Saturday Series: John 1:29 (continued)

John 1:29, continued

Today, we continue with our previous study from last week, on John 1:29, the first sin-reference in the Gospel of John. It was mentioned that the text of this verse is secure, and yet a precise interpretation has proven somewhat difficult for commentators. In this study, I wish to focus on two areas of interpretation: (1) the expression “the lamb of God”, and (2) the force of the verb aírœ. It will be necessary to adopt an historical-critical (and intertextual) approach to these topics, looking at the historical background to the language used by the Gospel writer (and John the Baptist as speaker).

“Lamb of God”

Commentators have struggled to determine precisely the origins and significance of the expression “the lamb of God” (ho amnós tou Theoú), which occurs only here (being repeated in verse 36) in the Scriptures. A number of sources of influence have been proposed and discussed, with commentators differing on their relative plausibility. There has, however, come to be something of an emerging consensus that the two main sources are: (a) the figure of the Passover lamb, and (b) the reference to the Servant-figure in the Isa 52:13-53:12 Servant Song as a lamb (53:7). The relatively recent article by Jesper Tang Nielsen, “The Lamb of God: The Cognitive Structure of a Johannine Metaphor” (published in Imagery in the Gospel of John: Terms, Forms, Themes, and Theology of Johannine Figurative Language, eds. Jörg Frey, Jan G. van der Watt, and Ruben Zimmermann, WUNT 200 [Mohr Siebeck: 2006], pp. 217-56) discusses the conceptual blending of these two specific background-aspects of the expression (I refer to this study below as “Nielsen”).

1. The Passover lamb

Some commentators have argued that the Isaiah 53:7 reference is primary for the expression “the lamb of God” in Jn 1:29. I would strongly disagree; in my view, the Passover lamb represents the principal point of reference. This seems to be quite clear, based on two points of evidence. First, we have the specific identification of Jesus with the Passover lamb in 19:14, 36, where the lamb-identification is made in the context of Jesus’ death—being ‘lifted up’ on the cross. Second, the foreshadowing of this moment in the reference to the ‘bronze serpent’ tradition (Numbers 21:9) in 3:14-15 strongly suggests the parallel of the lamb, once it has been ‘lifted up’, giving life-saving healing to all those who look at (i.e., believe in) it.

And yet, as many commentators have noted, there is no indication, either in the Old Testament or in later Jewish tradition, of a direct connection between the Passover lamb and sin. In particular, there is no evidence that the Passover lamb (or the ritual as a whole) was ever thought to take away sin (see on the verb aírœ below). I have discussed the Passover tradition in several recent articles, and will here only mention three aspects of its significance that seem relevant to the sin-association in Jn 1:29:

    • The apotropaic function of the Passover lamb’s blood in the original Exodus-tradition (Exod 12, esp. vv. 7, 13, 22-23), as protection against death.
    • The idea that those participating in the ritual must purify themselves in preparation—represented primarily through the symbolism of the leaven that is removed (see vv. 14-20, and compare Paul’s interpretation in 1 Cor 5:7); note also the purity regulations in Numbers 9.
    • The symbolism of the historical context of the Passover—the Exodus as freedom from bondage (in Egypt).

One can see how each of these aspects could be related to the removal of sin (and its effects); yet were any of these particularly in view for the Gospel writer, or did they specifically influence the sin-association in Jn 1:29? Philo of Alexandria, in his allegorical interpretation of the Passover tradition, blends together the second and third aspects in a unique way. In his work On the Special Laws, in the section on the Passover (2.145-149), the festival is interpreted as figuratively representing the purification of the soul. He utilizes the wordplay between the Hebrew word for the festival, pesaµ (transliterated in Greek as páscha), explained as deriving from the root psµ I (“pass over”), and the Greek verb páschœ (“suffer”, i.e., being affected, specifically by the passions), so as to explain the Passover as symbolizing the “passing over” of the soul, away from the body and its passions (2.147).

