|The Names of Jesus #4
"Look, the Lamb of God . . ."
April 5, 1998 / John 1:19-34
The late Norman Vincent Peale once said this about humility: "Humble people donít think less of themselves; they just think about themselves less." If you ever should be in search of a biblical model of humility, let me suggest that you study that noble virtue in John the Baptist.
Did John believe himself to be a prophet from God? Did he know the Old Testament spoke of him? Did he know he had the critical task of preparing people for the arrival of Christ? Indeed, he knew all these things. But here was his estimate of himself and his importance: "After me will come one more powerful than I, the thongs of whose sandals I am not worthy to stoop down and untie. I baptize you with water, but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit" (Mark 1:7-8). When Johnís disciples eventually became distraught that Jesus was drawing larger crowds than their master, here was his response: "He must become greater; I must become less" (John 3:30).
Does that sound like someone with a poor, unhealthy self-image? To the contrary. It is the humble response of a man incredibly secure in his perception of himself and his role in the divine plan. It was never the case that he thought less of himself; it was simply that he thought less about himself than Jesus. What a marvelous example of humility in a servant of God.
It is from the lips of John the Baptist that we hear another of the titles given to Jesus in Scripture ó Lamb of God.
Two Biblical Themes: Substitution and Propitiation
One of the most dramatic stories in the Bible has one of its characters asking for a lamb. Many ceremonies of the Jewish religion centered on the offering of a lamb in sacrifice. Both these facts are important as background to the title "Lamb of God" that John assigned to Jesus of Nazareth. The New Testament presents Jesus as the ultimate provision of a sacrificial lamb.
The story that has someone asking for a lamb is the touching father-son episode involving Abraham and Isaac.
Some time later God tested Abraham. He said to him, "Abraham!"
"Here I am," he replied.
Then God said, "Take your son, your only son, Isaac, whom you love, and go to the region of Moriah. Sacrifice him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains I will tell you about."
Early the next morning Abraham got up and saddled his donkey. He took with him two of his servants and his son Isaac. When he had cut enough wood for the burnt offering, he set out for the place God had told him about. On the third day Abraham looked up and saw the place in the distance. He said to his servants, "Stay here with the donkey while I and the boy go over there. We will worship and then we will come back to you."
Abraham took the wood for the burnt offering and placed it on his son Isaac, and he himself carried the fire and the knife. As the two of them went on together, Isaac spoke up and said to his father Abraham, "Father?"
"Yes, my son?" Abraham replied.
"The fire and wood are here," Isaac said, "but where is the lamb for the burnt offering?"
Abraham answered, "God himself will provide the lamb for the burnt offering, my son." And the two of them went on together.
When they reached the place God had told him about, Abraham built an altar there and arranged the wood on it. He bound his son Isaac and laid him on the altar, on top of the wood. Then he reached out his hand and took the knife to slay his son. 11 But the angel of the LORD called out to him from heaven, "Abraham! Abraham!"
"Here I am," he replied.
"Do not lay a hand on the boy," he said. "Do not do anything to him. Now I know that you fear God, because you have not withheld from me your son, your only son."
Abraham looked up and there in a thicket he saw a ram caught by its horns. He went over and took the ram and sacrificed it as a burnt offering instead of his son. So Abraham called that place The LORD Will Provide. And to this day it is said, "On the mountain of the LORD it will be provided" (Gen. 22:1-14).
The only person happier than Isaac to see a sheep caught by its horns in a thicket that day was Abraham. He had fathered Isaac in his old age, had doted on the boy, and believed that all Yahwehís promises to him ó about descendants, a nation, and a homeland ó centered on him. He must have been in anguish of spirit over everything going on in this episode. To his eternal credit, however, he got up early on the appointed day, set off for Mt. Moriah, and had no idea of being anything other than obedient to Godís command.
From the perspective of the New Testament, we are told this about Abrahamís faith in this story: "By faith Abraham, when God tested him, offered Isaac as a sacrifice. He who had received the promises was about to sacrifice his one and only son, even though God had said to him, ĎIt is through Isaac that your offspring will be reckoned.í Abraham reasoned that God could raise the dead, and figuratively speaking, he did receive Isaac back from death" (Heb. 11:17-19).
Where did that ram come from? Did a sheep just happen to get caught in that thicket on that mountain on that day? Or did the Lord graciously provide it to replace Isaac on the altar? Abraham named the mountain on which he had built an altar for Isaac and where he wound up offering a lamb as a substitute for him "Jehovah-jireh" (KJV) or "The LORD Will Provide." That means he didnít regard the ram in the thicket as a lucky coincidence. In the name he gave that site, he affirmed his faith in the grace of God that spared his Son of Promise and provided a sacrificial lamb in his place.
Indeed, God had never intended to take Isaacís life that day. The whole affair had been a test of Abrahamís depth of trust in Yahweh. In other settings and on other days, Abraham had been weak or outright faithless. On this day, however, he was faithful to the ultimate degree. It is from this episode above all others that he received the name Father of the Faithful. When he was tested on Mt. Moriah, he passed with flying colors.
