by B. B. Warfield
JOHN 1:29:—Behold the Lamb of God, which taketh away the sin of the world.
JOHN the Apostle was the pupil of John the Baptist. Alone of the evangelists, he had not merely heard the preaching of this last and greatest of the prophets, but had formed one of the inner circle of his disciples, closely attached to his person and intimately acquainted with his entire thought. And he had brought to this teaching the same receptive and brooding heart, attuned to the higher truth, which he afterwards brought to the teaching of Christ. The result was very much the same. There are scattered here and there through the sayings of Jesus recorded by the other evangelists, deep sayings enough to assure us that, even as they would set it forth, there was this element in the teaching of the Master; but John's record of our Lord's discourses is compacted of these deep sayings. So there are hints enough in the record of the Baptist's preaching given by the other evangelists, to make it clear that there was such a side to it as John records; but it is John alone who throws this aspect of it into the foreground. In both alike, the Baptist is purely the forerunner of the Lord, whose whole work consisted in making ready for the Lord's coming. But the attention of the other evangelists is directed to the pathway prepared for the feet of the Lord; John's is focused upon the figure advancing over the road. They tell us, therefore, of the trumpet-call to repentance which the Baptist sent ringing through the land, of his searching inquisition into the hearts of men, of his unsparing rebuke of evil whether in high places or in low, of his flaming proclamation of judgment; John tells us rather of the testimony of the Baptist to Christ. From them we learn accordingly what the Baptist thought of man; from John, what he thought of Jesus.
And when we learn from John what the Baptist thought of Jesus, we are startled by the clearness and fulness of his prophetic vision. We have already reminded ourselves that John was a pupil of the Baptist. Let us now give its full validity to this fact. At least this much he obviously would himself have us say,—that all he ever came to know of Jesus he saw, when he looked back upon the teaching of his first master, to have been already contained in germ in his prophetic instruction. It is therefore that he lays such stress on the testimony of the Baptist to Jesus. Even from the reports of the Baptist's teaching given in the other evangelists, we may perceive that he saw in Jesus a person, and expected of Him a work, which marked Him out as the divine Saviour of the world. What is thus implicit in their report, however, is made explicit in John's. We need not suppose that John fully understood from the beginning all he heard from the Baptist's lips. But, like Mary, he belonged to that class of profound religious natures who are accustomed to hide the deep declarations of the prophets in their hearts, that they may ripen under the influences which the experiences of later life bring. And thus, after John had lain on Jesus' bosom as he had sat at the Baptist's feet, and had drunk from that fuller and richer fountain, he was in a position to tell us that there was included in the Baptist's declaration a true knowledge of Jesus, a knowledge of who and what He was and what He came into the world to do, a knowledge of Him, in the fulness of the meaning of that great designation, as the "Son of God," and, in the fulness of the meaning of that great declaration, as "the Lamb of God, that takes away the sin of the world."
It is easy to say that such fulness of apprehension is incredible in the Baptist. That, standing as he did, in the grey dawn of the new dispensation, it is incongruous to bathe him in the full light of noonday, a noonday which did not shine upon Christ's own disciples until long afterwards—which, indeed, never shone upon them until their Master's work had been accomplished and was bearing its own witness to itself, until He had not only died for our sins, but risen again for our justification and had sent His Spirit to teach their laggard understandings things which earlier they had been unable to bear. Nay, are we not attributing to the Baptist, it is asked, a knowledge to which even Jesus Himself attained only slowly, as He learned by the things which He suffered; for did not He Himself begin His ministry animated by the hope of establishing the Kingdom He came to erect through the mere force of His winning proclamation, and only gradually learn, as the cross threw more and more deeply its baleful shadow over His pathway, that it was only through suffering that He could attain His glory? How shall we believe that to the Baptist there lay open from the beginning all that the Lord Himself and all His disciples learned only at the end; and even, that the Baptist taught it all, on his prophetic authority, both to Jesus and to Jesus' disciples, who were his pupils,—although certainly with so little effect that they forthwith forgot it and required painfully to recover it in the hard school of experience? If indeed we must not even say that the Baptist forgot it himself; for how else can we suppose that he could send to Jesus that perplexed inquiry, "Art Thou He that should come, or do we look for another? "
