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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.

Strong’s Greek states that it is “to carry off or put away”[9] which gives a reminder of that scapegoat in Exodus which the priests laid their hands on and transferred the guilt and sin of the nation onto the goat who then bore that burden out the gates. This term can also refer to being lifted up which can reflect that Jesus is like the serpent who was lifted up and all who looked to it were healed. That is the reference Jesus uses of himself when referring to being lifted up on the cross.

This taking away is not done for some but for all. The term Gk. kosmos denotes the “inhabited world” which would include everyone. Luther writes that this is the “sin of the world! Sin of every person in the entire world throughout human history,..(cf 2 Cor. 5:21).”[10] Later, the Apostle will write, “He is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world.” The Baptist is in complete agreement with this statement. Though he may not have understood this in its fullness, that he is speaking by inspiration should comfort the reader of the continuity of thought throughout the text and thereby rest upon God’s Word as true, whether written or spoken and then penned for those yet to come. Following this thought, Köstenberger writes, “the Hebrew kpr, which suggests the idea of sins being “wiped away” (Borchert 1996: 135–36).[11] This reminds the reader that it is not sin in part, but at the hymn-writer penned, “but the whole[12] ” Brown states that this is “a present tense with a future force[13]”. That would imply both a current and future forgiving and taking away of sin. This idea that Jesus takes away the sins of the world would have been foreign to Israel but seems to be the consistent teaching of the Apostle throughout this Gospel. This reflects the fulfillment of the Law and the Gospel proclamation which John consistently makes throughout his text. Martin Chemnitz writes,

The Gospel, however, teaches that what was impossible for the Law on account of the flesh, God provided by sending His Son. Therefore it shows Christ, the Lamb of God, born under the Law for us, in order that He might make satisfaction to the judgment of God, revealed in the Law, by His obedience and suffering on our behalf.[14]

The Priority and Deity of Christ

This is the third time that John the Baptist ranks Jesus as before him. While John is Jesus’ cousin it seems that up and until Jesus’ baptism, John does not know that He is the Messiah. More importantly, John is verifying the ministry of Jesus, giving it priority over his own. This then follows that many who followed the Baptist now leave him and follow Jesus. It also corresponds with John saying later about the Baptist that “He must increase, but I must decrease.” (3:30). Whatever the limited knowledge of the Baptist was, evidently he knew enough that Jesus had priority over him in all things.

John is unaware of Jesus being the Messiah until he baptizes him. This is fascinating because they were cousins. Both had miraculous births and angelic announcements and yet, the Baptist is completely unaware that Jesus is the Messiah. The reveal, or revelation, comes only at Jesus’ own baptism and the reason is that it may be proclaimed to Israel and then to the world. John’s ministry was as the forerunner to the Messiah and when once revealed John’s mission would be complete. Here the Baptist is telling those around him that the one he was sent to point to in order to “Make straight the way of the LORD” (1:23b) was here and had begun His public ministry having at his baptism taken on the sins of the world.

Instead of retelling the actual account of Jesus Baptism, John writes the direct testimony of the Baptist in this account. This is more of a truncated story that does not get involved in the details but rather in the important facts of Jesus’ baptism. He is sharing the eyewitness account of the Baptist seeing the Holy Spirit, in a form of a dove, resting upon Jesus. This anointing directly from God begins the closing of John’s ministry and the start of Jesus’.

When John says “I saw” the term he uses is Gr. tethemai which, in its sense is to gaze admiringly. Logos Software adds that it is to “gaze upon something that stimulates the moral and mental faculties in an impressing (and often astonishing) way. This goes beyond the word “Behold” because it is telling us that this was something John the Baptist had never experienced nor seen before. This is why he tells the people “Behold…” to know and not just look at briefly but to gaze upon Jesus with a desire to know him more. In this testimony the very Spirit of God is seen which was fulfilling the revelation God had given him that this would be the sign to mark out the Messiah.

