In certain passages of scripture, Jesus is declared to be the "lamb of God" (John 1:29, 36, 1 Pet. 1:19, Rev. 5:6). What is the symbolic meaning of this? Some may guess it represents His humility and innocence, and they are very close to the truth, for each of the animals in scripture represents a different aspect of our humanity. In general, in scripture animals are symbolic of affections of the will, while plants are representative of thoughts of the mind. Under Moses animal sacrifices were instituted for the Jews, and each specific animal represented a different affection of the will. To separate the blood from the animal, and to burn the flesh, in general is representative of separating oneself from one's lower natural desires, in order to preserve what is spiritual and holy represented by the blood. This symbolism of animal sacrifices was explained in detail in revelations of the New Church. This was kept hidden from the Jews, who only followed the rituals given them without understanding them. Christians know that animal sacrifices were representative of the sacrifice of Jesus, but most (not the Orthodox) have interpreted the Jewish rituals to support their doctrine of vicarious atonement (see What is Blood Atonement or Vicarious Atonement?). So lets take a look at animal sacrifices, and why Jesus is called the lamb of God in the New Testament.
THE SYMBOLISM OF JEWISH ANIMAL SACRIFICES
The Jewish religion, at least before the destruction of the temple by the Romans, was a representative worship where everything holy is in the rituals. Animal sacrifices were given for three reasons:
1. To adapt a religion to the understanding of the Jews, who could only have an external form of worship in visible rituals. These rituals are symbolic. It was also given to prevent human sacrifices.The first reason is the most obvious and is the one known about by most Jews. I remember talking to an animal rights activist, and she could not understand how the Old Testament could be the word of God since it condoned the sacrifice of animals. However what most people do not understand is that religions come in phases, and are always adapted to the understanding of the people at the time. If animal sacrifices were not given, they would have resorted to human sacrifices. Yet they are not just haphazard laws: the rituals of animal sacrifices are highly symbolic, and made the Jews become a representation of the spiritual church that came after it.
2. Animal sacrifices were given to symbolically represent the purification of evils from man.
3. In the highest sense. they represent the glorification of the Lord's human, who united it to His Divinity and made it Divine.
The other reasons for animal sacrifices are hidden. The regeneration of man (#2) and the union of the Divine with the Human in the Lord (#3) are actually closely related:
"That sacrifices and burnt offerings in the supreme sense signify the glorification of the Lord's Human, is because all the rituals of worship instituted with the Israelitish and Jewish nation regarded the Lord alone, and sacrifices and burnt offerings thus especially regarded Him, since by them in general was represented the all of worship, as has been shown above. Also the regeneration of man is from no other source than from the Lord (n. 9486, 9487, 9506, 9715, 9809, 10019); therefore where in the Word the regeneration of man is treated of, in the supreme sense the glorification of the Lord's Human is treated of; for the regeneration of man is an image of the glorification of the Lord (n. 3138, 3212, 3296, 3490, 4402, 5688). To glorify the Human is to make it Divine, but to regenerate man is to make him heavenly, that the Divine of the Lord may dwell in him." (Heavenly Arcana, n. 10042.6)This is the difference between the New Church and the older Christian churches. The older Christian churches have only a superficial understanding of the symbolism of animal sacrifices, and can't explain all the details of the Jewish rituals, nor the different animals. Moreover, some of them will make use of animal sacrifices to support the doctrine of vicarious atonement. In the revelations of the New Church, the symbolism of the animal sacrifices are shown to represent the purification from evils by repentance. This is effected in each person by the Lord alone, who had made His human Divine. For God is Very Man, and we are but his images, and His spirit pervades through all of humanity through the angels. Only God can do what is good and resist evil, and we conjoin ourselves to Him by following the commandments.
