Who Takes Away the Sins of the World
"Who Takes Away the Sin of the World"
St. John 1:30-34
by William Klock
Every January 1st the Church celebrates the Feast of the Circumcision of Jesus. In some churches you might hear it referred to as the Feast of the Holy Name. What we celebrate today is Jesus’ submitting himself to begin his ministry even when he was only eight days old. According to the Old Testament law, Jewish boys were circumcised when on the eighth day. That was also when their parents formally gave them their names, which is why we have two different names for what he celebrate today, even though they both point to the same thing. It was on the eighth day after his birth that Jesus submitted himself to being obedient to the law; it was on that day that he shed his blood for us for the very first time when he was circumcised according to God’s command. As I said on Christmas, Jesus was the only one who could save us from our sin problem, because he was the only one—being both fully God and fully man—who could do what we can’t do: he could live his life in full obedience to the law. That was what enabled him to offer himself as a perfect sacrifice for our sins. Again, today we celebrate and remember who he was and what he came to do for us as we recall how, even unconsciously as a baby, he obediently submitted himself to the law.
I think it’s true that when we think of Jesus’ submission and obedience to the law we tend to focus on his doing this so that he could be that sinless sacrifice for our sins—so that he be could be that spotless Lamb we talked about on the last two Sundays. But we also need to remember that his sinlessness points to victory over sin. As I stressed this past Eastertide: Jesus didn’t just die in order to satisfy the wrath of God and take away the penalty for our sins; his death was also just as much to give us new life and to take away our actual sins. And this is something we have to remember as we share the Gospel with people. John the Baptist saw Jesus and declared to the people: “Behold the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” We need to show people who the Lamb is and that by his death he saves us from the consequences of our sins, but we also need to share with them that by his his perfect life, and by his death and resurrection he also conquered sin and death and leads those who trust in him into new life.
Look with me again at the first chapter of John’s Gospel, beginning at verse 29:
The next day he saw Jesus coming toward him, and said, “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world! [That’s as far as we read last time, but look at how John continues:] This is he of whom I said, ‘After me comes a man who ranks before me, because he was before me.’ I myself did not know him, but for this purpose I came baptizing with water, that he might be revealed to Israel.” And John bore witness: “I saw the Spirit descend from heaven like a dove, and it remained on him. I myself did not know him, but he who sent me to baptize with water said to me, ‘He on whom you see the Spirit descend and remain, this is he who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.’ And I have seen and have borne witness that this is the Son of God.” (John 1:29-34)
We’ve seen how people came to John the Baptist thinking that he was the Messiah. And when they did that, John pointed them to Jesus. First he reminded them that he was only calling people to repentant of their sins. As important as that repenting was, it was Jesus who would actually take those sins away. And now here we see John reminding the people that his baptism was only a baptism with water that offered a symbolic cleansing from sin, Jesus would baptise with his Holy Spirit and actually cleanse us and deliver us from the power of sin.
That’s what happened on Pentecost. And we need to remember that Pentecost is just as much a part of the Gospel as Christmas, Good Friday, and Easter. Jesus promised his disciples, “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses” (Acts 1:8). Our baptism by Jesus’ Holy Spirit isn’t some add-on or optional extra to our faith or to the Gospel. It’s what makes the Christian life itself possible; it’s what transforms us and gives us new life; it’s what empowers us for holiness and to go out as witness of the Gospel to the world. If you’ve got it, you’re a Christian; if you don’t, you’re not.
This is why, as we share our faith, we can’t stop with just sharing that Jesus forgives our sins. We need to share the Holy Spirit with people too. If we leave him out, we’ve only shared part of the Gospel. We’ll see this later when we look at Jesus’ encounter with the woman at the well. He offered her “living water,” and told her that “the water I will give…will become…a spring of water welling up to eternal life” (John 4:14). What he was referring to was the new life that comes through his Holy Spirit indwelling us. The Gospel is good news to men and women who know that they deserve God’s punishment for their sins, but it’s just as much good news to those who are beset and weighed down by their sins—for people who can’t break the cycle of doing wrong, whose sins keep getting them into trouble, who don’t see any hope for a different kind of life. Forgiveness and eternal life are great, but some people need good news and a changed life right now. Sometimes we focus so much on the eternal forgiveness part of the Gospel that we forget to tell people what it can do for them today. In the overall scheme of things the eternal part is a lot more significant, but if you’re bogged down in sin today it’s hard to think about eternal consequences. Don’t forget to share the full Gospel. (And by “full Gospel” I don’t mean that Jesus will forgive you today and at some point down the road, if you’re holy enough for it or if you pray hard enough for it God will give you the Holy Spirit so that you can work miraculous gifts. Brothers and sisters, that’s not the “full Gospel”—that’s a foreign Gospel. The “full Gospel” is that Jesus has died and risen for us, conquering sin and death, and that at one and the same time, through faith, he will wash you clean, forgiving your sins, and pour his Spirit into you to give you his own power over sin. That’s the full Gospel and we should be sharing all of it with the people around us.)
