The apostle John can sometimes be sparse on giving us information about locations, but the picture in John 1.29-34 seems to be that John the Baptist was going about his work preaching and baptizing those who came to him somewhere along the banks of the Jordan River (John 1.19-28). John’s preaching had attracted the attention of the religious leaders, and so they sent a delegation to investigate the reports. They asked John if he was the Messiah, which John promptly and emphatically denied. However, the Jews of the first century believed that several divinely-sent figures would show up during the messianic age, and the Messiah would only be one of them. Another figure expected to show up during the Messianic age was Elijah (according to Mal 4.1-6), so they asked John if this was his correct identity, which John likewise disavowed. The Jews also believed that the prophet mentioned by Moses in Deuteronomy 18.15 would be someone other than the Messiah, so the delegates asked John if he was this figure, which John also denied.
The fact that John the Baptist denied being Elijah has raised some questions, especially since Jesus explicitly identified John the Baptist as the Elijah figure of Malachi’s prophecy (Matt 17.9-13). If Jesus said John was the Elijah who was predicted to come, why did John himself deny it? There are at least three possible explanations: 1) It is possible that John took their question literally, and thus mean that he was not literally the Elijah who lived over 800 years previously; 2) It is possible that John thought this was a “loaded question” that included an entire scenario of war with Rome, an earthly kingdom centered in Jerusalem, the rise of the Jews to the former glory of the Solomonic kingdom, etc., and John was distancing himself from the entire package of ideas their question represented, or 3) John did not understand that he was the fulfillment of Malachi’s prophecy. If this last option seems far-fetched, remember that John apparently had trouble reconciling his imprisonment with the Messianic age he thought was beginning, and sent disciples to ask if Jesus really was the Messiah of Israel (Luke 7.19ff).
The Jewish delegates must have been confused by the answers John gave them. He said he was none of the figures associated with the messianic age. And yet many Jewish leaders found themselves strangely attracted to John and in general agreement with his message. The fact that we keep hearing references to John the Baptist for several years later, and sometimes in far-away places (Acts 10.37; 18.25; 19.1-4), is a testimony to his popularity. But if John was not one of the figures associated with the messianic time, then why was he preaching repentance and baptizing people? Had he simply taken this upon himself to start a one-man reform movement in Israel? Was he starting a new group (akin to the Pharisees, or the Essenes)? And more importantly, was this new preacher and his followers a threat to the status quo in Jerusalem? Would he upset the apple-cart and create problems for everyone? Was this something, and someone, they should keep their eye on?
Well, welcome to the gospel story. It is never what people expect it to be, and it never fits into humanly-conceived categories or classifications. But it is understandable by people who are willing to ignore what they think they know and simply listen to the message. (As it turned out, the religious leaders had nothing to worry about from John, as Herod made him a something of a martyr. It was Jesus who would, in actuality, upset their apple-cart.)
It is in this context of confusion that John’s famous identification of Jesus took place. Crowds had come to be baptized by John, and as Jesus approached, John paused and announced “Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.” It must have taken people back. This man, to whom John pointed, was the human equivalent of a sacrifice for sins? Since human sacrifice was taboo among the Jews, what could this strange pronouncement mean? And yet, as if to “underline” this point, the apostle tells us that on the the next day the Baptist was with some of his own disciples, and when he saw Jesus he again declared “Behold, the Lamb of God.”
It would be safe to say that a lamb was not the “normal” animal offered for sins according to the Law of Moses. The sin offering regulations required a bull, and the guilt offering was often specified to be a ram. When John hailed Jesus as the lamb of God, he was undoubtedly thinking of the Passover sacrifice. One indicator that points to this conclusion is the fact that John himself lived in the wilderness and baptized in the Jordan River. The wilderness was where Israel lived before they entered the promised land, and Israel crossed through the waters of the Jordan upon their entrance. By stationing himself in the wilderness by the Jordan, John was identifying his work as preparation for the new Israel’s crossing into the fullness of the Messianic promises. The signal for the new exodus that would create the new Israel would be the offering of the Messianic Passover lamb. To everyone’s surprise, John said that the Messianic Passover lamb was the Messiah himself, and the Messiah of Israel was the lowly Jesus of Nazareth!
The Passover lamb was, in a real sense, the foundational sacrifice for all others in the Law of Moses. It was the first sacrifice commanded of the nation of Israel by God, and this sacrifice literally saved their lives. You will recall that God had decreed that every firstborn male among all the people and cattle living in Egypt were going to die. That is, it was not just the Egyptian firstborn males who were going to die in the 10th plague. Israel’s were included as well. To spare them from the coming plague of death, God gave them (this is important – the Passover sacrifice was God’s gift to them) the lamb of the Passover.
Of course, a Passover lamb died in the place of the firstborn of a particular family within Israel. The proof that the lamb had died was the presentation of its life-blood on the doorpost of the house. It said, in effect, “a lamb died for the firstborn of this house.” Even more significant, perhaps, is the fact that the Israelites had to eat the Passover lamb that had died in the place of their firstborn sons. That is, they had to (literally) internalize this lamb, thus making it part of themselves and identifying with it in the closest possible way. Eating the lamb meant, in a sense, that they were joined with the lamb who had died for them, and their lives were given to God too.
In the Passover lamb God had provided the way for Israel’s firstborn to escape from death. This is akin to saying that God had purchased them, or redeemed them (Exod 15.13), from death. As a result, therefore, the firstborn of Israel belonged to God, and God refers to Israel as “My firstborn” (Exod 4.22; Jer 31.9). The Passover thus not only saved the lives of Israel’s firstborn sons, it also purchased them and made them the possession of God.
All of this, of course, was highly Messianic. Like Israel, all of us were under the sentence of death, but God has intervened with a gift (Eph 2.8) to spare our lives (Rom 5.9). Jesus died in our place (Rom 5.8), and His blood was presented publicly on the cross (Rom 3.25; Gal 3.1). When we join ourselves to Jesus, we join ourselves with His death (Rom 6.3, 5), and every week we take symbols of His own body and blood and, like Israel, we eat them to identify ourselves with the one who died in our place (1 Cor 11.26) and we proclaim ourselves as people who are given to God as He was (2 Cor 5.14). Also, His blood purchased, or redeemed us (1 Pet 1.18-19), and now we belong to God. It is amazing how this one ancient rite so completely encapsulated the work of Jesus.
Did anyone who originally heard John’s identification of Jesus as the Lamb of God understand all, or any, of these things? It is not likely that they understood this any more than they understood the identity of John the Baptist. Sure, an image would have come to their minds, but the incongruity of associating that image with a person (much less with Jesus of Nazareth) quickly made nonsense out of it all. And yet it was perfectly correct and true.