The significance of Jesus as the Lamb of God (Agnus Dei)

Jesus is referred to several times in the Bible as the Lamb of God. John the Baptist says about Jesus: ‘Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.’ Particularly in the Bible book of Revelation, the term ‘the lamb’ is used for Jesus. A lamb is a vulnerable and innocent animal. In the Old Testament, lambs are sacrificed to God. The prophet Isaiah speaks of someone, a servant of the Lord, who is led like a lamb to the slaughter. Many see this as a reference to Jesus. In the classical Catholic Mass, the Lamb of God, the Agnus Dei in Latin, has been given a permanent place as a prayer.

John the Baptist about Jesus as a lamb

When John the Baptist is preaching at the Jordan and baptizing people, at one point he sees Jesus walking. “The next day he saw Jesus coming toward him, and said, “Behold is the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29). And a little later it says about John the Baptist: ‘When he saw Jesus passing by, he said, ‘There is the Lamb of God.’ (John 1:36). At the beginning of John’s Gospel, John the Baptist says twice that Jesus is the Lamb of God. Various meanings can be distinguished in this statement: Jesus is the Passover lamb, Jesus is like a sacrificial lamb or the lamb refers to a prophecy by Isaiah in which the suffering servant is led like a lamb to the slaughter.

The Passover Lamb

The theology surrounding the Passover lamb can be applied to Jesus. The Passover lamb refers to the Jewish Passover festival, Passover, the Exodus from Egypt (Exodus 12). The people of Israel lived there in slavery and oppression for years. After the nine plagues that hit Egypt, they prepare for the Exodus. Another plague is yet to come: the eldest son of each family will die. The Israelites are instructed to slaughter a lamb, the Passover lamb. They must put the blood of the lamb on the doorposts. That would protect them from the final plague.

Jesus the true Passover lamb

According to the evangelist John, Jesus died on the cross in the afternoon of the day in preparation for the Jewish Passover festival. The Passover lambs were slaughtered in the afternoon to be eaten at the evening seder meal. According to John, Jesus died at the moment the Passover lambs were being slaughtered. Like the Passover lamb, no leg is crushed in Jesus. Jesus is seen by the evangelist John as the true Passover lamb. The apostle Paul also refers to Jesus as the true Passover lamb: ‘For you are as unleavened bread, because our Passover lamb, Christ, has been slain’ (1 Corinthians 5:7b). However, there is no indication in the Bible that the Passover lamb takes away the sin of. The slaughter of the Easter lamb is all about liberation.

  1. de Zurbaran: Agnus Dei / Source: Francisco de Zurbarán, Wikimedia Commons (Public domain)

The lamb as a sacrifice

John the Baptist was the son of a priest. He must therefore have been familiar with the sacrificial cult as practiced by the Jews. His father probably had to slaughter many lambs in the temple as a sacrifice to God. The culmination of the sacrifice of lambs for sin is on the Day of Atonement. Leviticus 16 verses 20 to 22 describes how a goat is symbolically sent into the wilderness loaded with the transgressions, the sin, of the people. This beast carries away sin. Many lambs were also sacrificed on the day of atonement. The apostle Peter refers to the sacrifice of Jesus: ‘For you know that you were not redeemed from the futile life inherited from your ancestors with something as perishable as silver or gold, but with precious blood, a lamb without blemish or blemish. , of Christ” (1 Peter 1:18-19).

Isaiah about the lamb led to the slaughter

Another Biblical source regarding the lamb is found in the book of Isaiah. There it talks about the servant of the Lord who is led like a lamb to the slaughter. The lamb is defenseless and defeated by his executioners: ‘Like a lamb He was led to the slaughter; like a sheep before its shearers is dumb, so He opened not His mouth” (Isaiah 53:7b). In the sequel about this servant of the Lord, Isaiah says: ‘But he bore the iniquity of many and took up the cause of sinners’ (Isaiah 53:12).

The lamb in Acts

In the Bible book of Acts the passage about the suffering servant of the Lord is quoted. An Ethiopian minister has been to Jerusalem. He has purchased the book of Isaiah and while on his way back he reads the part about the lamb being led to the slaughter. The apostle Philip had been led by the Lord to the road where this minister was passing. From the passage about the lamb, Philip announces Jesus to him. Philip sees the figure of Jesus in this suffering servant.

