O lamb of God, that takest away the sin to the world,
have mercy on us.
I have heard, spoken and sung this versical for years beyond reckoning. For decades I have known their source as John’s Gospel. I have never thought about what it means. It is self-evident: it’s a request for Jesus, the lamb of God, to take away the world’s sins, and oh yes, mine while you are at it. Straight forward; right?
Well, maybe not. Scott Hoezee [i] and Richard Swanson [ii] both ask, and then seek to answer what John means when he names Jesus lamb of God and his purpose to take away the sins of the world. It turns out to be far more complex than you’d think.
To begin with the phrase lamb of God appears only here, there are other references to Jesus as lamb, but this exact phrase is used only here. [iii] If Jesus is a Passover lamb, there are image difficulties arising from the understanding of God joining the meal, and eating …. If Jesus is a sacrificial lamb, well sacrificial lambs are female, and while male goats are included, male lambs are left out! [iv] Additionally, lambs are typically a symbol of gentleness, meekness, and vulnerability not exactly a model for a messiah.
Okay, let’s not get drawn overly deep into the lamb bit, let’s just focus on the core phrase, who takes away the sins of the world. How? Let’s begin with take away which is rooted in the Greek lift up, which may imply lifting up sins so everyone can see them. Or it may refer to the firey serpent episode in Numbers with the bronze snake lifted to so those bitten can be healed. Or perhaps it’s a reference to being lifted up during crucifixion. We might even consider the sacrifice of Isaac, when God provide the lamb, but again there are translation difficulties. [v]
From this mess of ancient sacrificial practices, and translation question an image emerges that is helpful, God provides for the healing of God’s people. Yes, we have our obligations to meet, nonetheless, the healing and redemption is accomplished through God in Jesus’s birth, life, death, resurrection and ascension. All this being said, knowing the Lamb (sheep, sacrifice) of God, takes away (lifts up) the sin of the world, has mercy on us all the time, for all time, illumines lives.
[ii] Richard Swanson, Commentary on John 1:29-42, Working Preacher, WorkingPreacher.org, January 19, 2014
[v] ibib, and Strong’s Talking Greek & Hebrew Dictionary.