In the Hebrew Bible, animals mean something.
Adam names the animals brought to him by God, demonstrating his God-given authority to order the unordered creation, all for creation’s good (Gen 2:19-20).
By pairs, Noah boards animals onto the ark, rescuing those who will join him in filling a cleansed creation (Gen 7:2-3).
In the new world, infants play near cobras, and wolves and lambs lie down together (Isa 11:6-9).
But things are not always this way in the grisly story the Bible tells.
Shortly after the first sin, the beasts of the earth and the birds of the air begin bearing sin’s curse. Animal skins clothe our first parents as blood covers shame (Gen 3:21). Land creatures are crushed and drowned and the birds of heaven are sucked from the skies, all in a cleansing flood of justice (Gen 7:21-23). Lambs give their blood to be smeared on the doorposts of slave huts as trusting Israelites are spared Egypt’s night of horror (Exod 12:1-13). Then arrives the animals’ longest-lasting burden as God institutes and systematizes their curse-bearing role. Long lines of creatures now run not to an ark of deliverance but into a Levitical slaughterhouse.
It is no surprise, then, that the Christian faith from Old Testament to New has come to identify the lamb as a meek, helpless creature constantly being led to its blood-letting death. Generation after bloody generation, the tabernacle and then the temple stood as the place where a pure God lived among his unclean people — at a high cost.
For Israelites, and for Christians, no animal says “temple” or “cost” better than “lamb.”
Lambs we know well, and so we should, for Jesus came as a new Passover Lamb (1 Cor 5:7) to “save his people from their sins” (Matt 1:21). Rightly did John prophesy: “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1:29).
But the meekness of the lamb and the humility of the manger and the sentimentality of the Christmas season should not join forces to put us in a syrupy spiritual mood. This incarnation leads not just to a crucifixion but a coronation. This manger is even now being refashioned into the new creation’s highest throne.
Because this Christ is not only a lamb.
He came to save his people from their sins, yes, but salvation is more than atonement from sin. Salvation comes through the old rugged cross, now and always, yet our future deliverance will come from the heights of heaven as the resurrected Christ himself rises from his throne and descends to vanquish his enemies and vindicate his people.
The crown of thorns is now a crown of glory; the one held by a cross now holds a scepter; the baby swaddled in rags is now the king swaddled in heavenly praise. Christ saved by his humble death, to be sure, but he is also coming to save through his unconquerable rule.
To say it another way: No one sacrifices a lion. Thus, when the Christ of Judah appears, we hear not only the bleating of sheep herded off for atoning slaughter, but the kind of roar that sends the savannah’s principalities and powers scurrying for cover. Sin has made our world a jungle, but this jungle has a king.
As Christmas approaches and Christians everywhere greet the memory of the infant Christ, we must not forget the majesty of his full-grown coming. We must remember that the Bethlehem manger held not just a baby lamb but a baby lion (Gen 49:9-10; Num 23:24; 24:9). And that lion is now full-grown (Rev 5:5).
We remember him, as we must always remember him, beaten and bloody on the cross, for us and for our salvation. But we must also see him, with the eyes of faith, shaking the cosmos with his messianic roar.
These are not mere poetics. The one whose birth we celebrate is truly Leviticus’ greater lamb. And the one whose praises we sing is truly Judah’s promised lion.
It is not without cause that Herod sought to do away with the one born “King of the Jews” (Matt 2:2). It is not without reason that magi saw his star in the east and came to worship him (Matt 2:1-12). It is not without prophecy that this Judahite boy was born “in the city of David” (Luke 2:11). And it is not without truth that Mary his mother sang of Israel’s God, “He has shown strength with his arm” (Luke 1:51).
Lean over the Bethlehem manger and you will see two faces in one — the lamb of God, and the lion of Judah.
Sinners, rejoice, for your Lamb is born. Creation, rejoice, for your Lion roars.