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The Lamb of God

29 The next day he saw Jesus coming toward him and declared, “Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world! 30This is he of whom I said, ‘After me comes a man who ranks ahead of me because he was before me.’ 31I myself did not know him; but I came baptizing with water for this reason, that he might be revealed to Israel.” 32And John testified, “I saw the Spirit descending from heaven like a dove, and it remained on him. 33I myself did not know him, but the one who sent me to baptize with water said to me, ‘He on whom you see the Spirit descend and remain is the one who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.’ 34And I myself have seen and have testified that this is the Son of God.”

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29. The next day. There can be no doubt that John had already spoken about the manifestation of the Messiah; but when Christ began to appear, he wished that his announcement of him should quickly become known, and the time was now at hand when Christ would put an end to John’s ministry, as, when the sun is risen, the dawn suddenly disappears. After having testified to the priests who were sent to him, that he from whom they ought to seek the truth and power of baptism was already present, and was conversing in the midst of the people, the next day he pointed him out to the view of all. For these two acts, following each other in close succession, must have powerfully affected their minds. This too is the reason why Christ appeared in the presence of John.

Behold the Lamb of God. The principal office of Christ is briefly but clearly stated; that he takes away the sins of the world by the sacrifice of his death, and reconciles men to God. There are other favors, indeed, which Christ bestows upon us, but this is the chief favor, and the rest depend on it; that, by appeasing the wrath of God, he makes us to be reckoned holy and righteous. For from this source flow all the streams of blessings, that, by not imputing our sins, he receives us into favor. Accordingly, John, in order to conduct us to Christ, commences with the gratuitous forgiveness of sins which we obtain through him.

By the word Lamb he alludes to the ancient sacrifices of the Law. He had to do with Jews who, having been accustomed to sacrifices, could not be instructed about atonement for sins in any other way than by holding out to them a sacrifice. As there were various kinds of them, he makes one, by a figure of speech, to stand for the whole; and it is probable that John alluded to the paschal lamb. It must be observed, in general, that John employed this mode of expression, which was better adapted to instruct the Jews, and possessed greater force; as in our own day, in consequence of baptism being generally practiced, we understand better what is meant by obtaining forgiveness of sins through the blood of Christ, when we are told that we are washed and cleansed by it from our pollutions. At the same time, as the Jews commonly held superstitious notions about sacrifices, he corrects this fault in passing, by reminding them of the object to which all the sacrifices were directed. It was a very wicked abuse of the institution of sacrifice, that they had their confidence fixed on the outward signs; and therefore John, holding out Christ, testifies that he is the Lamb of God; by which he means that all the sacrifices, which the Jews were accustomed to offer under the Law, had no power whatever to atone for sins, but that they were only figures, the truth of which was manifested in Christ himself.

Who taketh away the sin of the world. He uses the word sin in the singular number, for any kind of iniquity; as if he had said, that every kind of unrighteousness which alienates men from God is taken away by Christ. And when he says, the sin Of The World, he extends this favor indiscriminately to the whole human race; that the Jews might not think that he had been sent to them alone. But hence we infer that the whole world is involved in the same condemnation; and that as all men without exception are guilty of unrighteousness before God, they need to be reconciled to him. John the Baptist, therefore, by speaking generally of the sin of the world, intended to impress upon us the conviction of our own misery, and to exhort us to seek the remedy. Now our duty is, to embrace the benefit which is offered to all, that each of us may be convinced that there is nothing to hinder him from obtaining reconciliation in Christ, provided that he comes to him by the guidance of faith.

Besides, he lays down but one method of taking away sins We know that from the beginning of the world, when their own consciences held them convinced, men labored anxiously to procure forgiveness. Hence the vast number of propitiatory offerings, by which they falsely imagined that they appeased God. I own, indeed, that all the spurious rites of a propitiatory nature drew their existence from a holy origin, which was, that God had appointed the sacrifices which directed men to Christ; but yet every man contrived for himself his own method of appeasing God. But John leads us back to Christ alone, and informs us that there is no other way in which God is reconciled to us than through his agency, because he alone takes away sin. He therefore leaves no other refuge for sinners than to flee to Christ; by which he overturns all satisfactions, and purifications, and redemptions, that are invented by men; as, indeed, they are nothing else than base inventions framed by the subtlety of the devil.

