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  • « "Semper Gnosticism!" | Main | Four Strait Gates (A Quote from the Puritan, Thomas Shepard) »

    Studies in John (Lesson 2: Behold the Lamb of God!)

    I. The Brazen Altar

    When God called out Abraham from his native land, it was to give him a special, covenantal relationship with himself, which he summed up like this: “I [Yahweh] a God to you, and to your seed after you” (Genesis 17:7). Four hundred and thirty years later, when God brought up Israel from the Land of Egypt, it was to fulfill that covenant promise he made to Abraham – and, to signify the nature of his relationship to his people, he gave detailed instructions to build a tabernacle (later replaced by the temple), which would symbolize the very presence of God among Israel (Exodus 25-31; 35-40). This tabernacle signified in many beautiful ways how a sinner might have fellowship with a holy God; but it was never actually sufficient to bring men to God. Something as amazing as that demanded the actual accomplishment of what the tabernacle and its furniture and rituals only symbolized. As we looked at John 1:14 last week, we recognized that Jesus came “to tabernacle” among us. He was the one who took all of the rich, tabernacle symbolism, and made it a reality (see Hebrews chapters six through ten for an extended treatment of this concept).

    But if Jesus’ coming to earth actually accomplished what the tabernacle signified, then what are some of the specific truths about Jesus that fulfill the various tabernacle furniture and rituals? How did Jesus “fulfill” the tabernacle symbols beyond simply bringing the presence of God to the world of men? As we look at the rest of John chapter one, we immediately notice a very striking way in which Jesus was said to fulfill the tabernacle institutions. As soon as John the Baptist saw Jesus, he announced, “Behold the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” In this statement, we are immediately reminded of the innocent lambs that were sacrificed on the brazen altar, in the courtyard of the tabernacle. In order to understand John’s confession a little better, let’s reflect on what the Jews would have understood by this allusion to the sacrificial lamb.

    The brazen altar was the imposing structure placed at the very entrance of the tabernacle. If the tabernacle symbolized the presence of God, then the altar screamed out loud and clear, “There is no getting to God without the shedding of substitutionary blood!” The Old Testament Jews were required to sacrifice animals day in and day out throughout the entire course of their existence. The lesson was reinforced to them constantly that there could be no approaching God without a blood sacrifice. And furthermore, the very constancy of the repetition served to remind them that the mere blood of a lamb (bull, goat, etc.) could not truly cleanse a defiled person, and let him approach God. “For it is not possible that the blood of bulls and of goats should take away sins” (see Hebrews 10:1-10).

    But why could no one approach God without sacrificial blood? Simply because, all men are sinful, and God requires punishment for sin. He will not pass over the punishment that a sinner deserves, unless he exacts it on a substitute, or legal representative. This lesson was also reinforced to the Israelites, as they constantly had to place their hands on the head of the sacrificial animal, to signify that they were placing their sins upon it, and then shed its blood in the place of the one who would come before God (Leviticus 4:1-4). So, every day of their existence, the Old Testament Jews were taught that, even though God promised to dwell among them, no one could approach him, because they were all sinful. And the only way to get around that problem was for God to place their sins on a substitute, and punish that substitute instead. Furthermore, a mere animal, could never really suffice, and so more animals were brought day after day; and in this way, the people were taught to be looking for a substitute who could actually and finally take the entire punishment which God demanded of sinful men, and so make them acceptable to him once and for all. In a word, they were taught to look for the true “Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world.” In light of all this history, John’s simple confession was a monumental and staggering claim. Now, let’s look at our text in a little more detail.

    II. Textual Analysis

    The Testimony of John the Baptist (John 1:19-28)

    Last week, we talked about the role of John, in testifying of the coming Christ. Now, John the apostle begins to relate in a little more detail just what this testimony was. Because John was clearly a Spirit-empowered prophet, who was preaching and baptizing, the leaders of Judea were beginning to wonder what his place in redemptive history, was – even if he might be the Messiah that they were waiting for. On this point John was very clear – no, he was not the Messiah (“Christ” is just the Greek translation of the Hebrew term “Messiah”), and he made that much emphatically clear, throughout the course of his ministry. But who then was he? He seemed to have such a vital role, that he must have a place in the Old Testament prophecies about the days surrounding the coming of Christ. So then, the Priests knew that Malachi prophesied that Elijah would come before the “great and terrible day of the Lord” (that term “the day of the Lord” is a common term in prophecy, used to describe both the time when Christ came into the world the first time to purchase redemption, and when he comes again the second time to judge the world) – perhaps John was the prophesied “Elijah”.