Plausible, however, as such doubts and hesitations may be made to appear, the answer to them is easy and decisive. They are utterly without historical foundation. They are purely the fruit of an attempt to reconstruct the historical sequences of the evangelical narrative in the interests of an a priori theory,—of an a priori theory, moreover, the principle of which is rejection of the supernatural factor in the history, though this supernatural factor is no less the nerve of the whole historical development than the very heart of the Christian religion. If we are to credit the evangelical narrative (and what other source of information have we?) it is not true that our Lord began His ministry with the expectation of accomplishing His mission through the instrumentality of successful preaching alone. Every one of the evangelists represents Him as undertaking His work with a clear perception of precisely what lay before Him; as coming into the world, in a word, not that He might live and build up a Kingdom, but that He might die and through His death purchase a people to Himself; as entering from the beginning, that is to say, upon the conscious fulfilment of the programme which the Baptist marked out for Him when He called Him the Lamb of God that takes away the sin of the world. It is true the disciples are represented as, in their preoccupation with another Messianic ideal, slow of heart to believe that it should be thus and not otherwise with their Master, that it should be through the sufferings and death of the cross that He should accomplish His work and enter into His glory. But the significance for this of the Baptist's preannouncement falls into the background in view of the repeated declarations of the Lord Himself, running up at last into careful and precise instruction, which only their dullness of spirit was able to resist; and, indeed, in view of the broad preadumbrations of the Old Testament itself, which the evangelists would have us understand laid down beforehand the entire plan of our Lord's life. When the risen Christ turned to His despondent disciples with the sorrowful rebuke, "O foolish men and slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken, ought not the Christ to suffer these things and to enter into His glory?" He but put into direct words once again before He was taken up the teaching of His whole life, which has become the teaching of all His biographers as well.
From the point of sight of our Lord Himself and of these narratives which embalm His memory for us, there was really nothing new in the Baptist's proclamation and nothing exceptional in it, beyond its designation of the man Jesus as the expected Messiah. It was but the summary presentation of the essential teaching of the Old Testament, and particularly of that great prophet of whom as truly as of Elijah the Baptist was a revival, and in whose prophecies his testimony, as recorded by John, is steeped. Little marvel that those who could forget Isaiah, could forget also the Baptist's crisp summary of Isaiah's teaching. Little marvel that, in the hour of his own trial, even he himself should sink into a certain measure of despondency and need to reassure himself that He on whose head he had seen the Spirit descend and rest, was really He that should come, and he need not look for another. In the progress alike of the individual and of the Kingdom of God upwards towards those heights of knowledge and privilege which at the start, perchance, stand out clearly in view touched with the glow of sunrise, it often happens that they are temporarily lost from sight as the lower valleys and shaded paths are traversed, by which they are approached. The very process of attaining the fuller possession of them involves the hiding of them for a time from view. There is nothing psychologically unnatural, therefore, either in the clear perception of the Baptist, from the vantage-ground of the opening of the new dispensation, of the true character of the Messiah and the real nature of His work; or in the evangelist's recalling the fulness of this prophetic teaching after the event had justified it and he had himself through his inspiration attained a firm grasp of its elements. What John, in effect, invites us to do, is to come back with him to the dawn of the Christian proclamation, and to observe with him how this lonely peak was "fired by the red glow of the rushing morn." "Listen," says he to us, "listen, to these marvellous words which fell from the great prophet's lips in the rich flow of his inspiration. When I heard them, then, they kindled a flame in my heart which has not yet died down; in their impulse I turned and followed Jesus. When I recall them now I see in them nothing less than a direct witness from God to what Jesus was and did. Hearken to them as a voice from heaven, declaring what in truth is the central fact of the Gospel."
So we seem to hear the evangelist speaking to us out of the records of his Gospel this morning, and we would not be disobedient to the heavenly message. Let us, then, ask what it is that the Baptist, thus reported to us, bids us behold in Him whom he declares to be the Lamb of God that takes away the sin of the world.
We remark, then, in the first place, that he bids us see in Jesus the suffering servant of God.
