By Robert Falconer
John the Baptiser turns and sees his cousin, the Messiah, walking towards him along the water’s edge. His face lights up with joy-filled delight, and he bellows out the redemptive and victorious proclamation, ‘Behold, the Lamb of God, 1 who takes away the sin of the world!’ (John 1:29). For the Judaeans of the day, John’s proclamation was unforgettable.
There were many lambs for sacrifice, but Jesus is the ultimate, superior lamb, who unlike other sacrificial lambs, “takes away” or “blots out” the sin of the world. The verb αἴρων, “takes away,” in the present tense with a future force, and ἁμαρτίαν, “sin,” 2 in the singular, refers to the utter removal of the totality of the world’s sin as well its underlying power. The Passover and its sacrificial lamb in the Old Testament narrative extend towards its fulfilment in the New Testament Eucharist, and then towards the eschatological hope, and eschatological kingdom (Rev. 5:5-10), pulling together the past and future in Christ’s eucharistic supper.
In John 1:29, John the Baptist is not primarily thinking about a collection of individual misdeeds, but rather something far more serious and ominous. He proclaims that this Lamb of God takes away the sin of the world. This sin is an active, malevolent agency bent upon despoiling, imprisonment, and death, seeking to utterly undo God’s purpose. Jesus himself tells of the power of sin when he says, “I say to you, everyone who practices sin is a slave to sin” (John 8:34). Likewise Paul writes, “For we have already charged that all, both Jews and Greeks, are under sin” (Romans 3:9b). Sin is our cosmic enemy! To be sure, individual sins are a grave matter in the New Testament (e.g. Mark 1:4-5; 2:5; 1 Cor. 15:3.). And yet, it is not enough for us to say that we are held in bondage to sin, for the result is that we were active, enlisted agents of sin.
Prior to the atoning work of Christ, all humankind was enslaved by the strange power of sin, which had to be destroyed, liberating people from its control.
Sin is more than wrongdoing or grievous actions, it is an infectious illness that has enslaved us in its dark grip, and so sin is not ultimately something we commit, but rather something that we are in. And yet there is no escape from this deathly power, apart from the atoning work of Jesus Christ in his crucifixion and resurrection. Moreover, as God’s Lamb, Jesus takes upon himself the sin, not merely of Israel, but of the entire world. The idea that the Messiah would suffer for the totality of the sins of the world and overcome sin’s power, rather than merely of Israel’s sin, was foreign to Judaean first-century ears; but John makes clear that Jesus came to save the entire world (John 3:17; 1 John 2:2) and that he is its Saviour (John 4:42; 1 John 4:14).
While Jesus certainly dies for the forgiveness of our individual sins, John’s statement is so much more powerful because it describes humanity’s dreadful predicament under the dark power of sin and the indescribable power of Christ’s sacrificial death.
1 The phrase “Lamb of God” carries with it at least four distinct traditions, each of which enjoys a complexity and richness of its own: (1) The Apocalyptic Lamb. In Jewish apocalyptic literature, there is a militant lamb who destroys evil. (2) The Lamb as the Suffering Servant of Isaiah 53. In Isaiah 53:7, the innocent, vicariously suffering Servant is depicted as a lamb, an image that almost certainly lies behind 1 Peter 2:23-24. (3) The Lamb as the Sin Offering of Leviticus 14. The slaughtered Lamb becomes a symbol of the cost of Israel’s redemption, indeed the redemption of the whole world. (4) The Passover Lamb. Most people, including many Gentiles, knew about the slaughtered lamb that was a central feature of the Passover rite. All four traditions hold true, but it is the Passover Lamb that the Gospel of John gives primary emphasis. For the Judaeans, the Passover lamb contained powerful symbolism attached to ideas of deliverance which implies victory, and the forgiveness of sins and messianic salvation.
2 ἁμαρτία (sin) is in the accusative singular, rather than the plural, ἁμαρτίας (sins).