; he takes offense, he measures the punishment that such sins deserve. “The wages of sin is death,” the Scripture says. The death of the Lamb of God was no effort to grease skids or to buy favor. The death of the Lamb of God was the execution of God’s justice, by God himself, to secure for his people deliverance from his judgment and to extend to them his forgiveness of their sins. This was the only way in which the holy God could forgive sinners without compromising his character and, and because he loved them and desired to save them, he sent his son to bear their guilt and suffer their punishment.
The sacrifices of the world’s religions and of individual human beings are petty and pathetic efforts to buy God’s favor. They do indicate a very low view of God. But the sacrifice of the Son of God was the purest love and the highest most perfect justice that can be imagined. The difference between the two conceptions of sacrifice is the difference between an idol and the living God, between silly and serious, and between the pathetic efforts of men and the mighty love of God. Man is a religious being and he will express his life and his hopes in religious terms; that is, in relationship to God. He cannot help it. But man’s conception of sacrifice is the faintest echo of the real thing; a false conception, a false principle, a false motive. Christ’s death was nothing less than divine love and divine justice conspiring to save sinners in the only way sinners can be saved in a universe ruled by the holy Judge of all the earth.
There was nothing of the helpless victim in Jesus Christ. Here also lies a key difference between the OT sacrifices that were anticipatory of the Lord’s and his sacrifice to which they pointed. The lamb or goat or bull was a helpless victim, it did not come to the temple volunteering to suffer this fate. But Jesus was not. He knew precisely what he was doing when he went to the cross and the so the result of his death, as we read in vv. 9-10, was the salvation of vast multitudes of human beings.
That John should see the lamb that was slain in the midst of the eternal throne of God is the perfect summation of our faith in a single picture. If the God who did not spare his own son but delivered him up for us all is for us and ruling the world, who can be against us? Embrace that truth, you embrace all. The sacrificial death of Jesus is the greatest act of God in all history and the principal matter of the gospel. It is for this reason that in the New Testament again and again we read that the preacher’s task is to make known what God did by the death of his Son.
There is a very interesting story about the history of Christian missions in Greenland. In the 18th century missionary work there was begun by Danish Lutherans. It was very hard and slow work. This was a thoroughly unbelieving, backward and unwilling people, but a beginning was made. They were followed in time by a group of Moravians. It continued to be just as hard going for them. Their theory had been that they should begin at the beginning and lay a foundation. So for several years they spoke to the Greenlanders primarily about the existence and attributes of God, about his law, about his holiness and judgment, and about human sin. The idea was to create in the hearts of the Greenlanders a moral and spiritual foundation upon which could then be built the preaching of the Gospel. But they had little success. In 1740 they decided to change their tack and to preach Christ and him crucified, without worrying any longer about laying the foundation.
Almost immediately they began to reach the hearts of their hearers and people in large numbers began to believe and their lives began to change. And the amazing thing was that the new Christians virtually on their own began to forsake the sins of their culture and begin to live radically new lives of purity, self-denial, and love. The missionaries had been afraid that if they hadn’t started with the holiness and justice of God and the demands of his law, when people embraced the gospel of forgiveness through faith in Christ they wouldn’t see the need to live holy lives and to serve the Lord. They would be content to take God’s forgiveness without taking care to obey his commandments.
But the fact was that Christ’s willingness to give himself up as a sacrifice for their sins, his taking their place and suffering their punishment in their stead, so moved them that they couldn’t help but love him in return. And loving Jesus they couldn’t help but want to please him, that is what love does and is. You can, in other words, reproduce the entire Christian faith by working outward from this center: the Lamb who was slain. We have here a holy and just God, whose eyes are too pure to behold iniquity and who will by no means clear the guilty. We have the creation of men as moral creatures and we have their fall into sin and their rebellion against God. We have God’s grace and mercy intervening to save sinners who could not save themselves. We have the incarnation of God the Son, the second person of the Trinity becoming a human being precisely so that he could substitute himself for sinful men. We have the death of Jesus on the cross and his resurrection from the dead. And we have the Christian life of love and obedience that flows from that majestic sacrifice. We love him because he first loved us.
