John 1. 29,30
The next day he saw Jesus coming toward him, and said, “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world! This is he of whom I said, ‘After me comes a man who ranks before me, because he was before me.
Notice again a specific historical detail. John has held a conversation with inquisitors in which he explained himself and the source of his authority, and he went on to predict the immanent revelation of the One. John (the writer) reports that the very next day John the Baptist identifies Jesus as the One he had been talking about.
John identifies Jesus as the “Lamb of God”. Sheep are found in metaphors throughout the Bible. Sometimes sheep are seen for their helplessness. Jesus pitied the people of Israel because they appeared to him as sheep without a shepherd. Another metaphor identifies them as those Jesus will save (sheep vs. goats). There’s the proverbial mention of wolves in sheep’s clothing. Jesus called himself the “good shepherd”. This idea about God as the good shepherd is most famously represented in the 23rd Psalm: “The Lord is my shepherd. He makes me lie down in green pastures…”
But it is the nature of metaphors that they can be used in different ways to make different points. To understand the term, “Lamb of God,” it is important to consider the role of lambs in Jewish history, and in its ongoing religious practices.
The origin of Israel takes when Abraham is called by God to come out of the land of Ur of the Chaldeans and to establish a new nation. The fledgeling nation had grown only slightly when Abraham’s grandsons sold their brother, Joseph, into slavery. Joseph ended up in Egypt, and the rest of the clan soon followed, due to a great famine. Life was fine in Egypt for awhile but eventually the Jews lost favor and they were made into slaves. They remained as slaves for 400 years before God finally enlisted Moses to lead them out of captivity.
Now the big event that freed the Israelites, was not a war. God sent afflictions on the Egyptians until Pharaoh finally agreed to let the Israelites go. The final affliction took place when the Lord passed over Egypt, killing the firstborn of both man and beast. The Israelites were spared this calamity, however, by observing the ritual of what has come to be known as the Passover feast.
The Lord said to Moses and Aaron in the land of Egypt,“… Tell all the congregation of Israel that on the tenth day of this month every man shall take a lamb according to their fathers’ houses, a lamb for a household. And if the household is too small for a lamb, then he and his nearest neighbor shall take according to the number of persons; according to what each can eat you shall make your count for the lamb. Your lamb shall be without blemish, a male a year old. You may take it from the sheep or from the goats, and you shall keep it until the fourteenth day of this month, when the whole assembly of the congregation of Israel shall kill their lambs at twilight. Then they shall take some of the blood and put it on the two doorposts and the lintel of the houses in which they eat it. They shall eat the flesh that night, roasted on the fire; with unleavened bread and bitter herbs they shall eat it. (Exodus 12.1-8).
The lamb in this scenario serves as a substitute. Without the sacrifice of the lamb, proven by the blood on the doorframe, the Israelites would have suffered the same curse as the Egyptians. This idea of substitution is carried forward into the Jewish sacrificial system. God graciously promised to remain with the Israelites but sin was forever creating a gulf between God and his people. We can never understand God completely, simply because his brilliance is beyond our capacity to understand. His holiness is also beyond us. Our human tendency is to grade ourselves on a pass/fail basis. (“I’m okay because I do more good than harm.”) Perhaps it is true that many people do more good than harm, but the truth is that we are incapable of measuring the ripple effect of either the good we do or the harm we do. As such, this leaves all of us incapable of determining whether we do more good than harm. But beyond this incapacity, there is no basis on which we can expect the bad we do to be canceled by the good we do. Imagine building a house in which 60% of the measurements are correct. That 40% of error makes the house too hazardous to dwell in. God tells us that everything must be done according to holiness.
When Adam and Eve sinned they were cursed to struggle for survival, to have difficulties in their relationships, including with each other, and to eventually die. Why is the world in its present royal mess? The short answer is: sin. The sacrificial system was never fully effective, but it served to remind the people of Israel of the importance of holiness and that God is holy. The limited effectiveness of the sacrificed animals had to be addressed by the absolute effectiveness of Jesus himself. John knew the nature of Jesus’ mission at the very beginning of that mission. The name “Lamb of God” proclaims the good news that God has provided a means to resolve the ancient and horrible curse of sin that has separated God’s people from him.
Seven hundred years before Jesus was born, the prophet Isaiah wrote the following:
Who has believed what he has heard from us? And to whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed? For he grew up before him like a young plant,
and like a root out of dry ground; he had no form or majesty that we should look at him, and no beauty that we should desire him.
He was despised and rejected by men,
a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief;
and as one from whom men hide their faces
he was despised, and we esteemed him not.
Surely he has borne our griefs
and carried our sorrows;
yet we esteemed him stricken,
smitten by God, and afflicted.
But he was pierced for our transgressions;
he was crushed for our iniquities;
upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace,
and with his wounds we are healed.
All we like sheep have gone astray;
we have turned—every one—to his own way;
and the Lord has laid on him
the iniquity of us all.
He was oppressed, and he was afflicted,
yet he opened not his mouth;
like a lamb that is led to the slaughter,
and like a sheep that before its shearers is silent,
so he opened not his mouth.
By oppression and judgment he was taken away;
and as for his generation, who considered
that he was cut off out of the land of the living,
stricken for the transgression of my people?
And they made his grave with the wicked
and with a rich man in his death,
although he had done no violence,
and there was no deceit in his mouth.
Yet it was the will of the Lord to crush him;
he has put him to grief;
when his soul makes an offering for guilt,
he shall see his offspring; he shall prolong his days;
the will of the Lord shall prosper in his hand.
Out of the anguish of his soul he shall see and be satisfied;
by his knowledge shall the righteous one, my servant,
make many to be accounted righteous,
and he shall bear their iniquities.
Therefore I will divide him a portion with the many,
and he shall divide the spoil with the strong,
because he poured out his soul to death
and was numbered with the transgressors;
yet he bore the sin of many,
and makes intercession for the transgressors.
John’s statement that Jesus was God’s means for making atonement for sin was audacious. But then he made an even more audacious statement, though this one was not necessarily understood by his listeners. John proclaimed that Jesus’ rank was greater than his because Jesus “came before” him. Luke makes it clear that John was at least 6 months older than Jesus. In Luke, chapter 1, verse 31, we learn that in the sixth month of Elizabeth’s pregnancy, the angel, Gabriel, informed Mary that she would conceive a child by means of the Holy Spirit. So John is older and yet he said, “he was before me.”
How could Jesus, born after John, have been before him? The answer is provided by Elizabeth, who testified about Jesus when he was in the womb, “…and why is this granted to me that the mother of my Lord should come to me?” (Luke 1.43). Who can serve as a sacrificial substitute for the sins of the world? Who can exist before he is born? Both questions have the same answer: the Lord God.