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Episode 18: Lamb of God

John indicates that in the coming of Jesus something greater is happening than ever occurred in the past,

On the next day John saw Jesus coming to him
and said, “Behold, God’s lamb who will take away
the world’s sins.” (John 1:29)

On the next day John was once again standing with
two of his disciples. When he saw Jesus walking by,
John said, “Behold, God’s lamb. When his two disciples
heard him say this, they followed Jesus. (1:35-37)

These are the only two references to Jesus as Lamb of God in the Gospel. The scarcity of direct description and the tendency for this gospel to merge images can result in a sense of confusion for the modern reader. Yet, this image is critical for understanding Jesus as these words identify him as one who should be followed!

In the Old Testament

     In order to gain information about the ancient sacrificial system, a person must be willing to enter into the Great and Terrible Book of Leviticus. Therein one finds descriptions for the various sacrifices and instructions for carrying them out appropriately. Leviticus 4-5 provides a basic explanation of the “sin offering” or, as it is often referred to in more current writings, the “purification offering.” This offering was given to recognize unintentional violations of the covenant; three examples are specifically listed: failing to come forward with testimony, touching a dead animal, and thoughtlessly swearing to something by an oath.

     The social status of the individual determined the animal to be utilized. Only at the lowest status, for the individual referred to as “a person of the land,” is a lamb allowed, a female lamb, and only as an exception to the preferred “nanny goat.” For those living near poverty, birds or even a small amount of grain would suffice.

     Later in Leviticus, instruction is given for a leper cleansed of the skin affliction keeping him outside the community. In this instance a male lamb was offered as a sacrifice and the one being cleansed is said to be “cleansed from his sin.” (Leviticus 14:19, LXX) A male lamb is also offered at the harvest of the first fruits of the field as a burnt offering, after which time one may now eat bread made from the new grain. (23:12-14)

     Outside Leviticus, the Old Testament does speak of male lambs being used as an offering to the Lord: Abraham and Isaac in Genesis 22:7-8, Moses and the people in Egypt at the first Passover in Exodus 12:3-21, and as a twice daily offering at the Tabernacle in Exodus 29:38-46 (also in Numbers 28). The last example is designated as a continuous offering throughout the generations so that the Lord will meet with the sons of Israel.

     The words of John the Baptizer do not seem to reflect a single, direct teaching from the Old Testament. Any specific suggestions as to the image he proposes for understanding Jesus as the Lamb of God are just those, suggestions.

Elsewhere in John

     Although sin will receive its own space in the next episode, it pays to examine when the words, sin and world, are combined in this gospel. In only one other place does this occur.

Now when this one [the Spirit] comes, he will confront
the world concerning sin, righteousness, and judgment;
concerning sin first because the world does not believe
in me, (John 16:8)

If we accept this description for sin, namely unbelief, then we might see in the Baptizer’s statement a continuation of his message (and testimony) recorded in this gospel.

John came as a witness whose testimony concerned
the light, so that everyone would believe through John.
John was not the light, rather his testimony concerned
the light. (1:7-8)

John testified concerning this one as he heralded,
“This one is the one of whom I spoke, ‘one will appear
after me who has always been before me, because he is
of greater importance than I am’” (1:15)

“I am a voice crying out in the wilderness;
Make straight the Lord’s pathway,” (1:23)

“I baptize with water; someone is standing in your
midst whom you do not know, the one who comes
after me, I am not worthy to even remove the
sandals from his feet.” (1:26)

     The image John provides for Jesus, the Lamb of God, reflects a variety of teachings known to first century Jews from the Old Testament, from teachers of the Old Testament, and from expectations which developed in that culture. However, there may be other contributions those who heard the Gospel of John held in the back of their minds.

I baptize with water for repentance, the one coming
after me is stronger than me so that I am not worthy
to untie his sandals; He will baptize you with the
Holy Spirit and fire. (Matthew 3:11)

John the Baptizer appeared in the wilderness,
preaching a baptism for the forgiveness of sins.
(Mark 1:4)

And he [John] came into the region around the Jordan
River preaching a baptism of repentance for the
forgiveness of sins. (Luke 3:3)

When we examine the image of God’s lamb who takes away sin, various understandings are possible. Yet, when we hear John identify Jesus as the Lamb of God at the beginning of the story, we already know the rest of the story.

     During Jesus’ passion, Pilate has the final word, but his is not the final word. As Pilate prepares to give his final verdict on Jesus’ fate, the writer provides a background description. “It was the sixth hour on the preparation day for the Passover.” (John 19:14) In other words, it was time to slaughter the male lambs for the Passover. This connection seems to override all others when we hear John say, “Behold, God’s lamb who will take away the world’s sins.”

Concluding Thought

     Before we associate a single image with John’s words, we should consider the various images wrapped up in those three words, “Lamb of God.” A male lamb was offered in sacrifice to represent an outcast’s cleansing and return to fellowship within the community. A male lamb was also offered at the time of the first harvest of the field so that one could begin to enjoy the new provision of God. Of final interest, a male lamb was offered daily at the Temple. At that time, God indicated, “I will sanctify the tent of testimony and the altar. (Ex 29:43, 29:42 LXX)

     These images have one thing in common, beside the male lamb! Each time a male lamb was offered as a sacrifice to God the result was a restored religious state of connection with God. When John exclaims the identity of Jesus he says much more than Jesus is merely a sacrifice. John indicates that in the coming of Jesus something greater is happening than ever occurred in the past, something extraordinarily greater than even John’s prophetic message. In Jesus, the Word at the Beginning with God, God eliminates any and all barriers restricting those who would approach him in worship.

Take 5 Minutes More

     Jesus’ death represents much more than a simple sacrifice for our sins. Indeed, Jesus’ sacrifice celebrates God acting to restore relationship with his creation. As God’s lamb Jesus exceeds any comparison we might have with descriptions from the Old Testament. Indeed, as God’s lamb Jesus represents the sacrifice God offers, once for all, to insure those who worship him may worship him by faith.

     Consider the following question, “What reasons do you come up with to excuse yourself from worshipping God?” Write these reasons down. Now compare your reasons with God’s activity in and through Jesus to restore you to a right relationship with him. What remains on your list?


Updated August 4, 2022