An even closer parallel can perhaps be found in Josephus’ brief discussion of Passover in Antiquities 2.311-14 (see Nielsen, p. 238). Josephus shifts the meaning of the lamb’s blood somewhat. Instead of its apotropaic function (see above), with the blood being applied to the house of the Israelite family (thus protecting the people inside), a spiritualizing ethical interpretation is given, whereby the blood actually purifies (vb hagnízœ) the individual who faithfully observes the ritual. This concept of the purification of the devout/faithful Israelite by the lamb’s blood is not that far removed from the Christian idea of Jesus’ blood cleansing the believer from sin (1 John 1:7).

Already in the Exodus tradition (Exod 12:27), the Passover (lamb) is referred to as a sacrificial offering (ze»aµ)—that is, an animal that is ritually slain as an offering (to God). In Israelite and Jewish tradition, the Passover would increasingly be recognized as a kind of sacrifice. It clearly is not an offering for sin; it has much more in common with the šelem offering (Leviticus 3), in which the worshiper eats the meat of the animal as part of a ritual meal. Even so, the traditional conception of the Passover as a sacrifice may well have led early Christians to connect it with other aspects of the sacrificial offerings, such as the offerings for sin—including the expiatory offerings of the Day of Atonement festival (Leviticus 16), which involved the ritual/symbolic removal of sin. That early Christians did, in fact, associate the Day of Atonement offerings with the person of Jesus (and his sacrificial death) is clear from Hebrews 8-10. It would not be unreasonable for an early Christian to blend this sin offering imagery together with the motif of Jesus as a Passover lamb that is slain, bringing life and salvation to those who believe.

2. The lamb in Isaiah 53:7

(I discuss Isa 52:13-53:12 at length in an earlier article and set of notes; see the note on 53:7)

The “Suffering Servant” figure in this famous Isaian Servant Song (52:13-53:12) is compared, in verse 7, to a lamb brought along to the slaughter. This is one of the very few Old Testament passages that could be cited by early Christians as prophesying the suffering and death of Jesus. As the repeated references in Luke-Acts make clear, it was vitally important for the early (Jewish) Christian missionaries to demonstrate (for their fellow Jews) that Jesus was the Messiah, even though his suffering and shameful/painful death made such an identification difficult. They sought to prove from the Scriptures that it was necessary for the Messiah to be put to death (see Lk 18:31ff; 24:25-26, 46; Acts 3:18; 9:22; 17:3; 18:5, 28; 26:23), and Isa 53:7ff is one of the few passages that could reasonably be quoted in support of this.

Indeed, Isa 53:7-8 is specifically cited in Acts 8:32-33ff, applied to the suffering and death of Jesus. Since the lamb in John 1:29 also is connected with Jesus’ death (as the slain Passover lamb, see the discussion above), it would be natural for the lamb in Isa 53:7f to be similarly applied to Jesus by the Gospel writer.

In the Septuagint (LXX) of Isa 53:7, the Hebrew nouns ´eh and r¹µel (referring to a male and female sheep, respectively) are translated by the Greek nouns próbaton and amnós. The noun próbaton is a descriptive term that denotes a quadruped animal that “walks forward”, referring particularly to sheep or goats; amnós, the word used in Jn 1:29, properly designates a young sheep (lamb).

The LXX of Isa 53:7-8ff seems, in particular, to have influenced the Johannine use of the lamb-motif (see Nielsen, pp. 231-3). First, there is the idea of the Servant being “taken up” from the earth (v. 8), using the same verb (aírœ) as here in 1:29 (see below). Beyond this, in 52:13-15, and again at the end of the passage (53:10-12), there is an emphasis on the glorification of the Servant, tying his vicarious suffering/death to his exaltation. Of particular note is the occurrence of the noun dóxa and the related verb doxázœ (twice) in the LXX of 52:13-14, which is significant, given the importance of these words in relation to the “lifting up” of Jesus (death-exaltation) in the Gospel of John (12:23, 28; 13:31-32; 17:1, 4-5, 22, 24; see also 7:39; 12:16).