In the preparation for the coming of redemption which forms the main burden of the Old Testament revelation the promised redeemer is presented in a great variety of aspects, corresponding to the multifarious functions which he was to perform as the Saviour of His people. Among these, none fell in so completely with the popular temper, or appealed with such force to the popular imagination, as that which foretold Him as the Son of David, the great warrior-king who should subdue the world to the God of Israel and for ever rule over the whole race of man. Fired with hopes kindled by this great prediction, the prevailing conception of the Messiah very naturally came to be that of a monarch, whose dominion was inevitably transmuted into a more or less carnal kingdom of power over the enemies of Israel. Meanwhile the other lines of prophetic description were neglected; and among them most of all that culminating in the fifty-third chapter of Isaiah, in which the Messiah is depicted as the righteous servant of Jehovah, preserving his integrity amid the contradictions of sinners, and by his patient endurance of the sufferings inflicted upon Him not merely earning the favour of God, but purchasing blessings for the people. What it concerns us to observe now is that the Baptist, in designating Jesus the Lamb of God that takes away the sin of the world, recalls his hearers from the one Messianic ideal to the other. His prophetic announcement is the authoritative designation of Jesus as the long-expected Messiah, the Hope of Israel; but along with that, the authoritative definition of the Messianic ideal to be fulfilled in Jesus, as very especially that set forth in the figure of the servant of Jehovah. It is the prophetic proclamation of the great doctrine of the suffering Messiah, in terms and tones which imperatively claimed a hearing and admitted no misunderstanding.
In this, indeed, consists the offence of the Baptist's announcement. It was its offence at the time. Had the Baptist come proclaiming the advent of a warrior-king, who should, with the rod of His anger, break in pieces the oppressors of Israel, Herod might still have slain him, but the Pharisees would have believed in Him, and no Jew would ever have questioned whether his mission were from heaven. It remains his offence to the present day. This doctrine of a suffering Messiah, we are asked,—what unheard-of doctrine is this? No Jew ever dreamed of it, we are told, until he had been taught it by the Christians; and the Christians invented it only to reconcile the catastrophe which had befallen their Christ with their hope that it would have been He who should redeem Israel. It concerns us little when the Jews, in their engrossment with the expectation of a Messianic King of the earth rather than of heaven, first began to lend tardy ear to the Isaian proclamation of a suffering Messiah; it is a historical question of some obscurity whose solution has little bearing on our practical life. But it is obvious that the contention that the doctrine of a suffering Messiah was first introduced by the Christians to save the situation when their Messiah succumbed to the machinations of His foes and poured out His blood at Calvary, involves the complete rewriting of the New Testament in the interests of an a priori theory. Here stands written in the forefront of the Gospel narrative, a crisp proclamation of the doctrine of the suffering Messiah from the mouth of John the Baptist; and over and over again from the very outset of the narrative of His life it is represented as underlying the announcements of Jesus Himself, as it is later made the prime topic of His instruction to His disciples and the staple of the preaching of all His followers. In very truth, if we conceive the great religious movement inaugurated by John the Baptist, and carried through by Jesus and His followers, from the point of view of the development of the Messianic conception, its significance is precisely that of a sustained effort to revolutionize the dominant Messianic ideal,—to substitute for the conception of Messiah the king of Israel, that of Messiah the suffering servant of Jehovah. This is written large over the whole face of the New Testament. Every one of the evangelists as he seeks to present a vital picture of how Jesus comported Himself on earth, makes his appeal to the fifty-third chapter of Isaiah, as laying down the programme on which His life was ordered (Matthew 8:17, Mark 15:28, Luke 22:37, John 12:35; also Matthew 11:5, 12:18, 21:5, Luke 4:18, etc.). In the didactic portions of the New Testament this conception is simply carried forward and developed into its doctrinal implications (Rom. 10:16, 1 Peter 2:22, Acts 8:28, Rev. 5:6, 13:8). The doctrine of the suffering Messiah may thus be truly said to be the nerve of the whole New Testament presentation. There is nothing peculiar, therefore, in the Baptist's proclamation except its initial position at the head of a development which has revolutionized, not the Messianic ideal merely, but the world itself. Historically speaking its entire significance is that it announces in a clear, sharp, startlingly worded proclamation at the very outset of the new dispensation, its whole programme. Precisely what characterizes the New Testament most profoundly as the documentation of a movement issuing from the bosom of Judaism is its ideal of the Messiah as the suffering servant of Jehovah. Precisely what differentiates Christianity most sharply from the Judaism from which it issued is its proclamation of this Messianic ideal. Precisely the distinction of the Baptist is his initial announcement of this altered hope.
