READ : John 1:19-34
The first person to publicly identity Jesus as the Savior of the world was the prophet we know as John the Baptist. Listen to his testimony concerning the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of world.
I once read a news report about a woman who loved Christmas so much she never wanted it to end. She had found, by long experimentation, that with painstaking care she could make her Christmas tree stay green and keep its needles for months. So each year she sets the tree up in August, puts on Christmas music, decorates her whole house, and keeps it that way until well into spring. Now, I like Christmas as well as the next guy, but that kind of behavior seems a little strange. That strikes me as being the sort of sentimentality that God does not want us to indulge.
The fact is that the Bible does not dwell on the Christmas story. The story of Jesus’ birth, beautiful and touching as it is, is a brief one. It is soon finished and we move on to other things. We never linger in Bethlehem in the New Testament. Don’t get me wrong; Jesus’ birth is supremely important. But his life and ministry are even more important, and his death and resurrection are the most important of all. Jesus saved us, not in the manger but on the cross; not by becoming a baby but by becoming the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.
A Voice in the Wilderness
The gospels focus relentlessly on the cross. And so we turn a page and find that thirty years in the life of Christ have passed with scarcely a mention. The shepherds and wise men have barely trooped offstage before John the Baptist makes his entrance and speaks his first lines.
Who is this strange character named John, who dressed like a latter-day version of the mighty prophet Elijah and preached like him too? That’s what the religious authorities in Jerusalem wanted to know, so one day they sent a delegation to John to get an answer. This is what he told them.
“I am not the Christ.”
They asked him, “Then who are you? Are you Elijah?”
He said, “I am not.”
“Are you the Prophet?”
He answered, “No.”
Finally they said, “Who are you? Give us an answer to take back to those who sent us. What do you say about yourself?”
John replied in the words of Isaiah the prophet, “I am the voice of one calling in the desert, ‘Make straight the way for the Lord.’”
The Gospel of John relates that interchange to us. John the Baptist spoke with his interrogators wanting to know who he was. He answered them cryptically with a quotation from the prophecy of Isaiah. He said he was nothing more than a voice, the voice of one crying in the wilderness, “Make straight the way of the Lord!” (cf. v.23). John’s testimony about himself is crystal clear (vv. 19-28). Despite his great impact, he is not the Messiah. He’s merely the fore-runner, the prophet who prepares for the Lord’s coming. He has but one task, one purpose for his life he must call everyone’s attention to the One who is coming after him. He must point to the Christ, the Messiah. The great thing about John the Baptist is that he knows God has given him a job to do, he knows just what that job is, and his one ambition is to accomplish it. John must bear witness; that is what he does. He doesn’t let his pride or personal ambition get in the way, he’s not interested in building a career or making a name for himself. No, John is only interested in pointing others towards Christ. He understands the first lesson a disciple needs to learn; in John’s famous saying, “He must increase, but I must decrease” (see John 3:30).
“Behold, the Lamb of God”
John’s testimony to Jesus is especially helpful because it’s so insightful. When he saw Jesus approaching one day, he turned to his own disciples and to the crowd of hangers-on and in one magnificent sentence he got to the very heart of the matter.
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.’
Then John gave this testimony: “I saw the Spirit come down from heaven as a dove and remain on him. . . . I have seen and testify that this is the Son of God.” (v. 29) John begins by bestowing on Jesus a title that establishes Jesus’ true identity: “Behold the Lamb of God.” Whatever we may think about Jesus, unless we understand that he is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world, we have not really met him. The famous theologian Karl Barth, so the story goes, was riding on a streetcar one day when a stranger sat down beside him. They struck up a conversation, during which Barth asked the man if there was anything he particularly wished to see while visiting the city. “Yes,” the man replied, “I would like to see the famous theologian Karl Barth. Do you happen to know him?” “I do,” Barth said with a mischievous grin; “I shave him every morning.” And the tourist went away excited because he believed he had met Karl Barth’s barber! Something like that can happen to people who come close to the Lord Jesus. They hear of him, they may learn some things about him, but they never fully realize whom they are dealing with. So they move on to some other interest without ever meeting the real Jesus Christ. You see, he is more than a gentle teacher, more than an significant religious figure. He is the Lamb of God.
