John the Baptist first described Jesus as the “Lamb of God.” This title is full of meaning and significance about the Jewish sacrificial system and the Pentateuch. The declaration that Jesus is the “Lamb of God” contains so much significance and meaning as to be almost beyond comprehension. The Fourth Gospel records two instances, John 1:25-30 and 1:35-37 when the Baptizer testified of Jesus when He came to John after His temptations in the wilderness. John, led by the Holy Spirit, recognized and identified Jesus as the Messiah. The likely reason Jesus came to John after being away for several weeks was to begin gathering disciples. Since the teachings and doctrines of Jesus and John were similar in many areas, it should not be surprising the disciples of John would have been familiar with some of the basic doctrines that Jesus taught.
In the way of background, the Pharisees and Levites came to John when he was preaching and baptizing at Bethany to ascertain his authority to minister and the legitimacy of his teaching. There were two towns known as Bethany at the time of Jesus; one stood to the southeast of Jerusalem on the road to Jericho, and the other, where John was ministering, was on the east side of the Jordan River, the region known as the Transjordan. There are questions as to the actual location and name of this second place because there is no record of a town in the area by that name. Many scholars believe the proper name for this location was not Bethany but Bethabara, which was, in fact, on the banks of the Jordan River. This idea does have some merit and has the support of early writers. Scholars have made comments how, in the original language, it would be possible to confuse the two names.
The Levites who came to question him were, as stationed by Moses, dedicated to Temple service and its functions. The Pharisees were one of the major Jewish religious groups at the time of Jesus and very influential in the daily life of the Jewish people. The beginnings of the Pharisee sect trace back to the Babylonian exile. During this seventy-year period, the Jews met to encourage and comfort one another. This practice of meeting would mark the beginnings of the synagogue. They also sought to distance themselves from the pagan Babylonian culture to maintain their religious traditions. This effort became, by the time of Nehemiah, a drive to return to the purity of Mosaic Law. During this period, the Pharisees gained their unique identity. The goal of the Pharisees was simple: to find Scriptural guidance for every possible situation so as to maintain ceremonial purity. The word Pharisee means to separate or one who has been separated. At first, this meant separation from the pollution of sin and abomination (Ezra 6:21, Nehemiah 9:2), but over time, it came also to mean to be set apart from others, in particular, Samaritans, Gentiles, and tax collectors.
We should commend the Pharisees for their zealous application of the Law in such areas as purity, Sabbath, and diet. They were strict in their avoidance of anything that might cause ceremonial uncleanness. During the development of their religious thought, the Pharisees developed a theology, interpretation, and application of the Law that became as important as the law itself. Their excesses in piety and legalism prompted Jesus to criticize the Pharisees. In many ways, the Pharisees were exemplary in their devotion and zeal to honor God. Interestingly, Jesus and the Pharisees shared a deep commitment to apply God’s will to every area of life, and many of His teachings were similar to those taught by the Pharisees.
The Pharisees and Levites did not, incidentally, come to question John the Baptist on the act of baptism itself but to question the authority by which John was baptizing. The act of baptism itself was not uncommon; anyone who converted to Judaism underwent baptism, and those of Qumran baptized themselves daily, in fact. The difference between these baptisms and the baptism of John the Baptist was that John or one of his disciples administered the baptism rather than the individual performing self-baptism. In addition to this unusual twist, the appearance and preaching of John the Baptist were much like the prophets of old. “However much his public conduct and the spirit and power of his preaching of repentance reminded people of Elijah, John himself rejected any notion that he would identify his coming with that of Elijah or of the Prophet.” [i] Since John said he was not Elijah or the Prophet, the religious leaders sought to find by what authority he was baptizing and the meaning of what John spoke of the coming kingdom. The belief at the time of Jesus was that Elijah would return before the day of the Lord, and the Prophet would also come before the Messiah. While Jesus told John the Baptist was Elijah (Matthew 11:14, Mark 9:13) and he did resemble the prophet of old in many ways, scholars believe Jesus referred to how John was the typological fulfillment of prophecy. John the Baptist also said he was not the Prophet Moses foretold would come. After John had denied being the Messiah, the issue became whether he was one of the great figures from the Old Testament to prepare the way for the Messiah.
