John the Baptist was not the Saviour. He was not the Light of the World. Nor was he the Son of God. John the Baptist was the last of the Old Testament prophets, sent by God to point forward to the coming of the Messiah and Saviour Jesus Christ. John knew that God had called him to be the forerunner of the Saviour, to prepare the way for Jesus.
19 Now this was John’s testimony when the Jews of Jerusalem sent priests and Levites to ask him who he was. 20 He did not fail to confess, but confessed freely, “I am not the Christ.” …
22 Finally they said, “Who are you? … What do you say about yourself?”
23 John replied in the words of Isaiah the prophet, “I am the voice of one calling in the desert, ‘Make straight the way for the Lord.’ ”
In preparing the way for Jesus, John the Baptist said many important things and we heard many of them in today’s reading.
26 “I baptize with water,” John replied, “but among you stands one you do not know. 27 He is the one who comes after me, the thongs of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie.”
Tying and untying sandals was the task of the lowliest of slaves. John the Baptist was very important in God’s plan of salvation, but John knew his place. John knew that he was not even worthy to be Jesus’s slave. Because Jesus was so much more important than John.
Then John said about Jesus,
30 This is the one I meant when I said, ‘A man who comes after me has surpassed me because he was before me.’
We talked about this before Christmas. John the Baptist was Jesus’s cousin, born months before Jesus. Yet John says that Jesus has surpassed him, and is more important than him, because he was “before him”. John had recognised that Jesus was more than a man, and that in some incredible way Jesus had existed before John was even conceived.
32 Then John gave this testimony: “I saw the Spirit come down from heaven as a dove and remain on him.
John the Baptist had baptized Jesus in the River Jordan and as Jesus came up out of the water two significant things had happened. The first was that the Holy Spirit had descended on Jesus in the form of a dove. So John says this.
33 I would not have known him, except that the one who sent me to baptize with water told me, ‘The man on whom you see the Spirit come down and remain is he who will baptize with the Holy Spirit.’
For centuries the Jews had been waiting for their Messiah. They believed that during all those years God had taken His Holy Spirit away from his chosen people Israel. But they were waiting for the day when the Messiah would come and baptize the nation with the Holy Spirit once again. The Messiah would bring the Holy Spirit to cleanse and renew Israel. So “the man who will baptize with the Holy Spirit” is talking about the Messiah. So God had actually told John the Baptist that the man on whom the Spirit would come down and remain would be the Messiah. And that man was Jesus. So Jesus was the Messiah. Jesus was going to cleanse and renew Israel through the power of the Holy Spirit.
John recognized Jesus to be the Messiah at his baptism when the Spirit descended upon Jesus like a dove. But at that same moment a second important thing had happened to Jesus. In their Gospels Matthew, Mark and Luke all record the baptism of Jesus like this.
Matthew 3 16 As soon as Jesus was baptized, he went up out of the water. At that moment heaven was opened, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and lighting on him. 17 And a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.”
The voice of God from heaven told John the Baptist that Jesus was greater even than the Messiah the people were expecting. Jesus was no less than the Son of God, the Son God loves and who pleases Him.
So John the Baptist’s mission was to bear witness to everybody. 34 I have seen and I testify that this is the Son of God.”
And John fulfilled his mission as forerunner preparing the way for Jesus. He bore testimony that Jesus is indeed the Messiah, and more than that the beloved one and only Son of God. But in all of that testimony, the most important message is yet to come, and is declared twice in this short passage as John tells us not only who Jesus is but also what his mission was. John preached that message to the crowds and also to his own followers.
29 The next day John saw Jesus coming toward him and said, “Look, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!
35 The next day John was there again with two of his disciples. 36 When he saw Jesus passing by, he said, “Look, the Lamb of God!”
Jesus was the Jewish Messiah. Jesus was the Son of God. He was indeed the Logos, the Word who became flesh and made his dwelling among us. But God did not become a human being in Jesus of Nazareth just to teach us about God in his words and reveal what God is like by his actions. More important than that, Jesus came to be the Saviour of the world. Behold the Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world. As the Angel told Joseph in Matthew 1 21 She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.” Jesus – the Saviour. Jesus came to set people free from the penalty and the punishment of their sins. The Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.
The title, “The Lamb of God”, would have reminded any Jew of at least three parts of the Old Testament and each of those tell us something about the ministry of Jesus. Firstly, the Lamb of God is a reminder of the Passover Lambs. In the story of the Exodus God sent plagues on the Egyptians to persuade Pharaoh to release his chosen people the Israelites from slavery. In the tenth and most terrible plague, the firstborn children and animals in all of Egypt would all die in one night. Only the children of the Israelites would be spared and that because they had sacrificed a lamb and smeared the blood of the sacrifice on their doors.
God said in Exodus 12 12 “On that same night I will pass through Egypt and strike down every firstborn—both men and animals—and I will bring judgment on all the gods of Egypt. I am the LORD. 13 The blood will be a sign for you on the houses where you are; and when I see the blood, I will pass over you. No destructive plague will touch you when I strike Egypt.