And when we see that Lamb, looking as if it had been slain, standing in the center of the throne, we know that the entire world and its history from start to finish is in the hands of this same one who entered the world for no other purpose but to save his people from their sins, no matter the cost to himself.
But how unexpected for mankind to see God the Son as a lamb looking as if he had been slain. And, how unwelcome. Here’s the rub. It is not for nothing that the sacrifice of Christ is called a scandal and a stumbling block in the Bible. People would much prefer to save themselves with their own sacrifices rather than be saved by the sacrifice of another. They cannot bear to admit that they are really as undeserving, really as helpless, really as clueless as Christ’s sacrifice for our sins suggests that we are. Men usually resist saying this out loud but it seems very clear if their life is anything to go by that they would rather bear their own punishment than submit to the indignity of having someone else bear it for them. All other religions teach some form of self-salvation; some, like Hinduism even make a virtue of refusing to admit man’s sinfulness. No other religion understands the human situation as absolutely requiring the intervention of God and so every other faith spares man the final humiliation of knowing that his punishment had to be borne for him by another. Only the Bible teaches us that we are utterly bankrupt before God and that no one could possibly save us but God himself and nothing would suffice to do that except the terrible suffering of the Son of God who became a man so as to be able to suffer the punishment we deserve in our place.
George Bernard Shaw, who had considerable insight into the subtlety of human pride, dramatized this unwillingness of human beings to be so beholden to another, and particularly to be beholden to another in the matter of their own acceptance, their own sense of their own goodness, their rightness. He dramatized this in his play Major Barbara first performed in (1905). Bill Walker, a street tough, arrives at the Salvation Army shelter one cold morning drunk and infuriated because his girlfriend Mog had not only been converted but “got another bloke.” Bill’s rival is Todger Fairmile, a champion music hall wrestler and, to add insult to injury, Todger had also been converted. Accusing Jenny Hill, a Salvation Army girl, of having set his girlfriend against him, Bill grabs her by the hair until she screams and then punches her in the face, cutting her lip. The bystanders mock him for his cowardice, hitting a girl. They taunt Bill: he wouldn’t be so brave if Todger Fairmile were present. Bill’s conscience and his pride nag at him until he cannot any longer bear the insult. So he determines to do something to salvage his reputation and assuage his guilt.
“I’m going to…spit in Todger Fairmile’s eye. I bashed Jenny Hill’s face and now I’ll get my own face bashed… He’ll hit me harder than I hit her. That’ll make us square…” But Todger refused to cooperate, so Bill returned shamefaced. “I did what I said I’d do. I spit in his eye. He looks up at the sky and says, ‘Oh that I should be found worthy to be spit upon for the Gospel’s sake!’ And Mog says, ‘Glory Hallelujah!’” Then Jenny Hill says she is sorry and that he didn’t really hurt her, which makes Bill angrier still. “I don’t want to be forgiven by you or by anybody. What I did I’ll pay for. I tried to get my own jaw broke to satisfy you…”
Because that way failed, Bill tries another. He offers to pay a fine that one of his mates had just incurred and produces a sovereign with which to pay it. “Here’s the money. Take it; and let’s have no more of your forgiving… This blooming forgiving…makes a man [so] sore that his life’s a burden to him. I won’t have it. I tell you…. I’ve offered to pay. I can do no more. Take it or leave it. There it is…” And he throws the sovereign down. [From Stott, Cross of Christ, 161-162]
That is the proud human heart: I’ll pay my own debt. Take it or leave it. But you can’t pay it. It is too great; you don’t have the wherewithal. In fact the debt is growing larger every day you live. You are morally and spiritually bankrupt. That debt of yours only Christ can pay. And he has paid it. Take it or leave it. But remember, the Lamb who was slain stands in the center of the throne. He is the King of Kings who rules the world; he is the Judge of all mankind. You will have to deal eventually with him, everyone must; everyone from every tribe, and language, and people and nation on the earth. It may be humiliating to have to admit that only Christ can deliver you from the guilt of your sin, that nothing less than his sacrificial suffering and death could suffice to grant you peace with God, but in this universe, it is the only salvation there is. You must not leave it; you must take it.
And when you take it you’ll discover as vast multitudes of others have before you that God requires you to humble yourself for one purpose only: so that He may lift you up.