The next day John saw Jesus coming toward him, and said, “Behold! The Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world! [NKJV]
This exclamation by John the Baptist was made just a short time after Jesus began His public ministry. The next day, John would baptize Jesus in the river Jordan, and everyone present would witness the Holy Spirit descending upon Jesus like a dove, and hear the voice of God the Father from heaven say, “This is My beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.” [Matthew 3:17 NKJV].
Christians and non-believers alike, are very familiar with these beloved scriptures, but I think we need to take a closer look. What does John mean when he declares that Jesus takes away the sin of the world? Anyone can see with only a cursory glance at the state of our society that sin (as the Bible defines it) hasn’t been removed from our world. Indeed, sin runs rampant today, just as it has since the time of Jesus, and indeed since Adam and Eve first tasted of the forbidden fruit in the Garden. Clearly, then, John didn’t mean that Jesus would remove sin from the world – at least not right away (or if that is what John did mean, he was sorely mistaken). No. John meant something else altogether – something wonderful, something awesome, and deeply sobering. To understand it, we must first learn something about Jesus’ true nature, and that of God, our Father.
Certainly, limited human understanding cannot begin to fathom the depths of God’s nature. We must simply believe what the Bible says about Him. Despite what many people both outside and inside the church have written and said about Jesus over the course of the last two millenia, the Bible details the nature of the Trinity of God – God the Father, God the Son Jesus Christ, and God the Holy Spirit – very clearly, beginning in the very first verse – In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. [Genesis 1:1 NKJV] The Hebrew word for “God” in this verse is plural – Elohim. The apostle John, in his Gospel gives us even more detail in reference to Jesus’ true nature as part of the Holy Trinity – In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. [John 1:1 NKJV] Over the next few verses John tells us that Jesus, the Son, is indeed God, the Creator of the universe. Then later in this chapter, John goes on to tell us of the coming of Jesus into the world in the flesh of a human being – And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we beheld His glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth. [John 1:14 NKJV] Finally, in the next verse, John the apostle ties these declarations about Jesus in with the statements made by John the Baptist regarding Him – John bore witness of Him and cried out, saying, “This was He of whom I said, ‘He who comes after me is preferred before me, for He was before me.’ “ [John 1:15 NKJV] It is interesting, also, to note that John the Baptist, was Jesus’ earthly cousin, his mother being a relative of Mary, Jesus’ mother. John was born a few months before Jesus, yet he says that “He was before me.” John, therefore, certainly knew and declared the true nature of the deity of Jesus.
Clearly, from these passages, and from Jesus’ own testimony about Himself detailed throughout the New Testament, and in the Messianic prophecies of the Old Testament, the deity of Jesus Christ is undeniable. As part of the Trinity of God, Jesus had never known a time of separation from God the Father, and God the Holy Spirit, since before the beginning of time. And, as God, it was and is impossible for Him to live in the presence of sin, being, Himself, completely holy and righteous. Yet God (Elohim) desires to share fellowship with sinful man. Jesus created mankind as a perfect and sinless reflection of Himself, fully knowing that man would eventually rebel in sin, and would therefore need to be redeemed before this fellowship could be restored. It is humbling, indeed, to consider that Jesus knew the sacrifice He, Himself would need to make even before He created mankind. And this takes us back to our question – What did John the Baptist mean when he declared that Jesus would take away the sin of the world?
We see the answer a few years later in the Garden of Gethsemane on the night Jesus was betrayed by one of His own disciples, and turned over to the religious and civil authorities to be killed by crucifixion. The evening had been fraught with symbolism infused into the very core of every Jew. Just a few hours earlier, Jesus had shared the Passover meal with His disciples. The bread Jesus had broken and said, “This is My body which is given for you; do this in remembrance of Me.” [Luke 22:19 NKJV] had been baked without leaven (the Biblical symbol for sin) in accordance with the Passover tradition, emphasizing that Jesus having lived a wholly sinless life, would nevertheless soon sacrifice his sinless body. The ceremonial Passover lamb they had sacrificed and eaten earlier in the day had been a remembrance of the Jews’ deliverance from Egypt (Exodus 12) in which the destroyer of the first born of Egypt had passed over the houses of the Jews because of the blood of the lamb painted on their door frames.
Following the meal, Jesus had led his disciples to a Garden called Gethsemane (the Hebrew word for olive press) somewhere on the Mount of Olives. There, while his disciples slept, Jesus prayed, “Father, if it is Your will, take this cup away from Me; nevertheless not My will, but Yours, be done.” [Luke 22:42 NKJV] Luke goes on to tell us that Jesus was in such agony at the thought of what He was about to do, that His sweat became like great drops of blood falling down to the ground. [Luke 22:44 NKJV] What was it that Jesus found so fearful? What did John the Baptist mean when he said that the Lamb of God would “take away” the sin of the world? Jesus knew that He was about to take upon Himself the sin of all mankind – past, present, and future. In sacrificing Himself as punishment for that sin, He would make it possible for all mankind to re-enter the fellowship of God, but to do that, for the first and only time since before He created the universe, and until beyond its end, Jesus Himself would have to be separated from the other members of the Trinity.
In doing this, Jesus was taking upon Himself a role which would also have been well familiar to the Jewish mind and culture – that of scapegoat (Leviticus 16). Once a year, on the Day of Atonement, the high priest would select two goat kids which were completely free from blemish or fault. One of these goats would be sacrificed as a burnt offering. The priests would then lay their hands upon the other goat (the scapegoat), and confess all of the sins of all the people of Israel, laying the sins on the head of the scapegoat, which would then be cast out into the wilderness to die alone.
This is the same sacrifice that Jesus made for all the sins of mankind then, now, and forever. Since God cannot bear the presence of sin, a sacrifice was necessary in order to restore mankind to sinlessness in the eyes of God so that we could then re-enter into fellowship with the Holy God as He desires. God Himself – the man Jesus – made the needed sacrifice by shouldering this tremendous burden of sin, and carrying it to the cross – thus “taking away the sin of the world.” After being tortured and reviled by the very people for whom He was laying down His life, and bearing the disgrace of the sins of others which He had taken upon Himself despite the fact that He was, Himself, completely free of sin, Jesus made the ultimate sacrifice in allowing Himself to be separated from His Father, and Spirit – And at the ninth hour Jesus cried out with a loud voice, saying, “Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani?” which is translated, “My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me?” [Mark 15:34 NKJV]