For Christ, our Passover lamb, has been sacrificed… 1 Corinthians 5:7
This Friday I’m bringing the Good Friday sermon in a joint service of Sparta, New Sarum & Centre Street Baptist Churches (10:30 @ New Sarum Baptist). I’m battling with it though. I chose as the text on which to base my message John 1:29-36:
29 The next day John saw Jesus coming toward him and said, “Look, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world! 30 This is the one I meant when I said, ‘A man who comes after me has surpassed me because he was before me.’ 31 I myself did not know him, but the reason I came baptizing with water was that he might be revealed to Israel.”
32 Then John gave this testimony: “I saw the Spirit come down from heaven as a dove and remain on him. 33 And I myself did not know him, but the one who sent me to baptize with water told me, ‘The man on whom you see the Spirit come down and remain is the one who will baptize with the Holy Spirit.’ 34 I have seen and I testify that this is God’s Chosen One.”
35 The next day John was there again with two of his disciples. 36 When he saw Jesus passing by, he said, “Look, the Lamb of God!”
So, what on earth the Evangelist and John the Baptist are trying to convey is really tough slugging. I came across an article by Christopher Skinner which outlines the various approaches (9, yes 9 separate suggestions) to trying to figure it out (“Another Look at the ‘Lamb of God'”, Biblioteca Sacra 161, Jan. 2004, pg. 89-104). I won’t try to get into it all here.
Part of the problem surrounds the issue of Jesus’ death around the Passover Festival. Paul equates Jesus with the Passover Lamb (1 Cor. 5:7). Is this what John’s Gospel is getting at? Is “the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world” a reference to Passover? Well, no, because the Passover lamb doesn’t take away sin. Passover is not about taking away sins. If Jesus’ function as Lamb of God was connected to atonement for sin, it would have been better illustrated by a death on the Day of Atonement, but there the sacrificial animal is a goat, not a lamb, and the lamb onto which sin is laid is set free, not killed, making the link between atonement and blood sacrifice tenuous at best.
The other issue is an interesting question- on what day of the week was Jesus crucified? Ok, why ask that? Good Friday, right? Well, John’s gospel says that it may not be. John 19:31 says, “Now it was the day of Preparation, and the next day was to be a special Sabbath.” In Jewish thinking, the day starts at sundown. The Passover meal, eaten after sundown is the beginning of the week long Passover observance, and the day before is the “Day of Preparation”, on which the Passover lambs are killed. At twilight of that day (the transition between the 14th day of the first month on the old Jewish calendar and the 15th) the Festival of Unleavened Bread begins with the Passover meal. So, in John’s Gospel, Jesus is crucified on the 14th.
In the synoptics, the Last Supper is the Passover meal (Matthew 26:17, Mark 14:12, Luke 22:7). Mark 14:12 is very interesting, as it points out, “On the first day of the Festival of Unleavened Bread, when it was customary to sacrifice the Passover lamb, Jesus’ disciples asked him, ‘Where do you want us to go and make preparations for you to eat the Passover?'” In other words, in the synoptic Gospels, Jesus is crucified the day after the lambs for Passover are slaughtered (so Jesus dies on the 15th) but in John’s Gospel, Jesus is crucified on the same day that the lambs are slaughtered (the 14th). Houston, we have a problem. These guys can’t even agree on which day Jesus actually died. They can’t both be right.
Timelines differ in the various Gospel accounts a few times. Like Jesus’ confrontation of the money changers- which happens during Passover in John 2 (perhaps two years before the crucifixion), but in Matthew, it’s the day Jesus rides into Jerusalem, before Passover, just days before the crucifixion. But in the case of dating Jesus’ death, we have a really serious issue here. Did Jesus die on the Day of Preparation (the 14th) or on the Day of Passover (the 15th)? Interestingly, Matthew 12:40, Jesus says, “For as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of a huge fish, so the Son of Man will be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth.” Well, if he dies Friday the 15th, and rises on Sunday morning, that’s two nights. So Matthew now has internal tension. Either the connection to Jonah’s 3 days and 3 nights is not to be read literally or there’s something odd happening.
Also an issue is Sabbath. The synoptics tells us that Jesus is burried quickly as Sabbath is approaching (i.e. it’s almost sundown on Friday). But, Passover is to be a special Sabbath- no work on the first day of the Festival (i.e. the 15th of the first month- see John 19:31; Leviticus 23:7). If that’s the case, why is the Sanhedrin having a trial on the first day of the Festival of Unleavened Bread in the synopitcs? Either they themselves are violating Sabbath and the Passover Festival is not being done properly or else there’s an issue of dating. John’s timeline looks more reliable in this sense. But then, if that’s the case, the Last Supper isn’t a Passover Meal. Things aren’t simple anymore. We have to question one or more of our Easter assumptions. There’s no way around this discrepancy. Ok, before people starting letting fly with accusations that I am suggesting we reject the authority of Scripture, I have to say this is a problem, but not a doctrinal one. Whether Jesus died on the 14th or 15th, is neither here nor there really. The Scriptures authoritatively give us the Word of God. They reveal God in history. If they disagree on dates, it does not disqualify the theological point revealed.
Now, John’s gospel is the only one in which Jesus is called “Lamb of God”. In fact, the title “Lamb of God” appears only here in John 1:29 & 36, and it is in a case of direct speech by John the Baptist. So, the evangelist may not know what the Baptist meant by his comment, or perhaps the evangelist is trying to lay down some foreshadowing by quoting something from the Baptist that Matthew, Mark and Luke do not include. Does John the Baptist know what lies ahead for Jesus? The Passover Lamb link works well in John’s timeline, but the idea that Jesus being Passover Lamb is linked with atonement is stretching the meaning of Passover (to say the least). Passover is a celebration of YHWH sparing the firstborn sons of the Israelites. It isn’t about shed blood for atonement for sins.
So what does John the Baptist mean when he calls Jesus “the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world”? Is he equating him with Passover? I don’t think so; perhaps with atonement. But then we have to ask another tough question, what does it mean that Jesus takes away (not will take away- it’s a present active participle, meaning “one who takes away”) the sin of the world? God can forgive sin without bloodshed, can’t he? Well, Jesus gets himself in a lot of trouble when he proclaims forgiveness of sin to a paralyzed man in Mark 2:1-12. That is pre-Calvary forgiveness of sins.
Perhaps the key is the fact that in John 1:29 “sin” is singular. Collective, single unit sin. Jesus death is not about taking away sins (in Mark 2:5, he refers to forgiven sins- plural), but sin as a single entity (sinfulness if you will). He lifts sin from mankind, not by dying in the place of the one who has committed sins, but by carrying sin and putting it to death. May seem to some like a distinction without a difference, but there is something big here. Jesus lifts our very nature, or at the very least the evil aspect of our beings. He doesn’t just take the blame for wrong actions, he looks to remove the cause of wrong actions. He takes away the part of us which leads to death. He removes that identifying mark on us, and gives us a new identity; a mark of righteousness and life, so that death might pass over.