The next day John saw Jesus coming toward him and said, “Look, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1:29)
John the Baptist recognized Jesus as the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. There are several significant things to notice about this. First, John identified Jesus as the “Lamb of God.” By this, he was recognizing the nature of what Jesus came to do. In the Old Testament, sacrificial lambs played a very important part in Israel’s devotion to God. The sacrifice of a lamb without blemish was an important part of the Passover, not only the original meal when God delivered the children of Israel out of Egypt, but also in the yearly remembrance of that event. It was also part of the daily ritual in Israel’s worship.
Second, notice that John did not identify Jesus as the one who takes away the wrath of God, but rather, who takes away the sin of the world. By his death on the cross, Christ was not placating an angry God, as if God were going to rain down his wrath and punishment upon us but then Jesus stepped up and said, “Father, punish me instead.” No, he was delivering us from sin, and from the death that naturally and inevitably results from it. In theological terms, this was expiation, not propitiation. Expiation is the removal of sin; propitiation is the appeasement of anger. The sacrifices of the Old Testament were about cleansing the people from sin, not about assuaging an angry deity. Appeasement was not necessary, for God was already graciously disposed toward his people in providing them with a way of cleansing.
Third, John identified Jesus as the one who takes away the sin of the world — not sins (plural) but sin (singular). Individual sins could simply be forgiven, but at the cross, Jesus destroyed the very power of sin itself. Sin (singular) is the brokenness of our relationship with God, with each other, with the rest of creation and even within our own selves. Sins (plural) are the countless ways this brokenness reveals itself in the world. The individual acts are merely the symptom of the underlying sickness, and it is the underlying sickness that Jesus came to deal with.
Finally, by his death on the cross, Jesus did not take away the sin of only certain individuals or groups — he took away the sin of the whole world. “He is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only for ours but also for the sins of the whole world” (1 John 2:2). “The death [Christ] died, he died to sin once for all; but the life he lives, he lives to God” (Romans 6:10). For “God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting people’s sins against them” (2 Corinthians 5:19). God does not hold any of our sins against any of us — and never has. It was never God who needed to be reconciled to us but we who needed to be reconciled to God, for God never turned away from us but we turned away from God. In Jesus Christ, through his death on the cross, the power of sin has been broken and the healing has come for us all. Therefore, “count yourselves dead to sin but alive to God in Christ Jesus” (Romans 6:11).
At the cross, the Lord Jesus Christ, God in the flesh, allowed sin and death to do their worst to him. He broke their power, shattered the system of accusation and scapegoating and shame, and destroyed the works of the devil. This is the atonement, how the death of Christ saves the world. Behold, the Lamb of God.