Musings on John 1:29

Musings on John 1:29

For centuries, Christians have prayed varying versions of the Latin (Roman) mass. Both the Gloria and the Agnus Dei portions of the mass include a text based on John 1:29, “Agnus Dei. . . qui tollis peccata mundi, miserere nobis”—in many English translations it reads, “Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world, have mercy on us.” This text has been widespread within both Catholic and Protestant churches for centuries.

And it’s wrong.

Even the Latin Vulgate—the Latin translation of the Bible on which until recently Roman Catholic English translations were made—reads for John 1:29,  qui tollit peccatum mundi,  i.e., who takes away the sin of the world. Not the sins of the world. Singular, not plural.

The original Greek text of John 1:29, from which the Latin Vulgate was translated, reads,  ὁ ἀμνoς τοῦ θεοῦ ὁ αἴρων τᾐν ἁμαρτίαν τοῦ κόσμου, the underlined term being accusative singular: The lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.

Please note: Thankfully, even though many English translations of the New Testament used to read sins rather than sin, nearly all popular biblical versions these days correctly say sin, singular. The target of this small essay is liturgies, not translations of the Bible. Several churches today offer a number of choices of English translations for the standard text of the Mass; some liturgies in Roman Catholic, Orthodox, Anglican/Episcopal, and Lutheran churches continue to read sins.

The difference between singular (the original) and plural (added later) is profound.

For nearly two thousand years, Christians have seen sin as something that people do. You commit certain acts that offend God’s sense of righteousness, and he is pissed off, and therefore something needs to be done to appease God’s anger. Or, in slightly different terms of the so-called Good News: Jesus has stood in for you in accepting the brunt of God’s wrath/punishment about the evil things you have done, in order to bring you ablution from your evil deeds.

But that is not the good news that the New Testament proclaims, and the key is right there in the first few verses of the gospel of John. Jesus is the lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world! The whole schmeer! Everything! All that is broken! The apostle John even told us shortly before he died that Jesus is the lamb who was sacrificed from the foundation of the world (ἀπο καταβολῆς κόσμου) (Revelation 13:8). The first epistle of Peter echoed those sentiments in saying that the spotless lamb was destined before the foundation of the world (προ καταβολῆς κόσμου) (1 Peter 1:20).

In other words, God determined—before he even created the universe—to personally bear the  sin/pain/darkness/evil  that humans might devise because of our incredible, God-like freedom. He likewise determined to bear the brokenness of the physical creation—which brokenness is the creation’s own version of sin (see Romans 8:22-23).

It is not a question of human beings’ merely committing certain acts (sins) that need to be atoned for. That traditional view of redemption rests on a tragically legalistic view of sin and a misguided concept of God.

Rather, even before he spoke a single word of creation, our God purposed to bear, to take into himself, to suffer the pains/consequences of our freely chosen evil acts, thoughts, sicknesses, pains, etc.  He redeemed us from our darkness before we even existed, to establish us in the end as still-completely-free, passionately loving people in a renewed creation.

The idea that Jesus takes away the sins of the world fosters concepts of sin that see it primarily as specific acts. That view led to unconscionable schisms in the early church and to such abominations as the Inquisition as well as the desire of early Protestants to burn at the stake individuals who disagreed with their doctrines. And to a large extent that kind of theology continues to inform the teachings of most Christian sects, especially the kind that foment all kinds of rules and forbid myriad behaviors that are “sinful.”

But our acts, even our thoughts, are little more than symptoms of the depravity and selfishness that permeate our very beings (see Matthew 12:34). It’s not just our evil actions. Our deepest desires and thoughts are suffused with rebellion and self-centeredness. Provide atonement for the evil things I have actually done, and I will still stand totally sold into destructiveness. I am inherently self-seeking and idolatrous, as are you. It is not just our sins from which we need redemption. It is our very dark natures that enslave us.

Jesus, the Lamb of God who was sacrificed before God even created this universe, takes away the sin of the world. He lifts the entire burden of humankind’s evil, and indeed that of the entire creation. It’s not merely a question of individual sinful acts. God’s Lamb rather lifts—carries, takes into himself—everything in the universe that is painful or destructive or hurtful. And he swallows it up in his unfathomable love.

When you participate in a liturgical service that includes traditional texts of the mass, therefore—whether you are Catholic or Protestant or anything else—I urge you to consider in your spirit not the formal text (if it refers to “sins of the world”) but the original words that refer to Jesus as the “Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.” All that sin, that destructiveness, that selfishness, that darkness, is gone. It has been swallowed up forever in the redeeming love of God. Hallelujah!