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John 1:29-42

January 15, 2023

O Lamb of God, that takest away the sin of the world, have mercy upon us.

O Lamb of God, that takest away the sin of the world, have mercy upon us.

O Lamb of God, that takest away the sin of the world,  grant us thy peace.


Growing up Anglican, I sang this Agnus Dei most Sundays, but like so many other elements of the service, I didn’t understand it. So when I first read through today’s reading from John’s gospel, that phrase jumped out at me. There’s a lot in it: What does “Lamb of God” mean? What’s the “sin of the world”? How does Jesus take it away? What does it mean for it to be taken away?

First, Lamb of God. I think that we need quite a bit of historical context in order to understand this title, so settle in and get comfortable. There are at least four different references that John could be making when he calls Jesus the Lamb of God.

The first has to do with lambs used in sacrifice. Jewish religious practice at the time of Jesus took place in synagogues and in the Temple in Jerusalem. Synagogues were local community places led by rabbis—teachers—where people sang, prayed, and read Scripture and debated its meaning. The Temple in Jerusalem was where major festivals and some life events were observed. Many kinds of sacrifices took place there, for many different reasons. Four main types of sacrifice were whole-burnt offerings (only lambs could be used for these), well-being offerings (of which thanksgiving offerings were a subtype), purification or sin offerings (a small portion of Temple sacrifices), and reparation offerings. These are set out mostly in Exodus, Leviticus and Numbers. Interestingly, the Biblical texts go into a lot of detail about how to carry out the sacrifices but provide virtually no theological interpretation.[1] While other animals could be sacrificed, it seems that lambs held pride of place.

Another reference is to the lamb sacrificed at Passover. As commanded in Exodus, at Passover each family or community brought a lamb to the Temple to be sacrificed and then took the lamb home to be cooked and eaten together. The shared meal was a central part of the sacrifice. This sacrifice was not a sin offering but was in memory of Yahweh freeing the people of Israel from slavery.

There are two other possible lamb references. One is from Jewish apocalyptic literature of the time. In these writings, the lamb is often a central figure in the defeat of evil at the end of the world. The Revelation to John (not the same John) is an example of this kind of writing and it contains many references to “the lamb.” Finally, the Suffering Servant described by the prophet Isaiah is pictured as a lamb. (“He was oppressed, and he was afflicted, yet he did not open his mouth; like a lamb that is led to the slaughter.” Isaiah 53:7)

The title Lamb of God would have told early Christians a lot about Jesus. As in a Temple sacrifice, he is the innocent victim whose suffering and death leads to the removal of human sin. As the Passover lamb, he symbolizes new liberation from bondage. As an apocalyptic figure, he is the one who, at the end of time, overcomes all the evil in the world. And finally, as the servant of God, his suffering puts right the sin of others.[2]

Now let’s turn to sin. To my mind, the idea of sin is absolutely fundamental to Christian understanding. Without sin, Jesus is a solution in search of a problem.

So, what is sin? Again, there are several layers of meaning.

One is the idea of straying from a religious moral code. Many people, particularly those outside the church, assume that sin has to do with outdated sexual values. Not only outdated, but never good in the first place, with double standards for men and women and curiously obsessed with homosexuality and sex outside of marriage. In this understanding, to sin or to be sinful is something that socially conservative religious people of just about every faith accuse others of doing or being.

As you might imagine, I don’t subscribe to that understanding of sin, of clinging to rules that don’t make sense. But that doesn’t mean that anything goes. The purpose of a moral code is to protect the community. In Scripture, the Law is a gift from God that helps us to live in right relations with each other. Our moral codes need to change as our societies shift and change, but at the end of the day it remains that violating a moral code hurts people and hurts the community and can rightly be called sin.

Another aspect of sin is the misuse or corruption of human freedom. We are made in the image of God. We have extraordinary gifts and the freedom to use them. But we make choices that that exploit vulnerable, often racialized, people. This quality of sin is both individual and systemic. I can make a bad choice as an individual, and together we can and do make bad choices, such as public policy that leads to homelessness, or economies driven by overconsumption and exploiting workers in developing countries. The sin of the world.

Finally and fundamentally, is the idea of sin as estrangement from God, from others, and from ourselves. It is like being estranged from a friend or a family member. It’s painful. This is where the I find the idea of “missing the mark” makes sense (the Greek for sin is hamartia, literally missing the mark): we aim to be in right relationship with God, with others, with ourselves. Yet we do things, often unconsciously, often stemming from our own hurt, that cause us to miss the mark, to miss our goal of being in right relationship. We hurt others, others hurt us, we have misplaced priorities: this leads to estrangement from God. One of my favorite writers (Francis Spufford) calls it “the human propensity to ‘mess’ things up.”

So I hope now that when you hear “Lamb of God,” you’ve got a picture of what that means. And when you hear “sin,” you’re not thinking about yummy transgressions but about real pain and alienation. As for how it is that the Lamb of God takes away the sin of the world, let’s return to the story.

John the Baptist sees Jesus and says, “Look, here is the Lamb of God.” Hearing this, two of his disciples—that is, two of John’s disciples—follow Jesus. And then there is this marvellous exchange: Jesus says, “What are you looking for?” They say, “Where are you staying?”, and Jesus replies “Come and see.”

Come and see. Because how Jesus takes away estrangement, how Jesus brings about reconciliation for everyone, for the whole world, is not a one-time discussion. I think it’s not even something that can be explained. It has to be lived. It takes time. It is a journey.

Come and see.


Questions for reflection

I wonder how you feel about the image of Jesus as a sacrificial lamb?

I wonder which aspect of “sin”—breaking a moral code, misusing our freedom, or estrangement from God—resonates with you?

I wonder how you would answer the question “What are you looking for?”

[1] Nephtali Meshel, “Sacrifice and the Temple,” in The Jewish Annotated New Testament, 2nd edition. Oxford University Press, 2011, pp 658-662.

[2] Robert Kysar, John, The Maverick Gospel, 3rd edition. Westminster John Knox Press, 2007.