The next day, John seeth Jesus coming unto him, and saith, ‘Behold the Lamb of God which taketh away the sin of the world. This is he of whom I said, After me cometh a man which is preferred before me: for he was before me. And I knew him not: but that he should be made manifest to Israel, therefore am I come baptizing with water.
John the Evangelist and Gospel writer here records the words spoken by John the Baptist.
Now, we know from the Gospel writer Luke that John the Baptist was Jesus cousin. It is inconceivable that John did not know him; yet he states here that he did not.
John also states that Jesus was before him, yet the account of John’s birth and relationship to Jesus clearly indicates that John was the elder of the two by some 5 to 6 months.
What is going on, here ?
This account is not about Jesus the man and John his cousin in the flesh. This account is about Jesus the Son of God and John as the servant of God, appointed to herald the coming of Christ.
This is about their official, formal, spiritual relationship: one the Saviour; the other the prophet.
Jesus is indeed before John, in his divinity. John had known him as his cousin; he now reveals that he had not known him before as divine. As God’s prophet he now sees the truth of it. And reveals it as such.
And that is how we should see this passage. As a spiritual declaration, concerning spiritual truths, not errors of fact in the material world of family relations.
Most importantly, John calls Jesus the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. The image was powerful and revolutionary in that time.
People were ordinarily familiar with the slaughter of lambs on the altar of the Temple in Jerusalem. Each year every one went up to the Temple at the time of Passover, bringing [or purchasing there] a lamb for the priests to sacrifice to God on their behalf.
The lamb was slain for them, in their place, before a holy righteous God angry with human sin. That anger had to be assuaged, such is the purity of God and the wickedness of human beings. The sight of blood before God was sufficient to avert God’s judgment on the one bringing the offering.
At the heart of this is the image of a Pure God, so Pure as to be intolerant of sin; so intolerant that the offender must be wiped out. The shedding of blood is the sign that the life has been taken. A life has paid for the impurity of sin. God’s justifiable anger is assuaged.
But here Jesus, a human being, is being foretold by the prophet as a sacrifice for sin. Not just the sin of a particular person bringing just a lamb from a flock to the altar; but sin in general; sin as a dimension of our existence; the sin of the world.
And the sacrifice to meet this general conception of sin is Jesus Christ. Jesus sacrificed just two to three years later as a political scapegoat on a Roman cross. The act to take away the sin of the world. An act which while taking place in time, yet acts throughout time as a spiritual transaction – John says who takes away the sin of the world..
The question then is: How does Christ taking away the sin of the world get applied to us in our lives ?
John speaks of baptizing in water. He baptized in water those who responded to his message of repentance to turn back to God. Many prophets had come before calling the Jewish people to repent of their sins. That is: stop disobeying God and start obeying God.
But John asks not only for this change of heart but an outward sign as well – an act carried out before others, declaring to everyone that you are a repentant sinner; that from now on you will obey God.
John uses water, symbol of washing the body to express an inner truth of washing the inner self from addiction to disobedience, and commitment to obedience to the Pure God of the Jews.
And he points out that Jesus is the one doing the real work, the spiritual work in the heart of the repentant believer – Jesus baptizeth with the Holy Spirit.
John as a minister of God, as the servant charged by God to do something for God before the people, points to Christ and points to his power. He points to Jesus as the answer.
But it is for those who hear to respond.
And they are called to respond in a particular way. John called people to be baptized.
When the apostle Peter preached the crucified, risen Jesus Christ on the day of Pentecost, the people called out asking what they should then do. Peter replied with these words recorded by Luke in the Acts of the Apostles, chapter 2:
Then Peter said unto them, Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins, and ye shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is unto you and to your children and to all that are afar off, as many as the Lord our God shall call …