“The next day he saw Jesus coming toward him, and said, “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!”
(John 1:29–30 ESV)
When you read statements like John’s here with fresh eyes, especially from a cultural and time distance of 2000 years, they make little sense. Why did John compare a man to a lamb? How can anyone take away the sins of the world? Was John high on crack cocaine? What was he thinking? If you read the whole book of John with fresh eyes what you find is that outlandish statements like these (most of them from Christ himself) fill the book completely. I’m not just talking merely outlandish statements, I’m talking super duper outlandish. One example from Jesus: I came from God and I am here (John 8.42). You came from whom exactly? Normal people don’t say stuff like this, but I’m getting off track, you do get my point though, right?
Fortunately, for those who heard John, while the statement was outlandish [He was flat out saying, “that man right there in the dusty garb and dirty sandals? He is the Messiah”] it was not as outlandish and incomprehensible to them as it is to us. The Jews were looking for a Messiah (the word means “anointed”). This is why the priests and Levites came out to John and asked him, “Are you the Messiah?” In addition, the Jews were intimately familiar with the Jewish system of sacrifices because they witnessed them year after year. Here is how NET Bible notes puts it:
Gen 22:8 is an important passage in the background of the title Lamb of God as applied to Jesus. In Jewish thought this was held to be a supremely important sacrifice. G. Vermès stated: “For the Palestinian Jew, all lamb sacrifice, and especially the Passover lamb and the Tamid offering, was a memorial of the Akedah with its effects of deliverance, forgiveness of sin and messianic salvation” (Scripture and Tradition in Judaism [StPB], 225).
While John’s hearers did not fully understand what John was saying [ John himself had only recently understood it when he watched the dove descend on Christ as John baptized him and heard a voice say: This is my beloved son in whom I am well pleased!], it was a short distance from Jesus to the Lamb of God, shorter for them than us, anyway.
What did John mean? He meant that Jesus would be the completion and final fulfillment of all of those sacrifices. Sacrificing a lamb was an offering for one’s sins. It was saying, “I have sinned. I understand that sin means I am guilty. God instituted the sacrificial system so that men could expiate the guilt of their sins. [My apologies for the use of the word “expiate” but it is a crucial word, and worth understanding. It means: “to atone for wrongdoing, make amends, show remorse”]. When a Jew offered up a lamb as a guilt offering he was admitting to and atoning for his sins; he was showing remorse; he was making amends with God.
John is turning all of that on its head. He is saying [and the NT writers will all speak with one voice on this issue], “there is a time coming in which that man right there will be the final and only atonement for sins.” Peter puts it this way:
“For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh but made alive in the spirit,”
(1 Peter 3:18 ESV).
You, dear reader, need John to say this because you need your sins taken away. Christ, the Lamb of God, is worthy to do this and is able to do it.