"Behold," cries the Baptist, pointing to Jesus,—"behold the Lamb of God, which taketh away the sin of the world." In that meek and lowly figure passing yonder, in bearing so simple and unassuming amid His fellow-men, see the Hope of Israel, the Chosen of God. Lay aside your national passions, your fierce chafing under the foreign yoke; man suffers from something worse than political bondage or alien oppression; there is a higher deliverance than that from the dominion of the stranger. It is not a king you need so much as a redeemer; and the God of our fathers knows it. Behold, there is the Lamb of God which takes away the sin of the world. To his first hearers, that is substantially what the proclamation of the Baptist meant. To us, to-day, it means, that if we would know Jesus, we must dismiss from our minds all preconceived notions of what it behoved the Lord of all the earth to be, and how it behoved Him to bear Himself in the world, and, under the Baptist's direction, go to the fifty-third chapter of Isaiah and read in that prophetic picture what Jehovah's righteous servant was and how He lived in the earth. And certainly it is no attractive portrait, as men count attractiveness, that the prophet draws of Him. "His visage," he writes, "was so marred, more than any man, and his form more than the sons of man." "He hath no form nor comeliness; and when we see Him, there is no beauty that we should desire Him." "He was despised and rejected of men," we are told, "a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief; and as one from whom men hide their face He was despised and we esteemed Him not." "He was stricken, smitten of men, and afflicted" —wounded, bruised, chastised, oppressed, led like a lamb to the slaughter, put to grief. Epithet is piled upon epithet almost beyond measure, to convey to us a sense of the depth of His humiliation. This, says the prophet to us,—this is our Redeemer. If we would see Jesus as He was, looking beneath the appearance to the actual reality and faultless truth, the Baptist tells us to look at Him in this portrait,—subjected, to put it shortly and sharply, to the most fathomless humiliation that ever befell or will ever again befall a sentient, feeling, palpitating being in all God's universe. There never has been, there never will be, another to stoop as He stooped. You know how Paul put it, seeking to suggest the depth of the humiliation by the interval between that which He was by nature and that which He became by His condescension. God on His throne—a broken slave on the cross; these are the end terms. As God, He was the Lord of all the earth; when He became man, He became servant to the whole world; and not content with that, being found in fashion as a man, He humbled Himself still further even unto death itself, and that the death of the cross. Enough: words cannot paint this humiliation. We read the prophetic portrayal in the fifty-third chapter of Isaiah; we read the historical portraiture in the pages of the Gospels, culminating in the agony of Gethsemane and the anguish of the Passion; we read the dogmatic representation in the arguments of the Epistles. They fill our minds with wonder; they wring our hearts with compassion; but we remain conscious through all that even the bloody sweat of Gethsemane and the forsaken cry on the cross are an insufficient index of the soul-anguish which was endured by this greatest of earth's sufferers, this most humiliated of all those who from the primal curse have trodden with bloody feet the thorny surface of this sin-smitten world of ours. Surely the Baptist was right when he bade us see in this Jesus, the type of all righteous sufferers, the suffering servant of Jehovah.
But a great deal more is to be said of this sufferer than merely that He stands before us as the type of all sufferers. His sufferings were not endured for their own sake; nor did the Baptist suppose that they were. We need to remark, in the second place, therefore, that the Baptist bids us see in Jesus the substitutive sacrifice for sin.
"Behold the Lamb of God," cries the Baptist, "which taketh away the sin of the world." Not, Behold the Prophet like unto Moses, whom ye shall hear; nor yet, Behold the Israelite without guile, in whom meet perfect purity, wisdom and truth; nor even, Behold the Lion of the tribe of Judah, who shall scatter your foes and deliver you from all your enemies. He might have said any one or all of these things. They are all true of Jesus. Christ is our teacher, and our example, and our king. But there is something more fundamental than any of these things; something which underlies them all and from which they acquire their value. And it is this that the Baptist saw in Christ and sends us to Christ to find. "Behold," says he, "the Lamb of God, which taketh away the sin of the world." That image could mean but one thing to an humble, sin-conscious Old Testament saint. He would think first of the righteous sufferer of the fifty-third chapter of Isaiah: and that righteous sufferer is not merely described there, we will remember, as a lamb that is led to the slaughter, and as a sheep that before her shearers is dumb, the very embodiment of meekness and patience in enduring the violence of the despoiler; but, in well-remembered words which throw a glory over these sufferings to which even meek patience and uncomplaining endurance can lend nothing, we read: "Surely he hath borne our griefs and carried our sorrows; he was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities; the chastisement of our peace was upon him, and with his stripes we were healed." "All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned, every one, to his own way; and the Lord hath laid on him the iniquity of us all." "For the transgression of my people was he stricken … yet it pleased the Lord to bruise him. He hath put him to grief: when thou shalt make his soul an offering for sin, he shall see his seed, he shall prolong his days, and the pleasure of the Lord shall prosper in his hand.… By his knowledge shall my righteous servant justify many, and he shall bear their iniquities.… He bare the sin of many and made intercession for the transgressors." And along with the fifty-third chapter of Isaiah, the Old Testament saint, when directed to the Lamb of God which takes away sin, would inevitably think also of the paschal lamb, the fundamental national symbol of deliverance; along with it, beyond question, also of the lamb of the daily sacrifice and of the underlying significance of the whole sacrificial system, with its typical finger pointing forward to something better,—to God's own Lamb, who should really take away sin, a lamb of God's providing, able and willing to bear on his own head the sin of the world.
