“See, the lamb of God—the (one) taking up the sin of the world!”
The expression “the lamb of God” (ho amnós toú Theoú) is best understood in relation to the tradition of the Passover lamb. The traditional designation of the Passover lamb as a sacrifice (ze»aµ, see Exod 12:27) likely led early Christians to associate it with other aspects of the sacrificial offerings, including the offerings for sin and, for example, the expiatory offerings related to the Day of Atonement (see Hebrews 8-10). Moreover, it was shown (based on evidence from Josephus’ Antiquities) that there were Jews of the period who attributed to the blood of the Passover lamb the power to purify the devout worshiper. These factors would have fit well with the developing Christian concept of Jesus’ blood cleansing believers from sin (see 1 John 1:7). It is certain that the Gospel writer applied the motif of the Passover lamb particularly to the sacrificial death of Jesus (19:14, 33-36).
The use of the verb aírœ (“take/lift up”) should be understood primarily in the sense of “take away”, referring to the removal of sin. The verb in 1 John 3:5 is used in precisely this context, and is confirmed by the verb’s overall use throughout the Gospel. At the same time, the influence of Isa 53:7ff on the “lamb of God” concept allows for the secondary meaning of “bear, carry”, with the idea that Jesus (the ‘Suffering Servant’ of Isa 52:13-53:12, see Acts 8:32-33ff) takes upon himself the burden of the people’s sin, interceding with God on their behalf. The Hebrew verb for this in verse 12 is n¹´¹°, which has a meaning comparable to Greek aírœ, even though the Septuagint (LXX) translates n¹´¹° there with a different verb (anaphérœ, “bring up, bear, carry”).
The use of a substantive verbal noun (participle) with a definite article is rather typical of Johannine style, as a way of indicating a vital characteristic of an individual or group. Here the participle aírœn (“taking up”) is presented as a fundamental characteristic of Jesus, under the symbolic motif of the “lamb of God”, declaring him to be “the (one) taking up [ho aírœn] the sin of the world”. As the statement in 1 John 3:5 makes clear, the purpose of Jesus’ appearance on earth, and thus a central function of his earthly ministry (including his death), was to take away sin (see also verse 8b). This same emphasis is expressed in Jn 1:29 by the use of the substantive participle.
The sin that Jesus “takes away” through his death (as the slain “lamb”) is qualified as being “of the world”. This genitive formulation can be explained as adjectival, in two possible ways:
- Possessive—i.e., the sin is something belonging to the world, which it possesses.
- Descriptive—referring to an attribute or characteristic, i.e., the world as sinful.
The noun kósmos (“world-order, world”) is used two different, but related, ways in the Johannine writings: (1) in the neutral sense of the inhabited world (i.e., the places on earth where people dwell, and those people themselves), and (2) in the negative sense as a domain of darkness and evil that is opposed to God. The negative meaning of the word tends to dominate in the Gospel and Letters of John, in a way that is quite distinctive among early Christians. While the negative aspect may be present in 1:29, through the genitival relationship to the head noun “sin” (hamartía), indicating sin as a basic characteristic of the world, primarily the neuter aspect is in view. The “world” here refers to humankind generally—i.e., to all the people in the inhabited world; compare the usage in 3:16-17.
In this regard, it would be natural to explain the use of the singular noun hamartía as referring to sin either in a general or collective sense. That is, it either refers to the sinfulness of the world (i.e., humankind) or to all of its sins taken collectively. I would not wish to make a more precise interpretation until we have examined the remaining sin-references in the Gospel. However, it is worth noting that the sin attributed to the world (or humankind) as a whole finds its counterpart in a number of instances where sins/wrongs committed by individuals are mentioned. Two, in particular, stand out, contained within similar healing-miracle stories—in chapters 5 and 9, respectively.
In the story of the healing of the paralytic man (5:1-9ff), at the conclusion of the narrative (verse 14), Jesus locates the man who was healed and warns him: “you must not sin any (more), (so) that there should not come to be any(thing) worse (happening) to you.” The apparent implication is that the man’s prior disabled condition was the result of sin. And yet, this very connection, so common in the ancient ways of thinking, is explicitly denied by Jesus in the case of the blind man (in the chapter 9 episode):
“And his learners [i.e. disciples] asked him, saying: ‘Rabbi, who sinned—this man or his parents—that he came to be (born) blind?’ Yeshua gave forth (the answer): ‘This man did not sin, nor (did) his parents, but (rather it was so) that the works of God might be made to shine (forth) in him.'” (vv. 2-3)
The theme of sinning runs as a thread throughout this narrative, and I will be examining it in more detail in an upcoming study. However, for the moment, it is important to focus on the traditional-conventional understanding of sin that is reflected in these historical traditions (of the two healing miracles). Two details, in particular, may be highlighted: (i) the verb hamartánœ (“do wrong, err, sin,” lit. “miss [the mark]”) is associated with a common (and expected) standard of ethical and religious behavior; and (ii) that “doing wrong” in this way can have decidedly negative/harmful effects on a person’s life and health. The same conventional use of the verb hamartánœ can be seen in the famous episode of the woman caught in adultery (7:53-8:11 [vv. 7, 11]), which, though it most likely was not part of the original Johannine Gospel, presumably reflects an historical tradition comparable to that of the healing miracles in chaps. 5 and 9.
This conventional religious-ethical view of sin is important, in large part, because of the backdrop it provides for the deeper understanding expressed elsewhere in the Gospel Discourses of Jesus. Next week, we will begin exploring the passage where the concept of sin (and sin references) are most prominent—the Sukkot Discourse-complex of chapters 7-8 (esp. 8:21-47).