The mission of John the Baptist was to proclaim the need for spiritual repentance and the coming Messiah. John the Baptist was the one about which Isaiah prophesied in Isa. 40:3: “A voice cries out, “In the wilderness clear a way for LORD [YHWH]; construct in the desert a road for our God.…” (cf. John 1:23). According to Christ, John the Baptist was the Elijah that was to come prophesied in Mal. 4:5-6 (cf. Matt. 11:14). And John the one who baptized Jesus as recorded in John 1:29-34; Matt. 3:13-17: Mark 1:9-11; and Luke 3:21, 22.
John’s gospel account provides some theological details not found in the synoptics. In John 1:29, we read that Jesus came to John to baptized: “On the next day, John saw Jesus coming toward him and said, ‘Look, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!’”
Using a “lamb” for sacrifice was very familiar to the Jews:
- Used as a sacrifice at the Passover (Exod. 12:12:1-36).
- Lamb was “led to the slaughter” (Isa. 53:7).
- A Lamb was used in daily sacrifices (Lev. 14:12-21).
Thus, John sees Christ as the Lamb signifying the final and sole infallible “ultimate sacrifice,” which takes away the sin of the world. This concept is found throughout the Apostle John’s writing. This is especially seen in Rev. 5:6-14:
6 “And I saw between the throne (with the four living creatures) and the elders a Lamb standing, as if slaughtered. . . . 8 When He had taken the scroll, the four living creatures and the twenty-four elders fell down before the Lamb. . . . 9 And they *sang a new song, saying, ‘Worthy are You to take the scroll and to break its seals; for You were slaughtered, and You purchased people for God with Your blood from every tribe, language, people, and nation. . . . 11 Then I looked, and I heard the voices of many angels around the throne and the living creatures and the elders. . . . 12 saying with a loud voice, ‘Worthy is the Lamb that was slaughtered to receive power, wealth, wisdom, might, honor, glory, and blessing.’ 13 And I heard every created thing which is in heaven, or on the earth, or under the earth, or on the sea, and all the things in them, saying, ‘To Him who sits on the throne and to the Lamb be the blessing, the honor, the glory, and the dominion forever and ever.’ 14 . . . And the elders fell down and worshiped.
A symbolic “Lamb” is frequently used in reference to Christ in two primary ways: As a suffering servant and as a sacrifice.
- The Lamb as the suffering servant. As mentioned, the symbolism is seen and derived from Isa. 53:7: “He was oppressed and afflicted, Yet He did not open His mouth; Like a lamb that is led to slaughter, and like a sheep that is silent before its shearers. So He did not open His mouth.” Note, this text (Isa. 53:7) is specifically applied to Jesus in Acts 8:32. Also, all the servant-songs occur in the latter section of Isaiah (40-55). The NT links John the Baptist (John 1:23) with the first part of this section of Isaiah (40:3). Jesus is related to the suffering servant in other places in John’s Gospel (John 12:38 and Isa. 53:1).
- The Lamb as the Passover sacrificial lamb. In the OT, the Passover lamb is actually a real animal. John uses the Passover symbolism of Christ repeatedly in his literature, especially in relationship to the sacrificial death of Christ. Note the following:
I. Jesus was condemned at noon on the Day of Preparation, which was the day before Passover (John 19:14). Thus, Jesus was going to die at the very time the priests would be slaying the lambs in the Temple.
II. Exod. 12:22 indicates that hyssop was used to smear blood on the doorposts in the Passover procedure. Whereas in John 19:29, hyssop was used to give Jesus the wine on a sponge.
III. Exod. 12:46 indicates that the bones of the Passover lamb were not to be broken. Whereas in John 19:36, Jesus’ bones were not broken, which was a fulfillment of Scripture (Ps. 22:16-17).
So, in John’s gospel we see both, the Lamb as the suffering servant and as a sacrifice. We see this same reference in Heb. 10:10-14:
10 “By this will, we have been sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ ephapax [‘once for all time’]. 11 Every priest stands daily ministering and offering time after time the same sacrifices, which can never take away sins; 12 but He, having offered one sacrifice for sins for all time, SAT DOWN AT THE RIGHT HAND OF GOD, 13 waiting from that time onward UNTIL HIS ENEMIES ARE MADE A FOOTSTOOL FOR HIS FEET. 14 For by one offering He has perfected for all time those who are sanctified”—
Thus, His work was perfectly completed, that is, finished for all time (Tetelestai, John 19:30). As Paul writes in 1 Cor. 5:7: “… For Christ, our Passover lamb, has been sacrificed.”
Back to our text, John 1:29: “Look, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!” It is in this context that Christ – “Removes, takes away the sin of the world.”