Philip hurried to him and heard him reading the prophet Isaiah, and he asked, ,Do you understand what you read?, The Ethiopian replied, ,How could that be if no one explains it to me?, He invited Philip to get in and sit with him. This was the scripture he read: “Like a sheep he was led to the slaughter; like a lamb that is silent before its shearer, he opened not his mouth. He was humiliated and justice was not done to him, who will tell of his descendants? Because he no longer lives on earth.’ The eunuch asked Philip, “Can you tell me who the prophet is talking about?” About themselves or about someone else?’ Philip then began to speak to him about the gospel of Jesus, taking this scripture as his starting point. (Acts 8:30-35)


The meaning of the lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world

Three aspects can be distinguished in the meaning of John the Baptist’s statement about Jesus as the lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. These three aspects complement each other and fully express the richness of this confession of John the Baptist.

Divine action

It’s not just any lamb. It is not a lamb selected from the flock . It is the lamb of God. The Lord himself has provided it. This refers to the story of the patriarch Abraham who had to sacrifice his son on Mount Moriah. Just in time, an angel of the Lord stops him. “When Abraham looked up, he saw a ram entangled in a bush by its horns. He took the animal and sacrificed it in place of his son. Abraham called that place The LORD Will Provide” (Genesis 22:13-14). Just like with Abraham, God chose this lamb, Jesus, himself.

Transfer of debt.

The guilt of humanity is transferred to the lamb. Only the lamb can take away sin. Only Jesus can handle the weight of sin. As the lamb of God, He takes it over and carries it away, just as sin was carried away by a sheep, a goat, on the Day of Atonement (Leviticus 16: 20-22).

Universal meaning

The lamb does not bear the sin of one man or one nation, but of the whole world. The lamb takes the blame for Jews and Gentiles. The sacrificial death of the lamb, the death on the cross of Jesus, has significance for all humanity.

The lamb that overcomes in Revelation

In the Bible book of Revelation the word ‘lamb’ appears 29 times. In Greek it says ‘ Arnion ‘. A diminutive is used, so it actually says lamb. John, the author of Revelation, sees the lamb as slain, a sacrificial lamb, a Passover lamb. In the Gospel of John, the death of Jesus is recorded at the moment when the Passover lambs were slaughtered in the temple. In Revelation, Lam refers to Jesus, who conquered. All the credit goes to him.

In the middle of the throne, between the four living creatures and the elders, I saw a lamb standing. It looked as if it had been slain, and it had seven horns and seven eyes; these are the seven spirits of God sent into all the world. The lamb went to the one sitting on the throne and received the scroll from his right hand. At the same time the four living creatures and the twenty-four elders fell down before the lamb. Each of them had a lyre and a golden bowl full of incense; these are the prayers of the saints. […] With a loud voice they shouted, “To the lamb that has been slain, behold all power, riches, and wisdom, and all power, honor, praise, and thanksgiving.” (Revelation 5:6-7, 12)


The lamb is standing

There is something special in the above text. The lamb that was slain stands. It’s not lying down, but it’s standing upright. The fact that it stands refers to the resurrection. Jesus was killed on the cross, slain as a lamb. He rose at Easter. The lamb is alive and standing. John sees a Passover lamb in Jesus: it has left death behind and is standing upright. It’s alive!

Jan van Eyck: The Adoration of the Lamb / Source: Jan van Eyck, Wikimedia Commons (Public domain)

Seven horns and seven eyes What John sees
is a special lamb. It has seven horns and seven eyes. A horn is a symbol of power and strength. The seven eyes is a figure of speech that refers to the all-seeing and all-knowing of the lamb, of Jesus. This lamb possesses seven of both horns and eyes. The symbolic meaning of this number is fullness and perfection. The power of the lamb is all-encompassing. Some theologians believe that the word ‘lamb’ is not very applicable here. A lamb is associated with vulnerability and dependency. They propose not to translate ‘lamb’ here, but to use the word ‘ram’. A ram with horns represents strength. He protects the herd and leads the way.

Agnus Dei, Lamb of God

The traditional Roman Catholic Mass refers to the lamb who takes away the sin of the world. The Lamb of God, in Latin ‘Agnus Dei’ is a prayer sung by the pastor or priest when he breaks the bread of the Eucharist.

Latin: Agnus Dei, qui tollis peccata mundi miserere nobis.
English: Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world, have mercy on us.


The Agnus Dei in music

Many composers have set the mass to music. They have therefore given the Agnus Dei a place in their compositions. Well-known masses include those by Mozart, Beethoven and Bach. In the Protestant tradition, people also sing about the Lamb of God. In the Songbook for the churches (1973) there is Hymn 188, Songbook 2013 song 409, where it is sung: ‘O Lamb of God, innocent slain on the cross of shame, patient at all times, prepared to sacrifice. You have borne the blame. Now death is defeated,[]’.

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