“In the beginning was the Force, and the Force was with God and the Force was God” (John 1:1 – Father Dave translation)
Yes, that’s the Father Dave translation of the Gospel According to St John, first chapter, first verse, and my use of ‘the Force’ in this translation is not only on account of the fact that I’ve just seen ‘Rogue 1’ in the last week (which I enjoyed very much, thanks for asking). It’s also an attempt to convey the truth about God and about Jesus in the same way that the author of the gospel was trying to convey it – namely, by using the spiritual vocabulary of the day.
When John says that in the beginning was the ‘logos’ (which we normally translate as ‘word’) he was using a term that had high spiritual currency in his day.
Logos was a word with a long history in Greek philosophy that the Stoics had identified with the divine animating principle that pervades all living things. The Jewish philosopher, Philo, likewise adopted it and made it a part of Semitic religious thinking, meaning that by the time The Gospel According to St John, chapter one, verse one, was penned, it was the popular term across the Ancient Near East for that ultimate spiritual reality that we in the church generally refer to simply as ‘God’, which is why I translate it as ‘the Force’!
What I assume John was trying to do was to address a broad audience. In beginning his story about Jesus, he wasn’t interested in talking about what the tribal god of Israel was going to do for the people of Israel. John was talking about something that affected the whole world. He wasn’t focused on what a particular god was doing for a particular people at a particular time. The spiritual reality he was talking about had global (and even cosmic) significance! It affected every man, woman and child of every people and nation. It changed human history!
“In the beginning was the force, and the force was with God and the force was God”, and so John unpacks his story about God’s revelation of Himself to the world in the Force made flesh – Jesus – and through the prophet of the force, whose name was John the baptizer, and so we quickly grasp that this story of word and flesh and prophecy and fulfilment is not just Israel’s story but is the story of all humanity.
This Gospel not addressed to somebody else! This is our story, told in our language. You can sense that strongly in the opening chapter of John’s gospel, or at least you sense it right up to the point where John the baptizer opens his mouth!
It’s not until the twenty-ninth verse of this opening chapter that John speaks for the first time, but when he does speak he says (with reference to Jesus) “Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1:29) – to which the natural response from any self-respecting non-Jew would surely have to be ‘what the …?’
When John speaks of the ‘the Word’ or ‘the Force’ and how all things were made, and how without Him nothing was made that was made, he’s speaking our language, but when he speaks of ‘the lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world’, what sort of language is that? It’s not ours!
Of course, if you’ve grown up in the church, this may well have become a part of your language by now, and if you’ve been a part of our church for any length of time, you may even have found yourself singing ‘Behold the lamb of God, who takes away our sin’, but do any of us really have any idea what we’re singing about?
I’m not suggesting that lambs (or at least sheep) haven’t played a significant role in the history of this country (or at least in our history since white settlement) but this is not the sort of lamb John was talking about!
‘It’s the Passover lamb’ I hear some seasoned readers of the Bible saying, and that’s my guess too! John is speaking in metaphor – associating Jesus with the sacrificial Passover lamb, whose blood was originally splashed upon the doorposts of the houses of the people of Israel before they were miraculously delivered from slavery at the hands of the Egyptians many, many centuries ago.
Even so, I don’t blame anybody for not making that association. Perhaps we have some in our church who have not been brought up steeped in the dreamtime stories of the people of Israel. Perhaps there are some here who have never seen Charlton Heston’s epic portrayal of Moses in “The 10 Commandments”, or even Disney’s more recent animated version of the same story?
I certainly would not blame any of my non-Jewish contemporaries for not knowing the stories of Passover and Exodus, or any of the stories of the history of the people of Israel, because it’s not our history! These are not our stories! And so we find, right here in the first chapter of the Gospel According to St John that this story of Jesus, which the Gospel-writer is at pains to point out is everybody’s story, is also a part of a story that is not our story. It is part of a specifically Jewish story which may be totally unfamiliar to some of us, and which I suspect none of us understands completely!
The problem with this, of course, is that if this designation of Jesus is fundamental to who Jesus is, then we won’t understand Jesus properly without understanding the story properly, which is why I want to have a go at unpacking it today.
“Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1:29)
Yes, it’s the Passover lamb that John is associating Jesus with, and the Passover was the feast originally held on the night before the great deliverance (or ‘exodus’) of the people of Israel from their years of bondage to the Egyptians. If you’re not familiar with the details of the narrative – the miracles of Moses, the plagues that fell upon Egypt, and the stubbornness of Pharaoh – you can read about it all in the book of Exodus (or you can just watch the movie or the Disney cartoon).
The important point to recognise here is that for the Jewish people of the 1st century (Jesus’ and John’s contemporaries) the Exodus was never simply an historic event. It was not one miracle amongst many. It was the archetypal act of God’s salvation in history. Indeed, it was the event that gave the Biblical word for ‘salvation’ its meaning!
The Exodus was not just a story of slaves being set free. It was the story of God’s people being liberated so that they could worship their God in freedom and build a new world together – a community of integrity and love, through which ultimately every family on the earth would be blessed.
The Exodus was a historic event, on the one hand, but it was also a dream of a world that had never been fully realised on the other! In other words, when the New Testament employs imagery of the Exodus, it’s pointing to the same reality that Jesus was referring to when he spoke of the coming Kingdom of God.
When John refers to Jesus as ‘the lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world’ he is therefore designating Jesus as the long-awaited agent of God who is going to usher in a new age of justice and peace, just as the sacrifice of the Passover lamb had ushered in the deliverance of the people of Israel from bondage in Egypt.
Have you followed me this far? I hope you have. If you’ve read the book or seen the movie (or the cartoon) you probably can grasp the metaphor of the sacrificial lamb whose death is associated with the coming of the new age. Either way, I now need to complicate the whole analysis a bit further, for while the story of the Passover helps us make sense of John’s designation of Jesus as th e lamb of God, it needs to be recognised at this point that, historically, the sacrifice of the Passover lamb never had anything to do with the forgiveness of sins!
If you’ve read the book (or seen the cartoon) you know that the lamb was killed and eaten, and the blood was sprinkled on the door-posts of the Israelites so that the angel of death might ‘pass over’ their houses as vengeance was visited upon the people of Egypt in the final and most terrible plague!
The lamb was eaten to prepare the former slaves for their big journey, and the blood of the lamb played a role in protecting the people, but none of this had anything to do with forgiveness as such – sustenance and protection, yes, but forgiveness, no!
To understand the association between the lamb, the exodus and forgiveness of sins we need to look at a completely different episode in Israel’s history – namely, the conquest of Israel by the Babylonians many years later.
As mentioned, the miraculous exodus of the people of Israel from Egypt did not turn out as wonderfully as Moses had hoped. The Exodus experience did not result in a free people worshipping their God with integrity and love, and forming a community that would become a blessing to the whole world. On the contrary, the people of Israel had quite a chequered history from the moment they left Egypt onwards, and even after settling in ‘the Promised Land’, experienced more periods of bondage through a series of military conquests, the most significant of which (Biblically speaking) began with the sacking of Jerusalem by the armies of Babylon in 587 BC.
Most of the survivors of that terrible day were taken captive back to Babylon where some of them spent out their days as slaves and others tried to build new lives for themselves as best they could. They were hard days. As the Psalmist writes:
“By the rivers of Babylon, we sat and wept as we remembered Zion” (Psalm 137:1)
The significant thing, from our point of view, about the Babylonian conquest and the subsequent exile of the people of Israel from their land was that it didn’t spell the end of the religion of the people of Israel. We might have thought that the defeat of the armies of Israel would be interpreted as the defeat of the god of Israel by the god of the Babylonians, and that’s certainly how the Babylonians interpreted it. Yet Israel’s interpreters stuck to their monotheism and refused to believe that their God could be defeated. Instead, prophets like Jeremiah and Isaiah led the surviving Israelites to interpret their exile in a different way – namely, as a punishment for their sins!
It was the sin of Israel that had led them back into bondage, the prophets taught them, and yet these same prophets spoke of a day when sins would be forgiven and when there would be a new exodus from bondage!
