Sermon, October 4, 2020 | Grace Reformed Church
I’ll ask that you turn with me again this morning to the book of John. This is the fourth of what will be five sermons on the first chapter of John. We could, of course, do many more than that, with how packed full of doctrine this first chapter is. And it’s no surprise that as we turn to what has been edited to be the next paragraph, with its own heading, in the chapter, that we are greeted with even more doctrine. And in this brief story, it comes to us first through John naming Christ, naming him something specific. Next week as we finish the chapter we will again look at all of the many things that Jesus is called, the names are really piling up. We began with Jesus as the Word, then we looked at him being the light, and then last week we saw John the Baptist being named—the voice crying in the wilderness that does nothing but point at the Messiah. And now here in this brief story we will see him point directly at the Messiah, when Jesus himself finally makes an appearance in our story. So, turn with me now to John, chapter 1, we’ll read verses 29-34. Listen, this is God’s Holy Word:
29 The next day he saw Jesus coming toward him, and said, “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world! 30 This is he of whom I said, ‘After me comes a man who ranks before me, because he was before me.’ 31 I myself did not know him, but for this purpose I came baptizing with water, that he might be revealed to Israel.” 32 And John bore witness: “I saw the Spirit descend from heaven like a dove, and it remained on him. 33 I myself did not know him, but he who sent me to baptize with water said to me, ‘He on whom you see the Spirit descend and remain, this is he who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.’ 34 And I have seen and have borne witness that this is the Son of God.”
The Word of the Lord.
I don’t know if you’ve ever seen one, likely you have, one of those posters that looks like a big scroll, the one that has collected in one place all of the names of Jesus. There are quite a few of them to be sure. Some of the names come from the Old Testament, like in Isaiah where we get in one passage all of the titles or names of “Wonderful counselor, the mighty God, the Prince of Peace.” We have been bathed in stories about Christ our whole lives so it’s sometimes good to step back and see where each of these come from, and what extra significance they gain when we look at them in the context they are delivered to us.
Well, here is a big one right here, isn’t there? The Lamb of God. We’ve heard it, and said it, and sung it so many times over the last two thousand years that we might not think of it how the people hearing this originally would have thought of it. It is an odd statement, isn’t it? Last week we looked at a number of passages that the Jews, the Pharisees had in mind when they were looking for signs of the Messiah, didn’t we? There were some passages, like the one in Malachi, that gave the Jews some pretty obvious information about what they would be looking for (even if it turned out to be not quite as obvious when it actually happened). In Malachi it said, clearly, look for Elijah. In Deuteronomy Moses said look for a prophet like me.
But was a Lamb something they were looking for? John the Baptist says “look, the Lamb of God!” Were they actually looking for a Lamb? Was John the Baptist looking for a Lamb? We get the advantage of hindsight—we know that Jesus, with the rest of the story in view (the crucifixion, the sacrifice, all of the theology of substitutionary atonement), was in many ways, symbolically a lamb, but when John the Baptist says this, declares Jesus to be the Lamb of God, he doesn’t have all of that information. So we’re going to unpack this a bit and figure out what John the Baptist was thinking when he said that.
But before we do that, let’s look at what hindsight tells us—should we have been looking for a Lamb? Well, there are three things in the Old Testament that point to the Messiah being a Lamb, but we’ll find that they’re actually much less direct than the prophetic hints we looked at last week.
Moving chronologically, the first is the sacrifice of Isaac in Genesis. Right before Abraham is about to slay his son because God told him to, God provides a substitute, a ram (so, a grown up lamb), caught in the thicket, as a sacrifice. That points clearly to a substitutionary atonement, God giving us a substitute to sacrifice for our sins. When we look back at that episode, it is clear to see the tie between that substitute for Isaac and Jesus being a Lamb that is a substitute for the penalty we deserve. It is a beautiful thing, a wonderful symbol and metaphor, but it’s not entirely direct, is it?