So the sacrifice of the Passover Lamb rescued the Israelites from the plague of death on the firstborn, and that was what persuaded Pharaoh to let the people of Israel leave Egypt. In echoes of the Exodus, the Lamb of God brings salvation and freedom to God’s chosen people.
Secondly, the Lamb of God would remind any Jew of the lambs which were sacrificed on different occasions for the forgiveness of sins. Two lambs were sacrificed every day at the Tent of Meeting, the place where God was met with His people.
Exodus 29 42 “For the generations to come this burnt offering is to be made regularly at the entrance to the Tent of Meeting before the LORD. There I will meet you and speak to you; 43 there also I will meet with the Israelites, and the place will be consecrated by my glory.
44 “So I will consecrate the Tent of Meeting and the altar and will consecrate Aaron and his sons to serve me as priests. 45 Then I will dwell among the Israelites and be their God. 46 They will know that I am the LORD their God, who brought them out of Egypt so that I might dwell among them. I am the LORD their God.
The sacrificial lambs make a way for people to meet with God. And as well as these daily sacrifices the Jews also celebrated their annual feasts and in particular a special offering for sin was presented on the Day of Atonement. Just once a year, only one man, the great High Priest was allowed into the most holy place in the Temple, the Holy of Holies, to present this sacrifice for sin. So the Lamb of God which deals with all the sins of all the people – the sacrifice of atonement.
But then there was a third understanding of the Lamb of God in the Old Testament. The Jews did not understand its significance, but this would become very important in the ways that Christians understood the ministry and especially the death of Jesus. This was the Lamb of God in the prophecy of the Suffering Servant in Isaiah chapter 53. Seven centuries before the birth of Jesus, the prophet Isaiah looked ahead to this individual, and even compared him to a lamb.
he was led like a lamb to the slaughter, and as a sheep before her shearers is silent,
so he did not open his mouth.
This servant of God would be rejected and ultimately sacrificed, which is exactly what Jesus foretold many times about his own life and death
He was despised and rejected by men, a man of sorrows, and familiar with suffering.
He was oppressed and afflicted, yet he did not open his mouth;
he poured out his life unto death, and was numbered with the transgressors.
But this sacrifice was God’s way of dealing with the sins of the world.
Surely he took up our infirmities and carried our sorrows,
We all, like sheep, have gone astray, each of us has turned to his own way; and the LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us all.
and though the LORD makes his life a guilt offering, he will see his offspring and prolong his days, and the will of the LORD will prosper in his hand.
by his knowledge my righteous servant will justify many, and he will bear their iniquities.
And this sacrifice by the Lamb of God indeed took away the sins of the world
But he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities;
the punishment that brought us peace was upon him, and by his wounds we are healed.
After the suffering of his soul, he will see the light of life and be satisfied;
by his knowledge my righteous servant will justify many, and he will bear their iniquities.
For he bore the sin of many, and made intercession for the transgressors.
These are all things the prophet Isaiah foretold about God’s Suffering Servant. “Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.” This is certainly how the Early Church understood Jesus’s death.
1 Peter 1 18 For you know that it was not with perishable things such as silver or gold that you were redeemed from the empty way of life handed down to you from your forefathers, 19 but with the precious blood of Christ, a lamb without blemish or defect.
The Lamb of God, without blemish or defect, who takes away the sins of the world. Jesus Himself was the ultimate sacrifice God gave to bring us forgiveness and salvation and eternal life. There is a story about one man’s sacrifice which helps us to know just how much God loves us!
A bridgekeeper had the job of raising a drawbridge to allow steamers to pass on the river below and then lowering the bridge again for trains to cross over on land. One day, this man’s son visited him to watch his father at work. The boy was curious, as most boys are, and he peeked down into a trapdoor that was always left open so his father could keep an eye on the great machinery that raised and lowered the bridge. Suddenly, the boy lost his footing and tumbled into the gears. As the father tried to reach down and pull him out, he heard the whistle of an approaching train. He knew that it would be impossible to stop the fast-moving train, which would be full of people. It was vital that the bridge be lowered! So he faced a terrible dilemma. If he saved the people on the train, his son would be crushed in the cogs. Frantically, he tried to free the boy, but without success. Finally, the father put his hand to the lever that would start the machinery. He paused and then, with tears he pulled it. The giant gears began to work and the bridge clamped down just in time to save the train. The passengers continued happily on their way, not knowing what the father had done, The bridgekeeper had chosen to save their lives at the cost of the life of his own dear son.
Behold the Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world. Right from the beginning of Jesus’s ministry, John the Baptist as well as Jesus knew how it was all going to end. In tears. Jesus came to live among us as The Word Made Flesh, The Light of the World, and indeed The Son of God. But more than that, Jesus was the Saviour. Jesus came not just to live but to die. Time and again John’s Gospel will point us to this glorious truth. Behold – the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.