Countless Old Testament rituals and offerings involved the slaughter of a lamb on an altar dedicated to Yahweh. These sacrifices had to do with atonement rituals.
The word atonement is one of a very few theological terms that can be explained in a helpful way through its English form. It signifies reconciliation and put people at one (i.e., at-one-ment). The Hebrew and Greek words beneath this term in our English Bibles combine to point to the purging of defilement and the restoration of peace between humankind and deity.
Yet the word propitiation (KJV, NASB, or "atoning sacrifice," NIV) is neither used quite so often nor understood quite as well. Tied closely to the issue of atonement, it denotes turning away wrath by the offering a gift. It points to something that makes a person incline to treating you gently and graciously when you have acted in a way that deserves punishment. Some modern students of the Bible donít like the term "propitiation" because they say it implies pagan notions about capricious gods who need humoring and prefer instead the term "expiation" (cf. NRSV). The difference in these two words may be stated succinctly by saying that an offended or angry person may be propitiated (i.e., appeased), whereas a sin or crime is expiated (i.e., removed). Of course, it is easy to see that they do not cancel out one another.
In light of everything the Bible teaches about sin, however, it seems best to retain the notion of propitiation as primary. Because God is holy, he is unalterably opposed to sin. "God is a righteous judge, a God who expresses his wrath every day" (Psa. 7:11). While he may be "slow to anger," he is nevertheless capable of intense anger against evil and its perpetrators. Thus David wrote this: "You have rejected us, O God, and burst forth upon us; you have been angry ó now restore us!" (Psa. 60:1). And Paul wrote of the "wrath of God" that is both revealed in the form of certain consequences people suffer in this life for their sinfulness and is being stored up for the impenitent against the day of final Judgment (Rom. 1:18,24,26,28; 2:5). The truth of the matter is that Godís anger at sin is as justified as his joy over the initial creation, his wrath is as holy as his love.
The Old Testament sacrificial system taught the means by which a sinful man or woman could approach a holy God. Since Godís anger had been aroused and his wrath made just by sinful deeds, he or she was justified in being afraid to approach the Lord. Because Yahweh had revealed himself as compassion and kindness, however, that same frightened worshiper was invited to come before the Lord with a sacrifice God himself had provided. "For the life of a creature is in the blood, and I have given it to you to make atonement for yourselves on the altar; it is the blood that makes atonement for oneís life" (Lev. 17:11).
When the individual Israelite approached Yahweh, he brought a sacrifice of atonement and propitiation. When an Israelite family prepared to observe the annual Passover Feast, a sacrifice was killed, eaten together as a family, and its blood sprinkled on the entrance to their house. When the whole nation observed its annual Day of Atonement, still another animal was killed and its blood sprinkled on the mercy seat of the ark of the covenant within the templeís Holy of Holies.
In Jesus Christ, the terms "substitution" and "propitiation" come to their climax and fulfillment. In Jesus Christ, the progression reaches its end.
The progression is this: one sacrifice for one individual, one sacrifice for one family, one sacrifice for one nation, one sacrifice for the world. The way to Godís presence is now open to anyone who will come, a fact symbolized by the rending of the veil of the temple (which separated the Holy of Holies from the rest of the temple) at Christís death.1
The Baptizerís Announcement About Jesus
John the Baptizer came on the scene when messianic hope was at a fever pitch among the oppressed Jews of Roman-occupied Palestine. He appeared, drew huge crowds, and naturally attracted the notice of the religious establishment. He called everyone who heard him to repentance in view of the Messiahís nearness. In connection with that call, however, was hope. The Messiah would soon appear!
When the priests sent messengers to inquire about his identity (and intentions), he flatly said he was not the Messiah and had no personal illusions of grandeur. The humble man who knew his place in relation to the Christ wanted no one to confuse him with the One whose way he had come to prepare (John 1:19-20). Pressed to identify himself, John quoted Isaiah 40 about the forerunner of Israelís Messiah (John 1:23).
John had baptized Jesus in the Jordan River several weeks earlier, so he knew his true identity (Matt. 4:1ff; cf. John 1:32-34). Waiting for the right moment to reveal Jesus to others as the long-awaited Redeemer of Israel, John saw him on a certain day and sensed that the time for secrecy had passed. The Passover Festival was close (cf. 2:13), so his method of referring to Jesus was natural. Although he was a prophet and not a priest, John knew the importance of sacrifice in the divine scheme. "The next day John saw Jesus coming toward him and said, "Look, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world! This is the one I meant when I said, ĎA man who comes after me has surpassed me because he was before meí" (John 1:29-30).