The next day, John saw Jesus coming to him and proclaimed Him the “Lamb of God.” There is some question as to this statement both in what John said and his meaning. The basis of this debate is that we do not find the expression “Lamb of God” anywhere else in the New Testament outside of this Gospel, so there is nothing with which to compare or explain. The word for lamb in this passage is “amnos” and is only found in this passage twice (1:26, 36), Acts 8:32 which quotes Isaiah 53:7, and 1 Peter 1:19. As Dodd points out, the passage in 1 Peter does not call Jesus a lamb but likens His blood to a sacrificial lamb. The same word is in the LXX 101 times, and of these instances, 82 refer to sacrificial lambs. Scholars have weighed in on the discussion about the original language. A good point from these discussions is that the Aramaic word can mean “lamb” or “servant.” We find the same word “servant” in Isaiah 52:13; thus, one could argue John the Baptist meant “servant” instead of “lamb,” but the intent and purpose is virtually the same for both terms. As the following discussion of “lamb” indicates, there are viable arguments for John to have spoken “the Lamb of God,” but some of the points are tenuous. If he had said “the Servant of God,” it would be more consistent with other statements about Jesus and various prophecies about Him, but the passage in question uses the word “lamb.”
If the phrase “Lamb of God” is the correct translation, there are a couple of things to which the speaker of these words could have been referring, but the specifics are unclear. Dodd and Brown believe he was referring to Jewish Apocalyptic literature that speaks of a conquering lamb that would destroy evil and emerge victorious over the enemies of God. The lamb would crush the evil beasts and trample them underfoot. In the book of Enoch, “the people of God is presented symbolically as a flock, and its successive leaders as sheep or rams, bell-weathers, we might say, which from time to time lead the flock.” [ii] In the New Testament, the book of Revelation refers to the conquering lamb that would crush its enemies. This picture of the lamb sitting on the throne with God, dispensing judgment, and being victorious over evil is certainly consistent with the message of John to repent and his warning of the coming wrath of God. Matthew and Mark both record John’s warning of the axe at the trunk of the tree, the imminent destruction of the trees that did not produce good fruit, and the winnowing fork that would come and sweep clear the threshing floor and separate the wheat from the chaff. While these arguments are valid, the passages in question are open to different interpretations. The lamb to which the Apostle John referred in Revelation has horns but also contains the image of the crucified, now exalted. So the lamb could be first the sacrifice for sin and later Revelation’s one of judgment.
We must remember, though, the context and audience for the words of John the Baptist. The essential theme of his message is repentance and forgiveness of sin while wrath and judgment are a subordinate concept probably meant to encourage his listeners to repent and seek forgiveness. The lamb was a reminder of the sacrificial system the Jews had known for generations in their dealings with God. “He was dealing with the Jews, who were used to sacrifices and could not be taught about atonement for their sins in any other way than in terms of sacrifice.” [iii] John probably took the concept of the sacrifice to convey his point about repentance and the coming judgment. Edersheim writes that if more “proof were required, that, when John pointed out Jesus walking toward them, with these word: ‘Behold, the Lamb of God,’ he meant more than His gentleness, meekness, and humility, it would be supplied by the qualifying explanation, ‘which takes away the sin of the world.’” [iv] As Calvin notes, John taught in the vernacular of his audience, and this would be the interpretation of this passage. It could also bd stated that John was preaching that the coming Lamb of God would be both a sacrifice and also a judge in the day of wrath with a winnowing fork to separate the wheat from the chaff.
Several passages in the Old Testament refer to the sacrifice of lambs, and as the son of a priest, John the Baptist would surely have known these passages including Genesis 22:8, Exodus 12:3-4, 13, and Leviticus 14:21-22, 24-25. Abraham, in the interesting Genesis passage, referenced a lamb as the sacrifice. Later in the same passage, a lamb became the substitute sacrifice for Abraham’s only son, Isaac. However, there is no mention of the sacrifice taking away sin. Because it is feasible to interpret the Old Testament as a progressive revelation, we can easily view this event in the life of Abraham as a step in the process of explaining the concept of sacrifice and atonement. The first concept is one of sacrifice. The reference from Exodus concerns the Passover lamb, and the Passover was approaching.
To connect the lamb of John the Baptist with the paschal lamb is, of course, tempting, but the problem is the word for lamb in Exodus is not the same as spoken by John, and the sacrificial animal was not always a lamb. Another objection is that the Passover was not truly atonement, but this objection is not accurate because all sacrifice is, to some degree, atonement. However, the general theme of the Passover lamb is of redemption, and this may have been behind the reference to the Lamb of God. The relationship between the Passover Lamb and the sacrifice of Jesus also seems to be legitimate because references to it are found so often in this Gospel it is almost impossible to miss or overlook their theological importance.
The passage in Leviticus refers to a lamb offering, but the difficulty here is that a lamb is not typically the sacrificial animal, but a ram. A similar passage in the twenty-second chapter of Leviticus tells of a sacrifice able to escape, but this animal is a scapegoat, so any inference to the sacrifice of Jesus is tenuous at best. Jeremiah 11:19 and Isaiah 53:3-7 speak of sacrificial lambs in an allegorical sense, and it could be John the Baptist referred to one of both of these. The problem with these passages is they do not fit with John’s preaching on repentance and impending judgment.