“Comfort, comfort my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem and proclaim to her that her hard service has been completed, that her sin has been paid for, that she has received from the Lord’s hand double for all her sins” (Isaiah 40:1-2)
These are the comforting words of the prophet Isaiah that promise and end to the exile and a new exodus of God’s people into freedom. These words are probably familiar to many of us and, indeed, they are followed by even more familiar words:
“A voice of one calling: ‘In the wilderness prepare the way for the Lord; make straight in the desert a highway for our God’” (Isaiah 40:3)
And so we see in the fortieth chapter of the book of the prophet Isaiah, words of hope that will be taken up by the New Testament writers and applied to John and to Jesus – words that are also pregnant with images of exile and exodus, associated with the promise of forgiveness of sins.
It’s this combination of stories in the history of Israel that help us make sense of John’s proclamation, “Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!”
Jesus is going to usher in a new exodus for Israel, out of the bondage of exile. Of course, they are not suffering under the yoke of Babylon any more. It’s the Romans who are their latest masters. Even so, from the prophetic point of view, the Roman captivity that they were experiencing was a continuation of the same bondage that started in Babylon, and that really started in Egypt. With this tragic cycle of defeat and subjugation experienced by the people of God, each defeat was a successive wave on the beach, but all this suffering was going to come to a climactic end when the final exodus came, when the lamb of God would come who would liberate Israel from their exile through the forgiveness of their sins so that they could worship their God in freedom and become the people they were always intended to be!
Are you still with me? If you are still with me then you’ll appreciate that this great story surrounding Jesus – a story that the Gospel writer is keen to insist is our story – is well and truly somebody else’s story to begin with!
First and foremost, this is Israel’s story! The exodus being alluded to is Israel’s liberation from the Roman occupation and not ours! The sins being forgiven are the sins of Israel that led them into exile, and not our sins, let alone the individual sins of every human being on the planet (which is how statements like these are generally interpreted)!
“Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!” This is, first and foremost, a word of hope for a better future for the people of Israel. I am sure that’s what John intended to convey when he said it, and I’m sure that’s how John’s disciples understood him when they linked up with Jesus. At the same time though, it is curious that John speaks of Jesus as the lamb who takes away the sin ‘of the world’ and not simply ‘the sin of Israel’.
Was that just a slip of the tongue, or did John mean Israel when he said ‘the world’? Personally, I don’t think John saw anything in Jesus beyond the liberation of Israel, which is why, at the end of his life, John was distressed that maybe he’d got Jesus wrong – “are you he who is to come or should we expect another?” (Matthew 11:3)
I don’t think John ever really understood the full scope of Jesus’ mission, and I don’t think those disciples ever really got it either! At the same time, I don’t think many of us have every grasped the full message either!
Most of us Christians who sing about Jesus as ‘the lamb of God who takes away sin’ probably never make the connection with the exodus, let alone with the Babylonian exile! Most of us who speak of ‘forgiveness of sin’ don’t see this forgiveness as being linked in any way to Israel or to injustice and oppression or to liberation and freedom – not on a socio-political level, at any rate!
For the truth is that Jesus and the work of Jesus are a lot more complicated and elusive than we may have thought! The mission of Jesus is not only a hope for the political liberation of Israel, but it seems to start out that way, and I don’t think John the Baptist ever saw that mission as extending to anything further, and I’m not sure many of those first disciples did either! Even so, I’m not confident that many of us can claim to have overtaken John and the Apostles in our wisdom either!
In the beginning was the Force, and the Force was with God and the Force was God
This is the story of Jesus, and it is a complicated and mysterious story. It is a story that is alien to many of us at many points, and yet the Gospel-writer is entirely correct in insisting that it is nonetheless our story, and we don’t have to understand it all in order to own it!
For the truth is that the lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world – the liberator of Israel – is also the force made flesh, who came and made his dwelling among us, and …
“We have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth. … For from his fullness have we all received, grace upon grace. For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. No one has ever seen God, but the one and only Son, who is himself God and is in closest relationship with the Father, has made him known.” (John 1:14,16-18)
First preached to Holy Trinity Church of Dulwich Hill on January 15th, 2017