New Creations: Lamb of God

Baptism-Jesus29 The next day he saw Jesus coming toward him and said, “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world. 30  He is the one of whom I said, ‘A man is coming after me who ranks ahead of me because he existed before me.’ 31 I did not know him, but the reason why I came baptizing with water was that he might be made known to Israel.” 32 John testified further, saying, “I saw the Spirit come down like a dove from the sky and remain upon him. 33 I did not know him, but the one who sent me to baptize with water told me, ‘On whomever you see the Spirit come down and remain, he is the one who will baptize with the holy Spirit.’ 34  Now I have seen and testified that he is the Son of God.”

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)

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” 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 and commentary below; 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).


Notes

John 1:29 the next day: although broader than the context of this Sunday’s reading, be aware that this simple expression “the next day” is part of a counting of days that occurs from 1:19-2:12 in which the Fourth Evangelist enumerates the seven days of a “new creation” in the coming and revelation of Jesus.

lamb: The reference to Jesus here as ‘the Lamb of God’ uses the word amnos for ‘lamb’. It is one of only four references in the NT (John 1:29, 36; Acts 8:32; 1 Pet. 1:19) that do so. The word amnos is found 101 times in the lxx, of which 82 are references to sacrificial lambs. The two uses of amnos in the NT outside the Fourth Gospel are clear references to Jesus, who died as a sacrificial lamb: one speaks of Jesus as the servant of the Lord, who ‘was led like a sheep to the slaughter, / and as a lamb before the shearer is silent’ (Acts 8:32); the other refers to ‘the precious blood of Christ, a lamb without blemish or defect’ (1 Pet. 1:19). In the light of all this we are probably correct to say that the evangelist would be happy if his readers took John’s witness to Jesus as ‘the lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world’ to have a double meaning. He was both the apocalyptic lamb who judges unrepentant sinners, and the atoning sacrifice for the sins of those who believe. Perhaps the evangelist believed John spoke more than he knew, just as Caiaphas and Pilate were to do later on (11:50–52; 18:39; 19:14–15, 19, 21–22).

John 1:30 he existed before me: Some have suggested that the Baptist thought he was preparing for the coming of Elijah (cf Mal 3:12) and therefore the statement he existed before me would be a simple matter of history since Elijah lived 900 years before John. But in the wider context of the Prologue of this gospel, this clause clearly refers to the preexistence of Jesus. Thus the Baptist is speaking a more profound truth than he realizes, a common occurrence in this Gospel.

John 1:31 I did not know him: this gospel shows no knowledge of the tradition (Luke 1) about the kinship of Jesus and John the Baptist. the reason why I came baptizing with water: in this gospel, John’s baptism is not connected with forgiveness of sins; its purpose is revelatory, that Jesus may be made known to Israel.

John 1:32 like a dove: a symbol of the new creation (Genesis 8:8) or the community of Israel (Hosea 11:11). remain: the first use of a favorite verb in John, emphasizing the permanency of the relationship between Father and Son (as here) and between the Son and the Christian. Jesus is the permanent bearer of the Spirit.

John 1:34 Son of God: This expression is the strongest of the textual traditions, but there are some important manuscripts (Sinaiticus, P5) which read the “chosen one of God.” “Son” is more in harmony with the Johannine language and theology.

Sources

  • K. Beale and D. A. Carson, Commentary on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament (Grand Rapids, MI; Nottingham, UK: Baker Academic; Apollos, 2007). 425-29
  • Raymond E. Brown, The Gospel According to John, vol. 29a in The Anchor Bible, eds. William Albright and David Freeman (New York, NY: Doubleday, 1966) 55-72
  • Colin G. Kruse, John: An Introduction and Commentary, Tyndale New Testament Commentaries (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2003). 80-84.
  • Francis J. Moloney, The Gospel of John, vol. 4 in Sacra Pagina, ed. Daniel J. Harrington (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 1998) 48-63
  • John J. McPolin, John, vol. 6 of the New Testament Message, eds. Wilfred Harrington and Donald Senior (Wilmington, DE: Michael Glazier, 1989)47-49
  • Gail R. O’Day, John in the New Interpreter’s Bible, Volume 9, ed. Leander E. Keck (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1996)
  • Scripture quotes from New American Bible by Confraternity of Christian Doctrine, Inc., Washington, DC. © 1991, 1986, 1970
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