After an unforgettable Introduction, John’s gospel turns in earnest to the beginning of the Mission. Starting with the story of John the Baptizer, John makes clear that the Herald completed his part of that Mission. The priests and Levites that came from Jerusalem heard him declare that he was not the Messiah. But in the same breath he told them that he was the prophesied Herald for the One they were looking for, whose sandal he was unworthy to untie. And that that One, though coming after him, had all pre-eminence. They heard, but did they understand?
Had they remained there, waiting and watching with him, they would have heard his further explanation that this One he spoke about was the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.
As it was, only John’s disciples heard that declaration. I wonder what they thought of it. Surely, they understood the reference to a sacrificial lamb: There were the seven morning and evening burnt offerings that sanctified the altar for Aaron and, most of all, the Passover lamb whose blood held back the avenger, the tenth plague, from striking the children of Israel…
But what did it mean to take away the sin of the world?
How do you deal with sin?
Sometimes, being separated by centuries – and by culture – from the things we read in the Bible, can make it hard to get the full implication of what is said there. That is why we have the full counsel of God. We can cross check verses in one book against another, we can go back and read the whole history from the beginning… because, after all, it is one story, pointing, since the Garden of Eden, to the coming of the Messiah. Or we can take advantage of the witnesses who came before us, who, knowing that there were believers faced with the same questions, spent time explaining.
As a learned Pharisee, Paul the Apostle was also intimately familiar with the Gentile culture of his time. So, he was called to proclaim the good news to the Gentiles, many of whom had never read or heard the proclamation of the Law. The writer of the letter to the Hebrews is another one. In his case, he is writing to his own people, and, strangely enough, he had to deal with the same kind of problem.
You would think the Hebrews of his time completely understood the Law and its teachings. But as we say, familiarity breeds contempt. Just because they knew it, even memorized it, does not mean that they truly understood it. It is when you think you know something completely that you are most liable to blind yourself to misconceptions you have held for a long time.
The writer of the letter to the Hebrews gives us a mini course on the sacrificial system of the Old Covenant and its relevance to the New Covenant inaugurated by the Messiah:
Hebrews 10:1-4 For the law, having a shadow of the coming good things, not the image itself of the things, can never, by the same sacrifices which they offer continually yearly, perfect those who approach. Since, would they not indeed have ceased being offered, on account of the worshippers once purged having no longer any conscience of sins?
But in these [there is] a calling to mind of sins yearly. For blood of bulls and goats [is] incapable of taking away sins.
The sacrifices of the Old Testament did not take away the sins. And the writer proves this by appealing to logic: (1) If they did, if they had the power to eliminate sin, then how come they had to be repeated over and over on schedule? (2) If they did, then the conscience of the worshipper would have been changed by them… They would know they were no longer slaves to sin.
And then he says that this inability to take away sins was built into the sacrificial system: The people could only sacrifice animals, and anyone should be able to understand that an animal’s life could not possibly be used to redeem a human life.
Then what was the point of those sacrifices? The author told us the answer in the first verse: In the Law we were dealing with shadows of the reality that was to come. This is not a new idea invented by the author. Moses himself told the people that all the components of the Tabernacle were to be made according to a pattern that copied the reality that existed in Heaven.
So, the author then tells us:
Hebrews 10:5-10 Therefore, when Christ came into the world, he said: “Sacrifice and offering you did not desire, but a body you prepared for me; with burnt offerings and sin offerings you were not pleased. Then I said, ‘Here I am—it is written about me in the scroll— I have come to do your will, my God.’”
First he said, “Sacrifices and offerings, burnt offerings and sin offerings you did not desire, nor were you pleased with them”—though they were offered in accordance with the law. Then he said, “Here I am, I have come to do your will.” He sets aside the first to establish the second. And by that will, we have been made holy through the sacrifice of the body of Jesus Christ once for all.
The author quotes from Psalm 40, as translated in the Septuagint, because there it is explicitly clear that the reason the Messiah had to come to us in a human body was so that he could be the body of the sacrifice.
That sacrifice can make us holy. It is the only way to fulfill the prophecy of Psalm 103:
Psalm 103:8-14 Jehovah is merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abundant in loving-kindness. He will not always chide, neither will he keep [his anger] for ever. He hath not dealt with us according to our sins, nor rewarded us according to our iniquities.