It is through the eyes of such an Old Testament saint that we of these later days may hope to catch for ourselves the Baptist's meaning. Men have no doubt wearied themselves with efforts to derive from his declaration some less explicit reference to sacrifice. Jesus might well be compared to a lamb, it has been said, merely because of His mild and inoffensive disposition, the gentleness of His bearing, the patience of His demeanour under the injuries of His foes; and He might well be said to take sin away from the world with reference merely to His zeal for purity of conduct and heart, the loftiness of His ethical character, the winning example of the holiness of His life. It may certainly be doubted whether those who take this line of remark, have fully understood Jesus—whether they remember the sternness of His demeanour in the presence of sin, the excoriation of His rebuke, that scourge of cords with which He drove the traders from the Temple, that bearing which, when He set his face to go up to Jerusalem, caused even His followers to draw back from Him afraid, leaving Him to rush on alone in the van. We must beware, because Jesus is described as bearing with patience the sufferings He came to endure, of picturing Him therefore to ourselves as without the power of indignation or without the will to use it. And it may equally be doubted whether those who suppose that the sin of the world may be taken away by any power of persuasion or example, rightly understand man, or his love of sinning, or the power of sin in him. But let all this pass. The artificiality of such attempts to explain away the plain significance of the Baptist's declaration is too glaring to require formal refutation. Jesus is not merely compared with a lamb in it; He is identified with a specific and particular lamb,—the well-known "Lamb of God." And whether this be taken as Isaiah's lamb of the fifty-third chapter of Isaiah, or the passover lamb, or the lamb of the common sacrifices, it is in each and every case a sacrificial lamb which is indicated. Nor is Jesus said here in some broad and general way to take away sin. He is said to be the sin-bearer as the Lamb of God: and there is but one way in which from the beginning of the world, or in any nation, a lamb has ever been known to bear sin, and that is, as a piacular sacrifice, expiating guilt in the sight of a propitiated God. The Lamb of God which takes away sin, is and can be nothing other than the lamb of God's providing upon whose head sin is laid, and by whose blood expiation is wrought.
When, then, the Baptist pointed out Jesus as the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world, he pointed Him out as the divinely provided sacrifice for sin: he pointed Him out as the substitute for sinners, by whose stripes they are healed. Thus he preached beforehand the Gospel of the blood of Jesus—that blood of Jesus by which alone can our sins be washed away. Following his direction, we shall see in Jesus not merely and not primarily our prophet and not merely and not primarily our king—our prophet and our king though we adoringly recognize Him as being, by whom alone we are effectively instructed in the truth, or protected from the most intimate enemies of our peace and safely directed in our way. Nay, we shall recognize in Him not merely our priest who represents us before God and makes satisfaction for our sins; but before all and above all, as our sacrifice,—the victim itself upon whose head our sin is laid, and by whose outpoured blood our guilt is cleansed. It is, in a word, the Gospel of the cross—of the cross of Christ—which the Baptist commends to us here; that Gospel, not only of Christ simpliciter, but of Christ as crucified, which has ever remained to the Jews a stumbling-block and to Gentiles foolishness, but which has also ever remained, and will ever remain, to the called themselves, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. The blood of Jesus,—O, the blood of Jesus!—when we have reached it, we have attained not merely the heart, but the heart of the heart of the Gospel. It is as a lamb as it had been slain, that He draws to Himself most mightily the hearts, as He attracts to Himself most fully the praises of His saints.
But not even in this high testimony is the witness of the Baptist exhausted. We reach its height only when we remark, in the third place, that he calls upon us to see in Jesus the Saviour of the world.