But what does this phrase mean? It may conjure up a romantic picture of a cute little lamb frolicking nimbly in the grass, but that is not the image John the Baptist had in mind. The image of the Lamb is drawn from the Old Testament, specifically from the sacrificial system of the Torah, or Law of God. To say that Jesus is the Lamb of God means that he is the great sin offering to which all the animal sacrifices of the Old Testament Temple and Tabernacle pointed. Every lamb slaughtered in the courtyard whose blood was sprinkled on the altar as a symbol of forgiveness was a foreshadowing of this Lamb. Every Passover animal whose blood was applied to the doorposts and lintel in order to save the lives of those within the house and whose flesh was consumed in the sacred meal was a type of this Lamb. “For it is impossible that the blood of bulls and goats should take away sins,” says the Bible (Hebrews 10:4). Only the sacrificed blood of Jesus Christ, the perfect Lamb of God, could possibly have the power to take away the guilt of human sin. That’s the most important thing we must understand about who Jesus Christ is. It’s not the only thing. Christ is also Prophet, Teacher, Example, Friend, Lord, King. But first of all he is Lamb, the Lamb of God.
That’s Lamb of God. Christ is God’s lamb, the sacrifice which the Father provides (just like the substitute he provided to Abraham on the mountain instead of his son Isaac). We cannot pay for our own sins. We must accept God’s gift and provision for us. “It was not with perishable things such as silver or gold that you were redeemed,” wrote the apostle Peter to the early Christians, “but with the precious blood of Christ, a lamb without blemish or defect” (1 Pet. 1:18,19).
Who Takes Away the Sin of the World
As if to underline the point of this metaphor of the Lamb of God, John makes sure no one can possibly mistake who Jesus is by adding a clear statement defining the work he has come to do: “Behold the Lamb of God,” he said “who takes away the sin of the world.” The work Christ does is to take away sin. Jesus came to rescue us from death and hell. He did not come primarily to educate us, or to raise our moral consciousness, or to inspire us to live better lives, or to teach us about God, or to share the weakness and misery of our human condition out of sympathy for us though of course he does all these things and more besides. But Jesus came first and foremost to save, to save from sin. As he himself put it, “The Son of Man came to seek and to save that which was lost.” He came to do for us what we could not do for ourselves, what no one else besides him could do. He came to take away our sin, both in the sense of removing sin’s guilt, breaking its power, and eventually even banishing its presence from our lives.
Jesus does this by “bearing” it, that is, by lifting the load of our sins off from us, by taking them upon himself, carrying them to the cross, and paying for them there once and for all. The New Testament expresses this truth in a variety of ways: “Christ died for our sins according to the scriptures” (1 Corinthians 15:3); “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us, for it is written: ‘Cursed is everyone who is hung on a tree’” (Gal. 3:13); “God made him who had no sin to be a sin offering for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Corinthians 5:21); “He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree” (1 Pet. 2:24). All of those texts from the New Testament epistles make the same point. Jesus is the sin-bearer who by fully paying for the penalty can actually take our sins and their guilt away from us. He does not offer only vague expressions of pardon; he really and truly forgives. He alone has the authority to do so (see Mark 2:8-12).
Christ’s power is breath-taking. He takes away the sin of the world. He is able to bear it all, all the sin of all the world, every wrong of every man, woman and child who has ever lived. And if that’s true, then he’s certainly able to take away whatever you and I contribute to the load of the world’s sin, whether those contributions are large or small. But there is one thing you have to do. While Jesus has potentially paid for all the sins of all the world (in the sense that he has already offered himself as the infinitely sufficient sacrifice), his atonement, his death, actually applies only to those who are united to him through faith. Salvation is not automatic. For Christ to carry your sins away you must come to him. You must believe in him. You must lay them upon his back. You must give up the illusion that you are able to save yourself. You have to stop trying to pay for your own sins and accept his payment instead.
In the Old Testament on the Day of Atonement, the Law directed the High Priest to sacrifice a goat and present its blood as a sin offering. Then he was to lay his hands upon the head of a second goat, thereby symbolically transferring his own and the people’s sin to this animal called the “scapegoat,” which was then driven away into the wilderness. Both those animals in that ceremony together illustrate the work of the true Lamb of God who fully pays for sin and takes its guilt away. What you and I need to do is to lay our hands upon his head. We need to identify with him by faith and claim his death for ourselves. You can do that right now, by praying this prayer with me:
“Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world, I ask you to take away my sins too. I’m tired of carrying them, tired of trying to pay for them myself. I give them over to you. I lay them all every evil deed, every impure thought, every false or hurtful word, every failure and omission upon your head. Bear them from me to the cross, where you have paid for them all. And give me, I pray, in place of my guilt, the joy of your salvation. Amen.”