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Agnus Dei and Ash Wednesday

Tomorrow, Wed, March 5th, is Ash Wednesday and marks the beginning of Lent. I grew up Pentecostal and traveled the road to Dutch Reformed and in those traditions neither were observed. In fact, those traditions told us this was too “catholic”. Last year was my first Ash Wednesday and I was a bit nervous. Neither my husband nor I had decided to take on the mark of the Cross with ashes until just before the service and even when I did I was a bit self-conscious about it. However, it did impact me and was a reminder to me of three things:

1. I’m a creature made by the Hand of the Creator. I come from dust and one day to dust I will return. The ashes remind me that I am dust.

2. I am a fallen creature. I am a sinner in need of salvation. The ashes remind me to confess my many sins as done by God’s people in times of both personal and national mourning over sins.

3. I am a Redeemed Fallen Creature. The mark of the Cross is placed on my head and reminds me that though a sinner, in Christ Jesus, by His death and resurrection, I am justified, saved, forgiven.

Ash Wednesday, for some, can be just a tradition. However, in the Lutheran Church it is a tradition which holds to the meaning behind it. It is a time to reflect on our creatureliness, our own sinfulness and His great salvation and offer of forgiveness to all who believe.

As I think about the solemnity of tomorrow’s service, I think about what John the Baptist said of Jesus after His Baptism: Behold, The Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world. (John 1:29 ESV)

Each week in the Lutheran Liturgy, just as the Service of the Sacrament begins we sing the Agnus Dei – “O Christ, Thou Lamb of God, that takest away the sin of the world, have mercy upon us…O Christ, Thou Lamb of God, that takest away the sins of the world, grant us Thy peace…[1]” Since this is sung each week, familiarity with the opening of this text has become precious and often, when reading this verse, I find myself singing it.

You may listen to one variation here:

This section of John’s Gospel teach us that John was a true prophet of God, validated by what he was told coming to pass, that Jesus takes away the sin of the word and that Jesus is the unique, begotten Son of God on whom the Holy Spirit rested at His Baptism. The eyewitness account of the Apostle and his testimony as to what the Baptist said bring with it a weight of truth that can withstand the questions of skeptic and even the courts. The believer, therefore, can take comfort that his testimony is true and that the promises given in this gospel, specifically here regarding their sin, are fulfilled.

In the Calvinist view the term “world” doesn’t really mean “world” with its all-inclusiveness. Rather, it means the “believing world.” For me, this only added to the doubts I wrestled with for years. How could I know I was part of this group and not part of those God decided to damn forever (reprobates)? I could not because I always had to look inside me for assurance.

Yet, here, John says, “Behold” Look outside yourself for salvation. Jesus has taken away the sins of the world. See, typing that I just sang it again with the concluding prayer, “Have mercy on us…” We don’t have to look inside for assurance; to our good works or fruit. Instead, we should do as John the Baptist says and look outside of us or Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.

You are part of “the world”. No doubt we all belong to this world because we are His creation. No doubt we all belong to this world because we are sinners because we are children of Adam and Eve and their sin, it’s called Original Sin, is put on us and we are as guilty as they. So, if Jesus took away the sins of the world, that includes your own sins. If youa re a baptized child of God then believing these promises His mark of forgiveness is already upon you.

But, let me unpack this text a little bit further.


Jesus is whom he admonishes the crowd to “Behold”. The Greek oida of which “id” is a derivative, is a term mostly used as to “know” or to have “learned to know”.[2] This is not simple a call to look but it goes much deeper. The Baptist is saying “know” this man, learn about him. This call to behold is not abstract but is a knowledge with a goal and purpose and to know the very mission of Christ from the beginning of his public ministry at his baptism. As DA Carson[3] states, the familiarity of this section should prompt us to look and behold Jesus afresh with the testimony which the Baptist gives regarding Jesus being the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.

Lamb of God

While it appears that John is presupposing his readers knowledge[4] that Jesus was baptized he seems more concerned with explaining who Jesus is and by that name, “Lamb of God” what that mission is. This, however, is not the first reference to the sacrificial work of Jesus as John hints at it in 1:14 “the one and only Son from the Father…” or as Köstenberger writes, ““one-of-a-kind Son” à la Isaac[5]”.

Why does the Baptist use this phrase? Good reasons have been advanced for each of these: for the first, that Passover was approaching; for the second, that the slaughter of these lambs was a daily occurrence and therefore well-known to the people whom John addressed; and for the third, that the Baptist only yesterday had described himself and his task in language borrowed from Isaiah (chapter 40).[6]

In the New Testament the Greek word amnos is used only 4 times and each references Jesus as the one who though innocent is representing sinners in and through his life and death. While the Aramaic word can also be a boy or servant it appears the underlying understanding is that of ὁ ἀμνὸς τοῦ θεοῦ[7], or Lamb of God and references Jesus directly. Whether this is referencing when Jesus was baptized, or perhaps afterward, may not be that important. However, it is interesting that Lenski notes that the information the Baptist learns of, that Jesus is before him and he is unworthy of even tying his shoe, was something that came after Jesus’ baptism. In this text we are reading the eyewitness testimony of the Baptist regarding Jesus as the Lamb of God, the sacrifice to expiate the sins of the world.

Takes away the sins of the world

William Weinrich[8] writes that this is a fulfillment of prophecy and that takes away (Gk. airo) is referencing “bearing off”, “getting rid of,” or “carrying away” and is bringing the reader back to Ex. 12 where the sins are taken away from Israel. What, though, is the Lamb taking away? That is the crux of the eyewitness testimony here from the Baptist and also from the gospel writer himself. It is a removing of the Gk. hamartian, the sin or rather the guilt of the world.