"Behold," he cries, "the Lamb of God, which taketh away the sin of the world,"—not "our sin "merely, though we praise God that may be gloriously true; nor "the sin of His people" merely, though that too, when properly understood, expresses the entire fact; but, with clear vision of the ultimate issue, "the sin of the world." The propitiatory sacrifice which the Baptist sees in Jesus, is a sacrifice of world-wide efficacy: the salvation which he perceives to issue from it stretches onward in its working until it embraces the whole world. The sin of the world, as a whole, he gathers, as it were, into one mass; and, laying it upon the head of Jesus, cries, "Behold the Lamb of God, which taketh away the sin of the world." It is in this universalism, we say, that we reach the height of the Baptist's declaration.
And it is in this universalism that it has become common to discover the element in the Baptist's proclamation which is specifically new. The suffering Messiah, it is often said, is no doubt an Old Testament doctrine; Messiah the sin-bearer, yes, even that may be found in the fifty-third chapter of Isaiah: but Messiah the bearer of the sin of the world,—was it not reserved to the opening of the new dispensation, characterized by spiritual breadth, and to John the Baptist, harbinger of Christ, to give explicit expression to this great truth? It will be well, however, to walk warily even here. The narrowness of the ordinary Jewish outlook cannot, perhaps, be easily overstated,—the pride of the Jews as the special favourites of heaven, and their ingrained determination to confine the grace of God to the limits of their own nation. But they certainly were never encouraged in this restricted view of the reach of God's mercy by the revelation of His purposes which Jehovah had made to them. From the moment when He promised to the mother of all living a seed by whose bruised heel the serpent's head—the source of all evil in the world—should be crushed, the extension of His grace was never confined within narrower limits than the race itself. The normative promise to the father of the faithful,—typical of all the other promises of redemption that fill the Old Testament,—was that in his great Seed (for He saith not seeds, as of many, but Seed, as of one) should all the nations of the earth be blessed. Least of all in this wonderful chapter of Isaiah to which the Baptist's words carry us most immediately is the sacrifice of the righteous sufferer circumscribed in its efficacy by the cleansing of the sins of Israel. "When He shall have made His soul an offering for sin," we read, "He shall justify many"; and, bearing the sins of many, "so shall He sprinkle many nations." No doubt the Baptist's declaration, in the springing growth of prophetic annunciation, goes beyond even this, and asserts not a relative but an absolute universalism. Not many nations, but the whole world, is what he bids us see redeemed in Christ: the Jesus he proclaims as the God-provided sacrifice bears upon His broad and mighty shoulders nothing less than the world's sin.
It is the note, then, of pure universalism, we perceive, that is sounded in the Baptist's great proclamation. He does not think, of course, of denying that salvation is of the Jews. This Lamb of God was a Jew of the Jews, and came as the Hope of Israel: and only as the Hope of Israel does He become also the Hope of the world. No more does He think of doubting that only as it should work its way out from Israel, perhaps by slow and even tentative stages, could this redemption of Israel extend into and throughout the world. We cannot credit him, to be sure, with detailed foresight of the actual process by which the salvation in Jesus has been conveyed to the world: through the scattering of the disciples from Jerusalem, the preaching of Paul and his companions, the slow missionary advance of the Church and slower leavening of the ingathered mass, through all these two thousand lagging years—and no one knows how many more thousands of years the secular process must continue before the great goal is attained and the great promise fulfilled that the whole shall be leavened. But the Baptist certainly expected the redemption he saw in its potency in Jesus to take effect only through the process of discipling; and accordingly he directs his own disciples to Jesus that they might attach themselves to Him whose very nature it was to "increase," and he himself remains through life an interested observer of the work and career of Him whose pathway it was his own highest ambition to smooth. Least of all does the Baptist ever think of obscuring that dark, that terrible fact, that as the redemption in Jesus thus makes its way surely to its ultimate goal of the salvation of the world, there are multitudes of sinners left to this side and that, out of the direct line of its advance; there are many who fail to hear the call; there are many who hearing refuse to hearken to it; there are whole masses of men that are extruded in the progress of the perfecting whole to its consummate end. Though the progress be continuous, therefore, and the goal sure, yet so long as it is progress to a goal as yet unreached, there must ever remain among the saved, unsaved—dross amid the gold, chaff to be winnowed out from the wheat. This Saviour, accordingly, whom the Baptist proclaims as the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world, he presents also as the husbandman who prunes and weeds His garden, and cuts down the unfruitful trees to cast them into the flames; as the Lord of the harvest who has His fan in His hand and thoroughly purges His threshing-floor, burning up the chaff with unquenchable fire. The Baptist neither denies nor glozes such things as these. But neither does he focus his eye upon them as if they were the end which Jesus had in view in coming into the world. Rather, looking through and beyond them, he fixes his gaze upon the ultimate goal which, after the process attended by these effects is over, shall at length be attained, and in this great declaration points to Jesus as bearing in His own body on the tree nothing less than the sin of the world.