"Look, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!" What the blood of millions of animals had anticipated, the blood of Jesus secures. In place of the types and shadows of the old covenant, believers in Christ "have been made holy through the sacrifice of the body of Jesus Christ once for all" (Heb. 10:10). In his Gospel2, first epistle3, and the Apocalypse4, the apostle John affirms Jesus to be the voluntary, substitutionary, and propitiatory Lamb of God.
Going back to the Abraham-Isaac story, do you remember where the altar was built and the animal slain? Mt. Moriah is mentioned only one other time in the Bible. Unless there were two places with the same name, the place of Abrahamís altar was the same one where Israelís temple later stood. "Then Solomon began to build the temple of the Lord in Jerusalem on Mount Moriah . . ." ( 2 Chron. 3:1). That means, of course, that Isaac was prepared for death and then substituted for by a lamb near the very place where Jesus would be raised on a Roman cross! The substitution provided for Isaac foreshadowed the substitution of Jesus as the Lamb of God for all!
As to the propitiation-motif, Jesusí death as the Lamb of God was a propitiatory death that satisfied the demand of holiness in relation to sin. His death not only expiated (i.e., removed) sin but also propitiated (i.e., appeased) a grieved deity in order to make possible the restoration of fellowship between God and man. "He is the atoning sacrifice (i.e., propitiation, NASB) for our sins, and not only for ours but also for the sins of the whole world" (1 John 2:2). One of the most familiar messianic texts of the Old Testament points to this aspect of the saving work of Jesus: "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" (Isa. 53:5; cf. 1 Pet. 2:24). Godís wrath has been turned away from those who are in Christ. Although we have done things that merit punishment, Jesusí death has permitted God to treat us with mercy and gentleness.
Look, the Lamb of God!
See Jesus now as your substitute. Our great provider-God (i.e., Jehovah-jireh) has provided what was needed for your sake. You were in the way of a coming death-blow ó the knife blade was already raised above your head! But the blow headed for you was absorbed by another! "God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God" (2 Cor. 5:21).
See Jesus turning away Godís wrath from you. Yes, a holy God is justly angry at sin and those who perpetrate its evil deeds and consequences.
In the pagan perspective, human beings try to placate their bad-tempered deities with their own paltry offerings. According to the Christian revelation, Godís own great love propitiated his own holy wrath through the gift of his own dear Son, who took our place, bore our sin and died our death. Thus God himself gave himself to save us from himself.5
Never blush to confess your faith in the sufficiency of Jesus, the one who bears the name Lamb of God for our sakes. The humble John disclaimed the honor some were ready to assign him and pointed instead to Jesus as the Worthy One. At the same time, he named the terrible role Jesus would have to assume to save us. He would have to become a lamb, a sacrificial lamb, the Lamb of God to take away the sin of the world.
This is the week that includes Good Friday and sets the stage for Easter Sunday. It is the week for remembering the cross-altar on which your sacrifice was offered. It is the week in which you will likely have an opportunity to confess your faith in Jesus to someone. You can tell him or her that Jesus was your voluntary, substitutionary, and propitiatory sacrifice ó the Lamb of God slain for your sin.
A religious service was being held at the Golden Gate Exposition in San Francisco. Several people in the audience became aware that the man delivering the primary address was not preaching an orthodox gospel. Although a gifted speaker, he derided the idea of something so ghastly as a bloody corpse being required by the God of the Bible for our salvation.
Ruth Marsden relates how, when his speech was ended, a timid, elderly lady stood up in the midst of the crowd and softly began singing a great old hymn by William Cowper as a heartfelt rebuke to the modernist clergymanís remarks. Silence fell over the crowd as they heard the faint-but-familiar words:
There is a fountain filled with blood,
Drawn from Immanuelís veins;
And sinners plunged beneath that flood,
Lose all their guilty stains.
Before she could begin the second stanza, around a hundred people rose to join her to sing:
Dear dying Lamb, Thy precious blood
Shall never lose its power,
Till all the ransomed church of God
Be saved to sin no more.
By the time she reached the third verse, nearly a thousand Christians were on their feet all over the audience and singing that wonderful song of faith. The triumphant, thrilling strains rang out loud and clear:
Eíer since by faith I saw the stream
Thy flowing wounds supply,
Redeeming love has been my theme,
And shall be till I die.
Many, many people were deeply moved that day as a humble believer stood up for her Lord. As related by some of them, the very light of heaven seemed to fall on her face as she gave her testimony to the Lamb of God by whose blood she had found peace.
In Jesus Christ, you can have the same gift.
1 James Montgomery Boice, Foundations of the Christian Faith, rev. ed. (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1986), p. 314.
2 John 3:14; 6:51; 10:11; 11:49ff; 12:24; 18:11.
3 1 John 1:7; 2:2; 4:9ff.
4 Revelation 5:6ff; 6:1ff; 7:9ff; 13:8; 14:1ff; 15:2-3; 19:7,9; 21:9ff; 22:1,3.
5 Cf. John R.W. Stott, Romans: Godís Good News for the World (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1994), pp. 115.
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