THE SPECIFIC SYMBOLISM OF EACH ANIMAL
None of the Jewish laws are haphazard or insignificant. Thus all the rituals, even the ones describes in the book of Leviticus, are symbolic of eternal and universal realities. But to understand what each animal signifies in the human personality, one has to recognize that there are different spiritual and psychological levels to the human personality. In each human, there are three levels, which are known as the celestial, spiritual and natural:
"There are three things with man which follow in successive order. These three are called the celestial, the spiritual, and the natural. The celestial is the good of love to the Lord, the spiritual is the good of charity toward the neighbor, and the natural thence is the good of faith, which, being from the spiritual, is called the spiritual natural. For with man it is as in the heavens: in the inmost heaven, which is also called the third, is the celestial, in the second or middle heaven is the spiritual, and in the first or outmost heaven is the natural therefrom, or the spiritual natural." (Heavenly Arcana, n. 9992)Science tends to only regard the lowest aspect of humanity, the external natural (the physical body), but there are certain psychological theories that postulate the higher levels but these are harder to discern without revelation. The middle or second level is often called the rational, above that is something commonly called conscience. It is the higher levels of the human personality which survives after death, and since modern science is not aware of these higher levels, they tend to discount life after death. Different animals correspond to each of these levels of the human personality:
"...by the sacrifices and burnt offerings of the bullock, the ox, and the he-goat were represented the purification and regeneration of the external or natural man; by those of the ram, the she-goat, and the he-kid were represented the purification of the internal or spiritual man; and by those of the he-lamb, the she-lamb, and the she-kid were represented the purification or regeneration of the inmost or celestial man." (Heavenly Arcana, n. 10042.8)These three levels correspond to three levels of spiritual development, as explained in The Three Steps of Spiritual Development as well as The Golden Rule of Love of the New Church. One first starts to live by the truth, in a sort of state of obedience or servitude; the second level is one of service to others; and the third level is acting out of love. This process proceeds from external visible things to more spiritual internal things.
To cover the spiritual symbolism of each animal is beyond the scope of this article, one would have to examine each passage of the Bible in detail which mentions each sacrifice and delve in depth into Swedenborg's work Heavenly Arcana (aka Arcana Coelestia). However I will mention one passage in particular as an example:
"When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on his glorious throne. Before him will be gathered all the nations, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. And he will place the sheep on his right, but the goats on the left." (Matt. 25:31-32)
This describes the last judgment of the Second Coming, which is an event that takes place in the spiritual world - not the physical. It is a general judgment upon the souls in an area of the spiritual world between heaven and hell, who have not been judged yet. The righteous are represented by sheep, and the wicked by goats. This is not a random "figure of speech" as literalists will commonly say. The sheep are those who are in charity and thence in faith. Thus shepherd and sheep is a common image throughout scripture. The goats are similar to the he-goats mentioned above, and represent those who are in appearances of truth with no charity. These are religious people who are in the literal sense of scripture, but who do not apply what they know to their own lives and dwell upon lip service.
THE SYMBOLISM OF THE LAMB OF GOD
The highest state a human can achieve is a celestial state of love, in the good of innocence, and as Jesus achieved this state, he is called the "lamb of God":
The next day he saw Jesus coming toward him, and said, “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!" (John 1:29)
Now, most in the old Christian churches will look at this verse and believe since Jesus "took" their sins away from them on the cross 2000 years ago, everything is done and they are saved. However sins are not automatically transferred to Jesus on the cross, as proponents of vicarious atonement state. The way Jesus took away the sin of the world is that although his soul was Divine, the human he inherited from his human mother Mary had evil tendencies by which he could be tempted. Through his human body, he was tempted and spiritually attacked by all of hell (see The Last Temptations of Jesus: the accounts of Swedenborg and Emmerich for a vivid description of this). However, he successively conquered these temptations and removed them - this is how he took away the sin of the world. He first did this in a natural state, then in a higher spiritual state, and finally in the highest state of the good of innocence. The highest and final state is symbolized by a lamb - that is why John the Baptist mentions the lamb of God in conjunction with taking away the sins of the world. Those who believe in vicarious atonement have no understanding of how Jesus saved humanity. Thus the lamb of God, in the highest spiritual sense, represents how Jesus made his very human Divine, a Divine Human. This is the reason for the ritual of communion, centered on his body, which few understand. By uniting his human with the Divine, good and truth now flow from the body of Jesus, which is represented by the bread and wine. Instead of wine one could also say blood, and this is what being saved by the blood of Jesus means - from the Divine truth that flows from him.
