The Lamb of God

This coming Sunday is the 2nd Sunday of Ordinary Time. In yesterday’s post we looked a little deeper into the scriptural context of John’s gospel. In today’s post we begin to look in depth at the text that follows after John’s interrogation by priests, Levites and Pharisees, the evangelist tells us, The next day John saw Jesus coming towards him and said, ‘Look, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!’

This is but the start of a short, compact testimony by the Baptist witnessing to the One he had just baptized.

  • “Behold the Lamb of God… (1:29)
  • who takes away the sin of the world.” (1:29)
  • The one who existed before John (1:30-31)
  • The one on whom the Spirit came from the sky and remain upon him (1:32-33)
  • he is the Son of God.” (1:34) [note: some text have “he is God’s Chosen One”]

The Fourth Gospel does not record, as the Synoptic Gospels do, the baptism of Jesus by John. However, the coming of Jesus mentioned in this verse was not his coming for baptism, because, as 1:32–33 implies, John had already witnessed the descent of the Spirit upon Jesus when he had baptized him. John already knew who Jesus was, and therefore said to those around, “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world.

Christians of our time are quite familiar with the expression “Lamb of God.” It is part of the general Christian vocabulary. For Catholics the expression is used in the Communion Rite of the Mass: “Behold the Lamb of God, behold Him who takes away the sins of the world.” But as familiar as it is to us, it is difficult to know exactly how it was understood in Jesus’ time. The expression is not found anywhere else in the New Testament. Granted the word “lamb” is used of Jesus in Revelation, although technically a different word than used here. It is not found elsewhere in the New Testament (though Jesus is sometimes spoken of as “the Lamb,” especially in Revelation), nor in any previous writing known to us.  Even the expression “of God” is not exact. It may mean “provided by God” or “belonging to God.” But then given John the Evangelist often provides ambiguous expressions (e.g. “born anōthen” used in John 3:3. The Greek adverb anōthen means both “from above” and “again.”) Perhaps in his usual manner the Evangelist wants us to combine both meanings. But to what does “the Lamb” refer?

Christian readers of the Fourth Gospel naturally infer that this is an allusion to the sacrificial death of Christ by which he atoned for the sins of the world. However, it is not certain that this is what the Baptist meant by it. The indications are that he expected the Messiah to carry out judgment against sinners, not to offer himself as a sacrifice for their sins (cf. Matt. 3:12: His winnowing fan is in his hand. He will clear his threshing floor and gather his wheat into his barn, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”) John may have been identifying Jesus as the apocalyptic warrior lamb referred to in Jewish writings (e.g. 1 Enoch 90:9–12; Testament of Joseph 19:8–9) as did the author of the book of Revelation (Rev. 5:5–10; 17:14), though the latter fused the idea of the powerful lamb/lion of Judah with the sacrificial lamb. By the time the Fourth Gospel was written Jesus had been recognized as the one whose death had atoned for human sins, and the evangelist probably hoped his readers might appreciate its double meaning.

But there are perhaps even more levels of meaning in the phrase “lamb of God.”  The evangelist may have in mind the lamb led to the slaughter referred to in Isa. 53:7 which contemporary Judaism interpreted not with reference to a dying messiah, but as conveying the notion of substitutionary suffering for sin that fell short of actual death (cf. Matt. 11:2–3; Luke 7:18–20).

Another possible association is the lamb provided by God for Abraham when he was ready to offer up his son of promise, Isaac, in obedience to the divine command (Gen. 22:8, 13–14) . This is especially suggestive because John 3:16 probably alludes to this scene, highlighting one important difference: what Abraham was spared from doing at the last minute, God actually did—he gave his one and only Son (cf. Rom. 8:32).

Less likely options are the gentle lamb of Jer. 11:19 (no overtones of bearing sin); the scapegoat that symbolically bore the sins of the people and was banished to the desert in Lev. 16 (a goat, not a lamb); and the guilt offering sacrificed to deal with sin in Lev. 14; Num. 6 (involving bulls and goats, not lambs).

The Fourth Evangelist, for his part, places the Baptist’s declaration into the wider context of his passion narrative, where Jesus is shown to be the ultimate fulfillment of the yearly Passover lamb (see Exod. 12), whose bones must not be broken (John 19:36; cf. Exod. 12:46; Num. 9:12; Ps. 34:20; cf. also 19:14).

This “lamb of God” will take away sin, presumably by means of a sacrificial, substitutionary death. According to the pattern set by the OT sacrificial system, the shed blood of the substitute covered the sins of others and appeased the divine wrath by way of atonement (cf. 1 John 2:2; 4:10). As the book of Hebrews makes clear, however, the entire OT sacrificial system was merely provisional until the coming of Christ.

Moreover, as God’s lamb, Jesus takes upon himself the sin, not merely of Israel, but of the entire world (cf. 1:10). The idea that the Messiah would suffer for the sins of the world (rather than merely for Israel) was foreign to first-century Jewish ears; John, however, makes clear that Jesus came to save the entire world (John 3:17; 1 John 2:2), and that he is the Savior of the world, not merely Israel (4:42; 1 John 4:14). The NT’s depiction of Jesus as “God’s lamb” culminates in Revelation, where Jesus is the “lamb who was slain” who returns in universal triumph (see Rev. 5:6, 8–9, 12; 7:17; 12:11; 13:8; 17:14; 19:7, 9; 21:22–23; 22:1–3).

John’s teaching on Jesus’ substitutionary atonement builds on the evangelist’s earlier reflection on Jesus’ incarnation. For it is in the flesh that Christ suffered vicariously; his humanity was an indispensable prerequisite for his work on behalf of others. In fact, the atonement theme, far from being absent, is part of the fabric of John’s Gospel: Jesus is the Bread of Life, who will give his flesh for the life of the world (6:51; cf. 6:32–33, 53–58); he is the Good Shepherd, who lays down his life for his sheep (10:15; cf. 10:17–18); and his sacrifice fulfills Passover symbolism (e.g., 19:14, 31).

Image credit: The preaching of St. John the Baptist. Chromolithograph by L. Gruner after C. Mariannecci after D. Ghirlandaio, 1490,  Public Domain

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