The second appearance of a lamb specifically in the Old Testament is very memorable, the Passover Lamb. Of course you remember, the people of Israel, as a protection from the tenth plague on the Egyptians, were to sacrifice a lamb, one for every family, and they were to spread the blood of that lamb on their doorpost so that God’s judgement would pass over them and only inflict the Egyptians. And in the life of a Jew, this is probably the most powerful of any “lamb” imagery that they would have in their day-to-day life. Once a year they would celebrate, commemorate the Passover, with a lamb. And doesn’t that event, the Passover, so beautifully mirror the sacrifice of the ram in place of Isaac? In both cases there is blood of a lamb that is protecting God’s people from the wrath and judgement of God. The blood of the lamb protected them.
The third instance in the Old Testament of a lamb that we can see easily in hindsight is the passage from Isaiah that we read for our Old Testament reading a couple of minutes ago, and is very familiar to us.
He was oppressed, and he was afflicted,
yet he opened not his mouth;
like a lamb that is led to the slaughter,
and like a sheep that before its shearers is silent,
so he opened not his mouth.
We read that and of course we see Jesus! We see him silently bearing such an awful punishment in his phony trial, his betrayal and denial by his friends, his being scourged, beaten, and ultimately crucified. We see the oppressed Jesus being, as this passage says, like a lamb that is led to slaughter. This is the famous picture here in Isaiah of the suffering servant, and we know, in hindsight that is so clearly Jesus Christ.
But again, would that be what the Jews were thinking when they read that passage? And even there in Isaiah, it’s a pretty vague reference to a lamb, it just says that this suffering servant was “like a lamb,” and doesn’t dwell on that image. Are any of these three indirect references to a lamb in the Old Testament strong enough? We see them so clearly, and they absolutely do, and are meant to point to Christ, but are they strong enough that “Lamb of God” would be the first identification that John the Baptist would give Jesus? If you look at it in context, it is a little odd.
A commentator named D. A. Carson, and a few others shed, a little light on this when he notes that at the time of Jesus, if you look at some of the apocryphal literature that was in the collective mind of the Jewish people, it makes a bit more sense. The apocrypha of course does not rise to the level of scripture, but it was written in that four-hundred-year gap between the testaments, so it was actually literature that was widely known, even if it wasn’t scripture. And included in the apocrypha is some apocalyptic literature, stories, a bit like the book of Revelation, In the book of Enoch specifically, which is quoted in the bible, in Jude, in the book of Enoch there is an allegorical retelling of the history of God’s people. In that retelling the people of Israel are referred to as sheep, just like in Isaiah 53, and the leaders of Israel are also referred to as animals. When it talks of the first kings of Israel, Saul is pictured as a ram. And then there is a reference to a lamb who rises up to lead, and that lamb is King David.
And what is King David but the greatest warrior King of the people of Israel? A lamb who is a warrior king. And then that same story in Enoch continues all the way to the apocalypse, the end of all things, when there is a great lamb who rises up to be the leader of the sheep, and he is the Messiah.
So that is an entirely different kind of lamb, isn’t it? A lamb who will lead the people as a warrior king, as the people of God, specifically to them, the leader of Israel. Now John the Baptist’s reference is starting to make more sense. He didn’t have in mind necessarily the indirect, suffering servant references from the Old Testament when he chose to refer to Jesus as the “Lamb of God,” even though God meant it to reference that. John the Baptist, and the religious leaders were looking for a lamb that was going to be a warrior king, and in that way, it really makes sense that John would announce Jesus in this way.
And this is confirmed by how John continues to talk about Jesus. The apostle John doesn’t specifically record the baptism of Jesus, even though that is what happened here, just like in the other gospels, he focuses on one part of the baptism, when the Spirit came and rested on Jesus, confirming that he was the Son of God. God clearly had revealed to John the Baptist, as he says, that this was the sign by which he would know that Jesus was the Messiah, that the Spirit would come on him and stay.
But this arrival of the Spirit also had warrior, military connotations. A number of times in Judges and other books it talks specifically of “the Spirit of God” being with people as they go to battle, like Gideon. The presence of an outpouring of the Spirit was often tied to military victory. It’s no wonder that the Jews had narrowed their focus and thought that they were looking for a new lamb like David, that was going to raise an army and rescue the Jews from their Roman oppressors.
So John the Baptist says “Behold, the Lamb of God,” and then says that the Spirit is with him.
