Summary: What might John the Baptist's hearers have understood by his declaration: "Behold the Lamb of God"?
BEHOLD THE LAMB OF GOD
John the Baptist pointed to Jesus and said to the crowds around him, “Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!” The next day he repeated to two of his own disciples, “Behold the Lamb of God!”
What did John the Baptist mean when he called Jesus by this unusual title? What would his hearers have understood by the expression?
First, it would have reminded them of an incident in their ancestor Abraham’s life, when the LORD called upon Abraham to sacrifice his son Isaac, in whom rested all the promises of God, and the hope for the future of Abraham’s family and for all mankind.
Abraham laid the wood for the burnt offering on the shoulders of his son. As they proceeded together to the mountain where the sacrifice was to take place, the younger man asked, “Where is the lamb for a burnt offering?” To which his father answered, “My son, God will provide for Himself the lamb for a burnt offering.”
When Abraham stretched out his hand to slay Isaac with the knife, the Angel of the LORD called to him from heaven, and told him not to kill his son. The command had been a test of Abraham’s obedience and faith.
Looking round, Abraham saw a ram caught in a bush, and offered the animal in place of his son (Genesis 22:1-13).
When Abraham said, “God will provide for Himself a lamb for the burnt offering,” he spoke as a prophet. The substitution of a ram for Isaac pointed forward to a much greater transaction. One day One born into Abraham and Isaac’s family, Jesus, would come, “to give His life as a ransom instead of many” (Mark 10:45).
Second, the expression “Behold the Lamb of God!” would have reminded John the Baptist’s hearers of the feast of the Passover. This is the annual celebration of the Exodus of the children of Israel when they left slavery in Egypt for the Promised Land.
The Egyptians were plagued by the LORD because they refused to release the Israelites. The tenth and final plague saw the death of the firstborn sons of all Egypt.
On the evening before the first Passover, the Israelites were instructed by Moses the servant of the LORD to sacrifice a lamb for each of their households, and to sprinkle the blood of the lamb on the doorposts of their houses.
When the Angel of Death came to an Israelite house, he would see the blood of the lamb, and pass over that house. Each of the firstborn of Israel was spared, because of the sacrifice of a lamb (Exodus 12:21-28).
When Moses and Elijah miraculously appeared with our Lord Jesus Christ in the Mount of His transfiguration, they were speaking together of another ‘exodus’ that Jesus would accomplish in Jerusalem (Luke 9:31).
The Apostle Peter, who was one of the witnesses to this event, speaks of Jesus in language reminiscent of the Passover: “You were not redeemed with corruptible things, like silver or gold, from your aimless conduct received by tradition from your fathers, but with the precious blood of Christ, as of a lamb without blemish and without spot” (1 Peter 1:18-19).
Third, by the expression “Lamb of God” the hearers of John the Baptist would have been reminded of the daily sacrifices made at the Temple in Jerusalem.
No priest was allowed to stand and serve the living God without the shedding of blood. All were found to be stained by sin, and ritual uncleanness. So day after day, Sabbath after Sabbath, new moon after new moon, year after year, the sacrifices had to be renewed over and over again.
The ordinary people were also considered ritually unclean, and had to offer sacrifices each time they came to the Temple. They offered the blood of bulls and of goats, of turtle doves and pigeons.
Lambs were offered on the altar in both the morning and the evening of every day. Lambs were sacrificed for the ceremonial cleansing of healed lepers. Lambs were offered by those taking the vow of a Nazirite, separating themselves from wine and strong drink. At times of vows, of freewill offerings and of feasts, the people often offered a lamb.
The offering of these sacrifices were but shadows of the full final sufficient sacrifice of our Lord Jesus Christ, made once for all the sins of all His people.
It was a lamb which the priestly prophet Samuel offered as a whole burnt offering before a battle with the Philistines. The LORD answered his prayers by confusing the enemy with thunder, and bringing victory to Israel (1 Samuel 7:9-10). Likewise our enemy the devil, the accuser of our souls, is defeated by the sacrifice of our Lord Jesus Christ.