Perhaps you have had the experience of being among a crowd when someone called out, “Look! There is… (a famous name)!” Everyone looks with wonder. Or perhaps you did not know the person, and someone had to explain to you the significance of that individual. So one day among the crowd that he was baptizing and preaching to, John the Baptist spotted an otherwise unknown face in the crowd and called out “Behold!” “Look!”
As the crowd turned to see who he was pointing to, he then added these startling words, “the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” The words were startling for a couple of reasons. One is the very claim that this unknown man would take away sin; the other is that no one was looking for such a man.
The Jews were looking for the Messiah, to be sure. But in that Messiah they were expecting a king to deliver them, a shepherd to guide them, even a priest to reconcile them to God. They were looking for the Lion of Judah. But no one was looking for the Lamb of God. And yet it is by such designation that the prophet John identified the Messiah.
Today we are going to explore what it meant to be the Lamb of God, using the texts that Charles Jennens chose for the second part of the Messiah. These will be the first words we hear tonight. It was Jennens who approached Handel with the concept and text for the Messiah. He meditated upon these words of John the Baptist, and to behold the Lamb of God he turned to the Old Testament.
Turn with me to Isaiah 53. Jennens, of course, used the King James Version; but the English Standard Version we are using follows the translation closely. The Messiah is divided into three parts, part one presenting the birth of Christ and the salvation he brings. It is quite uplifting. As it comes to a close, we are told of the miracles he performs, how like a shepherd he gathers his lambs in his arms, how we who are burdened and heavy laden can find rest for our souls, for his yoke is easy and his burden is light.
So an audience may go into intermission feeling peaceful, perhaps sentimental. And then Jesus appears on the scene again, not as gentle shepherd but as the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. Our burden may be light but only because of the weight that he carried. Who was he as Lamb?
He was “He was despised and rejected by men; a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief” (Isaiah 53:3) In 50:6, he describes himself as one who “gave my back to those who strike, and my cheeks to those who pull out the beard; I hid not my face from disgrace and spitting (Isaiah 50:6).
How could this be? If you read the texts of part one, you will read how Jesus came to comfort God’s people by proclaiming their sins pardoned. He is Emmanuel, the very embodiment of God now living among his people. His coming is glorious news; he is the light that has come to his people who had been dwelling in darkness. His birth is announced by angels; he is the long awaited king. He performs wondrous miracles. He speaks words of comfort.
How then could such a man be despised and rejected? For all of this wondrous and comforting news about him and what he brings to his people, his own people reject him. They do not recognize him as the Son of God. They consider him a charlatan; they think he is dangerous. And so they turn against him.
But here is the irony. The grief and sorrow they heap upon him actually serve his purpose. For, yes, Messiah did come to do all those things – to comfort, to bring light, to declare good news, and to bring pardon for sin; but the very means of accomplishing this work would be to suffer, even to die.
Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows…5 But he was wounded for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace,
For us he suffered. For our sins he was wounded and crushed. He took upon himself the punishment due us. To understand more clearly, for the sake of the very persons afflicting him he suffered. It was mankind that oppressed and afflicted the Messiah; it was for mankind that he was “like a lamb that is led to the slaughter, and like a sheep that before its shearers is silent, so he opened not his mouth” (v. 7).
The lion became a lamb, the king a servant in order to suffer. But to suffer for a purpose: and with his stripes we are healed (v. 5). The Lamb of God suffered so that we might be healed. Of what?
When Isaiah spoke of the Lamb being “wounded for our transgressions” and “crushed for our iniquities,” he did not mean that the Lamb somehow fell into the wrong place and the wrong time. There are those who are unjustly punished for another’s crimes. With DNA testing, we have read of innocent people who have served years in prison for crimes they did not commit.
Jesus, of course, did not commit any crimes, not even the slightest sin. Nevertheless he was punished. He literally received stripes upon his back, thirty-nine to be exact, before his punishment culminated in death on a cross, the ultimate Roman execution for criminals.
But it is precisely because he was an innocent victim that his stripes brought the kind of healing most needed for the rest of us – healing from the inner devastation of our own sins. Our sins have wracked our souls with pain and sickness. And our sins have placed us under the just wrath of God, who, if he is to be just, must bring judgment down upon us. That judgment, the Lamb of God willingly took upon himself as an offering and sacrifice to God.
As verse 6 explains: “All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned every one to his own way; and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all.”
We the sheep, the grown-up lambs, have gone astray. We have not followed the Shepherd. We have each turned to our own way, rejecting the authority of our Lord, doing what is right in our own eyes, most of which is not right. We have piled sin upon sin mindlessly, heedless that every sin is recorded and remembered until our account reaches its full measure for final judgment. Those sins, every one of them, are laid upon the back of the Lamb of God.
How then did we respond when this noble act of sacrifice was made on our behalf? Jennens takes us to Psalm 22:7-8 for an account:
7All who see me mock me;
they make mouths at me; they wag their heads;
8"He trusts in the LORD; let him deliver him;
let him rescue him, for he delights in him!"
