The Lamb of God
Topic: Gospels Passage: John 1:19–34
“THE LAMB OF GOD”
19 And this is the testimony of John, when the Jews sent priests and Levites from Jerusalem to ask him, “Who are you?” 20 He confessed, and did not deny, but confessed, “I am not the Christ.” 21 And they asked him, “What then? Are you Elijah?” He said, “I am not. “Are you the Prophet?” And he answered, “No.” 22 So they said to him, “Who are you? We need to give an answer to those who sent us. What do you say about yourself?” 23 He said, “I am the voice of one crying in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord,’ as the prophet Isaiah said.”
24 (Now they had been sent from the Pharisees.) 25 They asked him, “Then why are you baptizing, if you are neither the Christ, nor Elijah, nor the Prophet?” 26 John answered them, “I baptize with water, but among you stands one you do not know, 27 even he who comes after me, the strap of whose sandal I am not worthy to untie.” 28 These things took place in Bethany across the Jordan, where John was baptizing.
29 The next day he saw Jesus coming toward him, and said, “Behold the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world! 30 This is he of whom I said, ‘After me comes a man who ranks before me, because he was before me.’ 31 I myself did not know him, but for this purpose I came baptizing with water, that he might be revealed to Israel.” 32 And John bore witness: “I saw the Spirit descend from heaven like a dove, and it remained on him. 33 I myself did not know him, but he who sent me to baptize with water said to me, ‘He on whom you see the Spirit descend and remain, this is he who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.’ 34 And I have seen and have borne witness that this is the Son of God.”
Most of us have at one time or another written a resumé or completed a job application where we have been asked to submit a list of references who are able to vouch for our integrity and qualifications. Perhaps because that request appears near the end of the document we are submitting, we may not think the names that we list as references are not all that important. But we would be wrong.
According to a recent study done for CareerBuilder.com, 80 percent of the hiring managers and human resource professionals surveyed said that they do contact references when evaluating a job candidate, and some long before setting up an interview. Amazingly, that same study revealed that nearly 70 percent declined to hire a candidate based upon the input received from a reference.
The point is that reliable and credible references do make a difference.
The same thing is true in a court of law. No reputable attorney would put anyone on the witness stand who would be unable to confirm the reputation and veracity of his client. Witnesses are selected with care in order to substantiate the validity of the case being made.
The point is again confirmed that truthful and trustworthy testimony matters.
The passage we just read contains the eyewitness testimony of a credible reference regarding the identity and the mission of Jesus Christ. It is given by none other than John the Baptist, the one we met last week as the “man sent from God...to bear witness” about the “the true light...(that) was coming into the world” (cf. John 1:6-9).
Both the first and last verses of the passage before us confirm this to be “the testimony” and “witness” of John. The reliability of a “testimony” is only as good as the credibility of the “witness” who gives it. If you happen to wonder what would qualify John to serve as a “star witness,” we should be quick to recall the reference that the Lord Himself gave of Him when He said, “Truly I say to you, among those born of women there has arisen no one greater than John the Baptist” (Matthew 11:11)
Jesus was not applying for a job. He already had one...He was the Creator God from eternity who stepped into His creation at a point in history in order to become our Redeemer. Although He needed no testimony other than His own, the name at the top of the list of His human references was John the Baptist. Therefore, we do well to give heed to this man’s testimony regarding the identity of the man called “Jesus.”
In “the fullness of time” (cf. Galatians 4:4), the sovereign hand of God had set the stage for the unveiling of the long-awaited Christ. Shortly before His ministry was to begin, a forerunner arrived on the scene to herald His arrival. Historians tell us that “messianic hopes” were high in that day, and that expectations of a soon-coming “deliverer” had created a religious frenzy unlike anything the Jewish people had experienced for centuries. Matthew (3:1-2) tells us that “In those days John the Baptist came preaching in the wilderness of Judea, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.”
