“Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” That’s what John the Baptist, the camel-skin-clad, locust-eating prophet, said when he saw Jesus coming toward him (John 1:29 ESV). What did he mean? The Lamb of God? Taking away the sin of the world?
Why a Lamb?
Every first-century Jew would have known immediately what John meant by “the Lamb of God taking away sin.” It was a reference to the Jewish festival of the Passover, a memorial of God’s miraculous deliverance of the Israelites from slavery in Egypt some fifteen hundred years earlier.
As judgment against the Egyptians, God had sent ten plagues on them, and each time the Egyptian king hardened his heart and refused to let the people go. The last of the plagues was the most terrible of all. God told the Israelites that on an appointed night, an angel of death would sweep through the land of Egypt, killing every firstborn child and animal in the country. That horrible judgment would include the Israelites, too—unless they carefully obeyed God’s instructions. Each family, God told them, was to take a lamb without any defect or blemish, and kill it. Then using a branch of hyssop, they were to put some of the blood around the doorframe of their house. Then, God promised, when the angel of death saw the blood, he would “pass over” that house and spare it the judgment of death.
The Passover feast—and especially the Passover lamb became a powerful symbol of the idea that the penalty of death for one’s sins could be paid by the death of another. This idea of “penal substitution,” in fact, grounded the entire system of Old Testament sacrifices. On the annual Day of Atonement, the high priest went into the center of the temple, known as the Most Holy Place, and killed an unblemished animal as payment for the people’s sins. Year after year this happened, and year after year the penalty for the people’s sins was deferred yet again by the blood of the lamb.
How Did Jesus Take Away Our Sin?
It took time, but eventually the followers of Jesus realized that his mission was not just to inaugurate the kingdom of God, but to do so by dying as a substitutionary sacrifice for his people. Jesus was not just King, they realized. He was the suffering King.
He Died for Our Sins
Jesus himself knew from the very beginning that his mission was to die for the sins of his people. The angel had announced at his very birth that “he will save his people from their sins” (Matthew 1:21 ESV), and Luke tells us that “when the days drew near for him to be taken up, he set his face to go to Jerusalem” (Luke 9:51 ESV). Jesus foretold his death many times in the gospels, and when Peter foolishly tried to stand in his way, Jesus rebuked him: “Get behind me, Satan! You are a hindrance to me” (Matthew 16:23 ESV). Jesus’ face was set like flint toward Jerusalem—and therefore toward his death.
Jesus also understood the significance and purpose of his death. In Mark 10:45, he says, “For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (ESV). And in Matthew 26:28, as he shared a last supper with his disciples, he took a cup of wine and declared, “Drink of it, all of you, for this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins” (Matthew 26:27, 28 ESV). “I lay down my life for the sheep,” he said in another place. “No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord” (John 10:15, 18 ESV). Jesus knew why he was going to die. Out of love for his people he willingly laid down his life, the Lamb of God slain so his people could be forgiven.
He Bore the Wrath We Deserved
Taught by the Holy Spirit, the early Christians also understood what Jesus had accomplished on the cross. Paul described it like this: “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us” (Galatians 3:13 ESV). And in another place he explained, “God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Corinthians 5:21 NIV). Peter wrote, “For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring you to God” (1 Peter 3:18 NIV). And, “He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness. By his wounds you have been healed” (1 Peter 2:24 ESV).
Do you see what these Christians were saying about the significance of Jesus’ death? They were saying that when Jesus died, it was not the punishment for his own sins that he endured. (He didn’t have any!) It was the punishment for his people’s sins! As he hung on the cross at Calvary, Jesus bore all the horrible weight of the sin of God’s people. All their rebellion, all their disobedience, all their sin fell on his shoulders. And the curse that God had pronounced in Eden—the sentence of death—struck.
That is why Jesus cried out in agony, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matthew 27:46 ESV). God his Father, who is holy and righteous, whose eyes are too pure even to look on evil, looked at his Son, saw the sins of his Son’s people resting on his shoulders, turned away in disgust, and poured out his wrath on his own Son. Matthew writes that darkness covered the land for about three hours while Jesus hung on the cross. That was the darkness of judgment, the weight of the Father’s wrath falling on Jesus as he bore his people’s sins and died in their place.
He Suffered in Our Place
Isaiah prophesied about this seven centuries before it happened:
Surely he has borne our griefs
and carried our sorrows;
yet we esteemed him stricken,
smitten by God, and afflicted.
But he was pierced for our transgressions;
he was crushed for our iniquities;
upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace,
and with his wounds we are healed. (Isaiah 53:4–5 ESV)
Do you see the significance of this? Ultimately, it means that I’m the one who should have died, not Jesus. I should have been punished, not he. And yet he took my place. He died for me.
They were my transgressions, but his wounds. My iniquities, but his chastisement. My sin, his sorrow. And his punishment bought my peace. His stripes won my healing. His grief, my joy.
His death, my life.