The sacrificial lamb is the most important and prominent symbol in the Bible, from the first book to the last and all through the Old and the New Testament. Jesus is “the Lamb slain from the foundation of the world” (Revelation 13:8). This important verse shows that God did not have different plans, different “dispensations” for saving mankind from the condemnation of sin—the plan has always been the same. God created the world with perfect creatures (humans) that had free will, but this very freedom made sin a possibility. Because of the potential for sin, God made provision before He created the world. Before sin ever appeared, Jesus “laid down His life for us” (1 John 3:16).

When Adam and Eve sinned, God took the initiative; He searched for them, calling to Adam, “Where are you?” (Genesis 3:8,9). He confronted them with their sin and announced they would have to die. But all was not hopeless—God promised a redeemer who would defeat their enemy the serpent (Satan), the initiator of sin (Genesis 3:15). Then God provided the first symbol of the sacrifice Jesus would make thousands of years later for their sins—“For Adam and his wife the Lord God made tunics of skin and clothed them” (Genesis 3:21). The skins represented His perfect righteousness which He credits to us as a gift—“He has covered me with the robe of righteousness” (Isaiah 61:10). Obviously an animal had to die in order to provide the skins, and this was the first symbolic sacrifice for sin.

“Abel [Adam and Eve's son] brought the firstborn of his flock” (Genesis 4:4) and God accepted this sacrifice, which represented Christ. But He did not accept Cain's offering of garden produce, a symbol of his own efforts. The details are not given in Genesis, but it is obvious that God taught Cain and Abel the plan of salvation, because “by faith Abel offered to God a more excellent sacrifice” and “faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the word of God” (Hebrews 11:4, Romans 10:17). Apparently the knowledge of the symbolic sacrifice was retained by the “sons of God” down to the time of Noah, because the first thing Noah did after disembarking from the ark after the world-wide flood was to offer sacrifices to the Lord. (Genesis 8:20,21).

God chose Abraham to be the father of the faithful, and everywhere he went he built an altar to offer sacrifices to God. (Genesis 12:7,8, 13:18). His ultimate act of faith was to offer his own son Isaac (Genesis 22), a picture of what God would do nearly 2000 years later—“God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son” (John 3:16). God provided a ram as a substitute for Isaac, symbolic of how God would offer himself in the person of Jesus, the Lamb of God, as our substitute, dying the death that we deserve.

The descendents of Abraham went down to Egypt and ended up slaves. Pharaoh was determined to keep them in bondage forever, despite the devastating plagues which fell upon the Egyptians; He was only willing to let them go when the firstborn were killed by the destroying angel. The firstborn of Israel were also included in the sentence of death, but through the sacrifice of a lamb as their substitute they were saved.[1] Through the blood of the lamb that was slain their lives were spared and they were freed from slavery, just as we are by “the precious blood of Christ, as of a lamb without blemish and without spot” (1 Peter 1:19).

After freeing them from slavery, God gave the children of Israel the law at Mt. Sinai, and they promised to keep it: “All that the Lord has spoken we will do” (Exodus 19:8). But the law could not save—“If there had been a law given which could have given life”, there would not have ever needed to be another sacrifice (Galatians 3:21). God knew their sinful nature—“there is not a just man on earth who does good and does not sin” (Ecclesiastics 7:20)—and so as soon as he gave the law, he also gave them instructions to build a sanctuary where they offered sacrifices (Exodus 20:22-26).

Almost all heathen nations also offered sacrifices, but there was an essential difference: The sacrifices of the nations were designed to appease their offended gods, but the sacrifices of Israel were a symbol of the self-sacrifice God would make for His offended and separated children. The lambs and other animals that were sacrificed were "shadows" of the one perfect sacrifice that was still in the future. “The law [of sacrifices] is a shadow of the good things to come," “but the substance is of Christ” (Hebrews 10:1, Colossians 2:16,17). For the next 1500 years millions of lambs and other animals were offered in the sanctuary,[2] each one a shadow of Jesus on the Cross. The average Israelite did not recognize the significance, thinking that the shadow was the reality, and so they misunderstood the message of John the Baptist who announced “Behold! The Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1:29).

God's chosen people sacrificed the Son of God, as any other nation would have done if they had been in their place.[3] As Jesus poured out His life He prayed, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they do” (Luke 23:34). “And Jesus cried out with a loud voice, and breathed His last. Then the veil of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom” (Mark 15:37,38). With the tearing of the veil the mystery of the earthly sanctary was over; no longer would the sacrifice of animals have meaning, because the reality that they had pointed to had come. “The Lamb slain from the foundation of the world” was no longer a shadow, but a historical fact. Christ’s sacrifice as the Lamb of God is the heart of the Gospel, the object of our faith and our only hope. “I declare to you the gospel…by which you are saved… that Christ died for our sins” (1 Corinthians 15:1-3). “Christ also has loved us and given Himself for us, an offering and a sacrifice to God” (Ephesians 5:2). “He has appeared to put away sin by the sacrifice of Himself” (Hebrews 9:26).

Continue to next section: WHO IS THE LAMB?

[1] “Every man shall take for himself a lamb…then the whole assembly of the congregation of Israel shall kill it at twilight. And they shall take some of the blood and put it on the two doorposts…for I will pass through the land of Egypt on that night, and will strike all the firstborn in the land of Egypt…Now the blood shall be a sign for you on the houses where you are. And when I see the blood, I will pass over you; and the plague shall not be on you to destroy you” (Exodus 12:4-13).

[2] The regular morning and evening sacrifices by themselves for the approximately 1400 years that the sanctuary was operating would amount to more than one million sacrifices. In addition there were the personal and special sacrifices that were offered, as well as special occasions such as the inauguration of the temple when Soloman offered 22,000 bulls and 120,000 sheep (see 1 Kings 8:63).

[3] See John 11: 47-53, the story of the Jewish leader’s decision “that one man should die for the people.” The Jews, as God's chosen people, had the privilege of "hosting" Jesus during His 33 years on this earth, but their response in murdering Him was the same as what any other race or people would have done. Those who believe that they as a people or even as individuals would not have done the same simply do not understand the evil animosity against God that lurks in the unconverted human heart and the susceptibility of the weak human will to the sophistry of Satan.