The Last Lamb

manningIn the gospel of John, Jesus is portrayed as the Lamb of God, a sacrifice offered up by God to deliver his people from slavery to sin. According to Hebrews, this was the last sacrifice needed, for this Lamb’s death purified and sanctified once and for all.

“But when Christ had offered for all time a single sacrifice for sins, ‘he sat down at the right hand of God,’ and since then has been waiting ‘until his enemies would be made a footstool for his feet.’ For by a single offering he has perfected for all time those who are sanctified.” (Heb. 10:12-14 NRS)

Christ thus put an end to the sacrificial system, and while that is great, one might point out that the Romans accomplished the same thing when they destroyed the Jerusalem temple in A.D. 70. Prayer replaced sacrifice as the central aspect of Jewish worship after that.

I think something more significant is going on than just the replacement of a religious ritual, however important that ritual might have been. To understand, we have to go back to the beginning.

In Genesis 1 every living creature is a vegetarian:

“God said, ‘See, I have given you every plant yielding seed that is upon the face of all the earth, and every tree with seed in its fruit; you shall have them for food. And to every beast of the earth, and to every bird of the air, and to everything that creeps on the earth, everything that has the breath of life, I have given every green plant for food.’ And it was so.” (Gen 1:29-30 NRS)

One must resist the temptation to be literal; this isn’t a statement on nutrition, it’s a theological statement. In the beginning, nothing had to die in order for something else to live. The world God created was a world without violence, and that is reason enough for it to be declared “very good.”

Unfortunately this didn’t last. Starting with one murder (Gen. 4:8), in due time the entire earth was filled with violence (Gen. 6:11). Even after God tried a do-over, he found that nothing had changed.

Violence thus continued; even the vegetarian experiment ended.  “Every moving thing that lives shall be food for you; and just as I gave you the green plants, I give you everything.” (Gen 9:3 NRS)

Fast-forward now to the Abraham saga. God has designed a plan to rescue creation from the violence that the humans were addicted to. He will raise up a people and teach them to treat each other with righteousness and justice, and they will teach the nations God’s ways as well.

But it’s going to be a slow, incremental process. The inclination of human heart is evil from youth (Gen. 8:21) and violence continues to fill the earth.

Even worship is violent. Sacrificing to the gods often involved killing something: a bull, a lamb—or a child. Human sacrifice appears to have been practiced by many of the peoples inhabiting the land of Canaan, and the first-born son was seen as the most valuable of possessions and thus the most valuable gift to a god.

For this reason Abraham doesn’t seem particularly surprised when God commands him to sacrifice his only son Isaac. At the crucial moment, however, God commands Abraham to spare his son and provides a ram for him to sacrifice instead.

This pivotal story in Israel’s history is God’s declaration that human sacrifice has no place in Israel’s worship. There is still violence in worship, but it is lessened, limited to the killing of animals.

Israel doesn’t always follow this declaration, however; this is among the many reasons why their idolatry is so abhorrent to God and ultimately leads to the destruction of the nation by the Assyrians and the Babylonians.

Still, this is God’s intent. He wants to rid worship—and, ultimately, the world—of violence, and this is a big step toward that ultimate goal.

The climax of this trajectory toward a world without violence is Jesus. He comes in peace, declaring that we should put our swords away and love our enemies. Addicted as we are to violence, however, and threatened by one who declares that the way to end violence is not with greater violence but with love, grace, and mercy, we did what we do best: we killed him.

We did it. Not God; we did it.

Then God raised him up from death, vindicating Jesus’ way of confronting hate with love, judgmentalism with grace, revenge with mercy.

And thus putting an end to violence in worship. Jesus was the last lamb that needed to be slain. His was the ultimate and final sacrifice. Nothing now needs to die in order for humans to worship God. Nothing now needs to die in order that something else may live.

Just as it was in the beginning.

Now when we worship, we remember Christ’s sacrifice with the cup and the bread. Now when we worship, we present our bodies as living sacrifices (Rom. 12:1). There is no more bloodshed in worship.

And now that violence has been eliminated in our worship, Jesus’ followers are called to eliminate it from the rest of the world. We are called to work toward that day when no one will learn war anymore (Isaiah 2:4)—not just to wait for the day or to long for it, but to work toward it.

For God has never given up on his original declaration that a world without violence was very good, and he is determined to bring it about again. The prophet Isaiah echoed this intent when he declared that the day would come when carnivores would again be vegetarians.

“The wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid, the calf and the lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them. The cow and the bear shall graze, their young shall lie down together; and the lion shall eat straw like the ox.” (Isa 11:6-7 NRS)

God’s plan is better than the way humanity has been doing it for millennia. Jesus warned his contemporaries what violence toward Rome would lead to. They didn’t listen, and they died by the sword—along with many innocent people. Ironically, the result was similar—the temple was destroyed, thus ending animal sacrifice in their worship.

Jesus taught a different way. It’s a better way, but not an easy way, not in a world still addicted to violence. Jesus didn’t tell Peter to put his sword away when the threat was the least but when it was the greatest. His kingdom doesn’t come with a sword but with a cross.

And not just one cross, but many, for Jesus said that anyone who would come after him would bear a cross, not a sword. When the peace envisioned by Isaiah finally comes, it will be because people are willing to go up against swords with crosses.

Image by The Quote Factory

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