The Lamb of God (March 1, 2015)

Scripture Passage and Lesson Focus: John 1:29-34

The Gospel of John abounds in memorable images describing Jesus: the Good Shepherd, the Vine, the Light, the Word, the Resurrection and the Life, the Bread of Life. In today’s passage, John witnesses to Jesus as the Lamb of God.

The Lamb of God has become such a familiar image that it may come as a surprise to discover that the two occurrences in our passage are the only times it appears in the gospels. It has become enshrined in the Christian liturgical tradition as the Agnus Dei, Latin for “Lamb of God,” and sung for centuries as an integral part of Christian worship. Protestants may also be familiar with a line from the hymn “Just As I Am” which says “ … O Lamb of God, I come.”

John 1:29-31: God’s eternal Son
The person describing Jesus as the Lamb of God is often called John the Baptist or John the Baptizer in the Synoptic Gospels. But in the Gospel of John he is not identified in that way. He is God’s messenger, a prophet crying out in the wilderness. The Swiss Reformed theologian Karl Barth was especially fond of a painting by Matthias Grünewald in which John the Baptist’s outstretched finger points to Jesus on the cross. The purpose of Christian theology, he said, is to point to Christ the way John the messenger did.

John says that Jesus is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin (singular) of the world. Here, sin is understood as a condition, a real power that is a constant anti-God force in all human life. The power of sin is manifest in the many sinful acts committed by human beings against God and our fellow human beings.

John’s use of the image of the lamb is rooted in the tradition of sacrificial sin offerings carried out in the temple by the priests of ancient Israel (Leviticus 4). Exodus 12:3-8 prescribes the sacrifice of a lamb at the observance of Passover. Isaiah 53:6-7 employs a similar image to describe the silent suffering servant, who is “like a lamb that is led to the slaughter.”

The earliest followers of Jesus interpreted his death on the cross in terms of the Passover lamb. Philip in his conversation with the Ethiopian official quotes Isaiah 53 to explain the death of Jesus (Acts 8:32-33). Paul in 1 Corinthians 5:7b refers to Christ as “our paschal lamb.” 1 Peter 1:18-19 also contains the image of the sacrificial lamb. Revelation 5:6-14 and 14:1-5 have the same image but different terminology to describe the resurrected Jesus as a lamb.

In this passage, John testifies almost parenthetically that Jesus “was before me.” In the opening chapter of his gospel, John the evangelist has identified Jesus as the eternal Word of God who was with God in the beginning. Here again, in Jesus’ final words with his disciples, the evangelist links Jesus with the pre-existent Logos mentioned in John 1.

John 1:31-33: Holy Spirit baptism
John the messenger, along with the rest of Israel, needs to know Jesus. The gospel writer is referring to knowledge not merely as intellectual awareness, but as acknowledgment rooted in faith in Jesus as God’s Son. John came to that knowledge when he saw God’s Spirit descending on Jesus at his baptism. John was only baptizing with water, but Jesus came to baptize with God’s Holy Spirit.

Baptism with the Holy Spirit (i.e., baptism that bestows the gift of the Holy Spirit upon the person baptized) endows the person who believes in Jesus with a distinctive identity. The Gospel of John will describe the Holy Spirit as the Paraclete in chapter 14.

John 1:34: Who is Jesus?
Even John the messenger of God did not know Jesus’ true identity until a sign from God enabled him to recognize that Jesus really was the Son of God. That sign was the descending dove that remained on Jesus’ head at his baptism. John emphatically asserts that he himself has seen the Son of God. Moreover, John now publicly declares and testifies that Jesus is God’s Son.

For discussion
How is the account of Jesus’ baptism in the Gospel of John different from the baptism of Jesus as recorded in the Synoptic Gospels? What is the difference between John’s baptism with water and Jesus’ baptism with the Holy Spirit? When did Jesus baptize with the Holy Spirit? Were you baptized with the Holy Spirit when you were baptized?