John the Baptist was so clear about his mission: “a man sent by God as a witness to introduce the Light” (John 1:6-8), and nothing more.
His listeners even considered him as the Messiah, but he stood his ground, saying: “I am not worthy to untie the strap of his sandal.” And then came the moment of reckoning: Jesus, the Messiah comes down to receive the baptism of John and he cries aloud, “Behold the lamb of God, behold him who takes away the sin of the world” (v.29).
That’s a strange introduction! The expression “lamb of God” was never before used in the scriptures. If so, how did the Baptist coin this expression?
We said the image of the lamb of God is strange. The Baptist was familiar with the scriptures and knew that his listeners would have immediately understood the allusion to the paschal lamb whose blood, placed on the doorposts of the houses in Egypt, had saved their fathers from death on the Passover night.
The Baptist saw the fate of Jesus. One day he would be sacrificed, like a lamb, and his blood would remove the evil forces’ capacity to do harm. His sacrifice would redeem man from sin and death.
The evangelists record that Jesus was sentenced to death at midday of the Paschal vigil (John 19:14); it was, in fact, the hour in which, in the temple in Jerusalem, the priest began to sacrifice the lambs.
The Baptist for sure, was aware of the words of the prophet, “He was led like a lamb to the slaughter, like a dumb sheep before its shearers… he was numbered with the transgressors, but instead, he bore the sin of many and made intercession for the transgressors” (Isaiah 53:7,12). Hence, for John it was a logical conclusion: If Jesus is the messiah, this is what awaits him! So he coins the phrase “Lamb of God”.
The lamb is also associated with the sacrifice of Abraham. Isaac, while walking alongside his father to Mount Moriah, asks, “The fire and the wood are here, but where is the lamb for the sacrifice?” Abraham replies, “God himself will provide the lamb” (Genesis 22:7-8). “Behold the Lamb of God!”
“The Baptist now answers. It is Jesus, given by God to the world to be sacrificed instead of the sinful man deserving punishment.”
The details of the story of Genesis (22:1-18) are also well known and the Baptist intends to apply them to Jesus. Like Isaac, he is the only son, the beloved, the one who brings the wood to the place of sacrifice. The particular additions of the rabbis also fit him. Isaac—they said—offered himself spontaneously instead of fleeing. Jesus also freely gave his life for love.
At this point, we wonder if indeed the Baptist had in mind all these biblical references when, on two occasions, turning to Jesus, he declared: “Behold the Lamb of God” (John 1:29,36).
It is this message of hope and joy that, through the Baptist, John, from the very first page of his gospel, wants to announce to the disciples.
Despite the apparent overwhelming power of evil in the world, what awaits humanity is the communion of life “with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ.” These things—John says—I write “so that our joy may be complete” (1 John 1:3-4).
● Father Fernando Armellini scj
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