The religious leaders in Jerusalem were getting nervous. Though they lived in anticipation of a coming “king,” they were unsure what to make of this peculiar man named John, who was quickly gaining a following. After what was no doubt much deliberation, they decided to send a group of representatives into the wilderness to find him and to inquire of him just who he was and what he was doing. In verses 18 through 29, we read of...
The interrogation of John the Baptist (1:19-28).
Verse 19 tells us that “the Jews sent priests and Levites from Jerusalem” to question him. Specifically, as verse 24 parenthetically informs us, these representatives had been dispatched by “the Pharisees.”
The name “Pharisee” means “separated one” and was a fit description of the group that was, by far, the most conservative element of Judaism in that day. They numbered about six thousand and, although they existed as a minority religious party, they were the most influential. They held a strict interpretation of the Mosaic Law and embraced many oral traditions that later became a part of the Jewish Talmud. Throughout the Gospels, they are depicted as Jesus’ principle opponents during His three-year ministry.
A distinction is made in verse 19 between the “priests and Levites” who sought out John. Although Levi was the “priestly” tribe of Israel, not all “Levites” served as priests. Only those who were descended from Aaron were accorded that honor. Other “Levites” did, however, assist in various functions of Temple worship. What is sometimes overlooked in this episode is that John the Baptist was himself of the priestly tribe of Levi. Luke 1(:5-13) tells us that John’s father, Zechariah, was “serving as priest” on the day the Lord appeared to him to announce that his aging and barren wife, Elizabeth, was to have a son. Now here thirty years later, John was carrying out his “priestly role” calling people to repentance in more remote setting. His “pulpit” was not in the Jerusalem Temple, but in the Judean wilderness.
Coming face-to-face with John, the delegation asked him a series of questions regarding his identity. “Who are you?” they inquired. His response indicates that rumor had been circulating that maybe he was the Messiah for whom they waited. But quickly and plainly, John answered, “I am not the Christ.”
“What then?” they continued. “Are you Elijah?” Now, why would they have asked him that? You may recall from 2 Kings 2(:1-12) that Elijah never died, having been caught up “by a whirlwind into heaven.” Then, in His final word to His people for four centuries, God had stated through Malachi (4:5), “I will send you Elijah the prophet before the great and awesome day of the LORD.” For centuries the people understood that to mean Elijah was coming back. And clearly, the description of John (cf. Matthew 3:4) closely resembled that of “Elijah the Tishbite” ...from the rugged clothing that he wore (cf. 2 Kings 1:8) to the bold manner with which he declared the Word of the Lord.
“Are you Elijah?” they asked. “I am not.”
“Are you the Prophet” then? Both Israel and Judah had had many prophets, but the definite article indicates that they had a specific “Prophet” in mind. As the Israelites neared their entry into the Promised Land, the Lord had said to Moses, “I will raise up for them a prophet like you from among their brothers. And I will put my words in his mouth, and he shall speak to them all that I command him” (Deuteronomy 18:18). Not only were the people anticipating a reappearance of Elijah, but also a “Prophet” on the order of Moses.
“Are you (that) “the Prophet?” Before the revelation of Christ, for the most part the Jewish people did not understand that “Prophet” to be a reference to the Messiah who was to come come. But John did understand and, therefore, he replied with a single word: “No”
The delegation persisted, “(Then) Who are you? We need to give an answer to those who sent us. What do you say about yourself?”
This time John’s answer is more straightforward...and although it was still cloaked with mystery: “I am the voice of one crying in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord.’” Those words originated in the prophecy of Isaiah, given some seven centuries when he forecast the coming Messianic Age. John’s reply summarized what Isaiah (40:3-5) had written, which was:
“A voice cries: ‘In the wilderness prepare the way of the LORD;
make straight in the desert a highway for our God,
Every valley shall be lifted up,
and every mountain and hill be made low;
the uneven ground shall become level.
and the rough places a plain.
