by Dr. Paul E. Kretzmann++
“The next day John seeth Jesus coming unto him, and saith, ‘Behold the Lamb of God, which taketh away the Sin of the world’?”
It is a solemn occasion which finds us assembled here at this time, for the Christian world is today commemorating the darkest day in the history of the world, the day on which the Son of God, the Lord of Glory, the Prince of Life, suffered the most shameful death of the cross; it is the day on which He laid down His life as a ransom for the sins of the world. No wonder that the Christian Church has from olden times celebrated the day with every evidence of deepest grief and mourning.
On account of this fact we have chosen our present text for a meditation of the significance of the day for us. For it is a wonderful statement that we have before us in this passage; it is a sermon which was delivered by one of the most successful preachers of all times. If we but look at the few words contained in our text, John the Baptist may not seem to have said much in this one sentence, yet this one sentence is one of the most remarkable Lenten addresses to be found in the entire Bible. Let us then, in this solemn Good Friday hour, look at the individual words of this wonderful sermon and apply them to ourselves.
BEHOLD! St. John calls out. He wants to rivet our attention upon that unique spectacle presented to our eyes on Calvary's dread mountain; he wants us to concentrate with supreme devotion on its significance. His call reminds us of the words in the Lamentations of Jeremiah, words which have been included for centuries in the liturgy for Good Friday, since they so well portray the sorrow which must have filled the heart of the Savior as He hung there upon the cross in unspeakable shame and disgrace: “Is it nothing to you, all ye that pass by? behold, and see if there be any sorrow like unto my sorrow, which is done unto me, wherewith the Lord hath afflicted me in the day of his fierce anger” (La. 1:12). The words of John the Baptist are like those of the soul-searching hymn:
- See, world, thy Life assailed,
On the accursed tree nailed,
Thy Savior sinks in death.
Nor is this all that the word behold brings to our attention. The Church rightly sings: Stricken, smitten, and afflicted See Him dying on the tree! Yes,
Thus did Pilate, the unjust judge, call out, probably with at least some degree of pity for the prisoner, knowing that the high priests had delivered Him for envy. Remember: it was our sins that drove the nails through His hands and feet, even as they had caused the cruel thorns to lacerate the tender skin of His head; it was our sins that caused the patient Sufferer to cry out in the agony of an eternal rejection by God: “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” (Mt. 27:46, Mk. 15:34). Yes, let us in this hour behold the Lamb of God; let us behold the wrath of God over the sins of mankind; but let us also behold the unsearchable depths of God’s mercy!
“Behold the LAMB!” calls the Baptist. He well knew what he was saying in these words. For centuries, as long as the Tabernacle and the Temple of the Jews were used as their centers of worship, every morning and every evening a lamb was offered to the Lord, and on every Sabbath two lambs, both in the morning and in the evening. These sacrificial animals had a definite significance. Every member of the Jewish Church in the Old Testament well knew, just as does every believer of the New Testament, that the blood of a lamb in itself cannot take away sins. It was only by virtue of the symbolism connected with this sacrifice that it had any value; it was because every lamb thus sacrificed was a type and symbol of the one unique sacrificial Lamb which was to come in the fulness of time.
And this was true in a much greater measure of the sacrifice offered on that one great festival of the Jewish church year, when millions of believing Jews assembled at Jerusalem for the Passover. It was the one great day of the year when every Jewish householder made use of the privilege and prerogative of offering his lamb in person in the priests’ court of the Temple. Every paschal lamb of the Old Testament was a type of the greatest, the most unique Lamb of all, of which St. Paul writes to the Corinthians: “Christ our passover is sacrificed for us” (1 Co. 5:7). He is the Lamb of whom Isaiah, in chapter 53 of his prophecy, writes in such a remarkable fashion: “He is brought as a lamb to the slaughter, and as a sheep before her shearers is dumb, so he openeth not his mouth” (Is. 53:7). And the Evangelist clearly identifies Christ as the one true Passover Lamb, when he applies the statement: “Not a bone of him shall be broken,” to the incident which took place at the cross, when the bones of Jesus were not crushed by the cruel mallet of the soldiers (Jn. 19:36).