You will observe, that what I am endeavouring to do, is to make as plain as I can that the Baptist's gaze, when he declares that Jesus takes away the sin of the world, is directed to the end of a process—a process of long continuance and of varied appearance through the several stadia of its course. He sees in Jesus the Saviour of the world and perceives in Him a saved world. Through the turmoil and the labour which accompany the accomplishment of this great task; through the long years of progress towards the goal, the centuries and millenniums of but partial success and oft-times even of apparent failure, which we know as the history of the Church and which even we (let us praise God for it) can recognize as the history of the expansion of Christianity; he looks out upon the end, that end to which all has been steadily advancing, when the knowledge of the glory of the Lord shall cover the earth even as the waters cover the sea,—with the same breadth and expansion, leaving no nook or cranny unfilled, and with the same depth of fulness, overwhelming all. It is the spectacle of a saved world thus which fills his vision. And with this spectacle full in his eye, he may well afford to neglect all that intervenes, and to proclaim Jesus simply as the Lamb of God that takes away the world's sin. He is unquestionably the husbandman who prunes His garden well, and casts the improfitable plants and branches to the flames: but on that very account He is not a Husbandman who gives over His garden—the garden of the Lord—to thorns and weeds and unfruitful trees, but rather one who cleanses it and makes it in effect—this very garden in its entirety—what it has in principle been from the beginning, is now, and ever shall be, the Garden of the Lord in which shall grow at last, luxuriantly filling it in its whole extent, only plants of worth and trees of delight. He is beyond doubt the winnower of men, whose fan is in His hand, to beat out the chaff and cast it in the fire: but on this very account He does not give over His threshing-floor to the worthless and cumbering chaff, but thoroughly purges it that, after the chaff is burned, it may remain the garner of the Lord heaped with the precious grain. Accordingly the Baptist does not teach us that in Jesus the sin of the world is so taken away in the mass, that there has not been and shall not yet be in the process by which the world has been and is being saved by Him, unfruitful trees cut down and chaff cast into the fire; but rather that in the end, when the process is over, no unfruitful trees will be found growing in God's garden, the world, no chaff be found cumbering God's threshing-floor, the world. The vision he brings before us, let us repeat it, is the vision of the ultimate salvation of the world, its complete conquest to Christ when at last Jesus' last enemy shall have been conquered and the whole world shall bow before Him as its Lord and its Redeemer. On the basis of this great consummation seen hanging on the margin of the future by his prophetic eye, he declares of Jesus that He bears in His body on the tree the whole world's sin, and in very truth is to be acclaimed as the Saviour of the World.
Such, then, is the Jesus to whom the Baptist would direct our eyes, when he bids us behold in Him the Lamb of God that takes away the sin of the world. Let us not fail to derive at least two great lessons from his exhortation.