The term “takes away” (NASB) is from the Greek verb, airō, which carries the basic meaning of “to raise from the ground, take up, lift up.” Note the following exegetical points:
- Grammatical. The verb here is a present tense participle and it’s articular (i.e., has the article, “the”)— ho airōn, literally, “the One taking away.” The present tense action, indicates a literal non-figurative taking away, raising up, removal of sin by the atoning sacrifice of Christ—not He will take away the sin, but rather He is the one taking away the sin—which is then applied to the sinner at faith. The atonement and thus, the removal of sin and the wrath due to us because of sin is a definite action completed at the cross.
- Lexical. The first century Koinē Greek meaning of the verb in this passage is “to bear away what has been raised, carry off; to move from its place. . . . to remove the guilt and punishment of sin by expiation, or to cause that sin be neither imputed nor punished” (Thayer); to “carry away, remove (to move from one place to another)” (BDAG). Additionally, the verb appears ninety-seven times in the Greek NT (NA28). In every single place, the verb denotes a literal removing or taking something away. Only in one place (1 Cor. 6:15) is it used figuratively.
Therefore, due to the meaning and tense of the verb, one cannot legitimately impose a universal meaning upon the term “world” (kosmos). The present tense action of the verb (an actual “taking away”), and John’s own soteriology (cf. John 1:13; 3:15-17; 6:37-39, 10:15; 1 John 2:1-2) would prevent this pretext.
Universalists and Inclusivists. Because of the semantic import and tense of the verb, Universalists and Inclusivists will appeal John 1:29 to teach that all men in “the world” will be saved regardless if they believe in Christ or not. They will interpret the verb airō (“takes away”) here properly (i.e., a literal, not hypothetical, removal of sin); yet improperly interpret the term “world” to mean “all men” inclusively, without exception. Thus, the Universalistic/Inclusivistic depends on an unbiblical pretext assuming that the term “world” carries a universal meaning here—namely, every single person universally will have their sin taken away.
However, note the hermeneutical (interpretative technique) error they make: Both Universalists and Inclusivists do not consider the various meanings of the term kosmos (“world”) how it was normally used in a first century significance. Many times, it was used to denote the world of the Jews and Gentiles. For example, many first century Jews assumed that salvation was for them alone—God’s “chosen” people. So, in John 3:16, Jesus used “world” as a “corrective” to this false notion to Nicodemus, thus, in this sense, ‘For God so loved the Jews, and even the Gentles.’
In the NT, kosmos (“world”) carries a wide range of meanings, depending on the context. Similarly, the Greek adjective pas (“all, every”), can mean “all” or “every” inclusively (e.g., Rom. 3:23; Col. 1:17-17), but others times, it can also mean all kinds, or as many as (Matt. 4:24; or Acts 22:25: “[Ananias to Paul] ‘For you will be a witness for Him to ALL [pas] people of what you have seen and heard.”
Thus, “all” in the sense of all in the region, or “all” kinds of people (kings, rulers, Jews, Gentiles, men women, slaves, free etc.), and not every single person in the world. Kosmos is also similar. In the NT, kosmos has at least eight clearly defined separate meanings defined by its surrounding context:
- Used to signify every single person, Rom. 3:19.
- Used to signify non-believers, John 1:10; 15:18; Rom. 3:6.
- Used signify only believers, John 1:29; 3:17; 6:33; 12:47; 1 Cor. 4:9; 2 Cor. 5:19.
- Used to signify Gentiles in contrast to Jews, Rom. 11:12.
- 5. Used to signify the world system, John 12:31.
- Used to signify the earth, John 13:1; Eph. 1:4.
- Used to signify the universe as a whole, Acts 17:24: “God that made the world and all things therein seeing that He is Lord of heaven and earth.”
- Used to signify the known world (not everyone inclusively)—Jews and Gentiles, Rom. 1:8: “First, I thank my God through Jesus Christ for you all, because your faith is being proclaimed throughout the whole world.”
So here in John 1:29, in light of the verb’s meaning as a literal non-figurative sin being “taking away,” removed by the atoning sacrifice of Christ, and the verb being in the present, not future tense, the “world” would be the world of believers. By the blood of Christ, He purchased and removed the sin of men from “every tribe, language, people, and nation” (Rev. 5:9). The world of believers is shown love through the giving of the Son so that they will have eternal life through faith in Him.
Thus, John’s statement here defines the efficacy and intent of the Son’s atoning cross work. “Behold, the Lamb of God, the One taking away the sin of the world,..” both Jews and Gentles—the good news of the gospel!
 Also cf. Matt. 17:11-13; Mark 9:11-13; Luke 1:16-17.
 Joseph H. Thayer, Thayer’s Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament.
 Walter Bauer’s, A Greek English Lexicon of the New Testament, 3rd ed., ed. and rev. by Frederick W. Danker (BDAG).