Also, the association between the lamb and the Messiah is not clear at the time of Jesus, although it may have been given to John so he would verbalize the symbolism. The basis for this suggestion is that the Baptizer referred to the fortieth chapter of Isaiah the previous day when describing himself and his role. As this examination of Scripture reveals, it is difficult to find a solid source for the symbolism of a Lamb taking away the sins of the world. Some scholars opine a more accurate translation of what John the Baptist said is a parallel to “Son” of God in verse thirty-four, but this argument is not convincing. It is likely that John the Baptist combined aspects of the Old Testament sacrificial system or that the sacrifice of Jesus fulfilled perfectly all of the allusions to sacrifice in the Jewish Scriptures.
The Baptist proclaimed the Lamb of God as taking away the sins of the world. In the original language, John’s phrase “of God” could mean “provided by God” or “belonging to God.” The verb John spoke means to “rise up,” and it could also refer to the actual taking away of the sins of the world, a particularly Johannine expression of what the slain lamb symbolizes. It is entirely possible John the Baptist referred to all three illustrations. “All of the wealth of the Old Testament symbolism in the sacrifices of the patriarchs and the Mosaic Law throws weight on this title, for it shows Jesus to be the sin-bearer, the Passover, the innocent substitute dying in our place.” [v] As we can see the Old Testament pointing to the messianic role of Jesus, these passages reveal different aspects of the sacrifice and expand the revelation about God’s plans for salvation.
Another potential problem with John’s declaration of Jesus being the “Lamb of God” is that this recognition of Jesus as the Messiah so early in His ministry could be a bit of historical revisionism by the author. Some scholars question whether he fully understood the sacrificial purpose of Jesus. We can see this confusion when he later sent his disciples to Jesus questioning whether He was the Messiah or if they should wait for another. It was not until Caesarea Philippi when the disciples formally confessed Jesus as Messiah (Matthew 16:13-20). However, it is obvious John the Baptist was aware the person whom he baptized would be the Messiah whom the Spirit would designate. While John the Baptist likely knew Jesus, it was not until the Spirit indicated Jesus was the Messiah that his spiritual eyes opened to Jesus’ true identity.
The method of identifying the chosen was, as the Gospels explain, the heavens opening and the Spirit, as a dove, symbolic of both love and sorrow, descending and remaining upon Jesus. The Spirit resting on Jesus contained the idea of permanence. “The Holy Spirit came on individuals in Old Testament times to enlighten or empower. He came and went. His work was intermittent. He came to remain on the Lord Jesus.” [vi] We see another symbolic aspect of the dove its presence at the conclusion of the Great Flood in Genesis. The dove represented new life, which was also what Jesus represented. The dove was proof enough for John the Baptist to declare Jesus the Messiah. The disciples came to their conclusion after witnessing the works and observing Jesus through the course of His ministry.
This declaration by this precursor to Jesus was necessary to prompt some of his disciples to switch their allegiance to an unknown rabbi from, of all places, Galilee, which everyone knew would never produce anyone of note. Bultmann notes that “it is a result of this title that afterwards the two disciples of the Baptist follow Him and recognize in Him the Messiah.” [vii] Andrew and John approached Jesus seeking to learn more of Him. “Because of this, John the Baptist can now disappear from the scene and allow his disciples to take up the task of bearing witness to Jesus.” [viii] For the most part, John was not heard from again until he sent some of his disciples to Jesus asking whether He was the Messiah or whether they should wait for another. The next time the Gospel mentions John the Baptist is Herod orders him beheaded at the request of his daughter, Salome, through her mother Herodius, with whom Herod had an adulterous relationship.
Could John the Baptist have seen the Lamb of God as having a dual role or having a different purpose at one point in time and another role later? There seem to be two components to the lamb to which John the Baptist refers: one being a sacrifice for the sins of the world and the other being the conqueror that would defeat evil and sin and judge the inhabitants of the world. It seems from the construction of the passage that John had, in fact, baptized Jesus earlier but did not recognize Him as the Messiah. After the baptism, Jesus went immediately into the wilderness for His forty days of testing. According to this Gospel, during this period, the religious leaders came to John to question him. The next day, Jesus returned to John, who then declared the identity of Jesus as being the Lamb of God. When John was pointing out Jesus “there is rather implied in this most striking absolute description that, in the place and as the fulfillment of the continual sacrificial lamb in the temple service, God Himself is now, once and for all, providing the true Lamb that takes away the sin of the world.” [ix] Verse thirty seems to indicate, also, that he had been talking about the coming Messiah for some time. He mentioned he had previously spoken of One who would follow him. In verses thirty-one through thirty-four John recounted his earlier experience with Jesus. During this period, several of John’s disciples chose to become followers of Jesus.