The prophet at the threshold in the middle of God’s salvific history with humankind, welcomes the One Who is deemed to be „the Lamb of God“, and, at the same time, is doomed to b e „the Lamb of God“.
St. John is the first to witness about Christ. This testimony, however, does not come from within John, from his knowledge and his own wisdom. He clearly states that whatever he may say about Jesus was revealed to him by „the One Who sent me“. This is the first lesson we learn from this Gospel: To identify Jesus as the One He really is, is not understood by human imagination. To know or acknowledge Jesus as the Son of God, is not achieved by human reason. To realize Him to be the „Lamb of God“, is by no means a matter of rational appeal. Instead, even John the Baptist whom Jesus awards to be „more than a prophet“ (Mt 11:9), was allowed to look at Jesus as the „Son of God“ only by divine revelation. Thus God Himself had to be the One to inform John, the One to grant him to perceive Who Jesus really is. By God’s linking the sending of the Holy Spirit “like a dove” to the announcement that He on Whom the Spirit would descend, would be the One “Who baptizes with the Holy Spirit” – in such a way John the Baptist is finally enabled to identify Jesus.
This is St. John’s destiny, to witness to Jesus and thus to reveal Him to Israel – and beyond that, to all the world. And revelation is needed, even urgently, because in His human and lowly “form of a servant”, it is not self-evident, Who Jesus is. Therefore, John proclaims Him to be the One “Who ranks before me because He was before me”. This remark quite obviously hints a Christ’s pre-existence in eternity. As God’s eternal Son, Jesus was unknown to John. And the same holds true for Christ’s atoning work as the “Lamb of God”, not to mention His baptizing with the Holy Spirit. The three spheres of activities John lists here comprise the whole of Christ’s person and work. The One who always has been with the Father, the One Who alone can be labelled “Son of God” in the true sense of the word, namely the only-begotten Son – while all of us are sons and daughters, God’s children by adoption –, He is, at the same time the “Lamb of God” Who, by sacrificing Himself in the stead of us sinners “takes away the sin of the world”. And likewise, He is the One to have human beings participate in what He has gained and gathered on Calvary’s mountain by bestowing the Holy Spirit upon us. That is the case whenever an infant is baptized; for in exactly this divine action of Holy Baptism, we have received the Holy Spirit to create us anew, to have us reborn as God’s beloved children.
The title by which John has labelled Jesus makes Him apparent as the One Who has come to perform the greatest and most difficult task in all of human history: God’s reconciliation with us, and our reconciliation with God. It was His mission, to carry away the sins of the world, to bear off anything and everything that any human being had committed against God’s holy will, to deal with and to get rid of anything and everything that the human race had perpetrated, in all of history, since Adam and Eve fell. Jesus the Christ replaces the scapegoat that was sent into the desert to carry away Israel’s sin year after year. But the Son of God, the Lamb of God does so once and for all, because His sacrifice is enormously valuable and His blood extraordinarily precious – much more so than the blood of goats. The Lamb of God had to be slaughtered in order to be the Passover Lamb – an expression by which St. Paul (1 Cor. 5:7) alludes to the date and time when Christ died on the cross.
His suffering and dying then effects, and really is the atonement that we are dependent on in terms of our salvation. Martin Luther has commented on this in making Christ speak these words: “You are no longer a sinner, but I am. I am your substitute … All your sins are to rest on me and not on you.” (LW 22:167). And the Wittenberg reformer advises his readers and congregants to proceed like this: “You cast your sins from yourself and onto Christ, to be borne and paid for by Him” (LW 42:12). And Luther teaches us to pray: “Lord Jesus, you are my righteousness, just as I am your sin. You have taken upon yourself what is mine, and have given to me what is yours. You have taken upon yourself what you were not, and have given me what I was not.” This is what Luther calls the “marvellous exchange” between Christ and the believer. Christ receives anything that is rightly ours, like sinfulness, corruption, and depravation, while everything that is Christ’s, His innocence, His mercy, His glory, His holiness is bestowed upon us in faith. This is what the Lamb of God has generated for the benefit of our souls.
When two of John’s disciples heard John label Jesus the “Lamb of God” the next day, this is the trigger to make them follow Jesus. This encounter opened their eyes to make Jesus see as the “Messiah”. The way those two come to identify Jesus, is linked to the Old Testament promises given to Israel. Staying with Him, and most likely talking to Him, rather Him talking to them all day long, they were convinced to have found the “anointed one” – that God-sent man Who “was the one to redeem Israel” (Ps 130:8; Lk 24:21) . It is now Christ Himself Who introduces Himself to them, and by doing so, instructs them in Who He is, and what His mission is about. It is only after this kind of teaching, that St. Andrew invites his brother Peter to also come and see Jesus.
It is fascinating to learn how the parallel use of “Lamb of God”, “Son of God”, and “Messiah” in this bible passage, connects various aspects of the person of Christ and His work. For us and our understanding, it would not be understood that in Christ, God Himself should bring about our salvation by suffering and dying. And it is far from our innate comprehension that Israel’s and the world’s redeemer does not appear as a mighty, powerful, and violent sovereign and ruler who forces us towards salvation, rather He comes as a humble, lowly, and meek servant to all humankind who invites us to enter His kingdom. In addition, it is way beyond our natural imagination that the Lord of Lords share our fate, moreover He assumes it and makes it His own, so that He in our stead and place becomes the target of God’s wrath and subject to any human atrocity, malice, and wickedness that cause His death.
Yet, Christ is sovereign in His kingdom, and powerful to change people and make them new persons living in connection with Him. This becomes evident and manifest in the way, Jesus renames St. Andrew’s brother, Simon: “You shall be called ‘Cephas’”. Simon, a person whom we all know as having a character like a weather vane, moody, short-tempered, easy to enthuse, yet unreliable, and wavering – this Simon, so very similar to us, is awarded the honorific title of Cephas, Petrus, the rock on which Christ wants to build His Church (Mt 16:18). Although St. Peter will never completely loose those problematic traces of his character, nevertheless, he is created a new person in that very moment. In spite of all his shortcomings, his failures, and his questionable nature, Christ sees in him somebody else. And it is precisely by this seeing, that St. Peter indeed becomes a different person. Why so? Because Jesus Christ, the Son of God and the Lamb of God, due to His suffering and dying, has taken away also Peter’s sin, even his denial of Christ on Maundy Thursday. Having taken away the sin of the world, including St. Peter’s sin, Werner Klän’s – my –very sins – and there are heaps, bunches, loads of them, in my heart, in my soul, in my mind, in my body, in my life, in my relationship with other people –, all the students’ sins – having taken away all those sins, Christ is in the position grant forgiveness to all of us, which He does abundantly.
It is exactly this purpose that made the Son of God become the Lamb of God – only for this one and very reason: that we be saved. His holy name shall be praised forever. Amen.
(c) Prof. Dr. Werner Klän, Lutheran Theological Seminary Oberursel, Germany)