The verb αἴρειν (to take away) may be explained in two ways; either that Christ took upon himself the load which weighed us down, as it is said that he carried our sins on the tree, (1 Peter 2:24;) and Isaiah says that

the chastisement of our peace was laid on him, (Isaiah 53:5;)

or that he blots out sins. But as the latter statement depends on the former, I gladly embrace both; namely, that Christ, by bearing our sins, takes them away. Although, therefore, sin continually dwells in us, yet there is none in the judgment of God, because when it has been annulled by the grace of Christ, it is not imputed to us. Nor do I dislike the remark of Chrysostom, that the verb in the present tense — ὁ αἴρων, who taketh away, denotes a continued act; for the satisfaction which Christ once made is always in full vigor. But he does not merely teach us that Christ takes away sin, but points out also the method, namely, that he hath reconciled the Father to us by means of his death; for this is what he means by the word Lamb. Let us therefore learn that we become reconciled to God by the grace of Christ, if we go straight to his death, and when we believe that he who was nailed to the cross is the only propitiatory sacrifice, by which all our guilt is removed.

30. This is he of whom I said. He comprehends every thing in a few words, when he declares that Christ is the person who, he said, was to be preferred to him; for hence it follows that John is nothing more than a herald sent on his account; and hence again it is evident that Christ is the Messiah. Three things are here stated; for when he says that a man cometh after him, he means that he himself was before him in the order of time, to prepare the way for Christ, according to the testimony of Malachi,

Behold, I send my messenger before my face, (Malachi 3:1.)

Again, when he says that he was preferred to himself, this relates to the glory with which God adorned his Son, when he came into the world to fulfill the office of a Redeemer. At last, the reason is added, which is, that Christ is far superior in dignity to John the Baptist. That honor, therefore, which the Father bestowed upon him was not accidental, but was due to his eternal majesty. But of this expression, he was preferred to me, because he was before me, I have already Spoken. 3737     See page 49.

31. And I knew him not. That his testimony may not be suspected of having been given either from friendship or favor, he anticipates such a doubt, by affirming that he had no other knowledge of Christ than what he had obtained by divine inspiration. The meaning, therefore, amounts to this, that John does not speak at his own suggestion, nor for the favor of man, but by the inspiration of the Spirit and the command of God.

I came baptizing with water; that is, I was called and appointed to this office, that I might manifest him to Israel; which the Evangelist afterwards explains more fully, and confirms, when he introduces John the Baptist, testifying that he had no knowledge of Christ but what he had obtained by oracle; that is, by information or revelation from God. 3838     “Par oracle; c’est a dire, advertissement ou revelation de Dieu.” Instead of what we find here, I came to baptize, he there states expressly (verse 33) that he was sent; for it is only the calling of God that makes lawful ministers, because every person who of his own accord, thrusts himself forward, whatever learning or eloquence he may possess, is not entitled to any authority, and the reason is, that he is not authorized by God. Now since it was necessary that John, in order that he might lawfully baptize, should be sent by God, let it be inferred from this, that it is not in the power of any man whatever to institute sacraments, but that this right belongs to God alone, as Christ, on another occasion, in order to prove the baptism of John, asks if it was from heaven, or from men, (Matthew 21:25.)

