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.’ I myself did not know him, but the reason I came baptizing with water was that he might be revealed to Israel.” Then John gave this testimony: “I saw the Spirit come down from heaven as a dove and remain on him. I would not have known him, except that the one who sent me to baptize with water told me, ‘The man on whom you see the Spirit come down and remain is he who will baptize with the Holy Spirit.’ I have seen and I testify that this is the Son of God.” The next day John was there again with two of his disciples. When he saw Jesus passing by, he said, “Look, the Lamb of God!” John 1.29-36.
The Lamb of God. To our ears there is nothing strange about giving that title to Jesus. The book of Revelation is full both of the name and of the imagery connected with it of “a Lamb, looking as if it had been slain, standing in the center of the throne” (Revelation 5.6 etc); and the image appears everywhere in Christian art and church furnishings. But it must have startled John’s disciples to hear Jesus first being given that title; and the question is, what did they understand by it and what did John mean by it?
In my sermon on Sunday (see “Bread for the Hungry” under Bacon and Eggs) I suggested that Jesus would know that John had called him the Lamb of God and that he might have taken it as a reference to the Passover lamb that brought about the salvation of the Jews when the angel of death passed through Egypt and their deliverance from bondage (Exodus 12.3-17). And I do believe that John had that image in mind. It was after all very close to the Festival of Passover when John gave Jesus the title (John 2.13).
However, as is often pointed out, the Passover lamb was not a sacrifice for sin. It did not “take away the sins” of anyone, let alone the world. So maybe John had another lamb in mind as well … maybe he was thinking of Abraham and Isaac and the lamb that died in Isaac’s place. As Abraham and Isaac went to the place of sacrifice, Abraham told Isaac: “God himself will provide a lamb for the burnt offering” (Genesis 22.8) and a burnt offering of a lamb was recognised in later Judaism as a sin offering (Leviticus 4.32-35). Indeed, in John’s day, a lamb was sacrificed morning and evening in the temple as an offering for the sins of the people (Exodus 29.38-42).
A third possibility, however, is that John saw in Jesus the Suffering Servant of Isaiah 53 — the one who would be “led as a lamb to the slaughter” and “was cut off from the land of the living; for the transgression of my people he was stricken” (Isaiah 53.7-8). Given that in our passage this morning, John’s two declarations that Jesus is the Lamb of God enclose an account of Jesus’ baptism, this is very, very likely, for at Jesus’ baptism God speaks to him in terms of Isaiah 42.1: “Here is my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen one in whom I delight” (Matthew 3.17). And here is an interesting thing. In Aramaic, the language in which John was probably speaking, the word for “lamb” is talya which is also the word for “servant” … so John might have been heard as saying either “Look, the Lamb of God” or “Look, the Servant of God”, or indeed both.
But there is a final possibility as to what was in John’s mind. In the recent history of the Jews of John’s day (about 200 years before) there had been the great conqueror Judas Maccabaeus who had led the Jewish revolt against the Seleucid Empire, and his symbol was a horned lamb. So maybe John was seeing Jesus too as God’s great conqueror who would bring in God’s kingdom in all its glory and might.
We do not have to choose. We can take it that all these images, and possibly more, intermingled and came together as John saw his cousin Jesus passing by and gave him the title we love to know him by — the Lamb of God. In the words of Isaac Watts …
Come, let us join our cheerful songs
with angels round the throne;
ten thousand thousand are their tongues,
but all their joys are one.
‘Worthy the Lamb that died!’ they cry,
‘to be exalted thus’;
‘Worthy the Lamb!’ our lips reply,
‘for He was slain for us.’