Jesus was born among the lambs
THE birth itself was clearly a miracle. The mother was a virgin. We profess this in the Apostles’ Creed when we declare that Jesus “was conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary … ”
What is also special about the birth of Jesus is that He was born in a lowly stable because there was no room at the inn in Bethlehem which was swollen with crowds trying to register their names in the census conducted by the Roman government (Lk. 2:1-7).
But was the venue of Jesus’ birth merely the result of circumstances? I do not think so. We can strongly sense that God the Son chose where He wanted to be born on earth. Instead of choosing some plush royal venue, He chose a humble stable – a rather unusual choice, to say the least, especially for one who is a member of the Trinity!
We know from Scripture that this choice of birthplace was partly to demon-strate remarkable humility on the part of Jesus. Truly, He “made Himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant … He humbled Himself …” (Phil. 2:7-8).
But there is another reason why Jesus was born in a humble stable. Certain animals were important in the worship of Israel. Among them, the lamb stands out as of prime importance. Every Jew who lived in Jesus’ days would immediately know the significance of lambs in the worship of Israel. Every day two lambs were slaughtered, morning and afternoon, as a general offering for the sins of the people.
The Law of God in Israel stipulated the requirement to sacrifice lambs as sin offerings (Lev. 4:32), guilt offerings (Lev. 14:12), and other forms of offerings. The liturgical tradition of Israel was bathed in the blood of sacrificial lambs. But why was this so? The origins of these practices can be traced to the first Passover when God freed the Israelites from their miserable lives as slaves in Egypt (Ex. 12).
As a result of the Egyptian Pharoah’s stubborn refusal to release the Israelite slaves, God, through Moses, gave instructions regarding His rescue plans. Every family was asked to slaughter a lamb, and apply the blood of the lamb on the door-posts. God would visit Egypt in judgment that night and whenever He saw lamb’s blood on a doorpost He would pass over that house. Thus the Israelites were saved from death. As a result of what happened, the Israelites were led into freedom. The lamb thus became a symbol of redemption and freedom.
But all the sacrificial lambs of Israel were only symbols in anticipation of the One Lamb who would bring salvation to Israel and the nations. The Old Testament prophet Isaiah saw that when he wrote about the Suffering Servant who would come in the future. Seeing far into the future, Isaiah said, “He was led like a lamb to the slaughter …” (Is. 53:7).
When we come to the New Testament we note how John the Baptist, knowing the significance of Jesus, declared who He was and why He had come to earth: “Look, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!”
(Jn. 1:29). That statement sets ablaze the whole historical and liturgical tradition of Israel with the glory of God’s saving truth. It answers the longing of every heartfelt prayer and explains the motive of every divine act. Little wonder then that while still in his mother’s womb, John “leaped for joy” when his mother met the Lamb’s mother (Lk. 1:30-44).
This theme that Jesus is the Lamb of God, through whom the sins of the world are decisively dealt with, finds rich expres-sion in the New Testament. Referring to requirements in Jewish religious rituals, Peter wrote about “the precious blood of Christ, a lamb without blemish or defect” (1 Pet. 1:19). Likewise, Paul described Christ as “our Passover Lamb” (1 Cor. 5:7). That this was the way Jesus also understood Himself is seen in the way the Last Supper is narrated in the Gospels. On the day of Unleavened Bread when the Passover lamb was to be sacrificed, Jesus had a meal with His disciples and when offering broken bread and the juice of crushed grapes, He made it clear that He was the Passover Lamb who was being offered as a sacrifice for the sins of the world (Lk. 22:7-20).
That this truth of Jesus as the Lamb of God is of vital importance is demonstrated by the fact that Jesus is described repeat-edly in the book of Revelation as the Lamb. John saw a vision of the Lamb that had been slain standing in the centre of the heavenly throne (Rev. 5:6). Then the four living creatures and the 24 elders fall down in wor-ship before the Lamb (v. 8). The grand and huge angelic choir then sing, “Worthy is the Lamb, who was slain, to receive power and wealth and wisdom and strength and honour and glory and praise!” (v 11-12). Then there is the glorious scene of a great multitude from every tribe and nation standing before the Lamb (Rev. 7:9), who, as their shepherd, will wipe every tear-filled face, and quench every thirst of the soul (Rev. 7:15-17).
History will end with the Lamb on the throne, bringing salvation and ultimate peace.
And this Lamb was born that night in a humble stable of an un-named inn in an obscure town in Palestine. Besides Joseph and Mary, the only people who knew about this momentous event were some poor shepherds who were keeping watch over their flocks. Angels appeared to them to announce the birth of the Lamb.
The herds of these shepherds probably had lambs, some of which were destined to be temple sacrifices. They were not only to be food for living but also medicine for guilty souls. But centuries of sacrifices had not taken away the deeply engraved guilt in human hearts. It was time for the birth of the Lamb of God who would finally take away the guilt of the human race.
The shepherds hurried to find the Lamb. Some would have carried the little lambs on their shoulders (as the painting of the scene by Renaissance painter Raphael shows). Then they found the Lamb and praised God. The little lambs bleated, not knowing that the Lamb had come, so that their kind need not be sacrificed anymore.
The little Lamb in the man-ger was to become the decisive turning point in human history. The angels in heaven must have held their breaths watching the birth of the Lamb. The history of slain lambs was coming to an unexpected climax. The story of this Lamb was going to define and redeem history and all the tragic stories of human beings. Hope had finally arrived in a dark world. It was time for joyful songs and to start dreaming of a glorious new day.