Behold, the Lamb of God

“John the Baptist Points to the Christ” by Bartolome Esteban Murillo

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The next day [John] 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.’ I myself did not know Him, but for this purpose I came baptizing with water, that He might be revealed to Israel.” And John bore witness: “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.’ And I have seen and have borne witness that this is the Son of God” (John 1:29-34).

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ!

Well-versed in Scripture, the disciples of John the Baptist knew all about the lambs. There were stories of one-time sacrifices, like Abraham and Isaac, who climbed that mountain together. Isaac innocently asked where the sacrifice was. Abraham replied, “God will provide for Himself the lamb for a burnt offering, my son” (Genesis 22:8). And so it proved to be. Just as Abraham lifted the knife to sacrifice his only son, the Lord pointed him to a ram, caught by his horns in a thicket. The ram was sacrificed that day in Isaac’s place.

There were the annual sacrifices, where the people of Israel remembered the Exodus by the sacrifice of a lamb for Passover supper. They were to recall how the Lord saved the firstborn because the angel passed over the doors marked by the blood of the lamb. The lamb died; the firstborn sons lived (Exodus 13:13).

And then there were the twice-daily sacrifices at the temple. Morning and evening, a lamb was sacrificed by the priests as the Tamid, a regular burnt offering, in accordance with God’s command (Exodus 29:38-42; Numbers 28:1-10).

John’s disciples knew all about these lambs, because with these sacrifices the Lord constantly held the theme before them. Lambs shed their blood and died. And because lambs shed their blood and died, people lived. Century after century, the Lord had kept this message in the faces of His people, with good reason. They were to look for the Lamb of God, the One who would save them all.

God’s people, however, had not always sacrificed well. Rather than sacrifice to remember the Savior who was coming, they repeatedly got it in their heads that they were saved by their work of sacrificing. “As long as we kill these lambs on schedule, we’ll be keeping God’s rules and He’ll be pleased with us. We’ll work our way to heaven by the flocks that we offer.”

That was precisely not the point that the Lord was trying to make. The lamb was supposed to remind them that their Savior was coming, not that they could save themselves. So the Lord declared, again and again through His prophets, words like these: “What to Me is the multitude of your sacrifices?… I have had enough of burnt offerings of rams and the fat of well-fed beasts; I do not delight in the blood of bulls, or of lambs, or of goats” (Isaiah 1:11).

In the Baptist’s day, it wasn’t any better. Oh, the lambs were still sacrificed twice a day, but for the wrong reasons. The sacrifices had become business as the moneychangers and priests worked them for profit. And with the Pharisees’ influence, many believed that heaven was theirs because they kept the rules and killed the lambs. So these disciples find themselves far from the temple in the wilderness, following John the Baptist who declares the Savior is coming soon.

Very soon. On this very day, as John preaches to the crowd about the Savior, He’s there in the crowd. There He is—Jesus, the long-awaited Savior who made John jump before he was born. The Word made flesh. The One who will baptize with the Holy Spirit and with fire. The One who comes after John, but who is still greater than John, the thong of whose sandal John isn’t worthy to untie.

It’s John’s job to point to this Savior, and so He does. He singles out Jesus in the crowd and declares, “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1:29). The Savior is the Lamb of God. That makes sense. Isaac was saved by a lamb, as were the firstborn sons at Passover. It makes sense to call the Savior the Lamb. He takes away the sin of the world. Of course, lambs aren’t exactly known as fierce creatures able to battle death and the devil. But then again, the prophet Isaiah declared that the Savior would be gentle. Remember from last week’s Old Testament lesson? “A bruised reed He will not break, and a faintly burning wick He will not quench” (Isaiah 42:3).

But the unsettling part is this. When John calls Jesus “the Lamb of God,” he also announces that there’s suffering and death ahead. The Lamb will save by dying. That’s what lambs do. The lamb who saved Isaac didn’t live to tell the tale, nor did the Passover lambs or the two-per-day at the temple. Lambs saved by dying, and this, too, had been told of the Lamb of God. “He was oppressed, and He was afflicted, yet He opened not His mouth; like a lamb to the slaughter, and like a sheep before her shearers is silent, so He did not open His mouth” (Isaiah 53:7).

Jesus is the Savior, and the Savior is the Lamb of God. The Lamb is destined to suffer and die. Who’s going to follow a Savior like that? (Pause)

By faith, John’s disciples do. Trusting in the Word of the Lord proclaimed by John, they’re willing to abandon all and follow Him. They don’t keep it to themselves, either. Right away, Andrew’s telling Peter. It doesn’t seem to make sense. They follow a Savior who’ll never amount to much in worldly terms, a King who will never gather an army to fight and conquer. They’ll put their trust in the Son of God who’ll allow Himself to be arrested, beaten, spat upon, and killed.

And after He is risen, what will happen to His disciples? They’ll tell others of Jesus, and they too will be arrested, beaten, spat upon, and killed. Not especially attractive to the world. But that’s how the Savior saves. He’s not there to make peace with the world, but with God. And the only way to make peace with God is to sacrifice Himself for the sins of the world. And the world which puts Him to death won’t care to treat His disciples any better.

But by faith they know the Lamb is the Savior. There might be more attractive messiahs to follow, but only this One takes away the sins of the world. Therefore, Christians should expect suffering, but realize that forgiveness and eternal life are even more certain—because of the Lamb (1 Peter 2:21-25).

“Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1:29). This text is full of rich treasures for us, but let’s concentrate on two.

With these words, John teaches us much about worship and about suffering. When it comes to worship, there’s always a dangerous idea that seeks to change what worship is. It’s the idea that “Worship is all about what I do.” Back in the Old Testament, as we mentioned before, it was tempting for worshipers to believe, “As long as I make the trip and sacrifice a lamb, God will be pleased with me.” But the Lord made it abundantly clear He was not.