    John the Baptist’s answer to this question is a little surprising: in other places, Jesus said that John the Baptist was the fulfillment of Malachi’s prophecy of John the Baptist (Matthew 11:11-14; Matthew 17:11-13; see also, Luke 1:13-17). What then could John have meant in saying “No.”? This response is probably because the Jews had such a wrong conception about who the promised “Elijah” would be – they thought of him as a literal return of the very same Elijah that had died so long ago. But as the angel made clear, when speaking of John’s birth, John the Baptist was someone coming “in the spirit of Elijah.” This is what Jesus meant when he called John Elijah; but the priests were actually asking, “Are you the same man who died long ago, raised from the dead, and returned to prophesy again?” And knowing what they meant, John could only answer, “No”.

    Finally, the priests ask him if he was “the Prophet.” This was another long-expected end-times figure, that the Jews were waiting for. In Deuteronomy 18:15-19, Moses prophesied that God would send another prophet like himself, but greater. The Jews were wondering if John were this promised prophet, but really it was only Jesus who could fulfill that description (see Acts 3:22, Acts 7:37). So John answered no to the last of their questions.

    But the Jews had to have some answer to return with. What did John say of himself, then? To this, John replies with the prophecy of Isaiah 40:3: “The voice of one crying in the wilderness: “Prepare the way of the Lord! Make straight in the desert a highway for our God!” In the context of Isaiah, this voice is crying out in preparation for the promised return of God’s exiled people. This blessed return from the land of captivity could only be accomplished by the coming of God himself to deliver his people. In one sense Jesus is the One who came to bring his people back from captivity (see Ephesians 4:8); and in another sense, Jesus himself was the One who underwent exile from God, because of his people’s rebellion, and having accomplished satisfaction for sins, returned to the favorable presence of God. So then, Christ alone is the One who would pass by on this “way of the Lord” – but it was John’s task to make the way ready for him, by announcing his soon arrival to the people.

    And finally, John turns his interrogation back to the main point that he has been making: Christ is far greater than I. I am just the forerunner, but Christ is the Lamb of God, who takes away sin. I only baptize with water, as a symbol of cleansing, but Christ will give you the reality – true cleansing, and his own Spirit to dwell within for those who are his; but the fiery baptism of judgment for those who are not his (as we learn from the account in Matthew 3:11-12 – likely, John the apostle does not record the Baptist’s entire statement here because he is just emphasizing his major point: the Christ is far greater than I).

    Behold the Lamb of God! (John 1:29-34)

    It is at this point that John the Baptist sees Christ for the first time, and confesses, “Behold the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” We have already discussed this phrase, but now let’s look at its context. Remember, John the apostle is emphasizing the role of John the Baptist as a witness, testifying to who Jesus is. The Baptist had been told that he would indeed “prepare the way of the Lord,” and announce the coming of the Messiah – but how would he know for sure who the Messiah was, when he first saw him? The way that God gave John to recognize the Messiah when he saw him was by telling him that, when he saw the Holy Spirit coming and remaining upon someone, that would be the Messiah.

    This is certainly a fitting sign. It had long been prophesied of the Messiah that he would accomplish his work on earth by the power of the Holy Spirit (Isaiah 42:1-4; Isaiah 61:1-3). And, just as had been prophesied, Jesus carried out his ministry by the power of the Holy Spirit. The synoptic gospels make clear that these prophecies in Isaiah were fulfilled in Christ (Matthew 12:17-21; Luke 4:17-21); and furthermore, they emphasize that, throughout his ministry, he was led by the Spirit (e.g. Luke 4:1,14). And so, John the Baptist is here testifying that this man Jesus is the Christ, because the Spirit of God came and dwelt upon him, as all the prophets spoke about the Christ, and as God himself told John that it would happen.

    It becomes even clearer how important it is that the Christ should minister by the power of the Holy Spirit when we consider his title. The Hebrew word “Messiah,” and the Greek word “Christ” both mean, “the anointed one”. Throughout the scriptures, anointing is a picture of the Holy Spirit’s empowering or coming upon someone (e.g. I John 2:20,27). So really, the Messiah is the One who was anointed by the Spirit of God, to accomplish his work of redemption. That is what his title means, and, when John the Baptist saw the man who met these qualifications, he was able to testify with certainty, “This is the Christ.”

    It is interesting that John the apostle does not speak of Christ’s baptism here. This is probably because the first three gospels had already dealt thoroughly with that account, and John’s primary point, in this section of his gospel, is to show just how well-testified this man Jesus was, that he and he alone is truly the Christ. The other gospels speak of Christ’s baptism as necessary to “fulfill all righteousness” (Matthew 3:13-17). This teaching brings up the distinction between Christ’s active obedience and his passive obedience. God’s law demanded punishment for sin, and part of Christ’s redemptive task was to undergo this punishment in the place of his people (see Galatians 3:13). This willing undergoing of sin’s punishment is what theologians call the “passive obedience” of Christ. But if this is all that Christ had done, then we might not be deserving of God’s wrath – but neither would we be deserving of his favor and blessing. For that, God demands a perfect obedience to his law, and a perfect righteousness to merit blessing. So, passively, Christ suffered the penalty for sin; but actively, he purchased the reward for righteousness. This is why he had to live for thirty-three years in complete subjection to God’s law – so that he might actively win for us a perfect righteousness, which would merit God’s favor (see Hebrews 5:8-9). If we are trusting in any good thing we ourselves have done to please God, we are without hope. Even if we trust that our repentance is what God is pleased with, then we fail to see how imperfect even our own repentance must be before a holy God. But Christ willingly and perfectly underwent the baptism of repentance in our place, and, throughout the rest of his life, he continued to fulfill all of God’s just demands – for us, who believe in him! This is why Christ’s baptism is so important – because whatever God commands his people to do, only Christ can do it satisfactorily. But this had already been dealt with in the synoptic gospels, and John’s major point is the sure testimony that Christ is who he claimed to be – and so John skips over Christ’s baptism, and continues with his theme of testimony.

