Lamb of God

The next day, he saw Jesus coming to him, and said, “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!

John 1:29

In what way is Jesus the ‘Lamb of God’? And how does that relate to his ‘tak[ing] away the sin of the world’?

The concept of an animal being substituted in the place of a condemned person goes back to the very garden of Eden, when God clothed Adam and Eve in the skins of animals (Gen 3:21). But it is more clearly seen in the testing of Abraham, when he was commanded to offer his son Isaac as a sacrifice to God:

Gen 22:[7] Isaac spoke to Abraham his father, and said, “My father?” He said, “Here I am, my son.” He said, “Here is the fire and the wood, but where is the lamb for a burnt offering?” [8] Abraham said, “God will provide himself the lamb for a burnt offering, my son.” So they both went together. … [13] Abraham lifted up his eyes, and looked, and saw that behind him was a ram caught in the thicket by his horns. Abraham went and took the ram, and offered him up for a burnt offering instead of his son.

When Abraham was about to offer up Isaac to God, God provided Abraham with a ram to offer in Isaac’s place. God accepted the sacrifice of the ram as a substitute for the sacrifice of Isaac.

This idea of substitution, an animal being offered in place of another, continued in the institution of the Passover:

Exo 12:[3] Speak to all the congregation of Israel, saying, ‘On the tenth day of this month, they shall take to them every man a lamb, according to their fathers’ houses, a lamb for a household; … [6] and you shall keep it until the fourteenth day of the same month; and the whole assembly of the congregation of Israel shall kill it at evening. [7] They shall take some of the blood, and put it on the two door posts and on the lintel, on the houses in which they shall eat it. … [12] For I will go through the land of Egypt in that night, and will strike all the firstborn in the land of Egypt, both man and animal. Against all the gods of Egypt I will execute judgments: I am Yahweh. [13] The blood shall be to you for a token on the houses where you are: and when I see the blood, I will pass over you, and there shall no plague be on you to destroy you, when I strike the land of Egypt.

In one night, God passed through all the land of Egypt, killing all the firstborn males in every household. But when he saw the blood of the lamb on the doorposts of a household, he would pass over that house. The firstborn in that house would be spared.

Later, God would command Israel to sacrifice a lamb twice a day, and sacrifice four lambs on each Sabbath (Num 28:3-10). More lambs, and other animals, were to be offered throughout the week (Lev 14:1-30, Lev 23:18-20, Num 6:10-12, etc). But the sacrifice of the Passover lamb was to be a yearly event for Israel (Exo 12:14, Deu 16:1, 2Ki 23:21); a lamb would be offered at the Tabernacle or Temple (Deu 16:5-7), and all the Israelites would each kill a lamb for the Passover meal (Exo 12:21-27, 2Chr 35:7, Ezr 6:20), sprinkling its blood on the doorposts, in memory of that first Passover night.

One specific command from that night especially displays the connection between the Passover and the death of Jesus Christ:

Exo 12:[46] In one house shall it be eaten; you shall not carry out anything of the flesh abroad out of the house; neither shall you break a bone of it.

In this command, David saw a promise of protection and safety from God:

Psa 34:[20] He protects all of his bones. Not one of them is broken.

The Apostle John applied this promise to Jesus in his death:

Joh 19:[36] For these things happened, that the Scripture might be fulfilled, “A bone of him will not be broken.”

The sacrifice of the Passover lamb thus prefigures the sacrifice of Jesus:

1Co 5:[7] Purge out the old yeast, that you may be a new lump, even as you are unleavened. For indeed Christ, our Passover, has been sacrificed in our place.

Why was a lamb chosen as a sacrificial animal, over other animals? Because lambs generally have a gentle and innocent nature. And this is symbolic of the innocence and sinlessness of Jesus Christ:

There is only one man among the descendants of Adam born without a sinful nature, and this is Jesus of Nazareth, God the Son incarnate. He was born of a virgin by the power of the Holy Spirit, contracting no guilt or defilement from Adam. He was totally and completely without sin. [Isa 7:14; Isa 53:9; Mat 1:25; Luk 1:31-35; 2Co 5:21; Heb 4:15; Heb 7:26-27; 1Pe 2:22-23; 1Jo 3:5] Christian Confession of Faith, IV.A.1

Here are some of the verses showing the sinlessness and moral purity of Jesus:

Isa 53:[9] They made his grave with the wicked, and with a rich man in his death; although he had done no violence, neither was any deceit in his mouth.

2Co 5:[21] For him who knew no sin he made to be sin on our behalf; so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.

Heb 7:[26] For such a high priest was fitting for us: holy, guiltless, undefiled, separated from sinners, and made higher than the heavens; [27] who doesn’t need, like those high priests, to offer up sacrifices daily, first for his own sins, and then for the sins of the people. For he did this once for all, when he offered up himself.

1Pe 2:[22] who did not sin, “neither was deceit found in his mouth.”

1Jo 3:[5] You know that he was revealed to take away our sins, and in him is no sin.

Only a sacrifice that is morally pure and perfect would be acceptable to God. And Jesus fulfilled this role, in that he was completely without sin.

But if Jesus was without sin himself, how could he then suffer for any sin? How could a righteous God cause an innocent man to die for sin, when that man had no sin of his own? It is because the sins of his people were imputed to Jesus. Imputation is a legal term, meaning “to charge to the account of another”. It is a legal concept, denoting the “counting” or “attributing” of something to a person. In the New Testament, the word logizomai (λογίζομαι – G3049) is used to illustrate this concept:

Mar 15:[28] The Scripture was fulfilled, which says, “He was numbered {logizomai} with transgressors.”

Rom 2:[26] If therefore the uncircumcised keep the ordinances of the law, won’t his uncircumcision be accounted {logizomai} as circumcision?