In our day, it’s still easy for the Old Adam to rear his ugly head and reason, “As long as I attend services, this is what pleases God. If I show up for the head count on Sunday morning, He’ll reward me with forgiveness.” This, dear friends, is actually a religion of salvation by works. It says, in effect, “God forgives me because of my work of showing up.” It also betrays a lack of love on our part. If you want to get into big trouble very quickly, try saying to a loved one, “I’m only here and talking to you because I feel like I have to.” We’re usually wise enough not to speak such words to people, yet our Old Adam makes it seem perfectly reasonable to communicate the same to God with our actions.

Another variation is the idea that worship is about the love that we show for God on Sunday morning by our praises and thanksgiving—the things that we do on Sunday morning. The rationale makes perfect sense. Jesus has done so much for us, and worship is an opportunity for us to give something back by showing Him our adoration. I would venture to say that this is the idea of worship in most American Christian churches today. Just listen to the songs they sing. They emphasize worship is our chance to show our love and devotion to God, and God is pleased by a worship service in which we emphasize our love for Him. Therefore, worship is about what we do for God.

But then we hear John’s cry, “Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!” The Church was wise, and early on this proclamation was added to the liturgy. We sing it today in the Gloria in excelsis: “O Lamb of God, our Savior, You take our sins away.” We sing it just before the Lord’s Supper in the Agnus Dei: “O Jesus Christ, true Lamb of God, You take the sin of the world away; O Jesus Christ true Lamb of God, have mercy on us, Lord, we pray.” In doing so, we make a crucial point: Our Lord Jesus Christ is not somewhere far away. He is here—really present, body-and-blood present—here, in the Lord’s Supper, His Word, and Holy Baptism.

John sees Jesus present at the Jordan and cries out, “Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!” Trusting His Word that He is just as present with us, we sing the same. The Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world is here! Now! And that, dear friends, turns worship into something much more than our praise and thanksgiving. Our Lord is the guest of honor, and He is here to work—to take away our sin by giving us forgiveness. Therefore, worship is not about us and what we do or how we feel—it’s about Him and what He does!

Our Lutheran Confessions get it exactly right when they say that “The highest worship in the Gospel is the desire to receive the forgiveness of sins” (Ap. IV:310). In other words, God the Father declares, “Do you want to please Me in worship? You’ll never please Me more than when you receive My gift of forgiveness. My Son has died to give you that gift. You please Me when you honor My Son. Therefore, don’t try to please Me by your own efforts, by trying to give Me something. I have all that I need, thank you. If you want to please Me, be given to. Gladly receive the forgiveness that My Son has died to give you. Receive the forgiveness that My Risen Son is present to give you now.”

That’s who worship is about—the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. If we must go into surgery, it is not what we do that brings healing, but what the physician does to us. Likewise, the Lamb of God is here in worship. It is not what we do that brings healing, but what the Great Physician does as He heals us of our sin. That’s why we cling to the truth of the Agnus Dei and sing of the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. As we sing, we confess the truth that the Lamb is here, and He is here to forgive.

Worship is about the Lamb of God, who comes to take away our sin. Therefore, we repent of other ideas of worship, that the focus is our worship of God. And as we repent, we rejoice that the Lamb is here to forgive our sins.

John’s proclamation of the Lamb of God also gives us comfort in suffering. No one likes to suffer yet suffering inevitably comes. It may come in the form of physical distress or emotional pain. It may be the suffering of a spiritual desert, or concern for a church body that’s in turmoil. You may suffer because of pain that you experience, or because of the pain that a loved one is experiencing.

Suffering must come. When it does come, the devil makes use of it. He begins to whisper things like, “Obviously, God cares little for you—you must have done something unforgivable,” and “Do you really think that God is around at a time like this? Face it. He’s left you behind.”

Such temptations can be easy to repel for a while, but suffering has a way of grinding us down until we have little defense left—just ask Job. Therefore, the devil keeps tightening the screws, and he especially whispers such evil when death is approaching—after all, it’s his last shot to coax us into abandoning the Lord.

But when the devil whispers such lies into our ears, we do well to repeat the words of John the Baptist. “Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!” For with these words, you announce two important, comforting truths amid suffering. First, your Savior is the Lamb of God. He has suffered and died to take away your sin. Furthermore, He tells you that you will have no better treatment at the hands of this world than He did.

Therefore, when you are tempted to believe that some suffering should not be yours if you are truly a Christian, you can say, “I know better than that. The Son of God Himself endured suffering and death, so I cannot expect to be exempt from it. Furthermore, He suffered and died for me—and then He rose! Therefore, I know that this suffering is a temporary thing because He will raise me, too.”

Second, you announce that the Lamb of God is not far away, nor has He abandoned you. He is as near to you as His Word and His Supper. As you hear His Word of forgiveness and receive His body and blood, you can be confident that the Lamb who has already suffered and died will keep and shepherd you through all things, even the valley of the shadow of death.

In suffering, we declare, “Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!” This truth short-circuits the devil’s ploy, for suffering then does not drive a wedge between God and us. Rather, it teaches us how faithless and trouble-filled this world is—and how faithful God remains.

“Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!” What marvelous truth these words still declare: that the Lord Jesus Christ is present with us here to forgive our sins, to give us faith and eternal life. No wonder we respond by faith. No wonder we, like those first disciples, tell others about this Savior who has died for their sins, too. No wonder we respond to the Lord’s presence with tithes and offerings so that this message can continue to be heard. We respond by faith in these ways because of this glorious news: Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world! For His sake: You are forgiven for all your sins.

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are from the Holy Bible, English Standard Version, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

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