Summary of the Text
Our lectionary text can be fairly easily broken into two major sections, with verses 29-34 concerned with John the Baptist testifying to Jesus’ ministry and verses 35-42 dealing with some of John’s disciples choosing to now follow Jesus. We’ll deal chronologically with each section.
John Validates Jesus’ Ministry (vs 29-34)
While it might be quite common for us to hear these words, especially John’s pronouncement of Jesus as the Lamb of God (especially for those who have grown up in high liturgical traditions, where this line is often sung as a refrain during worship services), it probably would have sounded quite strange to John’s first hearers.
Or, at the very least, quite bold. What does it mean to be a “lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world?” For one thing, it certainly would upset the status quo held by the Roman establishment. Religion, the Romans understood, was a powerful force that could unify the empire or cause uprising and revolution in a moment’s notice, spreading like wildfire. But John is undeterred, he will make the statement, not once, but twice in our passage.
Preaching angle: Wherever Jesus’ gospel message is proclaimed, it will disrupt the status quo. Why? Because the gospel preaches about a different kind of “kingdom,” a different kind of power structure than the ones with which we are so familiar. Jesus’ gospel lifts up the downtrodden, the poor, and the weak, and brings low the powerful and well-connected who ignore God’s desire for justice and peace. This is why Rome was so worried about the church as it began to spread through the empire. The Roman establishment well understood just how powerful such a movement could be. How the gospel could weaken, then upend the power structures of the day.
What Did John Mean by “Lamb of God”
Again, because many of us have heard this verse so many times, it’s easy for us to assume we know what John is speaking of, but there is quite a bit of nuance here. What was John referring to when he called Jesus the Lamb of God? Was he referring to Passover? Possibly, though, as most scholars agree, the lambs sacrificed on Passover were not expiatory in nature. They were not sacrificed on behalf of the sins of the Israelites, though they were connected to their salvation, a connection to keep in mind.
What about the conquering lamb found in both Jewish Apocalyptic texts and Revelation 17:14:
“They will wage war against the Lamb, but the Lamb will triumph over them because he is Lord of lords and King of kings—and with him will be his called, chosen and faithful followers.”
It’s certainly possible, but there is no significant reference to a battle or war in our text, although such a vision could be implied.
What about the lamb mentioned in the Suffering Servant passages of Isaiah 52-53? Here more scholars see a clearer connection. Let’s take a look at part of that text:
He was oppressed and afflicted,
yet he did not open his mouth;
he was led like a lamb to the slaughter,
and as a sheep before its shearers is silent,
so he did not open his mouth.
John doesn’t explicitly quote the Isaianic prophecy, but for most Jews, such a text, especially in the context of the messianic fervor that had gripped the land at the time, would have been in their minds as John declares Jesus’ status as the “lamb of God.” it seems safe to say that John’s pronunciation was a shorthand of sorts, essentially saying, “this is the savior–the one who will rescue us from our current predicament.”
So which is it? The Suffering Servant Lamb? The Exodus or Apocalyptic Lamb? I tend to agree with a number of scholars who say all of them. The imagery of a lamb connects Jesus’ ministry directly to the most significant event in Israel’s history, their rescue from Egypt. Even the apocalyptic text in Revelation speaks to a part of Christ’s ministry, that of Jesus’ victory over the “spiritual forces of wickedness” mentioned in Ephesians 6:12 and elsewhere.
And then of course there is Isaiah 52 and 53, clearly in mind here as Jesus rescues the world from its sin. Each of the three referents teach us something significant about the nature of Jesus’ salvific work.
The One who Takes Away the Sin of the World:
Ever since we began writing in our language classes, we’ve been taught to write in an active voice…NO PASSIVE VERBS! We are told over and over again. But the passivity in John’s pronouncement of Jesus’ ministry makes all the difference in the world. It is a stark reminder that our half-hearted attempts at self-justification and self-salvation are null and void. Only Jesus takes away our sin.
We also learn the scope of Jesus’ salvation project: The World!
This is no provincial project, no insular, secret society.
God has the entire world in His sights with this one. In this way, the small, seemingly-forgotten, oft-conquered people known as the Jews would become a “light to the nations.”
John’s Disciples Choose to Follow Jesus
In this second half of our lectionary text, John again proclaims Jesus as “the lamb of God.” But this time, instead of more commenting on Jesus’ ministry, his baptism being by the Holy Spirit, the focus shifts to John’s two disciples who ultimately choose to follow Jesus now instead of John. A part of me is curious how John would have taken this. On the one hand, choosing to follow Jesus was completely logical according to John’s own words…
“This is the one I meant when I said, ‘A man who comes after me has surpassed me because he was before me. I myself did not know him, but the reason I came baptizing with water was that he might be revealed to Israel.” (vs.30-31)
Preaching Angle: On the other hand, losing two of his disciples must have been painful. They had surely been intimately close to John, but God had other plans for them. Isn’t there an important analogy here for us as well? Sometimes people are taken away from us in ways that are extremely painful: a romantic relationship ends in rejection, a job we held so dearly is removed from us. A parishioner decides to leave our church for another with a “better youth group.” John the Gospel writer does not tell us anything of John the Baptist’s reaction to losing two of his disciples, but I imagine it hurt rather significantly.
But this was the call, John prepares the way, and eventually John “must decrease, so that Jesus can increase.” Jesus’s ministry is superior to John’s. Why? Well at least partially because Jesus comes before John. How is this possible? The Bible clearly states that both John’s birth and his ministry predate Jesus’ own ministry.
