One of the first things that happens at a violent crime scene, after evidence has been collected, is the removal of any and all signs that violence has taken place. Broken glass is swept up, blood is wiped away, bodies are covered up and removed. Everyone wants to do everything possible to keep the memory of the event from lingering in their minds.
In the Book of Revelation, John comes face to face with a scroll, sealed with seven seals, that no one is worthy to open. Weeping that no one could open the scroll, and that the very heart of the revelation would be kept from him, John is told that there is one who can open it—the Lion of the tribe of Judah. When John looks for the Lion, he instead sees a Lamb in the center of the throne. The Lamb is alive but bears all the marks of having been slain, suggesting that its death is somehow part of its power (Revelation 5).
Why is a previously slain lamb at the center of John’s heavenly vision? Why is a unique word used for lamb found 29 times in Revelation, but only once in the rest of the New Testament? (John 21:15). How can a lion of power be found in a lamb?
To understand all of this involves understanding the Passover. During the time when the Jewish people were enslaved by the Egyptians, God sent the deliverer Moses and unleashed 10 plagues before the stubborn hearts of the Egyptians would allow the release of the Jewish slaves. The tenth and decisive plague was the death of the firstborn of Egypt.
The sacrifice of an animal was a common way for people of that culture to make amends for their sins. It sounds strange to us today, but there was a very important idea behind it. They saw sin as something serious, deadly and gruesome, something that could cost them their life before a holy God. So it was only through some type of atoning, sacrificial death—something equally serious, deadly and gruesome—that the sin could be addressed.
God told the Israelites that if they would sacrifice an unblemished lamb—one without defect, perfect in every way—and then take the blood from the lamb and spread it on their doorposts, the angel of death that was being sent to deliver the tenth and final plague would pass over them, hence the term Passover. The Israelites did as God said. The angel of death came, the firstborn of Egypt were killed, and the Israelites who had covered their homes with the blood of the lamb were saved. It had such an impact on the leaders of Egypt that they released the Israelites from slavery.
Jews have been celebrating the festival of Passover ever since as a reminder of God’s deliverance from death, and the freedom that came from that deliverance, through the blood of a lamb. The festival came to be marked each year with the slaughter of a lamb that would then be eaten, along with unleavened bread, in remembrance of the quick departure from captivity in Egypt that did not afford them time to add yeast. But even more important, the taste would remind them of the bitterness of the slavery that the blood had released them from.
Just before His death, Jesus gathered His disciples together to celebrate the Passover, but with a twist: “[Jesus] took bread, gave thanks and broke it, and gave it to them, saying, ‘This is my body given for you; do this in remembrance of me.’ In the same way, after the supper he took the cup, saying, ‘This cup is the new covenant in my blood, which is poured out for you'” (Luke 22:19-20).
Jesus gave the bread and wine new meaning. It would now represent Him as the unblemished Lamb that was sacrificed. Those marked by His blood would be freed from the slavery of their sin and would be passed over from the spiritual death that comes from sin. Through Jesus, God was calling His people out of a deeper slavery than ever existed under the Egyptians—the very slavery of sin—into a new community in relationship with the living God.
This was one death that was not to be airbrushed from the world’s consciousness. Instead, it was to stand at the center of human history, for we worship, as theologian Jurgen Moltmann once wrote, a crucified God.
Any other God is false.
Even when facing a doubting Thomas, Jesus relied on one mark of authenticity: See my hands, see my feet, look at my side. I am the One that was crucified.
And that led Thomas to exclaim, “My Lord and my God!” (John 20:28).
It reminds me of the controversy surrounding the violence portrayed in Mel Gibson’s film on the passion of Jesus. There was a great deal of conversation about the brutality, the torture, the blood in the movie. “It’s so violent,” people said.
I wanted to say, “Yes, because it was.”
The film was rated R, and it deserved that rating—but I would argue that the R stood for Realistic. I would have been more offended if the film had tried to water it down, sanitize it or make what Jesus went through something less than it really was.
Scars matter. When you pray to a Lamb that was slain, a crucified God, you pray to One who is able to understand your scars.
I once read of a little boy who went shopping for a puppy. He went into the pet store and asked how much the dogs were. The owner said that they sold for anywhere from $30 to $50. The little boy pulled out $2.37, all that he had.
“Here is all of my money. I don’t know how much it is, but it’s worth it.”
The store owner knew it wasn’t enough, but he let the little boy look at the puppies anyway. He looked at all of them, but at one in particular: the runt of the litter, which had a limp. The boy asked the owner what was wrong with that dog, and the owner said that he was born without a hip socket.
“That’s the puppy I want!”
“Son,” the owner said, “I can’t sell you that dog. He’s not worth it. I’ll just give him to you for free.”
Tears filled the little boy’s eyes.
“Mister,” he said, “that dog is worth as much as any other animal in this store. You take my money.”
The owner did, and only as the boy walked out did he notice that the boy had an artificial leg.
Let us now and always worship the Lamb that was slain, the crucified God. But remember that you get to pray to Him, too. And when you do, you can trust that He understands whatever is making you limp. ©2012 James Emery White
Scripture quotations are taken from The Holy Bible, New International Version.
James Emery White is the founding and senior pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church, in Charlotte, N.C., and is the ranked adjunct professor of theology and culture at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, where he also served as its fourth president. Subscribe to his free Church and Culture blog at churchandculture.org; follow him on Twitter@JamesEmeryWhite.