One of the best examples of this in the Bible is St. Peter. Think about how, on that last night with Jesus when the disciples were gathered in the upper room, Jesus told them that one of them would betray him. Peter got upset and made it clear that he would never betray Jesus. And yet the next morning when the test came, people accused Peter of being one of Jesus’ friends and three times he angrily and vociferously denied knowing Jesus—he betrayed his Lord. While Jesus was being crucified, Peter ran away and hid. And yet on the day of Pentecost when the Holy Spirit came, it was Peter—this weak and sinful man who seemed so often to misunderstand Jesus and what he was about—who was empowered by the Spirit and preached the Gospel boldly—right in the city where Jesus had been condemned and put to death. “This Jesus,” he preached, “delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men. God raised him up, loosing the pangs of death, because it was not possible for him to be held by it” (Acts 2:23-24). Thousands heard the good news that day, preached by Peter, and put their faith and trust in Christ. And it didn’t stop there. In the years that followed, Peter became the leader of the apostles and faithfully and powerfully proclaimed the Gospel, even as far as Rome.
We need to remember that Jesus baptised his Church with his Holy Spirit so that every believer can be transformed the same way Peter was. First John 3:5 says that Jesus “appeared to take away sins” and then a few verses later John also tells us, “The reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the works of the devil” (1 John 3:8). His point is that Jesus didn’t come just to take away our guilt, but that he also came to deliver us from the power of sin. That doesn’t mean that this side of eternity our lives will ever be completely free of sin—John also tells us that if we ever think we’ve stopped sinning, we’re deceiving ourselves. But it is true that Jesus frees us from the slavery of sin—he breaks the hold that sin has over us and he changes our lives. Think of Peter again: He believed and it changed his life—the Spirit set him on a new track and he started living a completely different life—one that was lived for Jesus. But it’s not just Peter—this is what Jesus does for every one of us when we’re born again. We need to be telling people that Jesus offers them a new and better life.
In John 8:36 Jesus said, “If the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed.” In 2 Corinthians 3:17-18 St. Paul writes, “Where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom,” for by the Spirit we “are being transformed into [Christ’s] image from one degree of glory to another.” This is the good news we should be sharing.
But let me also add: Hopefully the working of the Spirit in our lives is something people see. It’s my prayer that we live in such a different way that we make people constructively curious—that they’ll come to us to ask what we’ve got, because by our own lives we’ll make them realise that they’re missing something. And if we want to see what it looks like, we don’t need to look any further than the form the Spirit took when he descended on Jesus. John the Baptist said, “I saw the Spirit descend from heaven like a dove and it remained on him” (John 1:32). The dove symbolised purity and gentleness. That not only describes the character of Jesus, but it also describes how the Holy Spirit of Jesus works and manifests himself in our own lives. To be a “spiritual” person—to be someone full of and living under the influence of the Spirit—is to be pure of sin’s influence. And like a dove, we are to be gentle in our actions. Think of how Isaiah describes Jesus: “A bruised reed he will not break, and a faintly burning wick he will not quench” (Isaiah 42:3). Purity and gentleness should characterise the life of the Spirit-baptised Church.
The world might see purity and gentleness as signs of weakness, but in the Gospel they’re signs of power. I think St. Augustine was right when he made a connection between the dove that Noah sent out from the ark and the Spirit descending on Jesus like a dove. Remember back to Noah: God had cleansed the world from sin with a great flood, and as the waters of God’s wrath were subsiding, Noah sent out a dove. When the dove returned carrying an olive leaf Noah new that the waters of had subsided from the earth (Genesis 8:11). St. Augustine wrote, “As a dove did at that time bring tiding of the abating of the water, so doth it now of the abating of the wrath of God upon the preaching of the Gospel.” When the dove came back to Noah, it was the sign that God had cleansed the world of sin, and when the Spirit descended on Jesus as a dove, it was a sign of the new creation that Jesus offers—a new life cleansed from sin.
Again, when we share the Gospel we need to remember to share the whole message with people. We need to share with them that Jesus is the perfect Lamb who, by his death on the cross for us, takes away the guilt and punishment that we deserve for our sins, but we also need to share with them that he actually does take away the sins of the world—that he offers help and hope today for men and women trapped in sin as, through his Holy Spirit, he shares his victory over sin with us. When I think about this I always remember the hymn “Rock of Ages” that was written by Augustus Toplady. Think of the words there:
Rock of Ages, cleft for me,
Let me hide myself in Thee!
Let the Water and the Blood,
From thy riven Side which flow'd,
Be of Sin the double Cure,
Cleanse me from its Guilt and Pow'r.
Let us pray: Heavenly Father, in the collect today we remembered how your Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, became obedient to the law for our sake and we asked that you would purify our hearts “that we may die to all sinful desires and in all things obey your holy will”. We ask you again to cleanse us from sin by the power of your Spirit, but we also ask you to give us boldness to share the Good News of the cleansing power of Jesus’ blood and the renewing work of your Holy Spirit. We ask this in his name. Amen.