Ultimate Passover Lamb

The readings for Sunday, January 15, 2017, Second Sunday in Ordinary Time, Cycle A, are
1 Samuel 49:3, 5-6; 1 Corinthians 1:1-3; and John 1:29-34.

The liturgy of this Sunday takes a break from the Gospel of Matthew and substitutes a reading from the Gospel of John. The setting is the ministry of John the Baptizer. John is in Bethany on the east side of the Jordan River. He sees Jesus approaching, and proclaims, “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” What is the author of the Gospel teaching by this proclamation? Applied to Jesus, what is the meaning of the title, “Lamb of God”? What currents of thought surrounded this title? There is a series of literature called “The Testament of the Twelve Patriarchs.” These testaments were composed between 109 and 107 B.C. The author was an early Pharisee. The Testament of Joseph 19:8 speaks of a lamb overcoming evil beasts and crushing them under its feet.

In the New Testament, Revelation 17:14, a conquering lamb crushes the evil powers of this earth. These two examples of a Lamb symbolizing an expected powerful ruler can serve as background to the question the Baptizer relayed by his disciples to Jesus, “Are you the one who is to come or should we look for another? (Matthew 11)  If the Baptizer was later having doubts about Jesus, those doubts could have been generated by Jesus’ surprising non-militant activity — healing the sick, giving sight to the blind, the lame walking again, the dead raised back to life. These activities did not seem to be directed to driving the Romans out of the Holy Land and setting up a new kingdom.  Jesus warns the Baptizer not to be scandalized by Jesus’ unexpected activities.

All the Gospels and most New Testament documents apply to Jesus oracles from the part of Isaiah called “Second Isaiah.” The date of this prophet is about 540 B.C. Embedded in his oracles are four poems or songs called “The Songs of the Servant of the Lord.” The “Servant of the Lord” is not only persecuted by his own people, but is put to death by them — some kind of lynching. His suffering and death are accepted by God as a vicarious atonement which makes this prophet’s people acceptable to God. In the fourth of these poems the Servant is described as “a Lamb that is led to the slaughter, cut out of the land of the living, struck down for the sins of my people.” While John the Baptizer probably had in mind the kind of Lamb described in the Testament of Joseph and in the Book of Revelation, the author(s) of John’s Gospel would have in mind the Servant description as the slaughtered Lamb. Why? Because the author of John’s Gospel knew about the resurrection of the dead — and the Servant Song says this about the slain Servant, “Behold, my servant will prosper. He shall be exalted, lifted up, and shall be very high.”

Another meaning of the title “Lamb of God” applied to Jesus by John’s Gospel is the author’s hint that Jesus is the ultimate Passover Lamb. The Gospel of John follows a principle which can be called perfection/replacement theology. This principle guides the author into substituting Jesus for major institutions, customs, and personalities of the Old Testament. Thus Jesus is depicted in John’s Gospel as the perfect temple, perfect ritual, the ultimate manna from heaven, etc. Is there any indication in this Gospel that John thought of Jesus as the ultimate Passover Lamb? Yes! In John 19:31-36 the author describes the custom of breaking the legs of crucified criminals so that they would die sooner. When the soldiers came to Jesus, they saw that he was already dead, and did not break his legs. John notes, “These things took place that the Scripture might be fulfilled, “Not a bone of him shall be broken.”

Moving on from “Lamb of God,” the Baptizer next says, “After me comes a man who ranks before me, because he existed before me.” Whatever the Baptizer could have meant by this statement, our concern is what the author of the Gospel means by it. Considering the whole tone of John’s Gospel, this statement should be understood as a proclamation of the eternal existence of the Son of God. It flows out of the Prologue of the Gospel, from statements like this, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God.” Of that same Word of God, John proclaims that the “Word was made flesh and pitched his tent among us.” As the Word made flesh approaches the Baptizer on the east bank of the Jordan, John proclaims a clarification of his proclamation of pre-existence, when he says at the closing of today’s Gospel, “ I have seen and borne witness that this is the Son of God.”