The Lamb of God is mocked for his efforts. And he is mocked for the very thing by which he was able to carry out his work – his trust in the Lord. That is the trait by which anyone is obedient to the call of God, for one cannot obey the call if he does not trust the One who gives the call.
They mock as well his belief that God delights in him. Jesus had unabashedly spoken of God as his Father; how he only did the Father’s will; how the Father loved him, the Son; how the Father is in him and he in the Father. And now he hangs on a cross, the very symbol of which is to be cursed of God.
And so the Lamb of God suffered for our weighty sins; he suffered in mockery; and he suffered in great sorrow. We are led to Psalm 69:20:
Reproaches have broken my heart,
so that I am in despair.
I looked for pity, but there was none,
and for comforters, but I found none.
Jesus had predicted his own sufferings. He knew what would happen. He knew of the reproaches; he told his disciples that they would abandon him. But knowing these things did not lessen the pain of his spirit. We were not there for him. There was his mother, to be sure. There was one disciple who came back to be at the cross. But he hung on the cross alone surrounded by mockers, deserted for the most part by his followers. And it hurt.
But the heaviest pain to bear was the turning away of his Father. Jennens could have included the first verse of Psalm 22, which the Lamb of God cried out from the cross: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Were there ever such sorrowful words uttered? The text that is included, Lamentations 1:12, begs this question:
Look and see
if there is any sorrow like my sorrow
In that sorrow he dies – the final act, the final blow:
he was cut off out of the land of the living,
stricken for the transgression of my people?
“Cut off” is the term to express the covenant judgment. Circumcision, the sign of the covenant, signified this judgment. Whoever violated the covenant that God had made with his people was to be cut off, sent away into exile out of the land where God dwelled with is people. He would become an outcast and disinherited from the promises.
It is what was seen so vividly on the cross. The crucifixion took place out of the city of Jerusalem, which itself was a sign of rejection. He may have hung with criminals on either side, but he died alone. And all that witnesses could see was that he must have been rejected by the very God whom he called Father, for even the sun was shrouded in darkness.
You and I know that that is not the end of the story, as tonight’s concert will make very clear. But let us take time to meditate what took place on the cross. For understand this, Christ’s death was neither a senseless act of violence nor a story play-acted by a great actor. It was real – the pain, the suffering, the sorrow; and it was the greatest act of redemption.
His very suffering on the cross signified that he was carrying out his Father’s will to make atonement for our sins. It was Satan who tempted him in the wilderness to rule the world without the cross; Satan, who speaking through Peter, tried to persuade him to give up his resolute march to Jerusalem. No, the sufferings all fit into the plan to bring us healing and remove us from under our righteous judgment.
The greatest test for Jesus was not yielding himself to the cross, but doing so as an unblemished lamb. It is only such a lamb that God will accept as a suitable offering. One sin – one stain on the conscience – and his work would be in vain. But when he breathed his final breath and committed his spirit into the hands of his Father, he did so as an innocent, perfect offering, knowing that his sufferings and death were not in vain.
There are two misconceptions about the sufferings of the cross. One is that Jesus was a victim of wicked men. He had come to bring peace, but his mission was thwarted as such missions usually are. Wickedness gained the upper hand. Another perspective is that Jesus did come to suffer, but the suffering was only to show how much God loved us. We then are to take heart in such great love as we go through our own sufferings. There is some truth to these ideas. Jesus was given over to wicked men who did plot his death. But as Peter would explain in his Pentecost sermon, Jesus was delivered over “according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God” (Acts 2:23). And, yes, Jesus’ suffering on the cross does show divine love, but, as another disciple John would explain, he was “to be the propitiation for our sins.” There was purpose in his suffering – purpose to heal, to save.
Do you know you need healing? Jesus said, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. I came not to call the righteous, but sinners” (Mark 2:17). If you look to the cross as merely a noble act that encourages you to make sacrifices, you have missed the point. Jesus came not to inspire us to greater heights but to heal us from deadly sin. Will you accept your diagnosis?
Do you know you need to be saved from judgment? If you take comfort in the love shown on the cross, but do not repent from the very sins that the Lamb of God died for; if you do not trust in Christ’s redemption to save you from your deserved judgment, then his work is of no avail for you. Jesus said that he must be lifted up “that whoever believes in him may have eternal life” (John 3:15).
Don’t be guilty of play-acting. Don’t treat the coming of the Son of God and his dying on the cross as the Lamb of God as a symbolic story that teaches you some moral lesson. Don’t go through the motions and the rituals of a dead religion. The Son of God was not play-acting. God the Father is not the mere play writer of a symbolic drama. The Son suffered; the Father dreadfully permitted his Son to drink the last dregs of the bitter cup.
And this was done for us; done for us as we like sheep went astray, blithely following our own way, as even now we are guilty of doing. It is here at the cross where we may view our own nature rightly. It is here at the cross where we may grasp the deadliness of our sin. It is here at the cross, as we see the Lamb of God dying on the tree that we may see our Healer, our Redeemer. Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!
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