For as the heavens are high above the earth, so great is his loving-kindness toward them that fear him. As far as the east is from the west, so far hath he removed our transgressions from us.
As a father pitieth [his] children, so Jehovah pitieth them that fear him. For himself knoweth our frame; he remembereth that we are dust.
Notice how the Psalmist says this all comes about: it is only by Mercy and Grace.
That was God’s plan all along: To remove the power sin had over our lives. That is what it means that the Lamb of God came to take away the sin of the world.
And don ‘t forget that last phrase: of the world… That includes all of us.
Set free from sin… for what?
There is a kind of comfort in ritual, in repeating over and over the same motions. But what the writer of the letter to the Hebrews is trying to get his people to understand is that there should have been no such comfort in the perennial sacrifice system. He said it this way in verse 3:
Hebrews 10:3 But in these [there is] a calling to mind of sins yearly.
What kind of comfort is there in being reminded yearly that I haven’t changed, that I keep slipping over and over again, that I keep hurting myself and those I love, time and again? The only thing that keeps us going under such a cloud is the natural desensitization that humans do to themselves so well.
We make excuses. We tell ourselves we are all in the same boat; that maybe I am not as bad as that other guy… that, what is the point of fretting over it, if I cannot change it? Look, everybody lies, everybody sins, everybody lives this way in our society.
Yet, throughout the Old Testament they had witnesses of people who chose to walk with God and go against the grain; prophets who chose to defy even the King when he became the chief sinner in their land. And many of them paid with their lives.
How did they do it?
Well… What happens when, all of a sudden, the sacrifice doesn’t just delay the inevitable one more year? What happens when the sacrifice has the power to set our conscience free? The answer is: we can be like those prophets…
We can… or, better said, we are called to become like them.
Living under the Law, enslaved by sin, is like being out there in the middle of the ocean, treading water: working, working, all the time, just to keep our head above the water. That is all we can do. It takes all our time and energy. It is no wonder we can’t do anything else (for the Kingdom of God).
BUT, if the sacrifice has once and for all set us free, it’s like someone giving us a surfboard. We can climb on board, breathe a sigh of relief, and then start paddling back to shore. And then… what?
That is the central question. What am I going to do now that that weight is lifted off my shoulders? What am I going to do now that I don’t have to bend and turn and crawl through the mud any time sin wants to rule over me? What am I supposed to do?
John’s disciples listened to his words, and they understood what he was telling them to do.
John 1:29-34 On the morrow he [John] sees Jesus coming to him, and says, Behold the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world. He it is of whom I said, A man comes after me who takes a place before me, because he *was* before me; and I knew him not; but that he might be manifested to Israel, therefore have I come baptising with water.
And John bore witness, saying, I beheld the Spirit descending as a dove from heaven, and it abode upon him. And I knew him not; but he who sent me to baptise with water, *he* said to me, Upon whom thou shalt see the Spirit descending and abiding on him, he it is who baptises with [the] Holy Spirit. And I have seen and borne witness that this is the Son of God.
There, before all those people that followed him faithfully, people who under his ministry had chosen to change their lives, to renounce sin, and go for the Kingdom of God, who would have surely followed him anywhere he led them, John tells them: “My job is done. The only reason I came baptizing with water was so that the Messiah would be revealed, first to me, and then to the world. Here He is… none other than the Son of God.”
His disciples understood, and the rest of the first chapter of John is all about how those people brought themselves and their closest friends and family to follow Jesus.
That is why we are set free… to follow Him. But what does that life entail?
Maybe the answer comes to us in the way of a picture in the second chapter of John.
Turning water into wine
John 2:1-2 And on the third day a marriage took place in Cana of Galilee, and the mother of Jesus was there. And Jesus also, and his disciples, were invited to the marriage.
Sometimes we get the impression that accepting the Mission to live and work in the Kingdom of God means everything in our life has to change, that maybe we need to abandon it all and become missionaries in some far-out corner of the globe. But maybe we are already where we are meant to be. And maybe we need to go to that party…
John 2:3-4 And wine being deficient, the mother of Jesus says to him, They have no wine. Jesus says to her, What have I to do with thee, woman? mine hour has not yet come.
