Lion or Lamb?

What it means to follow, and lead like Jesus

By Jim Van Yperen

Sometimes, to get conversation going at a party or seminar, I will ask a question.  “If you were to choose an animal that best represents who you are, what animal would you choose?”  The answers are often humorous and revealing.  What animal would you choose?  A follow-up question might be, “What animal would you like to be?”  If people were completely honest, and rarely are people completely honest in exercises like this, I think most people would choose an animal of some prestige or power, like a lion.  I’ve never heard anyone say, ”I’d like to be a lamb.”

These thoughts came to mind while reading these words from the first chapter of John’s Gospel. 

The next day John saw Jesus coming toward him and said, “Look, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world! This is the one I meant when I said, ‘A man who comes after me has surpassed me because he was before me.’ I myself did not know him, but the reason I came baptizing with water was that he might be revealed to Israel.” Then John gave this testimony: “I saw the Spirit come down from heaven as a dove and remain on him. I would not have known him, except that the one who sent me to baptize with water told me, ‘The man on whom you see the Spirit come down and remain is he who will baptize with the Holy Spirit.’ I have seen and I testify that this is the Son of God.” The next day John was there again with two of his disciples. When he saw Jesus passing by, he said, “Look, the Lamb of God!” When the two disciples heard him say this, they followed Jesus.1

The first phrase John the Baptist chooses to describe Jesus was, “Lamb of God.”  A day later, when the Baptist pointed out Jesus as he walked by, calling him, again, the “Lamb of God,” two of the Baptist’s followers immediately left to follow Jesus.  The verb “followed” in the text suggests ongoing action.  That is, the two disciples were not being tentative, shadowing Jesus to see what he was like in order to decide whether or not to follow him.   Rather, they immediately and completely gave themselves to him as his disciples.  Andrew and John chose to follow the way of a lamb.  I wonder if Andrew and John saw it that way . . . or if we do today?  The rest of John’s Gospel, and the three other gospels reveals, as many of us do today, that Jesus’ disciples often want to follow a lion, not a lamb. 

The Baptist had spoken of Jesus before.  He described a man who would be greater than the Baptist himself.  This status, no doubt, is what stood out.  The Baptist knew for sure that Jesus was Messiah after he saw the Holy Spirit descend.  But he calls Jesus, “Lamb of God”, not “Messiah,” or the “Son of God,” perhaps to emphasize Jesus’ mission, to take“away the sin of the world.” 

 It is easy for us, living on this side of the cross, to think we know perfectly well what John meant.  But the reference would not have been immediately clear to the disciples.  How is the Messiah a Lamb?  In fact, even today, biblical scholars cannot pinpoint exactly what the Baptist was referring to, or how his words would have been understood by Andrew and John when they first heard them.  There are many explanations.   Perhaps John had in mind the ram that God provided to Abraham in place of sacrifice for Isaac, but that was a ram not a lamb.  Or, perhaps he was referring to the Passover Lamb that the Israelites offered the night of the exodus, but those animals were not all lambs either.  Another explanation may be that John was recalling the words of Isaiah 53, the lamb “led to the slaughter.”  All of these images apply, but none fit perfectly.  The only conclusion we can make for sure is that a lamb was symbolic of innocence and sacrifice.

 Years ago, I raised Dorset and Shropshire sheep on our small farm in New Hampshire.  Each March, during lambing season, I had to be particularly attentive to my ewes, watching for signs of immanent birth.  While hearty, the sheep often needed help delivering their lambs.  The first hour of life is critical for the mother to lick the lamb clean and to suckle the lamb.  A newborn lamb is especially vulnerable and susceptible to harm.  A lamb is dependent upon the flock for nutrition and protection from disease.  Further, there is no violence in a lamb.  A lamb has no offensive physical attributes: no horns to butt, (these will grow later); no teeth to bite; or hoofs sufficient to wound.  In the face of danger, a lamb’s only defensive response is to run, (and be caught by most predators). 

 In biblical times, lambs2 were sacrificed just about the time they were able to feed and protect themselves, before one year of life.  Indeed, the primary purpose of sheep was to provide food or sacrifice.  Sheep were born to die.

He was oppressed and He was afflicted, Yet He did not open His mouth Like a lamb that is led to slaughter, And like a sheep that is silent before its shearers, So He did not open His mouth.3   

Thus, to be lamb-like was to be submissive, vulnerable and weak.  No wonder we want to think and act like a lion, not a lamb!  Who wants to be docile, the sacrifice of those wielding power and influence?  The traits of a lamb are nearly opposite that of a lion—a strong, independent and self-sufficient creature.  Yet, it is power an influence that is so earnestly sought, and so frequently rewarded in our world.  What are you aspiring to, a lion or a lamb?  Or, to make the point more directly, ask yourself, “What does my character reveal about whom I am following?”  When I lead, do I exhibit the submission, humility and meekness of a sacrificial lamb?  Or, do my thoughts and actions reveal that I am following some one or thing other than the character of Jesus Christ?