But let’s switch Johns for a second, how about the apostle John recording this story? He, like us, had hindsight when he wrote this. He knew that John the Baptist, when he said this, was saying more than he even knew. The apostle John knew that the lamb he referenced was the suffering servant lamb of Isaiah 53, the paschal lamb of the Passover, the ram offered in substitute. He knew that Christ did not actually raise an army and lead his people in battle. What he actually did was to live and die as a substitute.
It seems that God saw fit to give this image of Jesus the Lamb of God specifically to John the apostle, because it is only in this gospel and the book of Revelation that the title “Lamb of God” appears—the two books that the apostle John wrote. Like I said, we’ve been using this term for so long and so abundantly that we start to think it must be peppered throughout the New Testament, but it is actually only in the writings of John.
And what Lamb do we see in Revelation? If you want to turn there, we’ll read a few passages about the Lamb in Revelation. In Revelation 5:
Then I saw in the right hand of him who was seated on the throne a scroll written within and on the back, sealed with seven seals. 2 And I saw a mighty angel proclaiming with a loud voice, “Who is worthy to open the scroll and break its seals?” 3 And no one in heaven or on earth or under the earth was able to open the scroll or to look into it, 4 and I began to weep loudly because no one was found worthy to open the scroll or to look into it. 5 And one of the elders said to me, “Weep no more; behold, the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, has conquered, so that he can open the scroll and its seven seals.”
6 And between the throne and the four living creatures and among the elders I saw a Lamb standing, as though it had been slain, with seven horns and with seven eyes, which are the seven spirits of God sent out into all the earth. 7 And he went and took the scroll from the right hand of him who was seated on the throne. 8 And when he had taken the scroll, the four living creatures and the twenty-four elders fell down before the Lamb, each holding a harp, and golden bowls full of incense, which are the prayers of the saints. 9 And they sang a new song, saying,
“Worthy are you to take the scroll
and to open its seals,
for you were slain, and by your blood you ransomed people for God
from every tribe and language and people and nation,
10 and you have made them a kingdom and priests to our God,
and they shall reign on the earth.”
One thing we need to always remember, as the Jews didn’t in Jesus’s day, we need to remember to think bigger. Why did the Jews need a Messiah, why did they need a lamb? Was it to free them from oppression from Rome? No, they needed to be free of their sins, that’s what the lamb is for, verse 9 there: “for you were slain, and by your blood you ransomed people for God.” The Jews were looking for a warrior and what they needed was a Savior, and that’s the lamb we see here. The next appearance of the lamb, in chapter 7, starting in verse 9:
9 After this I looked, and behold, a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands, 10 and crying out with a loud voice, “Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!” 11 And all the angels were standing around the throne and around the elders and the four living creatures, and they fell on their faces before the throne and worshiped God, 12 saying, “Amen! Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and might be to our God forever and ever! Amen.”
13 Then one of the elders addressed me, saying, “Who are these, clothed in white robes, and from where have they come?” 14 I said to him, “Sir, you know.” And he said to me, “These are the ones coming out of the great tribulation. They have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.
What a picture, washing robes in blood to make them white. Clothed in the righteousness of God. Again, the Jews didn’t need a warrior to solve their earthly problems, they needed a Savior to solve their eternal problems. Thinking back to the passage in John, after calling Jesus the “Lamb of God,” he says that he “takes away the sins of the world.” He doesn’t say he is the “Lamb of God that defeats the Romans for God’s people the Israelites.” Think bigger! He takes away sins, and not just of the Jews, of people throughout the world—it’s not just about you, Israelites.
You want physical rescue, God offers you the rescue that matters—spiritual rescue, spiritual salvation. And guess what, “Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!” John the Baptist makes this point in another way, again, right after naming Jesus the Lamb of God, he says “I came baptizing with water, but he, the Lamb, baptizes with the Holy Spirit!” The water I have may make you physically clean, but his baptism makes you spiritually clean. Guess what, one of those is profoundly more important than the other.