The first of them is this: we must never despair of the world. This is certainly a much-needed lesson. For are we not very prone to despair of the world? And is there not very good apparent reason why we should despair of it? For who can deny that the world is very evil? Only, we must not add in the words of the old hymnist, that therefore "the times are waxing late." This world is not to rot down into destruction, but to become, however slowly and by whatever tentative processes, the very garden of the Lord. That the world is very evil is no proof, then, that the times are waxing late; but, if any inference can be drawn from it, the contrary rather. The world has always been very evil, ever since there entered it, through that forbidden fruit, the sin of man and all our human woes. Throughout all the ages, its sin has gone up reeking before God to heaven. Viewed in itself we could not but despair of it. But the great fact—the great fact, greater even than the fact of the world's sin—is that Christ has redeemed this sinful world. In Him we behold the Lamb of God which takes away the sin of the world. Not, who strives to take it away and fails; not, who takes it away in some measure, but is unable to take it away entirely; not, who suspends its taking away upon a gigantic IF—as though His taking it away were dependent on some aid given Him by the world itself—that world which loves its sin and will never give it up of itself and which will, of course, always act when left to itself in accordance with its nature as the sinful world. No, but who actually, completely, finally, takes away its sin. This,—I beg you to bind the great truth on your heart,—this, despite all appearances that smite the astounded eye and the slowness of its realization of its great destiny—is a redeemed world, in which we live. It has been purchased unto God by the most precious blood of His Son. Its salvation, in God's own good time and way, can no more fail than the purpose of God can fail, than the blood of Jesus Christ can be of none effect. God's ways, to be sure, are not as our ways: there is none of us fitted to be His counsellor; we cannot review His plans nor bid Him stay and justify to us His methods of working. It must ever remain a mystery to us why He works in this world by process; why He created the world by process, why He has peopled it by process, why He has redeemed it by process, why He is saving it by process—by process so slow and to our human eye so uncertain, cast so much to the mercy of the currents that flow up and down through the earth, that we are tempted at times to doubt whether it is directed to a goal at all. We know only that it is by process that God chooses to work in the world,—except this further: that, though He works by process, He ever gloriously attains His ends. This wicked world in which we live is, then, God's world, Christ's world; it belongs to Christ by right of purchase and nothing can snatch it out of His hands. The day will surely come when the kingdoms of the world shall become the kingdom of our God and His Christ; and we—you and I—are coworkers with God in bringing about the great consummation. O lift up your eyes from the dust and noise of the strife and its apparently fitful fortunes, and, shall I not even say? doubtful issue; and under the direction of the Baptist, fix them upon the end: lift them from the world's sin and its just doom for its sin, to the world's Saviour and its abounding life in Him. See the redeemed world in its redeeming Lord, clothed in righteousness; and let your hearts beat high with the vision and gather courage for your daily tasks as messengers of God to a world lost indeed in its sin, but found again in its Saviour.
The second lesson is: we must not despair of ourselves. Living in this sinful world, as constituent members of it, we are partakers of its sin; or, as it may be more fair to put it, its sinfulness is but the expression of our sin. How can we, sinners, cherish hope of life? In ourselves, surely, we can find no ground for such a hope: and that we know right well. Our hearts condemn us and God is greater than our hearts. If we look at ourselves, how can we not despair? Let us look, therefore, not at ourselves but at Jesus; for Jesus, the Baptist tells us, is the Lamb of God which takes away sin. And, note it well, troubled heart, the Baptist did not make this declaration to those who had no sin, or even to those who, having it, knew not that they had it. What appeal, in fact, could such a declaration make to such men as that? He made it to those whom he had called with flaming speech to repentance; and who, with burning hearts, had come to his baptism of remission of sin. The message is, then, to you too whose hearts are sore with the sense of sin. To you and me also he cries to-day: "Behold the Lamb of God, which taketh away sin." Is it not a joyful message to sin-stricken souls? Let others think of Jesus as they may. Let them hail him as a king: let them sit at His feet as a prophet: let them eagerly seek to follow in His steps. For you and me, sinners, He is most glorious and most precious, as a Saviour. Let others make elaborate inquisition into the possible reasons which led Him to come into this sinful world of ours. He Himself tells us that there were but two reasons which could have brought Him into the world—to judge the world, or to save the world. And, blessed be His name, He has further told us that it was actually to save the world that He came. This is the only reason that can satisfy our hearts, or even our reason,—that Jesus Christ came into the world to save sinners. It is only as the Lamb of God that has been slain, to purchase unto God by His blood of every tribe and tongue and people and nation, and to make them unto God a kingdom and priests who shall reign on the earth,—that the heavenly hosts in the apocalyptic vision hymn Him; and it is only as we catch a glimpse of this His true glory that we can worthily add our voices to His praise. It is only when we see in Him a slaughtered lamb, lying on a smoking altar, from which ascends the sweet savour of an acceptable sacrifice to God for sin, that we can rise to anything like a true sense of the glory of Jesus Christ, or in any degree give a sufficing account to our souls of His presence in the world.
"The Lord has come into His world!"
Nay, nay, that cannot be;
The world is full of noisomeness
And all iniquity:
He is the Lord of all the earth—
How could He stoop to human birth?
"The Lord has come into His world!"
A slaughtered Lamb I see,
A smoking altar on which burns
A sacrifice for me!
O blessed Lord! O blessed day!
He comes to take my sin away!
Source: The Savior of the World (eBook) by B. B. Warfield