Ahh…but clearly John sees it quite differently, for the son of God has not just lived for these past 30 or so years. Jesus has existed “before” as in, from all eternity. John is therefore referring to Jesus’ pre-existence. Otherwise, how could he claim that Jesus had in any sense meaningfully come before him?
So two of John’s disciples choose to follow Jesus and Jesus, right there in the moment asks them:
“What do you want?” (vs.38)
What a question? What do I want?
What do I want?
A life of significance. A life without the Romans constantly taxing and belittling us.
What do I want?
What a question for Jesus to ask at the outset of his discipleship of these two men. Perhaps there is sufficient merit for us to ask the same question as we enter our discipleship, or as we try to grow deeper in our love and faith in God.
For a very long time, many Christian traditions have taught that the purpose Jesus came to earth was to save us from our sins. And this passage certainly speaks to that as well. But that’s not the end of the story. Jesus came so that we might align our deepest desires with the will of the Father.
So what is it that you want? Where is there a massive gap between what you say you want and how you live your life? How has God uniquely crafted you to reflect His image in this world? Perhaps this is how to end a sermon on this text. Jesus is in fact the lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. How does that connect to our own discipleship? How does that shape and re-form our identities, our priorities, our entire existence?
After Jesus asks the question, these green disciples ask him “Where are you staying?” Another translation would be, “where are you dwelling.”
Jesus’ answer is for us as well: “Come,” he replied, “and you will see.”
Stuart Strachan Jr. is an ordained Presbyterian Pastor as well as the founder and lead curator of the Pastor’s Workshop. His primary passion is equipping the saints for the ministry of the church (Ephesians 4). He loves preaching, teaching, and helping churches cast vision for what it means to follow Jesus in the 21st Century. He has served churches in a variety of capacities in California, Colorado, Pennsylvania, and Washington.
Stu is married to Colleen, who currently serves as a spiritual formation lead at Compassion International in Colorado Springs. Stu and Colleen have two children (Jack and Emma) whom they love deeply.
In his free time, Stu enjoys gardening, golf, reading a good book, and watching baseball.
According to renowned Greek scholar Spiros Zodhiates, the Greek word from which we get our English word disciple means “not only to learn, but to become attached to one’s teacher and to become his follower in doctrine and conduct of life.”
Vance Pitman, Unburdened: Stop Living for Jesus So Jesus Can Live through You, Baker Books, 2020. Original Content from Spiros Zodhiates, The Complete Word Study Dictionary: New Testament (Chattanooga: AMG Publishers, 1993), 936.
Discipleship is transformation, not information overload or behavioral modification. When transformation occurs, there is an increasing hunger for more knowledge of Jesus and His Word, but the primary focus of acquiring knowledge must be the ongoing renewal of the heart. When transformation occurs, behavior will follow. But the focus must be the heart, or the behavior is self-manipulated and short-lived as opposed to flowing from the transformation offered by Christ.
The Religion Shop Has Been Closed
[For Christians] the entire religion shop has been closed, boarded up, and forgotten. The church is not in the religion business. It never has been and it never will be, in spite of all the ecclesiastical turkeys through two thousand years who have acted as if religion was their stock in trade.
The church, instead, is in the Gospel-proclaiming business. It is not here to bring the world the bad news that God will think kindly about us only after we have gone through certain creedal, liturgical and ethical wickets; it is here to bring the world the Good News that “while we were yet sinners, Christ died for the ungodly.” It is here, in short, for no religious purpose at all, only to announce the Gospel of free grace.
The Art of Followship
Editor’s Note: The following illustration came from one of my own (Stu’s) sermons, as I was trying to help the congregation make a paradigm shift from the church as a building, to the people of God:
So, what exactly is a disciple? On one level the answer is simple: a disciple is a follower of Jesus. Now in our culture, the word “follower” is often quite negative: a follower is the opposite of a leader. And we are all called to be leaders, at least according to our culture.
Leadership is an entire genre for books, for conferences, etc… If you can still find a brick and mortar bookstore, you will find a leadership section.
Interestingly enough, I’ve never seen a follower section in a bookstore, have you? Now “followers” as a term has gained some popularity in recent years because of social media. Instagram and Twitter enable people both famous and almost famous to try to build their own brand by gaining “Followers”. But again, the whole point is that you need to be a leader, so that other people can follow you.
So isn’t it interesting that the primary word for people who worship Jesus as Lord and Savior is the word “follower:? (disciple) Now in the context of Jesus’ day, a disciple was a follower not just in a general sense, but also in a particular way. A disciple tended to be either a pupil, someone that would sit at the feet of a master or be an apprentice in some sort of trade.
And I think there is something to this, that even for the first disciples, they never graduated into something else. They always remained disciples, that is followers of Jesus.
And one of the many reasons for this is that a disciple is always in a position of humility, right? They are never the master with all the answers, but always the ones who sit at the feet of Jesus. So being a disciple is to be a follower, but not just in a casual way. An apprentice or a pupil has essentially given up a whole variety of opportunities to follow the one master. We can follow a lot of things, sports teams, musicians, politicians, etc…but to be a disciple of someone is to turn your life over to them and ask that their wisdom might help direct your life. So that’s discipleship…it’s following Jesus every day, becoming more and more like Him.
Stuart Strachan Jr., Sermon: Matt.28: The Art of Followship.