And the glory of the LORD shall be revealed,
and all flesh shall see it together,
for the mouth of the LORD has spoken.’”
The imagery is taken from the time when there were no roads like we are privileged to drive on today. Yes, we have our “potholes “to contend with, but imagine trying to navigate what were little more than cart tracks across open fields. If a king were to travel, the road must be built and smoothed out so that the royal chariot might not find the way rough and bumpy, nor be swamped in the mud of streams and rains. Often when kings of renown visited the towns and cities of their realm, the citizens out of respect would build new roads for their kings to travel. By drawing upon that familiar imagery, both Isaiah and John conceive the role of a herald preparing the way and announcing the arrival of the Messianic King.
John’s response to his inquirers, then, was that his task was to prepare the way for Jesus and to point others to Him. Still perplexed, the inquisitors asked “Then why are you baptizing, if you are neither the Christ, nor Elijah, nor the Prophet.” Before we consider John’s answer, we need to say a word about the significance of “baptism.” If anyone should be able to explain its meaning, it would be those of us who identify as “Baptists.”
In a word, “baptism” implies “identification.” When a person repents of sin and trusts the blood of Jesus Christ for forgiveness, that one is reconciled to God by faith. But the Scriptures command that having confessed Christ as Savior and Lord, that person is to submit to baptism as a public testimony of his or her faith. Before Christ came, Gentile converts to Judaism publicly and ceremonially immersed themselves in water as a symbolic gesture of cleansing from sin. What made the baptism of John so curious was that he was calling Jews—members of the covenant community—to be repent and be baptized “for the forgiveness of sins” (cf. Mark 1:4-5). That was unprecedented. And even stranger perhaps, they were being baptized at the hands of a second-party, John. How odd. And because he baptized others, he has become known to us in the Scripture as “John the Baptist.”
But “why” was he doing this? John offers an explanation in verses 26 and 27: “I baptize with water,” he answered the “priests and the Levites” who had been sent to him. “But among you stands one you do not know, even he who comes after me, the strap of whose sandal I am not worthy to untie.” “I am drawing all of the attention now,” John told them. “But shortly the One whose coming I now announce will appear and upon Him all your attention must needs be focused.” John the Baptist understood his mission was to prepare the way for Christ, and then get out of the way. He would later declare, “He (Jesus) must increase, but I must decrease” (John 3:30).
We are not immediately told if the representatives from the Pharisees were satisfied with John’s answers, but they must have gone on their way, returning to the ones who sent them and filing their report.
Verse 29 advances the timeline to “the next day.”
The Apostle John began his Gospel account by identifying Jesus as “the Word” ...none other than the eternal God who had created “all things” (cf. John 1:1-2). In verse 14, he revealed that this “Word became flesh and dwelt among us.” The author’s lens has narrowed from eternity to history to a specific point in time. God the Creator had stepped into the world He created in the form of a Man. That Man would live among us, but never once be tainted by the sin of His fellow man. For more than thirty years, He would show us what God is like and succeed in paying the ultimate price to reconcile unrighteous humanity to holy and righteous Deity.
So here in verses 29 through 34, John the writer makes reference to the incarnate nature of this God who became Man. It is here that we, along with the original readers of this account are given...
The identification of Jesus the Christ (1:29-34).
Verse 28 tells us that John was baptizing near a place known as “Bethany,” located on the eastern shore of the Jordan River. We cannot be exactly certain where this site may have been, but there is a place marked off for tourists and pilgrims that is purported to be the precise location where John baptized Jesus (cf. Matthew 3:13-17).
That event, which marked the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry, had likely already occurred by the time made his announcement in verse 29, “Behold the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world.” Commenting on this statement, S. Lewis Johnson said, “It is in John’s great ‘behold,’ that our need is met.” And, indeed, it surely is.
The figure of “the Lamb” takes us back to many Old Testament images.