Rom 8:[36] Even as it is written, “For your sake we are killed all day long. We were accounted {logizomai} as sheep for the slaughter.”

2Ti 4:[16] At my first defense, no one came to help me, but all left me. May it not be held {logizomai} against them.

This is what it means to “impute” or “attribute” or “charge to the account of” a person.

At the cross, the sins of the people of God were imputed to Jesus Christ. The righteousness and holiness of God demands that he show wrath towards anyone who sins, even his only begotten Son. And when the guilt of his people was imputed to him, Jesus was legally chargeable for their sins. Even though Jesus had no sin himself, he suffered and died because of the sins of his people:

Isa 53:[11] He shall see the fruit of the travail of His soul; He shall be fully satisfied. By His knowledge shall My righteous Servant justify for many, and He shall bear their iniquities. (LITV)

Rom 4:[6] Even as David also pronounces blessing on the man to whom God counts righteousness apart from works, [7] “Blessed are they whose iniquities are forgiven, whose sins are covered. [8] Blessed is the man whom the Lord will by no means charge with sin.”

1Co 5:[19] namely, that God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself, not reckoning to them their trespasses, and having committed to us the word of reconciliation.

The doctrine of Imputation is foundational to the Gospel. Jesus had the sins of his people imputed to him, and he paid the price for those sins, in full. Those sins can never condemn his people again.

But there was a second Imputation that also took place at the Cross, and that is also at the heart of the Gospel. It was the imputation of the righteousness of Jesus Christ to his people:

The perfect righteousness that Jesus Christ established is imputed to every one of God’s people in time. Because of this imputed righteousness, they are declared blameless before God and reconciled to God. Christ’s righteousness imputed demands God’s favor and fellowship toward them. [Job 29:14; Psa 32:2; Psa 85:10-11; Isa 53:11; Isa 61:10; Jer 23:5-6; Rom 3:21-22; Rom 4:6-8; Rom 5:9-11,17-19; Rom 8:1,31-39; 1Co 1:30; 2Co 5:18-21; Eph 5:25-27; Col 1:21-22; Tit 3:6-7]

Christian Confession of Faith, IV.C.3

Here are some of the verses to which the Confession refers:

Job 29:[14] I put on righteousness, and it clothed me. My justice was as a robe and a diadem.

Psa 32:[2] Blessed is the man to whom Yahweh doesn’t impute iniquity,
in whose spirit there is no deceit.

Isa 61:[10] I will greatly rejoice in Yahweh, my soul shall be joyful in my God; for he has clothed me with the garments of salvation, he has covered me with the robe of righteousness, as a bridegroom decks himself with a garland, and as a bride adorns herself with her jewels.

Rom 3:[21] But now apart from the law, a righteousness of God has been revealed, being testified by the law and the prophets; [22] even the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ to all and on all those who believe. For there is no distinction,

1Co 1:[30] But of him, you are in Christ Jesus, who was made to us wisdom from God, and righteousness and sanctification, and redemption:

The righteousness of Jesus is imputed to all of his people in time. In this way they are as sinless in the eyes of God as Jesus Christ himself. They have a righteousness that answers the demands of the Law and Justice of God, even though they did not produce that righteousness themselves.

The doctrine of Double Imputation is at the heart of the Gospel. The sins of God’s people were imputed to Christ as the sacrificial substitute for his people, and he suffered and died on the cross to turn aside the just wrath of God against their sins. Furthermore, the righteousness of Christ is imputed to every one of his people, and as a result, they are declared to be as pure and innocent as Jesus himself. And this imputed righteousness demands the favor and fellowship of God towards them.

Finally, what did John the Baptist mean in John 1:29, when he said that Jesus would “take away the sin of the world”? Was he teaching that Jesus would atone for all the sins of all people who ever lived?

If that was the case, then he would be teaching that Jesus had suffered and died to save vast multitudes of people who still ended up in Hell. It would mean that God had accepted the sacrifice of Christ on behalf of all people, but still poured out his wrath on most of those same people anyway. It would mean that Jesus had utterly failed in his work to save all of those whom he loved. It would mean that the blood of Jesus was insufficient in and of itself to cleanse a person of his sin; that it needed the addition of human effort and works to save a person.

But that would be blasphemous. Just as the blood of the lamb on the doorposts of the Israelite houses was sufficient, in and of itself, to cause God to pass over that house, so the blood of Christ is sufficient, in and of itself, to turn aside the wrath of God.

So what does it mean that Jesus would “take away the sin of the world”? John was speaking to Jews, many of whom believed that the mission of the Messiah would be to save only the Jews, and to destroy the rest of the world. The teaching that the Messiah’s sacrifice would be for non-Jews as well was highly offensive to them (Luk 4:24-29, Act 22:21-22). Yet it too was part of the fulfillment of God’s promise to Abraham:

Gen 12:[2] I will make of you a great nation. I will bless you and make your name great. You will be a blessing. [3] I will bless those who bless you, and I will curse him who curses you. All of the families of the earth will be blessed in you.”

As the Passover lamb was a sufficient substitute and sacrifice for the person who offered it, so Jesus was a sufficient substitute and sacrifice for all of his people.

Isa 53:[7] He was oppressed, yet when he was afflicted he didn’t open his mouth. As a lamb that is led to the slaughter, and as a sheep that before its shearers is mute, so he didn’t open his mouth. [8] He was taken away by oppression and judgment; and as for his generation, who considered that he was cut off out of the land of the living and stricken for the disobedience of my people?

See Also:

Jehovah Our Righteousness (Yahweh-Tsidkenu)

Justification & Imputation

IV. Christology – The Doctrine of the Person and Work of Jesus Christ