    The Testimony Begins to Spread: The Calling of the First Disciples (John 1:35-51)

    The position and ministry of John was of such a nature that, the surest sign of his success was that his disciples were leaving him! From the beginning, he taught that One would soon come who would be far greater than he; and it was to this One, the Christ, that all should go. Now, we see that this testimony is having its effects – for when Jesus came, John’s disciples begin to leave him and follow the Christ, just as they were taught by John to do. It is interesting that this testimony to Jesus is already beginning to have a ripple effect: because Andrew has heard John’s testimony, he turns to Christ; and then Andrew begins to testify of Jesus, so that his brother, Peter, turns to him as well. This is a much-repeated theme of John the apostle – the ongoing necessity for the first testimony about Jesus to be continued and passed on through faithful men, most notably the apostle and eye-witnesses, and through them, the faithful men of the Church throughout coming generations (e.g. I John 1:1-3; see also II Timothy 2:2). This is the first time that Peter and Andrew met with Jesus; but likely, they did not leave their occupations to follow him day in and day out until later, when Jesus called them from their fishing nets (see Matthew 4:17-20). But this first meeting is significant because it reinforces John’s theme, of the trustworthiness and ongoing effects of the first testimony about Jesus. Jesus alone is the Christ; and from the very beginning of his ministry, the testimony to his Messiahship was firm and reliable. This passage is also interesting because it teaches us that, from the very beginning, Jesus changed Simon’s name to Peter. He knew from the beginning who Simon would be, and named him accordingly; and later, when he made his famous confession, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God,” Jesus reiterated that he was changing his name – and that it was for no other reason than that God had revealed to him that Jesus was indeed the Christ (Matthew 16:13-19). This knowledge alone is the rock which will never fail him who possesses it. And from the beginning, John the Baptist’s testimony was being used to open up the eyes of the disciples to that marvelous truth, that Jesus is the Christ.

    As the chapter closes, we see two more disciples, Philip and Nathanael, come to Christ. Once again, the first (Philip) encounters Christ, and through his testimony, another comes as well. But what is even more important is the reason that Nathanael believes: because of the miraculous works of Christ, which confirms the truth of what Christ is saying about himself (here, knowing things about Nathanael that he could not have known if he were just an ordinary man). This is why John is writing his gospel: so that, when people read about the works of Christ, they will see that they validate his claims about who he is (John 20:31). And this incident with Nathanael, as Jesus makes clear, is only the smallest beginning of what would become an astounding array of signs and miracles that would confirm to an eminent degree that he alone is the Christ, the Son of God.

    The final verse in the chapter is also very important. Here, Christ is already making the astonishing claim, that he would later repeat in even clearer terms, that there is no way to the Father in heaven, except through him (see John 14:6). In this verse, Jesus is alluding to the dream of Jacob, when he saw the angels of God ascending and descending on a ladder which stretched between earth and heaven (Genesis 28:10-16). In essence, Jesus was saying, “I am the only ladder between heaven and earth; no one can come into heaven, into the presence of the Father, unless he comes by me.”


    We have noted two things about this passage (John 1:19-51) which are absolutely foundational to the rest of John’s gospel: first, that Jesus, as the promised Messiah, was the One who would fulfill all the old tabernacle imagery, even offering himself up to be a substitutionary sacrifice, as a flawless lamb, and so win redemption for his people. The common misconception about the Messiah, in Jesus’ day, was that he would come merely to conquer in glory – but the Old Testament prophets spoke of him as first coming to lay down his life as a ransom for many (see Isaiah 52:13-53:12). And second, this truth, that Jesus was the Christ, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world, was well-testified from the beginning, through the reliable ministry of John the Baptist, through the descent of the Spirit upon him, and through his own sayings and miracles by which the first disciples were convinced of his claims. There is nothing so important, in all of history, as the Lamb-work of the promised Christ. And so it is vital that we have a strong and unshakeable foundation for knowing who was, in truth, the Christ which God said should come. This is why John wrote his gospel – so that we may run with certainty and confidence to Jesus of Nazareth, and find in him salvation for our souls.

    Posted by Nathan on December 11, 2006 12:24 PM

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