- We think of Abraham trudging up Mount Moriah with his young son, Isaac, about to offer him as a sacrifice in obedience to his God. We hear Isaac asking his father, “Behold, the fire and the wood, but where is the lamb for a burnt offering?” followed by Abraham’s confident reply, “God will provide for himself the lamb for a burnt offering, my son” (cf. Genesis 22:1-14). And while his faith was rewarded that day through God’s gracious provision, the greater fulfillment of that statement awaited “the Lamb of God, who (would take away) the sin of the world.” Jesus was the “Lamb.”
- And then we think of the slain Passover lamb in Exodus (12:1-3), whose blood was applied to the lintel and doorposts of the houses so that those residing in those homes would be spared the plague of death. That Passover lamb was a foreshadowing of “the Lamb of God, who (would take away) the sin of the world.” Jesus was that “Lamb.”
- But the clearest Old Testament image that we find comes from Isaiah 53(:4-12), in that prophet’s graphic portrayal of the brutal death that Jesus would die in becoming “the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world.” As a “lamb that is led to the slaughter,” Jesus Christ carried “our transgression” and “our iniquities” to the cross so that we—the very ones who deserved to die the death that He absorbed in our place—might live. Jesus was that “Lamb.”
Please notice that the text says that Jesus “takes away the sin (not sins) of the world.” While both statements are true, the point of the text is that Jesus’ sacrifice dealt not only with our repeated “acts of sin,” but with the very nature—or source—of “sin” itself. The blood that poured from His veins went to the very root of our sin problem. Like the persistent weeds that grow in our yard each summer, we can cut them off at the top when we mow our lawn but we cannot keep them from returning unless we dig down pull them up by the root. That is what the sacrifice of Jesus Christ did in terms of our “sin.”
In Romans 7 we read of the Apostle Paul’s agonizing struggle to overcome sinful practices in his life, despite his very best efforts. It is a description of the battle that every follower of Christ fights and will continue to fight until the Lord calls him from this fallen world. If you are sincerely hoping to live obediently, then Romans 7 describes you and your daily striving. But praise God for the first verse of Romans 8, which reads, “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.” Did you hear that? “No condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.”
The singular “sin” of John 1:29 speaks to the nature—the “root”—of our guilt. What is “the sin of the world?” In a word, it is “unbelief.” And it is this sin of “unbelief” that the death of Jesus overcame on behalf of all who would call upon Him. But not everyone “believes.” This is not, therefore, a reference to “universal salvation.” All people do not go to heaven when they die...no even so-called “good” people.
What we find here in this statement is a broadening of “the call” to salvation for Gentiles as well as for Jews. Think of it this way: the atonement Jesus provided was not a call to everyone without exception, but it was a call to all without distinction. It is critical that we be clear on this point: Jesus—“the Lamb of God”—did not “take away” (remove) “the sin” of every person...only for those who would trust in Him and follow Him. May God help us to lay hold of that truth, and may He lead us to critically examine ourselves to be certain that we are numbered among His “elect” (cf. 2 Corinthians 13:5).
The testimony of John the Baptist concerning the identity of Jesus makes up the remainder of this section. Verse 30 is basically a reiteration of what had earlier been said in verse 15. I believe it is stated twice in this chapter to reinforce the pre-existent and pre-eminent nature of Christ. Although John was six months older than Jesus (cf. Luke 1:26), Jesus—this “Lamb of God”—existed as the second member of the Godhead from long before time began. Because that was so, He outranked John in both person and position.
It was not until Jesus submitted Himself to John’s baptism that John recognized Him as the promised Messiah. “I myself did not know him,” He testified. The two were related, you recall, but it was not until that moment—in God’s sovereign timing—that Jesus was “revealed” to be that One. And that revelation to John marked the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry.
