Recently, I acquired a copy of the UBS Greek New Testament Reader’s Edition with Textual Notes. (I hope to review it at some point, but with respect to that I’ll just say that I’m enjoying it!) I decided to start my adventures with it by reading the Gospel of John.
As I read the first chapter, something struck me that I know I’ve seen/read before, but hadn’t really thought about. John 1.29 goes like this (my translation):
On the next day, [John] saw Jesus coming to him and said, “Look! The lamb of God, the one taking the sin of the world!”
This, of course, is an interesting announcement. John has pointed out Jesus and designated him as the “lamb of God.” Then, John tells us that Jesus is taking away “the sin of the world.” I have two thoughts about this latter statement. [A quick caveat: As I do this, I’m simply interpreting on-the-go, trying to read John in an insular fashion without respect for other texts. I want to read John on his own terms. Consequently, this may not be the “best” or “most Biblical” interpretation.]
First, it is interesting to me that the participle airōn (above translated “taking”) is a present participle. As such, it maintains the tense of the verb of the sentence, ide (“Look!). Jesus is presently taking away the sin of the world. This is not something that happens only at the crucifixion and resurrection. Instead, Jesus’s presence in the world, his very existence, inaugurates the removal of sin.
Second, it is interesting to note that John does not say “sins of the world” are being taken away, but rather “sin” in the singular: hamartian. We often tend to think in more individualistic terms: I have done X, Y, and even Z; therefore, I have committed sins and I require a savior to purge me of those sins. There is nothing particularly wrong with this view, but John seems to see the situation from a different angle. It is not our individual sins that need purging, but rather this sort of corporate sin in which the whole of humanity may have taken part. Taking the Hebrew Bible as the relevant background for the Gospel of John, we might assume that this corporate sin can be summed up in the idea of prideful disobedience or rebellion as represented in various stories in Genesis (e.g., the disobedience of Adam and Eve in eating the fruit, the pride exhibited by Cain in his slaying Abel, the arrogance of the people in Babel who decided to build their tower to touch the heavens, etc.)
Bringing these ideas together, here’s what I come up with —
In John 1, we learn that Jesus is God and that he takes an extraordinary step in becoming human. His purpose, the mission which begins as soon as he comes into the world, is to take away human disobedience and rebellion, both of which have their roots in one common sin: pride or arrogance. (I can’t help but think of C.S. Lewis’s chapter called “The Great Sin” in Mere Christianity.) This mission is not something that is accomplished only by his death and resurrection (as perhaps certain proponents of substitutionary atonement would argue), but happens in the presence of Jesus.
This all leads me to one final question:
If Jesus is taking away the sin of the world, and if Jesus is successful, then how can a human stand condemned?