Behold the Lamb – John 1:29

I told Jacob over at his blog, New Cool Thang, that I would get back with him on penal-substitutionary atonement. In the commenting section, please notice the exchange between Jacob and me.

I don’t fault Jacob’s response to me on John 1:29. Listen to the words of the evangelical scholar, Leon Morris in his commentary on The Gospel According to John (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1971): “The expression ‘the Lamb of God’ has passed into the general Christian vocabulary. But for all that it is very difficult to know exactly what it means. It is not found elsewhere in the New Testament (though Jesus is sometimes spoken as ‘the Lamb’, especially in Revelation), nor in any previous writing known to us” (pp. 143-144).

In the next several pages, Morris suggests nine meanings behind the title: (i) The Passover Lamb (John 19:36), (ii) The “lamb that is led to the slaughter” (Isa. 53:7), (iii) The Servant of the Lord, another way of seeing the origin of the expression in Isa. 53, (iv) The lamb of the daily sacrifices offered morning and evening in the Temple, (v) The “gentle lamb” of Jer. 11:19, (vi) The scapegoat, (vii) The triumphant Lamb of the apocalypses, (viii) The God-provided Lamb of Gen. 22:8, and (ix) A guilt-offering, since sometimes this was a lamb (passages suggested are Lev. 14:24) (pp. 144-147).

Twenty years later, D.A. Carson’s The Gospel According to John (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1991) echoes all the suggestions put forth by Morris but differs from Morris in his final conclusion (Carson does distinguish his interpretation from another evangelical, George R. Beasley-Murray). “When the Baptist identified Jesus as the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world, he probably had in mind the apocalyptic lamb, the warrior lamb, found in some Jewish texts (I Enoch 90:9-12; Testament of Joseph 19:8; Testament of Benjamin 3:8 – the latter passages probably, but not certainly, pre-Christian) and picked up in the Apocalypse (Rev. 5:6, 12; 7:17; 13:8; 17:14; 19:7,9; 21:22-23; 22:1-3).”

Colin G. Kruse in John (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2003) from The Tyndale New Testament Commentaries series (an update from R.V.G.Tasker) welds together Carson’s interpretation with traditional thought. “In light of all this [his preceeding exegesis on John 1:29] we are probably correct to say that the evangelist would be happy if his readers took John’s witness to Jesus as ‘the lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world’ to have a double meaning. He was both the apocalyptic lamb who judges unrepentant sinners, and the atoning sacrifice for the sins of those who believe” (pp. 79-80).

Craig Keener wrote in his work, The Gospel of John, A Commentary, Volume One (Peabody: Hendrickson Publishers, 2003), “The primary background must be that of the (sacrificial) Passover lamb, as many scholars have contended, although combinations with other sources like the Suffering Servant remain feasible . . . John’s emphasis may be on Jesus dying ‘on behalf of’ others (10:11, 15; 11:50; 18:14) rather than ‘propiatory’ sacrifice, but the ideas fit together comfortably and are in no way mutually exclusive (I John 2:2; 3:16; 4:10) . . . That the Fourth Gospel later portrays Jesus’ death in terms of the Passover lamb (18:28; 19:36) and writes in the context of a new exodus and a new redemption (1:23) expected by Judaism indicates that this is the sense of ‘lamb’ in view in the Fourth Gospel” (p. 454).

I can’t get away from the O.T. symbolism of the lamb as the substitute slain in penalty for man’s sin. The only way you can get rid of sin is through bloody sacrifice (Heb. 11:22), which I realize is highly offensive to our modern society. But neither do many highly regard the Scriptures.

In the recent commentary, John 1-11 (Chicago: Moody, 2006), John MacArthur seeks to remove all the cobwebs from John 1:29. “The concept of a sacrificial Lamb was a familiar one to the Jewish people . . . Though Israel sought a Messiah who would be a prophet, king, and conqueror, God had to send them a Lamb. And He did. The title Lamb of God foreshadows Jesus’ ultimate sacrifice on the cross for the sin of the world. With this brief statement, the prophet John made it clear that the Messiah had come to deal with sin. The Old Testament is filled with the reality that the problem is sin and it is at the very heart of every person (Jer. 17:9). All men, even those who received the revelation of God in Scripture (the Jews), were sinful and incapable of changing the future or the present, or of repaying God for the sins of the past” (pp. 55-56).

I am deeply thankful for the Lamb.


  1. Todd: The only way you can get rid of sin is through bloody sacrifice (Heb. 11:22), which I realize is highly offensive to our modern society. But neither do many highly regard the Scriptures.

    Is your position that the sacrificial lamb can only be reasonably understood in terms of penal-substitution? If so I wholeheartedly disagree. I have great regard for the Scriptures, but I don’t see the symbolism as locking me into a specific mechanism for the atonement. Some of the quotes you cite in the post back me up on that.

    By the way, what is a "heart issue" and why did you start a blog directed to LDS?

  2. Jacob, thanks for your comment. I apologize first about the lack of you being able to post with quotations. There are some quirks. Preview anything in order to see the surprises.

    To your first question. Yes, I firmly believe in the substitutionary atonement of Christ based on what is revealed in Scripture.

    Second question. Heart issues is a term I use in order to sincerely discuss things that are beyond the superficial conversation in a community. And heart does ecompass the mind, the will, and the emotions.

    Third question. It is Heart Issues for LDS because 80% of the households around my church building are LDS. I want to discuss, engage. Jacob, are you game? Go back to the entries on October 11-12 to sense some more of my heart.

    What do you think?

  3. At the top of this post, you linked to a post of mine on the penal-substitution theory of atonement. In that post, I outlined some of my problems with this theory. I focused mostly on the fact that penal-substitution is fundamentally unjust.

    You didn’t address this concern in your comments there (where you asked a question but did not offer any opinion whatsoever) and you have not addressed that concern here in this post either. It is fine if you believe the Bible locks you into a penal-substitutionary theory of atonement, but the work of theology begins there, rather than ending there. My challenge to you is to make sense of that idea.

    Is it your opinion that the Bible teaches a concept of atonement which is contrary to the nature of justice? If not, how do you square penal-substitution with our innate sense of justice which tells us punishing an innocent person for the sins of another person is an obvious injustice?

  4. Jacob, I just registered this response of yours, today. I’ve been eating a few too many potatoes lately. Does that affect vision on personal blogs. I will most glady get back with you on your challenge.

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