And why did all this take place? Because the Savior was God’s Lamb, as St. John the Baptist tells us. “Behold the Lamb of God,” he calls out. When Christ died on Calvary, He died as a sacrifice which had to be made to satisfy the holiness and the justice of God. God Himself had so planned it before the foundation of the world, for He foresaw the unspeakable misery which would come upon all mankind as a result of sin. Every member of mankind has merited eternal damnation for his sins, and eternal damnation would be the inevitable lot of every human being that ever lived on this earth if Jesus had not been offered as the sacrifice in our stead. Every sin committed by man calls down upon him God’s wrath and displeasure, temporal death and eternal damnation. The justice of God can demand no less than a full obedience, and the justice of God must therefore insist upon a condemnation which meets the full demand of righteousness.
And yet this same holy and just God was directly interested in the sacrifice of Jesus, for the Lamb of God, in offering up Himself upon the altar of the cross, made an adequate sacrifice, a sacrifice which completely atoned for all the sins of all mankind and thereby made it possible for the mercy and love of God to turn once more to fallen mankind and to receive all men as His dear children in Jesus Christ, their Savior. The Apostle Paul writes that God Himself “was in Christ, reconciling the world to himself, not imputing their trespasses unto them” (2 Co. 5:19). As God had from eternity conceived the plan to have His Son become the substituting Christ, the Lamb of atonement, so He fashioned the course of His Son’s life on earth, so that all the prophecies of old were fulfilled, one after another, until the work of redemption was completed. God planned the coming of the Lamb, God was with the Lamb, God offered the Lamb as the sacrifice, God accepted the sacrifice of His Son. By God’s determinate counsel His Lamb was delivered for our offenses, for the transgressions of the whole world.
This fact is brought out by John the Baptist in the most beautiful manner when he says, in his great Lenten sermon: “Which taketh away the sins of the world.” It is very interesting and comforting, in this connection, to know that the word used in the original language of the New Testament has a double significance. It means, first of all, that the Savior bore, that he carried on His back, the sins of the world. The situation is well depicted by the great hymn-writer Paul Gerhardt, when he has Jesus respond to the call of His Father to bear the sins of the world;
- “Yea Father, yea, most willingly
I’ll bear what Thou commandest;
My will conforms to Thy decree,
I do what Thou demandest.”
- “Whence come these sorrows, whence this mortal anguish?
It is my sins for which Thou, Lord, must languish;
Yea, all the wrath, the woe, Thou dost inherit,
This I do merit.”
And He not only took upon Himself, He not only bore our sins, but, as the second meaning of the verb assures us: He took away these sins. The Church of the Old Testament had a very striking ceremony which was a type of Christ’s sacrifice. On the great Day of Atonement in the fall of the year there was one peculiar double sacrifice, namely that of two goats. The first goat was the goat of sin-offering, sacrificed with a bullock, and its blood was sprinkled on the mercy seat, to make an atonement for the children of Israel. In a special prayer the sins of the people were laid upon the goat, so that the animal bore the iniquities of the whole congregation. Thus Jesus was the sin-offering for all mankind. The second goat of the festival was known as the scapegoat, and it is expressly stated that the high priest should confess over him all the iniquities of the children of Israel, and all their transgressions in all their sins, putting them upon the head of the goat. And then the scapegoat was sent away into the wilderness, symbolically laden with the sins and iniquities of the people. This ceremony was clearly to signify the complete taking away of the people’s iniquity. Thus Jesus, of whom the scapegoat was a type, took away our sins on the cross, when He was condemned to everlasting damnation in our stead and carried our sins, as it were, into the wilderness of hell. St. Paul writes that Jesus “blotted out the handwriting of ordinances that was against us, which was contrary to us, and took it out of the way, nailing it to his cross” (Co. 2:14). It was the Savior’s sacrifices that took from us the curse which the fall of Adam and our sins had brought upon mankind. He took away our sins when He wrestled with His heavenly Father in His importunate prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane; He took away our sins when He endured the pains of eternal hell while He hung for more than three hours on the cursed tree of the cross.