In Isa 53:10, the suffering of the Servant is specifically connected with the idea of a sin offering, helping to explain the sin-association that is notably absent from the background of the Passover lamb (as mentioned above). The vicarious nature of this offering is clear from verse 12, where it is stated that the Servant “lifted up” (vb n¹´¹° ac*n`) the sins of many people, bearing them himself, in a way that intercedes (vb p¹ga±) for the people (on their behalf) before God. In the LXX, this is expressed in a way that better fits the vicarious suffering of Jesus: “and he (himself) brought up [i.e. carried] the sins of many, and he was given over through [i.e. because of] their sins”.

The use of the noun amnós can serve as further evidence that Isa 53:7 is in view here in Jn 1:29, since different nouns (ar¢¡n, próbaton) are used in the LXX for the Passover lamb. As I have noted, it seems likely that the Passover lamb is the main point of reference in Jn 1:29, but that the nuances of meaning from Isa 53:7ff have also shaped the “lamb of God” concept. This Johannine lamb-tradition continues in the book of Revelation, where the noun arníon (diminutive of ar¢¡n) is used for Jesus as the lamb that was slain (and now has an exalted status in heaven). The noun amnós, by contrast, is rather rare in the New Testament; apart from here in Jn 1:29 (and 36), it occurs only in Acts 8:32 (citing Isa 53:7, see above), and in 1 Peter 1:19, where the Passover lamb (with its unblemished character) may also be in view.

The noun amnós is used in Exod 29:38-41 for the lamb that is presented as a twice-daily burnt offering, while próbaton is used in Leviticus for the various sacrificial offerings (sin offering, 5:6ff, etc). Thus there is some precedence in the tradition for understanding an amnós-lamb as a sacrificial offering; and, as mentioned above, it would have been natural for Christians to extend this association, when applied to the person of Christ, to include offerings for sin as well.

The use of the verb aírœ

John 1:29 uses the verb aírœ (ai&rw), which has the basic meaning “take up”. It is a common verb, used without any special meaning in many of the Gospel references (2:16; 5:8-12; 8:59, etc). There are two possible ways of understanding its meaning here: (a) take away (i.e. remove), or (b) the act of lifting up (i.e., bear/carry). The verb is used both ways in the Gospel, equally for lifting/carrying (5:8-12) and removing (e.g., 11:39, 41). What is the principal emphasis here? Does Jesus, as the “lamb of God”, remove sin, or does he bear/carry it?

If, as I discuss above, Isa 53:7ff is an important influence on Jn 1:29, then we might assume the latter. In verse 12, it is clearly stated that the Servant, in his suffering, “lifted up” (i.e., carried) the sins of many. In Hebrew, the verb n¹´¹° is used, which certainly could be translated in Greek by the verb aírœ, even though in the LXX of v. 12 it is the more concrete verb anaphérœ (“bring up”) that is used, denoting an act of lifting/bearing/carrying. The verb aírœ does occur in LXX Isa 53:8, but in reference to the death of the Servant—i.e., his being “taken up/away” from the earth. However, since the death of Jesus is also in view in Jn 1:29 (see the discussion above), and as the departure of the Son (Jesus) from the earth (back to God the Father) is a key Johannine theme, Isa 53:8 could very well be influencing the use of aírœ here (compare the use of aírœ in a similar Passion context, 19:15; 20:13ff; see also 16:22; 17:15).

At the same time, the idea of the removal of sin is also found throughout the Johannine writings, most notably in 1 John 1:7, where it is stated that the blood of Jesus (i.e., through his death as the slain ‘lamb’) cleanses the believer from sin. Perhaps the strongest argument for this meaning of aírœ here in Jn 1:29 comes from 1 John 3:5, where it is indicated the purpose of Jesus’ appearance on earth was to “take away” sin (“…that he might take away [ár¢] sin”).