 “Ah,” but you protest, “Scripture also refers to Jesus as a Lion!  Certainly, there are times to be strong, to act boldly and take matters into our own hands!”

I reply, “Perhaps, but how and when?”

 The Apostle John, in his vision of Revelation gives perspective.  The scene begins with, of all things, John weeping.  The consummation of history has come. The fulfillment of God’s final reconciliation is ready.  All Creation waits.  But the book is sealed.  The End cannot be fulfilled without a mediator—One who is worthy to break the seal.  The call goes out, but none in heaven, or earth, or under the earth are able to open the seals . . .

I saw in the right hand of Him who sat on the throne a book written inside and on the back, sealed up with seven seals. And I saw a strong angel proclaiming with a loud voice, “Who is worthy to open the book and to break its seals?” And no one in heaven or on the earth or under the earth was able to open the book or to look into it. Then I began to weep greatly because no one was found worthy to open the book or to look into it; and one of the elders said to me, “Stop weeping; behold, the Lion that is from the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, has overcome so as to open the book and its seven seals.”4

 The messianic prophecy contained in Jacob’s song of blessing5 has finally been fulfilled,

“Judah is a lion’s whelp From the prey, my son, you have gone up. He couches, he lies down as a lion, And as a lion, who dares rouse him up? “ The scepter shall not depart from Judah, Nor the ruler’s staff from between his feet, Until Shiloh comes, And to him shall be the obedience of the peoples.

John looks up to see the Lion, but he sees a Lamb7 instead, a lamb with a wound.

 And I saw between the throne (with the four living creatures) and the elders a Lamb standing, as if slain, having seven horns and seven eyes, which are the seven Spirits of God, sent out into all the earth. And He came and took the book out of the right hand of Him who sat on the throne.6

 Here is the paradox:  the lion must become a lamb in order to be a lion.  Power is defeated by sacrifice.  And look, the lamb still bears the marks of sacrifice in heaven.  Self-emptying sacrifice is always visible, at the forefront of every thought and action.  Yes, the Lamb now rules with wisdom and power, but the lion is the Lamb.  In metaphorical language John describes the omnipotence (seven horns) and omniscience (seven eyes) of Jesus, the Lamb of God.  Here, in the Lamb, is all Creation’s hope and promise fulfilled: the Lamb who was slain has become Lord over all, King of kings and Lord of lords.

And they sang a new song, saying, “Worthy are You to take the book and to break its seals; for You were slain, and purchased for God with Your blood men from every tribe and tongue and people and nation. “You have made them to be a kingdom and priests to our God; and they will reign upon the earth.” Then I looked, and I heard the voice of many angels around the throne and the living creatures and the elders; and the number of them was myriads of myriads, and thousands of thousands, saying with a loud voice, “Worthy is the Lamb that was slain to receive power and riches and wisdom and might and honor and glory and blessing.” And every created thing which is in heaven and on the earth and under the earth and on the sea, and all things in them, I heard saying, “To Him who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb, be blessing and honor and glory and dominion forever and ever.” And the four living creatures kept saying, “Amen.” And the elders fell down and worshiped.7

Andrew and John follow the Lamb of God with an expectation of rescue.  For them, and for us, the expectation is that power overcomes power.  But this is not the way of the Lamb.  The way of Jesus is submission, humility and self-sacrifice. 

 What does this mean for us today? 

 Perhaps the following statements are worth considering:

  1.  Following Jesus means giving up yourself—your pride, your ambition, your need to be in control.
  2. Any act of lionhearted boldness or courage must also bear the lamb-like wounds of the cross—submission, humility and meekness.
  3. Discipleship is the process of unlearning our disordered assumptions and actions about how the world “works” and learning new practices of faithfulness that gives Jesus blessing and honor and glory and dominion forever and ever.
  4. Lord, teach us to follow, and to lead like the Lamb.  Amen. 


  1. John 1:29-37
  2. A lamb is an animal that is less than one year old. In Scripture, the word lamb is used interchangeably for both sheep and goats.
  3.  Isaiah 53:7
  4. Rev 5:1-5
  5. Gen 49:9-10
  6. The word used here for lamb means young lamb.