The Lamb of God, as John the Baptist says, took away the sin of the world. And here is the very heart of the Good Friday message. For unless we realize the damnableness of our sins, the miracle of Calvary has no significance for us. We must acknowledge, without excuse or reservation, the actuality of our sins, together with the penalty which the righteous God must demand from us. We must realize that we sin a hundred, a thousand times a day, in thought, in word, in deed, in the hidden motions of sin in our mind, in the sins of commission, in the sins of omission. We may think that we have made some headway in sanctification with the help of the Lord, but when we think of the many possibilities for showing kindness, for doing good which we have missed, we are bound to find that our sins and transgressions mount up before us in staggering total. And all this the Savior took upon Himself. He took away the folly, the deceitfulness of sin. He knew from the beginning how easily men are led into sin by its beautiful appearance. He knew how quickly Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden had listened to the voice of the Tempter. — He took away the wickedness of sin. Every sin is not only a mistake or an error; it is a transgression of God’s holy Law; it is a rejection of God as the one Lord; it is an insult to the Holy One, who has said: “Be ye therefore holy, for I, the Lord your God, am holy” (Le. 11:45,19:2,20:7; 1 Pe. 1:15-16). One of the most wonderful words of the Bible is that which tells us: God “made him to be sin for us, who knew no sin” (2 Co. 5:21). God transferred to Jesus, the great Lamb of sacrifice, the iniquities of us all, so that He bore, He took away, their guilt. He was regarded by God as the greatest sinner that ever lived, because in Him all the sinners that ever lived in the world are personified.
But now, thank God! we can add the last word of our text, for the Lamb of God, as St. John tells us, bore and took away “the sin of the world” The same Apostle who recorded the sermon of the Baptist in our text, writes, in his First Epistle: “Jesus Christ the righteous... is the propitiation for our sins: and not for ours only, but also for the sins of the whole world” (1 Jn 2:2). St. Paul likewise, in a passage of singular power and beauty, assures us that we are justified freely by the grace of God through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus, whom God hath set forth to be a propitiation through faith in His blood (Ro. 3:24-25). Even as God loved the whole world and sent His Son to pay for the sin and for the guilt of the whole world, so Jesus died for all (2 Co. 5:15), for all men without exception. As we belong to the world of sinful men, we may rest assured that the sacrifice of the Lamb of God has effected our redemption. This assurance is so great that it serves to console us even if our sin is as great as the adultery and murder of David, as the denial of Peter, as the blasphemy of Paul. The Apostle tells us: “Hereby we know that we are of the truth, and shall assure our hearts before him. For if our heart condemn us, God is greater than our heart, and knoweth all things” (1 Jn. 3:19-20). And therefore we and all men everywhere should gladly receive the assurance given in the wonderful Lenten sermon of the Baptist: “Behold the Lamb of God, which taketh away the sin of the world.” It means that each and every person in the wide world, although under the condemnation of the Law as a sinner, may freely accept and make his own forever the redemption gained for all men by Jesus through His death on Calvary, so that we may joyfully confess, with the explanation of the Second Article: “Christ has redeemed me, a lost and condemned sinner, purchased and won me from all sins, from death and from the power of the devil. This is most certainly true (SC:II:II).
- Behold the Lamb of God,
The Lamb by God appointed,
Himself the Sacrifice,
Himself the Priest anointed;
He came from heaven’s throne
To share our misery,
That we might share His joy
Through all eternity.
Behold the Lamb of God
That bears the world’s transgression,
That we of heaven's joys
Might have the full possession;
On Him the Father laid
The burden of our guilt;
To save our souls from death
His precious blood was spilt.
Behold the Lamb of God!
For our sins He was given;
For us the crown He bore,
For us His side was riven.
The guilt of all the world
With Christ hung on the cross;
His death brought grace and peace,
Restored the aweful loss.
Thou gracious Lamb of God:
We meekly bow before Thee;
For thy great victory
We praise Thee and adore Thee;
We pledge ourselves to Thee
Forever to be Thine
That Thy sweet beams of grace
May ever on us shine.
Kretzmann, P. (1956). Jesus Only: A series of Lenten and post-Easter Sermons. Milwaukee: Northwestern Publishing House. pp. 66-75.
For more information about Dr. Paul E. Kretzmann, see the Intrepid Lutheran post, Dr. P. E. Kretzmann: Standing on God's Word when the World opposes us