The most significant (and relevant) use of aírœ elsewhere in the Gospel occurs in the Shepherd-discourse of chapter 10. The context of Jesus’ death, as a self-sacrifice, is clearly indicated:

“Through this, the Father loves me, (in) that [i.e. because] I set (down) my soul [i.e. lay down my life], (so) that I might take it (up) again. No one takes [aírei] it away from me, but (rather) I set it (down) from myself; I hold (the) authority to set it (down), and I (also) hold (the) authority to take it (up) again—this (is) the charge (laid) on (me) to complete (that) I received (from) alongside my Father.” (10:17-18)

The verb aírœ is used in the sense of Jesus’ life being “taken away”; however, when he speaks of his actual death, as a self-sacrifice, he uses the verb pair “set/lay (down)” (títh¢mi) and “take (up)” (lambánœ). No one “takes away” his life; rather, he himself sets it down (dies) and takes it back up again (returning to life). This use of aírœ , paired with the Johannine references in 1 Jn 1:7; 3:5, seems to confirm that the principal aspect of meaning for aírœ in 1:29 is the removal (“taking away”) of sin.

In next week’s study, some concluding comments and observations on 1:29 will be made, along with a brief examination of the context of the second sin-reference in the Gospel (5:14).

April 19: 1 John 1:7ff

1 John 1:7

There are five Johannine passages where the word ai!ma (“blood”) occurs, four of which refer to the death of Jesus. We have already discussed the two of these which are found in the Gospel—6:51-58 (vv. 53-56) and 19:34—and considered the theological relationship between the Spirit and the death of Jesus. Now it remains to examine the two passages in 1 John.

The first reference comes from the opening section (following the Prologue), 1:5-2:1. The central message of 1 John (2:18-5:12) is framed by ethical-religious instruction involving the relation between the believer and sin. In these framing passages, it is recognized that believers will at times commit sin, in the sense of religious and moral failings, or lapses. The promise is that such sin can be forgiven. Here is how the author states the matter in 1:7:

“If we would walk about in the light, as He is in the light, (the) we hold common bond [koinwni/a] with each other, and the blood of Yeshua His Son cleanses us from all sin.”

The verb kaqari/zw (“cleanse”) has ritual significance, and occurs primarily in the narratives of the Gospels and Acts, and the relevant portions of Hebrews (interpreting the ancient sacrificial ritual). It occurs only here (and in v. 9) in the Johannine writings; nor is it used in the undisputed Pauline writings (but only in [2 Cor 7:1]; Eph 5:26; Titus 2:14). The author of 1 John is almost certainly drawing upon traditional early Christian language, which he accepts and utilizes, even though this ritual terminology tends to conflict with the spiritual emphasis that runs through the Johannine Gospel and First Letter.

The idea that the blood of Jesus would cleanse believers from sin ultimately derives from the role of blood in the ancient sacrificial ritual, practiced in Israel and codified in the Torah regulations. These are found principally in the book of Leviticus, the most extensive discussion on the significance of blood being found in chapter 17 (vv. 10-14). Blood symbolizes (and embodies) the life of a living being (human or animal), and, as such, serves a vital symbolic and quasi-magical role in the sacrificial ritual. We may identify three principal aspects, governing three distinct usage of blood in the ritual:

    • To represent the effectiveness of a binding agreement (covenant) on the parties involved—specifically, the covenant between YHWH and the people of Israel. This is most clearly depicted in the covenant ratification ceremony in Exod 24:1-11 (vv. 6-8).
    • To consecrate people, places, and objects, primarily for the purpose of ensuring the holiness (and purity) of all elements of the sacrificial ritual (see, for example, in Lev 4:5-7ff; 8:15, 23-24; 9:9, etc).
    • As a substitutionary offering, to God, in place of the life of the individual. This relates primarily to the various forms of sin offering (Leviticus 4, 16, etc). The blood from the slaughtered animal is splashed against the altar, as a symbolic way of offering it to God (since it is not burnt with the rest of the animal).

