Whereas John the Baptist would provide testimony of Jesus in his absence, he also provides it in his presence. The day after the interaction with the Jewish leaders (vv. 19, 29), John sees Jesus and announces, “Look! The Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!”
A popular level book I read this week was quick to heap all sorts of heavy meaning into this clause, placing all our current understanding of the cross as expiatory sacrifice back into it. The result was talking about the Jewish sacrificial system and Jesus’ bloody sacrifice for our sins as the fullest understanding of “Lamb of God” in verse 29. But what did John the Baptist understand when he uttered these words? Was it a full blown understanding of Jesus coming to be a sacrificial lamb taking away the sin of the world?
In the first place, when John the Baptist said this it was pre-cross. That is, the death of Jesus on the cross had not yet occurred. And prior to the cross there is ample evidence showing that those around Jesus hadn’t understood and grasped that Jesus needed to be a suffering Messiah, a sacrifice for the sins of the world. Elsewhere Peter rebukes Jesus upon the prediction that he would be put to death (Matt. 16:22-23). In John’s Gospel, where we find ourselves, the disciples are slow to get the exact status and mission of Jesus, as in chapter 2 when he says, “Destroy this Temple and in 3 days I will raise it again.” The author tells us that it was not until after Jesus had died and raised again that they understood this had to happen from Scripture (2:22). John the Baptist, in Matthew’s Gospel, sends delegates to Jesus while in prison to ask if Jesus is the Messiah or if he should expect someone else (Matt. 11:2-3).
Having said that, I also think that the author, John, and his readers would have had a fuller understanding of what it meant that Jesus was the Lamb of God who took away the sin of the world. Knowing the end story (either by reading to the end of the Gospel or by knowing what historically happened) will inevitably and rightly colour a fuller understanding of Jesus as the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. How did Jesus take on the sin of the world? Through his death on the cross; by being a sacrifice.
So, what then did John the Baptist mean by “Lamb of God”? Many suggestions have been offered and to be honest, I’m not quite if I’ve got this right and the delay in posting this study has been partly due to my uncertainty. While not the most pressing concern in the book, I also think it is worth thinking about since it would give us a picture of how “lamb” language was used prior to the cross of Christ in the early 1st century Jewish culture. But, I am going to admit my uncertainty on this point and move forward, maybe revisiting it later on. Given the Isaianic influence on the book, the servant of Isaiah 53:7 seems a possible allusion, and we can’t rule out undertones of the Paschal lamb being thought of as a sacrifice in this time period. Craig Keener argues such a point (John, 454). Others argue for an understanding of the Lamb in an apocalyptic sense (cf. e.g., Carson, John, 150).
What else can be profitably said to sum this section up?
John the Baptist, in vv. 29-34, is bearing further witness to who Jesus is with Jesus present. He is pointing out Jesus as the one that he said would come after him but is greater than him. He is bearing witness to Jesus being God’s Lamb who takes away the sin of the world. This is a significant claim in light of the (correct) assumption that only God could remove sin.
He further testifies (vv. 32-34) that he “saw the Spirit come down from heaven” on him and remain and this one would be the one who will baptize with the Holy Spirit. This one is God’s Son.* Jesus’ baptism is not recorded in the Fourth Gospel but has already happened by this point. At the baptism John saw the Spirit come down and remain on him and this is what convinced John that Jesus was the one he was looking for. Jesus was the one who would bring the Spirit to God’s people. With this, the narrative will rightly turn back to a focus on Jesus as the Baptist points him out for such focus.
*There is a textual variant here that I may deal with in a separate post.