When John the Baptist came on the scene encouraging people to repent of their sins and be baptized he was like a throw-back to the prophets of old. The people of Israel had not seen a prophet like John in over 400 years, and suddenly there he was preaching repentance with baptism and announcing that “someone” was coming whose sandals he was unworthy to untie (John 1:27). Servants would untie the sandals of anyone entering a home, to wash their feet of dust. John placed himself lower than a servant and yet every one of the four Gospels begins their account of Jesus’ life with John’s testimony. Jesus said of him, “Assuredly, I say to you, among those born of women there has not risen one greater than John the Baptist; but he who is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he” (Matthew 11:11, NKJV).
John’s purpose was to wake the people up. When he appeared on the scene, he came upon a nation in slumber (Isaiah 29:9-10), and they were jarred into remembering the prophets of old. He was unlike anyone else they had ever heard before. What you might not know is that baptism was not something Christians started. Long before Jesus or John came on the scene, the Jews had adopted the custom of baptizing proselytes seven days after their circumcision. This was not something God had commanded them to do, but something they started on their own. If someone wanted to convert to Judaism, they went through a series of specific interrogations which made it possible to judge the real intentions of the candidate. If his answers satisfied his interrogators, he was circumcised and later baptized before witnesses. In the baptism, he was immersed naked in a pool of flowing water. When he rose from the pool, he was considered a true son of Israel. It wasn’t until after they were baptized that new converts were allowed access to the sacrifices in the Temple.[i]
But here was John the Baptist taking a ceremony meant for converting to Judaism and changing it. Gone were the interrogations. Gone was the painful process of circumcision which was required of anyone who wanted to become a “true son of Israel.” Instead, John preached something different. He preached repentance, encouraging all to turn from their sins and then be baptized. No lengthy interrogations to find out how sincere they were, followed by physical maiming. Just repentance. The people were intrigued.
In addition, John did something else the people found unusual. He told the truth and wasn’t afraid of the consequences. He called the religious leaders of his day “vipers” (Matthew 3:7-8). He called out King Herod for his sin of marrying his brother’s wife, while his brother was still alive (Luke 3:19-20). So the people were listening and loving this crazy man in the desert who was “telling it like it is” and going against the establishment. So they trusted him and repented and were baptized. More importantly, they were alert to his warnings.
Then one day he said these words, “Behold! The Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1:29) and Jesus’ identity was set in stone.
The Lamb of God.
What did that mean to the Jewish people when John used that phrase? I imagine many images came to their minds. First, there was the Passover Lamb. The Passover feast was (and still is) a central Jewish celebration of God’s deliverance of the Israelites from bondage in Egypt. The lamb was slain, and its blood was then applied to the doorposts of homes so that the angel of death would “pass over” them (Exodus 12:11-13). It was that night when all Egypt mourned the loss of their firstborn. Even Pharaoh did not escape this judgment from God. If a Jewish person thought of the Passover when John used the term “Lamb of God” they would likely think to themselves, “How is this man John pointed out, like the Passover Lamb? Will he save me from the wrath of God?” Their curiosity would no doubt have peaked when John added that the man he was pointing at took away the sins of the world. How could such a thing be possible? Can you imagine the thoughts of those in the crowd the day John pointed Jesus out? Today we see a beautiful picture of Christ’s atoning work on the cross in relation to the Passover Lamb. We are covered by His blood and protected forever from spiritual death (separation from God). But the people didn't have that picture in their minds back then.
The Jewish people could also have been thinking about the daily sacrifices made in the Temple. Every morning and every evening a lamb was sacrificed (Exodus 29:-38-42) for the sins of the people. While John was exclaiming that Jesus was the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world, miles away lambs were being sacrificed in the Temple. Anyone hearing John who thought about the daily sacrifices would most definitely want to know why John thought Jesus was like a sacrificial lamb. This was something new to them. How could Jesus be “like” a sacrificial lamb?
Isaiah 53:7 foretells about the One who would be lead like a “lamb to the slaughter” whose sacrifice would provide redemption for Israel. Jesus was the final sacrificial lamb, and his death resulted in our sins being forgiven by God forever. He redeemed us from sin itself.
But perhaps there is a valid reason the people and even the Jewish leaders did not recognize Jesus as “the Lamb of God.” You see, way before Jesus or John came on the scene, Antiochus Epiphanes IV (who ruled from 175-164 B.C.) decreed that it was forbidden for the Jews to read the Torah. He did this in an attempt to eradicate the Jewish faith. But the Jewish people circumvented that (somewhat) by choosing instead to read from selected portions of the Prophets on each Sabbath, as a substitute for the designated reading from the Torah.
The selected portions did not include Isaiah 53.
This custom continued after Antiochus died and the Jews had taken back their Temple. To this day, Isaiah 53 is not read in synagogues because of this tradition. Some Christians claim that it is a forbidden chapter and Rabbis everywhere are opposed to reading it aloud on the Sabbath because of its obvious implications. That is not the case. It is simply a tradition that started over a hundred years before Jesus or John came on the scene. And it is probably why Jewish leaders did not recognize Jesus when he came. It is why most Jewish people don’t see the correlation today. And I have no doubt (based on the video below) that most Jewish people during Jesus time, did not understand the relationship between Isaiah 53 and Jesus either.
When John pointed out that Jesus was the Lamb of God the people did not know then, that Jesus would die for them. They heard John call him the Lamb of God and maybe some “got it” that he was a representation of the sacrifices going on in the temple. But it wasn’t until Jesus hung on that cross and rose from the grave that they finally understood. Jesus, like the sacrificial lamb, had not only covered over their sins with his blood, but he had taken those sins down to the grave with him. God provided a permanent one-time sacrifice that we are not worthy to receive.
Think about that. Let it permeate your senses for a minute. God. Died. For. You. God did! The King of the universe stepped out of His heavenly abode, took on human form and suffered an ignoble, humiliating death because He didn’t want you to be eternally separated from Him. His death equals life for us. How does one even begin to comprehend such a gift? We are not worthy of it, yet it is freely given. It boggles the mind! Today, many still reject and despise Jesus’ sacrifice for them. For some, it is out of ignorance and arrogance that they reject God’s gift to them. For others, it is because they simply don’t understand or have never put the pieces of the puzzle together before. Like the people in the video below. Watch, and see when the light begins to dawn and they realize that yes – Jesus is the Lamb of God, who came into the world to save sinners – like you and me.