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 John’s 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 set the tree up in August, put on Christmas music, decorated her whole house, and kept it that way until well into spring. Now, I like Christmas as much as the next guy, but doesn’t that seem a little bit over the top?
The fact is that the Bible does not dwell on the Christmas story. The narrative of Jesus’ birth, beautiful and touching as it is, is a brief one. It is soon finished and we move on to other things. 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 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
All four gospels focus our attention 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 line.
Who is this strange character named John, who dressed like a latter-day version of the mighty prophet Elijah and preached like him too? John’s testimony about himself is crystal clear (vv. 19-28). He is just a voice, calling in the wilderness to prepare the way of the Lord. John the Baptist is not the Messiah; he is merely the fore-runner. 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 others to the Christ. The great thing about John the Baptist is that he knows just what his God-given job is, and his one ambition is to accomplish it. He doesn’t let his pride or personal ambition get in the way. John is not interested in building a career or making a name for himself. No, John is only interested in bearing witness to Jesus Christ.
“Behold the Lamb of God”
So what is John’s witness to Jesus? When he saw Jesus approaching one day, John turned to his own disciples and to the crowd of hangers-on and went straight to the very heart of the matter: “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1:29). Whatever else 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 grasped Jesus’ true role and identity.
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, of course, went away excited because he believed he had met Karl Barth’s barber!
Something like that can happen to people who hear about Jesus: they never fully realize who it is they’re dealing with. You see, he is more than a gentle teacher, more than a prophet, more than a significant religious leader. Jesus is the Lamb of God.
But what exactly does that mean? The phrase “Lamb of God” may conjure up for you a romantic image of a cute little lamb frolicking in the meadow, but that’s not the picture John the Baptist had in mind. The picture he had in mind came from the Old Testament, specifically from the sacrificial system of the Law. 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 pointed. Every lamb slaughtered in the Temple court 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 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 of God. That’s the most important thing we must understand about Jesus Christ. It’s not the only thing, of course. Christ is also Teacher, Example, Friend, Judge, Lord, King. But first of all he is Savior; the Lamb of God.
Who Takes Away the Sin of the World
As if to underline the point of this metaphor about the Lamb of God, John makes sure no one can possibly mistake his meaning by adding a clear statement defining the work that Jesus has come to do: “Behold the Lamb of God,” he says, “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 even to teach us about God – though of course he does all those things and more besides. Jesus came first and foremost to save us from our sins. 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 also even banishing its presence from our lives one day when we reach glory.
Jesus does all this by “bearing” our sin, 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), it says; “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us”; “God made him to be sin who had no sin 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 Peter 2:24). All of those texts from the New Testament epistles make the same point: Jesus Christ is the sin-bearer who by fully paying the penalty can actually take our sins and their guilt away from us. He doesn’t offer just the vague hope of pardon; Jesus 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 sins of all the world, every wrong of every man, woman and child who has ever lived. And if that is true, then he certainly must be able to take 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 we 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 valuable sacrifice), his atonement, his death, actually applies only to those who belong to him through faith. Salvation is not automatic. For Christ to carry away our sins you and I must come to him. We must believe in him. We must lay our sins upon his back. We must give up the illusion that we are able to save ourselves. We have to stop trying to pay for our 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 of those animals in that ceremony together illustrate the work of the true Lamb of God who fully pays for our sin and takes its guilt away. What you and I need to do is to lay our hands upon him. We need to identify with him by faith and claim his death for ourselves. You know, just hearing that truth that Jesus Christ is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world could be enough to save you.
One of the great preachers of the nineteenth century was Charles H. Spurgeon and the story is told how one day he went to a brand new auditorium where he was planning to give a series of evangelistic messages. In order to test the acoustics of the place, he stood on the platform and cried out, “Behold the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world.” And way up in the balcony a workman who was painting, putting the finishing touches, stood bolt upright and accepted Jesus Christ as his Savior on the spot. What a wonderful story.
But the same thing could happen to you. You heard this same message just now. Won’t you too accept Jesus as your Savior, your Lamb of God who takes away your sins?