THE CORRUPTION OF CHRISTIANITY
The lamb of God thus represents the Divine Human, which is how Jesus saved humanity. But in modern Christianity, over time this has been completely lost and forgotten, except perhaps among a few in the Orthodox church. That this doctrine would be forgotten, was foreseen in the book of Revelation:
And between the throne and the four living creatures and among the elders I saw a Lamb standing, as though it had been slain, with seven horns and with seven eyes, which are the seven spirits of God sent out into all the earth. (Rev. 5:6)
Most recognize that the lamb having been slain represents Jesus, and most presume this refers to the crucifixion of Jesus by the Jews. However what is hidden from Christians here is that this is stating that the doctrine that the human of Jesus is Divine, which is how He saved humanity, is lost and rejected in the modern Christian churches. To reject something is to kill or slay in the spiritual world. Thus rarely do they mention how Jesus made his human Divine, instead preferring the teaching of vicarious atonement, and even the Orthodox refer to it as a mystery and do not explain it well. Swedenborg explains this in the passage below:
"A Lamb standing as if slain, signifies the Lord as to His Human not acknowledged as Divine in the church. By the Lamb in the Apocalypse is meant the Lord as to His Divine Human; and by the Lamb slain, that His Human is not acknowledged as Divine in the church; the same as in chapter i. vers. 18, where it is said, I was dead, and behold, I am alive for ever and ever, by which is meant that the Lord has been neglected in the church, and His Human not acknowledged as Divine" (Apocalypse Revealed, n. 269)
For the lamb to be slain is for the Lord's Divine Human to not be acknowledged, or even denied as to its Divine nature:
"As if slain, signifies as yet acknowledged by few. This is evident from the signification of "slain," as being, in reference to the Lord, that He has not been acknowledged; here that few have acknowledged His Human to be Divine, for it is said "a Lamb standing as if slain," a "lamb" signifying the Lord in respect to the Divine Human... The meaning here is similar to what was said of the Lord (chap. i. 18), "and I became dead," which signifies that He was rejected... In the spiritual or internal sense, "slain" does not mean slain in respect to the body, but in respect to the soul; and man is slain in respect to the soul when he is no longer in any good of faith, for he then has no spiritual life, but death instead, which is called spiritual death. But this is not what the term "slain" signifies when applied to the Lord, since the Lord is life itself, and gives spiritual life to every one; but it signifies either that He is rejected or that He is not acknowledged; for with those who do not acknowledge, and still more with those who deny, He is as nothing. The Lord Himself, to be sure, and also His Divine, is acknowledged in the church, but in respect to the Human as a mere man and not as God; thus it is that His Divine Human is not acknowledged; this, therefore, is what is meant by "a Lamb standing as if slain." (Apocalypse Explained, n. 315)
The book of Revelation predicts that a false Christianity would arise, signified by the false prophet. Those who follow the false prophet would not acknowledge the Divine Human:
And all that dwell upon the earth shall worship him, whose names are not written in the book of life of the Lamb slain from the foundation of the world. (Rev. 13:8)
The phrase "slain from the foundation of the world" is interesting, and some may suppose this means the sacrifice of the Lord foreseen from eternity. However this is not the meaning: the "foundation of the world" is the foundation of the Christian Church:
"Slain from the foundation of the world, signifies the Lord's Divine Human not acknowledged from the first establishment of the church. ...From the foundation of the world signifies the first establishment of the church, as well the Jewish as the Christian. It is known that the Jews did not acknowledge the Lord's Divine Human. That the Roman Catholics do not, is also known: and that neither do the Reformed, see above (n. 294). The creation of the world is not meant here by the foundation of the world, but the establishment of the church" (Apocalypse Revealed, n. 589)
In brief, the corruption of the church began with early heresies until the Nicene Creed, which invented a Son of God "born from eternity." Next came the Chalcedonian Council, which divided Jesus into two natures, a Divine and a mere human, for the sake of the Papacy to claim to be the Vicar of Christ, and finally by the anonymous Athanasian Creed which specifically mentions three persons. Anyone who examines early Christian history can readily get confused, and one would fail to understand the meaning of these early Christological debates.
The importance here is to acknowledge the union of the human with the Divine, for that is how Jesus saved humanity, for from that He continues to operate in each person as they resist sin and temptation. This is how Jesus saved humanity, and every Christian who understands this will experience a change from a blind faith to a more rational and thus spiritual faith. This is the promise of the revelations of the New Church.