32. I saw the Spirit, descending like a dove. This is not a literal but a figurative mode of expression; for with what eyes could he see the Spirit? But as the dove was a certain and infallible sign of the presence of the Spirit, it is called the Spirit, by a figure of speech in which one name is substituted for another; not that he is in reality the Spirit, but that he points him out, as far as human capacity can admit. And this metaphorical language is frequently employed in the sacraments; for why does Christ call the bread his body, but because the name of the thing is properly transferred to the sign? especially when the sign is, at the same time, a true and efficacious pledge, by which we are made certain that the thing itself which is signified is bestowed on us. Yet it must not be understood that the dove contained the Spirit who fills heaven and earth, (Jeremiah 23:24,) but that he was present by his power, so that John knew that such an exhibition was not presented to his eyes in vain. In like manner, we know that the body of Christ is not connected with the bread, and yet we are partakers of his body.

A question now arises, why did the Spirit at that time appear in the form of a dove? We must always hold that there is a correspondence between the sign and the reality. When the Spirit was given to the apostles, they saw cloven tongues of fire, (Acts 2:3,) because the preaching of the gospel was to be spread through all tongues, and was to possess the power of fire. But in this passage God intended to make a public representation of that mildness of Christ of which Isaiah speaks in lofty terms,

The smoking flax he will not quench, and the bruised reed he will not break, (Isaiah 42:3.)

It was then, for the first time, that the Spirit was seen descending on him; not that he had formerly been destitute of him, but because he might be said to be then consecrated by a solemn rite. For we know that he remained in concealment, during thirty years, like a private individual, because the time for his manifestation was not yet come; but when he intended to make himself known to the world, he began with his baptism. At that time, therefore, he received the Spirit not only for himself, but for his people; and on that account his descent was visible, that we may know that there dwells in him an abundance of all gifts of which we are empty and destitute. This may easily be inferred from the words of the Baptist; for when he says, Upon whom thou shalt see the Spirit descending, and remaining on him, it is he who baptizeth with the Spirit, his meaning is, that the reason why the Spirit was beheld in a visible form, and remained on Christ, was, that he might water all his people with his fullness. What it is to baptize with the Spirit I have already noticed in a few words; namely, that he imparts its efficacy to baptism, that it may not be vain or useless, and this he accomplishes by the power of his Spirit.

33. Upon whom thou shalt see the Spirit descending. Here a difficult question arises; for if John did not know Christ, why does he refuse to admit him to baptism? To a person whom he did not know he would not say, I ought rather to be baptized by thee, (Matthew 3:14.) Some reply, that he knew him to such an extent as to regard him with the reverence due to a distinguished Prophet, but was not aware that he was the Son of God. But this is a poor solution of the difficulty, for every man ought to obey the calling of God without any respect of persons. No rank or excellence of man ought to prevent us from doing our duty, and therefore John would have shown disrespect to God and to his baptism, if he had spoken in this manner to any other person than the Son of God. it follows that he must have previously known Christ.

In the first place, it ought to be observed, that the knowledge here mentioned is that which arises from personal and long acquaintance. Although he recognizes Christ whenever he sees him, still it does not cease to be true that they were not known to each other according to the ordinary custom of men, for the commencement of his knowledge proceeded from God. But the question is not yet fully answered; for he says that the sight of the Holy Spirit was the mark by which he was pointed out to him. Now he had not yet seen the Spirit, when he had addressed Christ as the Son of God. For my own part, I willingly embrace the opinion of those who think that this sign was added for confirmation, and that it was not so much for the sake of John as for the sake of us all. John indeed saw it, but it was rather for others than for himself. Bucer appropriately quotes that saying of Moses,

This shall be a sign to you, that after three days journey, you shall sacrifice to me on the mountain, (Exodus 3:12.)

Undoubtedly, when they were going out, they already knew that God would conduct and watch over their deliverance; but this was a confirmation a posteriori, as the phrase is; that is, from the event, after it had taken place. In like manner, this came as an addition to the former revelation which had been given to John.

34. I saw and testified. He means that what he declares is not doubtful; because God was pleased to make him fully and thoroughly acquainted with those things of which he was to be the witness to the world; and it is worthy of notice, that he testified that Christ was the Son of God, because he who gives the Holy Spirit must be the Christ, for to no other belongs the honor and the office of reconciling men to God.