This exchange, that sometimes sounds harsh to our western world ears, was completely typical in their culture. You find versions of this reply other places in the Bible. The Greek version in John is closer to that usage in the Old Testament. It literally says: “What to me and to you, woman?” In other words, the question is: “Why is this concern of yours also my concern?”
The reason Jesus says this is because He knows it is not yet His time to be doing extravagant miracles. To understand this, all you have to do is jump ahead to John chapter 6 and the miracle of the multiplication of the bread and the fish, the feeding of the 5000. When you read that story to the end you find out that the crowd was so amazed that they wanted to take him, then and there, and proclaim him king.
But Jesus didn’t need that distraction now. He wanted to keep on going, proclaiming the Good News to as many people as He could, and reserving the miracles exclusively for healing… Because the healing of the body is itself a shadow of the reality He came to bring: the healing of the soul.
But there is something else I like about that reply: It is a reply I think we ought to use more often.
I am going on a tangent here… but bear with me…
There are a lot of people out there that will be more than glad to tell you what you should be doing with your life, what you should be doing with your time. And if you let them, they will gladly tell you what you should be thinking.
I don’t know about you, but my plate is full dealing with my own life. It’s not my job to tell you how to live yours, what to think, for whom to vote… much less try to coerce you into living by my rules. I mean, I don’t have the time or energy for that.
Then how do these people do it?
The answer seems to be to use the power of others in order to get those in authority to agree with them and then insist that that governmental authority do the coercing and force everybody else to live the way they do (or claim they do) … or else.
I told you it was a tangent. And at the risk of this comment making it sound like I am an anarchist, let me complete my thought:
God gave you a life.
God gave me a life.
And you and I will ultimately answer only to Him as to how we lived that life.
I cannot tell you how to live your life. But what I can do is tell you about someone Who can. You see, He is the only One besides you that has a right. And He is the only other One that has such a stake in your life… because He made it; and He loves you. And while the world will try to get you to follow it for its own agendas – regardless of what that does to you – your Heavenly Father only wants Good for you. He knows what that Good is because He made you.
I don’t have to tell you how to live your life because He is more than able to speak. And you are more than able to hear His voice.
All I am called to do, is take what He has given me and use it for His glory:
John 2:5-10 His mother says to the servants, Whatever he may say to you, do. Now there were standing there six stone water-vessels, according to the purification of the Jews, holding two or three measures each.
Jesus says to them, Fill the water-vessels with water. And they filled them up to the brim. And he says to them, Draw out now, and carry [it] to the feast-master. And they carried [it]. But when the feast-master had tasted the water which had been made wine (and knew not whence it was, but the servants knew who drew the water), the feast-master calls the bridegroom, and says to him, Every man sets on first the good wine, and when [men] have well drunk, then the inferior; thou hast kept the good wine till now.
You see what Jesus did? He could have taken the dregs of the original wine in its jars and multiplied it to overflowing (see 2 Kings 4:1-7). But, instead, He told them to use water, which they had plenty of, and fill the stone water-vessels that they had already used.
You see, those stone vessels were now empty, doing nothing. We know from Luke’s gospel that that phrase ‘according to the purification of the Jews’ when connected to a meal (a wedding banquet here) has to do with washing your hands before sitting at the table:
Luke 11:37-39 But as he [Jesus] spoke, a certain Pharisee asked him that he would dine with him; and entering in he placed himself at table. But the Pharisee seeing [it] wondered that he had not first washed before dinner. But the Lord said to him, Now do ye Pharisees cleanse the outside of the cup and of the dish, but your inward [parts] are full of plunder and wickedness…
Those stone vessels had already been used at the beginning of the banquet and were there idle. So, Jesus told them to use what they had, and even things that they thought had already served their purpose, to supply the need before them. He turned the water, by their labor, into wine.
Do you have any used stone vessels laying around in your life?
Do you have any water to spare?
Maybe that’s all that we are called to do. Maybe that is why we have been saved. It doesn’t take any great change… The greatest change of all, He has already taken care of by becoming the Lamb of God.
For the rest, the best we can do is to take what we already have in our life and use it to change that little piece of the world we live in for Good, for the glory of God.