JOHN 1: 29-42
The next day he saw Jesus coming towards him, and said, “Open your eyes, here is the Lamb of God who carries the sin of the world! This is the one of whom I said,’The One who comes after me ranks ahead of me, because he existed before me.’ I did not recognise him but I came baptising with water so that he might be shown clearly to Israel.” And John testified,”I saw the Spirit come down from heaven like a dove and stay upon him.I did not recognise him, but the One who sent me to baptise with water told me ‘The One on whom you see the Spirit come down and stay, He is the One who bapitises with the Holy Spirit. I saw this and I have testified that He is God’s Chosen One.
Again, on the next day, John stood with two of his disciples and seeing Jesus walk past, said, “Open your eyes, here is the Lamb of God!”
The two disciples heard his saying and followed Jesus. Jesus turned and saw them folowing and said, ” What are you looking for?”
They said to him, “Rabbi (this means ‘Teacher’) where are you staying?”
He said to them, “Come and see!”
So they came and saw where he was staying and they stayed with him that day. It was about the tenth hour.
Again and again in this Gospel I am struck by the author’s deliberate ineptitude as a storyteller.Words and phrases are hardly ever used to create a narrative flow or to arouse expectation, but every word and phrase is weighted with a symbolic meaning that he wants the reader to understand. Key words and phrases are repeated so that even the dullest reader can see their importance. Doubtless members of the community for which he was writing could be relied upon to decode his meaning. This is not always possible for modern readers.
What does he mean by his phrase, “The Lamb of God”? We might answer that it means what it says on the tin,”He carries the sin of the world.” Or should it be “He takes away the sin of the world.”? Or perhaps, “He lifts up the sin of the world”? All are possible translations. The key is in Isaiah chapter 53 verses 7 and 12,which are part of a poem about the ideal servant of God. Verse 7 says the servant was led like a lamb to the slaughterhouse; while verse 12 says “he carried the sin of many.” Clearly when these phrases are combined and applied to Jesus, they refer especially to his crucifixion, which at this moment in John’s story is far in the future. The reader is meant to see John’s words as prophetic: Jesus will be the innocent victim who carries in his own body the sin of others. But more than that: he is the Lamb of God, the suffering One in whom God is revealed. And he does not simply carry the sin of his people, but like the Servant of Isaiah, the sin of “many”, meaning all peoples. The author, in a flash of insight, expands this even more by using the word, kosmos, world. It is hard to put the content of this insight into other words. Perhaps it has been done by a great poet, Christopher Marlowe, who in the last scene of Dr. Faustus has his damned hero cry out in anguish, “See, see where Christ’s blood streams in the firmament! Oh I’ll leap up to my God! Who pulls me down?” The image of the lamb who carries the sin of the kosmos has great power, and is used extensively in the The Revelation, the last book of the Bible in which it is the key to understanding the justice of God.
Most scholars say that the lamb is also the lamb of the passover meal, but as this lamb is in no sense a carrier of sins, I think this is unlikely. The Isaiah passage is a sufficient source of the image.
John the Baptist is made to emphasise that he does not even claim credit for recognising Jesus as God’s Chosen; no, he has been told to await the sign of the Spirit descending and resting on a man. John’s testimony presupposes the traditional story of Jesus’ baptism, but the event itself is not mentioned. In John’s Gospel the Baptist is even more successfully sidelined than in the others.
The Greek verb “menein” which is used here to indicate that the Spirit stayed upon Jesus, is part of the author’s special vocabulary and means the “indwelling of one person with another” – in this case of the Spirit and Jesus, but we shall see it used of Jesus and God and of the disciples and Jesus. This special use of menein is expanded in chapters 14 and 15 of the Gospel where Jesus commands his followers to “stay in me and I will stay in you.”
The Spirit of God was believed by Jews to come upon human beings for particular tasks such as leadership and prophecy, but the notion of the Spirit “staying” with a person or abiding in a person, is different and part of the author’s theology of Jesus as God’s Creative Wisdom made flesh, and as Son of God. Most ancient manuscripts have John “testifying that Jesus is the Son Of God”. A minority have “God’s Chosen One” and this more unusual reading is likely to have been original. The theology of the Chosen One also goes back to Isaiah, in this case to chapter 42 where the ideal Servant of God is described as Chosen, which is of course the word used to describe God’s relationship with the whole people of Israel. Jesus the Lamb of God is the one who fulfills God’s purpose in choosing Israel as his people.
The special use of the verb “to stay” is seen in the episode of Jesus and the two disciples of John. They ask where he “stays”, that is, they want to know where he’s coming from; what is his source of life. Jesus invites them to be with him and they “stay” all day: they open their lives to him and find his open to them. They experience at the start of their discipleship the mutual indwelling which the author believes is the goal of faith in Jesus. The author gives a number of precise time indicators in his first chapters, but I have no idea what meaning he attaches to them.
My commentary here is only a very partial decoding of the narrative, but it may give some indication of what we are in for as we follow this Gospel. The incidents of Jesus’ life are almost overloaded with their significance for the faith and life of believers. Everywhere there are profound insights into what the historical life of Jesus means for people now. From this passage we can particularly take the truth that discipleship of Jesus begins with “staying” with him long enough to know where he’s coming from.
What an extraordinary post, filled with magnificent insights clearly stated; but also, as you admit, a “very partial decoding”. Your comments about the Lamb of God and the verb menein are loaded with suggestions of how to proceed. Reading your posts on John’s Gospel are motivating me to do some explorations of my own along the lines you so powerfully suggest. This is simply majestic what you have posted here – biblical theology at its incarnational best! Thank you, Mike.
I’m glad it is interesting. If you have thoughts on John’s gospel please post them on my site as well as tour own.