Only the last two aspects/uses could be considered as related to “cleansing” —and the latter only in the sense of the removal (expiation) of sin and its effects. Interestingly, in the Gospel tradition, it is the covenant-ratification context that is specifically related to Jesus’ blood—viz. in the ‘words of institution’ during the Last Supper (Mark 14:24 par). And this does not specifically relate to any cleansing or to the idea of removal of sin; indeed, compare the very different context for the mention of cleansing in the Johannine version of the Last Supper (13:10; 15:3). However, it is clear that early Christians were quick to make the connection between Jesus’ blood (and his death) and the sacrificial offerings for sin; note, for example, the Matthean version of the Last Supper, with the ‘words of institution’ include the phrase “for the putting away [i.e. forgiveness] of sin” (26:28). Hebrews combines all three aspects of the ritual blood-symbolism, associating them with Jesus’ sacrificial death in chapters 910, and adding to them a fourth (mentioned in 11:28): the apotropaic use of blood in the Passover rite, as protection against death and destruction (i.e., judgment, sent by God).

How does the author of 1 John interpret and utilize this blood-symbolism? We must consider two points: (1) the Christological tradition he is drawing upon, and (2) the distinct (Johannine) theological context of his message in 1:5-2:1. First, the role and place of Jesus is referenced three ways in this passage:

    • The sacrificial power of Jesus’ blood (i.e., his death) to cleanse the believer from sin (1:7)
    • The position of Jesus alongside God the Father (in Heaven), interceding on behalf of believers (2:1), and
    • The implication that Jesus himself is a i(lasmo/$ over our sins (2:2). The noun i(lasmo/$ is notoriously difficult to translate in English, but it essentially denotes, in a religious and sacrificial context, the means by which a person appeases God, obtaining favor, graciousness, and/or mercy from Him. It effectively refers to the sacrificial offering (esp. the offering for sin).

How are these different concepts related? The last two concepts are traditional: (a) the exalted Jesus now stands alongside God the Father (at His right hand) in heaven, and (b) Jesus’ death functioned as a sacrificial offering (spec. a sin offering). The author of 1 John adopts these notions as part of the early Christian tradition and belief which he inherited. It is the blood-reference in 1:7, along with the use of the noun para/klhto$ in 2:1, that reflects the distinctive Johannine interpretation and application of this tradition.

The noun para/klhto$ literally means “one called alongside,” to offer help and assistance to someone. In the context of 2:1, Jesus is called alongside God the Father (lit. he comes “toward” [pro/$] the Father), to give help on behalf of believers. If Jesus is present with the Father in heaven, is he not also present with believers? From the Johannine theological standpoint, this is realized through the idea that there is another para/klhto$, through whom Jesus continues to remain with believers. This, of course, is the Holy Spirit, according to the teaching in the Last Discourse (14:16-17, 26; 15:26; 16:7ff), in which the term para/klhto$ (“[one] called alongside”) is used repeatedly. Though the author does not state this explicitly in 1:7ff, it is fair to assume that the cleansing power of Jesus’ blood is understood and being communicated to believers through the presence of the Spirit. This would be in accord with the spiritual interpretation of the eucharistic language in Jn 6:51-58, discussed in the previous note.

Two other aspects of the author’s statement in 1:7 indicate that the presence of the Spirit is central to his thought. First, there is the idea of “walking about” (vb peripate/w) in the light (e)n tw=| fwti/). One is immediately reminded of Paul’s expression of walking about (same verb) in the Spirit (pneu/mati [preposition implied], Gal 5:16; cf. also Rom 8:4; cp. 6:4). Beyond this, there is the Johannine use of the light (fw=$) motif, as a fundamental Divine attribute which God the Father possesses, and which is shared by Jesus (the Son). It is used as such throughout the Gospel (1:4-9; 3:19-21; 8:12; 9:5; 11:9-10; 12:35-36, 46), and similarly in 1 Jn 2:8-10. However, here in 1:5, it is presented as an essential predicate: “God is light” (o( qeo\$ fw=$ e)stin). This is comparable to other predicative statements in the Johannine writings—most notably, in Jn 4:24: “God is Spirit” (pneu=ma o( qeo/$). Some commentators might prefer to identify God’s light with His truth, but this still points right back to the Spirit, given the declaration in 5:6: “the Spirit is the truth” (to\ pneu=ma/ e)stin h( a)lh/qeia). This verse will be discussed further in the next daily note.