Further, the Spirit did not just come upon Jesus, mark him out as a prophet or special messenger, but rather He remains (Gk. emeinen). Perhaps a better rendition would be to “stay put” upon Jesus through his ministry. Since the Spirit will remain upon Jesus he will not baptize with water but instead with the eternal Spirit of God. As Luther wrote, “Thus our Baptism in Christ, in which He gives us remission of sin, baptizing us with the Holy Spirit and with forgiveness, remains and continues to be effective.[15]

Eyewitness Testimony

Throughout the Gospel we read of John stating that he is an eyewitness, that he bears witness to what he heard and saw. This is so important to not only understand but believe because this is authenticating what we know about Jesus. The Apostle is verifying that what he heard and saw, that what he is writing which the Baptist stated is true and can be validated. Drawing a reference to a public event, John is challenging those who dispute this by saying that it was not something done in secret but people know this is what happened.

Yet, he is not just stating what happened at the event or what John the Baptist said about the event. No. The Apostle is bringing in the conclusion that since the Spirit does not depart from Jesus, therefore, He is the Son of God. This is a declaration of Christ’s unique relationship with the Father which John stated in 1:1, …and the Word was God. The Nicene Creed reflects this teaching of the Apostle when it says, Jesus is “very God of very God, begotten, not made.”

As a professor of world religions there are often discussions with students regarding the unique claims of Jesus and whether they are verifiable or not. Here, John puts it all on the line saying he is an eyewitness of these events and what was spoken and experienced. Jesus is the Lamb of God which takes our sins away and the sins of the whole world throughout history. It was verified by John the Baptist, who as a prophet received direct revelation from God regarding how the Messiah would be marked out. God told John exactly what the sign would be and when it happened to Jesus, though he knew him as family but not as the Anointed One, John then testifies that Jesus was given that very sign and others must “behold” Jesus.

Often, in discussions, the tone turn apologetically and one must show, viz a vis verifiable witnesses that stand up in even a modern day court of law, that the truth claims are indeed truth and not just claims. Here is one of those instances: eyewitness testimony. John stakes his Gospel message upon the verifiability of these events, signs, miracles and testimonies to encourage believers and even says, and we sing in our liturgy, “these things are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God…[16]

Lent as Apologetics

For me, the Season of Lent, where believers are to reflect on their creatureliness, their fallen nature (sin) and their Savior who has forgiven their sins and those of the world, it is also a time to answer questions about the One True Faith, Christianity. It is a time to remember that your family, friends, neighbors and co-workers are also in quite the predicament (they are sinners in need of a Savior) and that you have the Answer: Jesus Christ. While reflecting on your own need for a savior don't forget that they too need the One who came to take away the sins of the world.

[1]. Lutheran Church--Missouri Synod, Lutheran Service Book: Three-year Lectionary (St. Louis, MO: Concordia Pub. House, 2006), 198.

[2] Heinrich Seesemann, ed. Gerhard Kittel, Geoffrey W. Bromiley, and Gerhard Friedrich, Theological Dictionary of the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1964–), 116.

[3] D. A. Carson, The Gospel according to John, The Pillar New Testament Commentary (Leicester, England; Grand Rapids, MI: Inter-Varsity Press; W.B. Eerdmans, 1991), 148.

[4] Andreas J. Köstenberger, John, Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2004), 66.

[5] Ibid.

[6] William Hendriksen and Simon J. Kistemaker, Exposition of the Gospel According to John, vol. 1, New Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1953–2001), 98.

[7] Joachim Jeremias, “Ἀμνός, Ἀρήν, Ἀρνίον,” ed. Gerhard Kittel, Geoffrey W. Bromiley, and Gerhard Friedrich, Theological Dictionary of the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1964–), 339.

[8]. William C. Weinrich, John 1:1-7:1 Concordia Commentary (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 2016), 98.

[9] Joachim Jeremias, “Αἴρω, Ἐπαίρω,” ed. Gerhard Kittel, Geoffrey W. Bromiley, and Gerhard Friedrich, Theological Dictionary of the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1964–), 185.

[10]. Pelikan, Luther's Works.

[11] Andreas J. Köstenberger, John, Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2004), 67.

[12]. Lutheran Church--Missouri Synod, Lutheran Service Book, 763. When Peace, like a River.

[13] Ibid.

[14]. general, ed., Treasury of Daily Prayer (St. Louis, MO: Concordia Pub. House, 2008), 902.

[15]. Pelikan, Luther's Works.

[16]. Lutheran Church--Missouri Synod, Lutheran Service Book, 205. When Peace, like a River.

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