Behold the Lamb of God
Today is the second Sunday of Epiphany. During this season in the church calendar, we highlight several key moments where something new and amazing about Jesus is revealed. In Christmas we ask What Child is This? And in Epiphany we get a new answer every Sunday, a new appearance or revelation that makes up a picture from Scripture of why Jesus is unique. We got a look at Jesus’ baptism from the Gospel of Matthew during Advent, but this Sunday we get a fresh angle on John the Baptist’s interaction with Jesus from the Gospel of John. John sees Jesus and he hails him with the following, John 1:29-31
John 1:29–31 (ESV)
“Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world! 30 This is he of whom I said, ‘After me comes a man who ranks before me, because he was before me.’ 31 I myself did not know him, but for this purpose I came baptizing with water, that he might be revealed to Israel.”
“Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” This greeting is unique. Nowhere else in Scripture do we find the phrase “Lamb of God.” You would think that in God’s book, the first 3/4 being the Old Testament, with numerous mentions of lambs, the phrase “Lamb of God” would have appeared somewhere, but no. John is doing something unique with his greeting of Jesus and that’s because Jesus himself is unique. What does John mean when he calls Jesus the Lamb of God? Why do we sing every Sunday to the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world? We’re going to explore some possibilities. Lamb of God. We know what a lamb is and we are familiar with who God is. But “of” is a difficult word to pin down. It gives the relationship between two things. So we can think about the lamb of God as a lamb provided by God. So where does God provide a lamb? Perhaps the most famous example is at the binding of Isaac, when long before the days of Moses, Abraham tells Isaac that God will provide the sacrificial animal. And at the moment Abraham was about to sacrifice Isaac, God graciously makes good on Abraham’s problematic words to his son and provides a ram, a lamb of God, one who is provided by God to stand in for Abraham’s firstborn son of the promise. Let’s tuck that away and get back to “Of.”
In the Old Testament, we see a lamb associated with God. At the Passover the lamb is associated with God. It was a lamb set aside for the things of God, a lamb of God. There’s some development here. With Abraham we see a lamb provided by God. At the Passover, we see a lamb set aside for the things of God who takes away something. But not sin. He takes away the judgment that’s surely coming to every home in Egypt. The destroying angel sees the blood of the lamb of the things of God above and on the doorposts and that angel withholds the destruction that was surely coming. So, the Passover was the lamb of God who takes away the fear of judgment. We also see in the Levitical law a sacrificial animal who is offered in place of the firstborn child. The firstborn, human or animal, belongs to Yahweh and is to be sacrificed to Yahweh, but human life can always be redeemed and an animal can be offered in his place, again, a lamb of God. Indeed a number of offerings for sin can be found in the Old Testament where a lamb is offered for sin. But in the Levitical law, which was designed to be temporary, the sin offering didn’t take away any sin. A lamb sacrificed for sin covered sin, but didn’t take it away. Indeed Hebrews 10:4 tells us:
4 For it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins.
So a lamb of God who could take away sin was something new. And something needed. The longstanding, but Levitical sacrificial system, temporary by design, meant a constant stream of blood at the Temple. And that was when the people were faithful. The stench of slaughtered animals, the trauma of offering the first animal God gives you and another and another every time you sin. And multiply this over the many thousands of people wanting their sins to be covered. It was a lot. It was unsustainable. But it rightly bears witness to the tragedy that was introduced into the world when sin becomes entangled with humanity. It translates sin into blood for our eyes, and our noses, to take in. And it’s unbearable. But it’s a way forward. Without it sin can’t even be covered, let alone taken away. The grace of God bandaged the wound in humanity made by sin, but the cut was deep, and this wound required more than a bandage, it needed surgery and stitches, and perhaps a new body altogether.
The words of Isaiah 53 were probably on John’s heart and mind, where we see a picture of the suffering servant. In verse 7 of that passage we hear
7 He was oppressed, and he was afflicted, yet he opened not his mouth; like a lamb that is led to the slaughter, and like a sheep that before its shearers is silent, so he opened not his mouth. 8 By oppression and judgment he was taken away; and as for his generation, who considered that he was cut off out of the land of the living, stricken for the transgression of my people? 9 And they made his grave with the wicked and with a rich man in his death, although he had done no violence, and there was no deceit in his mouth. 10 Yet it was the will of the Lord to crush him; he has put him to grief; when his soul makes an offering for guilt, he shall see his offspring; he shall prolong his days; the will of the Lord shall prosper in his hand. 11 Out of the anguish of his soul he shall see and be satisfied; by his knowledge shall the righteous one, my servant, make many to be accounted righteous, and he shall bear their iniquities.
John had quoted from the previous passage in Isaiah the last time we heard him speak. If he had been reading this passage around the day of encountering Jesus, all that goes into being a lamb of God also informed how a person, a suffering servant, a Messiah, could be as a lamb being led to the slaughter. And that person and his sacrifice bears iniquities and takes away sin. Perhaps God revealed a glimpse of Calvary to John, or maybe just many of the pieces. Regardless, when we witness John’s encounter with Jesus, we see something of what John sees, that something new was here, and something very old. Remember that he says in vs. 30.
30 This is he of whom I said, ‘After me comes a man who ranks before me, because he was before me.’
Seeing this Jesus, the pre-existent one, John proclaims him the Lamb of God who not just covers, but takes away sin. It’s a unique vision that John gets to see. And it’s at least the pieces of a picture of a new reality, a new relationship between God and man altogether. Here humanity is lifted out of the pit of destruction, out of the miry bog of sin, and our feet are placed on the solid Rock, and we sing a new song.
A person, who takes away the sights and smells , the feelings and very presence of sin, not only for faithful Israel, but for the whole world, to lay eyes on this person—this way forward, this truth undoing the original lie leading to original sin, this life among the sights and smell of so much death, to witness the presence of this person is rightly called an epiphany. It’s an apocalyptic moment, almost outside time, where HE is finally revealed like a glowing icon in the eyes of John the Baptist, with the Holy Spirit descending and resting on him, bearing further witness to his complete and total otherness. This person who the Holy Spirit rests upon is the one who will baptize with the Holy Spirit, the very Son of God, preexistent, yet present among us. That is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. And John told his hearers, behold, which is a fancy way to say, “Look!” “The Lamb of God!” Maybe he had been expounding on Isa 53 with his disciples and they got it. The Isa 53 man, the suffering servant is here. In any case, they followed Jesus after hearing these words from John. They acknowledged him as the Messiah, the Christ. And Jesus gave Cephas a new name, Peter, attesting to the rock upon which Jesus would build his church.
So what are we to do with this revelation of Jesus as the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world? Is it going to improve my life, make me better at my job? Maybe! Yours certainly wouldn’t be the first life to be changed by getting a new glimpse of Jesus. And that’s what this moment is for. Here we see Jesus and a piece of the essence of who he really is. And to rest there at his feet with Andrew and Peter, and wonder and marvel at him, and to put the pieces together of who he really is—if you want a changed life, sit there. Rest there. Heal there. And be saved. And sing with the church throughout the centuries: Jesus, Lamb of God, have mercy on us. And witness his answer in his sacrificial death and glorious resurrection, and He himself will be for you the way, the truth, and the life.