Read John 1:29–34.
Already in his Gospel, John has tossed out a few jaw-dropping titles for Jesus, all rich with meaning. He’s “the Word” (John 1:1), “the true light” (v. 9), “the one and only Son” (v. 14), the “Christ” (or “Messiah”; v. 17), and “the Lord” (v. 23). There’s much that could be said about each one of these names—and each one will be important as the Fourth Gospel continues—but when Jesus shows up, there’s a new title for Him on the lips of John the Baptist: “Look, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” (v. 29).
Names and titles are powerful. Rightly or wrongly, they give our minds a way to characterize and classify people before our conscious selves even realize what we’re doing. It’s why people ask to speak to “a manager” when they don’t get what they want at first. It’s why, in certain cultures, we make acquaintance by asking what a person does for a living; we want to know where to place them in our mind’s Rolodex.
“Lamb of God” is a strange title as far as titles go. To the Jewish people within earshot of John the Baptist, it would have conjured up imagery of the Passover story in Exodus 12, and that memory would have kindled in their minds similarities between the situation back then and their current woes.
Back in Exodus, God’s people were held captive by the superpower of the day, the Egyptians. God Himself came to their rescue by sending Moses and then a string of ten awful plagues, designed to bring the Egyptians and their gods to their knees. The final plague was the worst: the death of all the firstborn in the land. The Israelites were spared from this judgment by lambs’ blood, which they brushed on their doorframes to mark their homes.
As John is identifying Jesus as the Lamb of God there on the banks of the Jordan, God’s people are once again being held captive by a world superpower: the Romans. And, again, they’re looking for God to act. But if God were simply going to repeat His saving work from Exodus, John might have said something like, “Look, the new Moses, a Deliverer who will lead us out of Roman oppression!”
But that isn’t God’s plan. He has a much greater rescue in mind. He’s going to take away the sin of the world.
Ever since Adam and Eve invited sin into our world, it has been at the root of all our problems. All of our pain and bitterness, all of our shame and heartache, our hatred and our fear—sin is behind it all. The dark stain of sin corrupts everything it touches, and until it is removed, there will never be true freedom for anyone.
But the lambs of Passover didn’t do a thing to deal with sin. They only provided grace for the moment of judgment. John, it seems, has another Lamb in view as well:
But he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was on him, and by his wounds we are healed. We all, like sheep, have gone astray, each of us has turned to our own way; and the LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us all. He was oppressed and afflicted, yet he did not open his mouth; he was led like a lamb to the slaughter, and as a sheep before its shearers is silent, so he did not open his mouth. (Isaiah 53:5–7)
The Lamb led to the slaughter in Isaiah 53 takes our sins with Him, but if you read the passage carefully, you’ll notice there’s no mention of Him being “Messiah” or “Lord.” For this reason, ancient readers didn’t necessarily connect the work of the Suffering Servant with that of the coming Messiah—but John the Baptist does. By announcing Jesus as “the Lamb of God,” he’s shaking up preconceptions of who the Messiah would be.
The people were expecting a military leader, but Jesus didn’t come to fight a war, not against flesh and blood anyway. They wanted someone who will cleanse the promised land of the Romans, but Jesus is much more interested in cleansing human hearts. They were looking for someone to fight for them, but the Lamb of God came to die for them—and the Romans, and people far off, including you and me.
Jesus wasn’t the Messiah many Jewish people in the first century were expecting, and so, when they came face to face with Jesus, they couldn’t accept Him (John 1:10–11). But are we so different from them? How often do we fashion a Jesus of our own design? How quick are we to desire a custom Messiah who will solve all our problems, when the real culprit behind all our troubles is sin itself? How prone are we to focus on the Jesus stories that fit our ideas of who He should be and ignore the ones that make us uncomfortable?
When we come to Jesus, we come to the Lamb of God, the Messiah who bled for us so that we might be rid of our chains and embrace the freedom that comes with walking in the love of God. More than anything, that’s what our hearts need.