What was it that caused John’s eyes to be opened to the unveiling of “the Lamb”...“the Word (become) flesh”? He tells us in verses 32 and 33: “I saw the Spirit descend from heaven like a dove, and it remained on him. I myself did not know him, but he who sent me to baptize with water said to me, ‘He on whom you see the Spirit descend and remain, this is he who baptizes with the Holy Spirit."
In Old Testament times, God would often grant the Spirit to come upon a person in order to enable him for a specific task. Once that task was completed, the Spirit would then depart. One of the recognizing features of the Messiah would be that the Spirit would “descend...and...remain on him.” John states this twice in this passage, and the Apostle John will later add in chapter 3(:34) that the Holy Spirit was given to Christ “without measure.” According to Isaiah (11:2, 42:1, and 61:1), this would be one of the distinguishing marks of the Messiah. The abiding presence of the Spirit was how He would be known and recognized.
Although we cannot be certain what John visibly saw—all four of the Gospel writers testify that “the Spirit” came upon Him “as (or ‘like’) a dove”—it was of such a nature that it confirmed to John that this was the one whose arrival he had been “sent from God” (cf. John 1:6) to announce.
It would be He who would “(baptize His people) with the Holy Spirit.” That phrase was in fulfillment of another great prophetic passage...this one given to Ezekiel. Speaking of the New Covenant that He would shortly make with His people, the Lord said, “I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you shall be clean from all your uncleanness, and from all your idols I will cleanse you. And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules” (Ezekiel 36:25-27).
Luke 3:22 tells us that John the Baptist heard the confirming voice of God at the time of Jesus’ baptism. The Father spoke at that moment and said of Jesus, “You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased.” So, here in verse 34, John verbally affirms that testimony with these words: “And I have seen and have borne witness that this is the Son of God.” It was his authentication of the transforming significance that Jesus’ coming would have...not only for him, but for all who would “receive him...(and believe) in his name” (cf. John 1:12).
Eyewitness testimony has been the decisive factor in legal cases at least since biblical times (cf. Deuteronomy 17:6-7). Since the advent of DNA study, however, its reliability has fallen under scrutiny. It is estimated that as many as 70 percent of wrongful convictions are due to inaccurate eyewitness statements. Never has the credibility of a witness who has been called to testify been more important.
In the opening chapter of this Gospel record, both John the Apostle and John the Baptist bear testimony to “the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world.” That “Lamb” is identified as none other that Jesus Christ, the unique “Son of God”...the One who took upon Himself the role of the sacrificial “Lamb” in order to fully atone for the “sin” of His people.
That “testimony” will be later be confirmed when the Book of Revelation repeatedly assures us that this “Lamb—“the Lamb who was slain”—fully accomplished His mission on behalf of people “from every tribe and language and people and nation” (cf. Revelation 5:9-12). With that work complete, that same One shall reign not as a “Lamb” but as a “Lion” (cf. Revelation 5:5). He came the first time gentle and meek and some “received” Him. But when He returns—and He will most certainly return—He will gather His own to Himself and settle accounts with those who have rejected Him. But as sure as Scripture is true, every eye will “behold” Him and acknowledge Him as Sovereign Lord.
The credibility of the one who testifies on behalf of Jesus Christ has never been more critical than in our day. With so many “false gospels” resulting in so many counterfeit professions of faith, the voice of truth needs—more than ever—to be sounded forth by those whose lives match their words. The Church and every follower of Jesus Christ has been commissioned by their Lord be “witnesses” on His behalf (cf. Acts 1:8), and to “reproduce” themselves by “making disciples” of others until He returns (cf. Matthew 28:19).
Is your life of such a Gospel-receiving, Bible-believing character—one that images the Lord Jesus, whom you profess to know—that others are compelled to know Him and follow Him as well? Or is your life merely a shallow misrepresentation of the One whose incomparable beauty and worth will one day be fully revealed for all to see?
See Him now! And see Him clearly! Fall before Him in worship and adoration! Then go, and compel others to see Him and worship Him as well.
He is, after all, “the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world.”