So here is our message for today, it is simple yet profound. Jesus was and is the Lamb of God, who paid a debt for the sins of his people throughout the world, for you and me. He was the blood on the doorpost keeping us from the Angel of Death, he was the suffering servant. He bled so that we could wash our robes white in his blood. Salvation belongs to no one but the King on the throne and to the Lamb, everything else is passing away.
We’ve been living in difficult times here in our country. Every day we read and listen to the news, and it’s often depressing. We see our culture rotting from the inside out. We see an utter lack of decency, and sometimes raw hatred expressed in so many places. We have an impending election that has laid bare the worst traits of many people. Did you know that a survey was done this week that indicated a majority of people in the country, from all sides of politics, believe that there is a real chance of civil war in this country soon. Some are hoping for it and actively pushing in that direction. Scary stuff. I don’t know what’s going to happen, God is of course in control of all human history, and because of that it’s of course possible that the end of this nation as we know it is at hand. All of that’s possible. Oh yeah, and there’s still a deadly virus slowly working its way through the population.
But we don’t want to make the mistake of the first-century Jews, do we? Think bigger. All of these things that we care about, we should care about, we should wrestle with, we should think deeply about, but we cannot lose the plot. The purpose of all human history is not our physical safety in this life. The purpose of human history is to glorify God. To glorify the Lamb. And the Lamb has already won. If we are in Christ, if we have dipped our robes in the blood of the Lamb, there is nothing to fear, certainly nothing on this earth, not disease, not war, not even the downfall of our nation. We definitely don’t want those things, and we pray earnestly that God will spare us from them, but whatever comes to pass, we should not fear.
If this is not your story, if you find yourself consumed with fear, and have never put your trust wholly in Jesus Christ, there is no better time than now. Repent, believe, claim him as your Savior, because he offers it freely. The lamb calls you to the great wedding feast.
The real battles we face are not physical ones, they are spiritual ones. The Devil doesn’t want to take your health, your wealth, or any of that, he wants what is most valuable to you, he wants your soul. He wants you to be living in fear, he wants you to be hopeless, he wants you to think there’s no way out. And he is fighting for your soul, in a battle for your soul. We have a tendency to stay too heady, and not talk about spiritual warfare in Reformed circles, but we should. The battles are real. Luther certainly was thinking of genuine spiritual warfare when he wrote
And though this world, with devils filled,
should threaten to undo us,
we will not fear, for God has willed
his truth to triumph through us.
The prince of darkness grim,
we tremble not for him;
his rage we can endure,
for lo! his doom is sure;
one little word shall fell him.
But oh, there is good news. The Lamb of God. John the apostle brings us full circle when talking about the Lamb. You see, John the Baptist wasn’t wrong, the first-century Jews weren’t wrong to think of the Lamb as a warrior-king, that wasn’t wrong, they just applied it to the wrong battle. In Revelation 5 and 7 we saw the suffering servant Lamb, saving his people through his sacrifice. But in Revelation 17, we see the return of the Lamb who is a warrior and a king. After describing the Great Prostitute and the Beast, in verse 14, it says:
They will make war on the Lamb, and the Lamb will conquer them, for he is Lord of lords and King of kings, and those with him are called and chosen and faithful.”
Remember, Jesus, the Lamb of God, is your Savior, and your King. And he is a warrior king. He is already fighting for you, and the end is already written. He has overcome the world and he will defeat death and sin once and for all, which is why Luther didn’t stop at verse 3 of his great hymn, and ended instead:
That Word above all earthly powers
no thanks to them abideth;
the Spirit and the gifts are ours
through him who with us sideth.
Let goods and kindred go,
this mortal life also;
the body they may kill:
God's truth abideth still;
his kingdom is forever!
Amen. Let’s pray.
What glorious words you put in the minds and mouths of John the Baptist and John the Apostle, that we might marvel at them today, and that they would bring us comfort. Thank you for teaching us about the reality of our salvation by the blood of the lamb, your Son, and for reminding us that he not only has washed our sins in that blood, but continues to fight for us, his bride, as our King. Bless us as we come to the table now, which serves as a reminder of Jesus’s sacrifice, but also a taste, a glimpse of when we will sit down at the great wedding feast of the Lamb. In the precious name of Jesus the Christ, we pray, amen.