|John's Testimony About Jesus (John 3:22-36)
Since today is Veteran's Day, I not only want to honor those of you who have served our nation in the various branches of its military but have chosen to introduce a key element of today's text by telling you the story of one veteran.
Bob Feller was arguably the best pitcher in baseball during his peak years of playing for the Cleveland Indians. When he was a seventeen-year-old farmboy in Iowa, he struck out eight members of the touring St. Louis Cardinals in three innings of an exhibition game. The Cleveland Indians signed him to play for them - with special permission from the commissioner's office because of his age. His fastball was clocked at 98.6 mph, and in his first major league start he struck out fifteen batters! No wonder they nicknamed him "Rocket Robert" and "Bullet Bob." Elected to the Hall of Fame in 1962, his career statistics included 266 wins, twelve one-hitters, and three no-hit games.
When Pearl Harbor was attacked in 1941, Feller had just completed his fifth season in the big leagues and was expected to dominate the mound for the next few years. He was one of several professional athletes from that era who suspended their careers for the sake of serving his country. He enlisted in the U.S. Navy, became an anti-aircraft gunner aboard the U.S.S. Alabama, and came out a highly decorated combat veteran.
Those four years of voluntary service to his country probably cost him 80 to 100 games in victories, strike-out statistics that would still have him near the top of that category, personal fame, and considerable personal wealth. Asked years later if he regretted those four years he lost from baseball to wartime service, he gave a prompt and unambiguous reply. "No," he said. "I've made many mistakes in my life. That wasn't one of them."
Some things are more important than popularity and big money. I fear it is a rare case study in humility to find someone who truly understands and lives that singular truth. Today's text is the classic case of humility in the Gospels and focuses on the relationship of John the Baptist to Jesus, a self-described man "of the earth" and "the one who comes from above" (cf. 3:3).
The preparatory ministry of John the Baptist and the fulfillment ministry of Jesus of Nazareth overlapped for a time. Before John was arrested by Herod Antipas, he was preaching his message of repentance and baptism to the people of Judea simultaneously with Jesus (3:22-24). Although John continued to have success in his heaven-appointed ministry, Jesus appears to have been getting a response that was greater. An unnamed Jew had challenged John's disciples about "purification" (3:25). What did he want to know? Self-administered ceremonial washings were common among the Jews. But immersion by another person was associated with Gentile conversions to Judaism - "proselyte baptism" that completed a foreigner's admission to the Jewish way of life. Was the man challenging the whole notion of baptism for Jews? Did he want to know what new way of life baptism was supposed to signify? We don't know.
Somewhere in that conversation, Jesus must have been discussed. And the Jew who was challenging John's disciples may have jabbed them about the larger crowds and greater number of baptisms Jesus was having. So John's disciples set about to understand the meaning of these things.
They came to John and said to him, "Rabbi, the one who was with you across the Jordan, to whom you testified, here he is baptizing, and all are going to him." John answered, "No one can receive anything except what has been given from heaven. You yourselves are my witnesses that I said, 'I am not the Messiah, but I have been sent ahead of him.' He who has the bride is the bridegroom. The friend of the bridegroom, who stands and hears him, rejoices greatly at the bridegroom's voice. For this reason my joy has been fulfilled. He must increase, but I must decrease" (3:26-30).What an incredible lack of discernment on the part of those disciples! Had they not heard John's confession of Jesus as the Lamb of God? Had not a single one gotten his point about being a forerunner to someone far greater than himself - Israel's Messiah? Had they not heard his constant disclaimers about being the Messiah himself?
What incredible modesty and submissiveness, on the other hand, in John himself! Whether we understand the "bride" at v.29 to be Israel or the church, John makes it clear in this response that he is but "the friend of the bridegroom, who stands and hears him, rejoices greatly at the bridegroom's voice." What humility to say this: "For this reason my joy has been fulfilled. He must increase, but I must decrease."
Think of the contrast between, say, King Saul and John the Baptist on this point. "Saul, you have played your role in Israel," said Yahweh. "It is time for you to step aside now and to permit young David to ascend to the throne." What was his response to that step-aside order? "Never! This is my throne, my nation, my right to rule!" What an ungodly spectacle King Saul made of himself before God and the nation because of that arrogant spirit. When John heard the whisper of that same step-aside order for his ministry, he meekly yielded to the One who was greater.
I'm not sure about the source for the next paragraph. Are these more words from John the Baptist? Are these the comments of our Gospel-writer John? We cannot be sure, but it is nearly impossible to miss the connection of this paragraph to the evening conversation with Nicodemus recorded earlier in John 3.
The one who comes from above is above all; the one who is of the earth belongs to the earth and speaks about earthly things. The one who comes from heaven is above all. He testifies to what he has seen and heard, yet no one accepts his testimony. Whoever has accepted his testimony has certified this, that God is true. He whom God has sent speaks the words of God, for he gives the Spirit without measure. The Father loves the Son and has placed all things in his hands. Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life; whoever disobeys the Son will not see life, but must endure God's wrath (3:31-36).Jesus is greater than John the Baptist because he is "from above" (Gk, anothen, cf. v.3), whereas John - and all the rest of us - are "of the earth." Like Nicodemus and John's disciples who were jealous for his popularity, we are too this-worldly and all-too-human to substitute our ideas for divine revelation. What has come down from heaven is to be received, yielded to, obeyed. God's truth always comes down from above through a process of revelation; it is not ours to create, configure, or otherwise administer. Like Nicodemus, even teachers must become its students and must step out of their night and darkness into its brilliant light. Like John the Baptist, people who have served by divine appointment to prepare people to receive it must themselves step out of the way of its fulfillment.
When people step from darkness to light, they are saved. When they give up self-will for the divine will, they are empowered. When they confess the priority of what is "from above" over their human understandings and feelings, they enter eternal life. When Jesus is accepted as the truth and light, this is the result: "Whoever has accepted his testimony has certified this, that God is true" (v.33). In other words, to accept the truth about and from Jesus is to affirm and become part of God's purpose. The reverse is also true, so that to reject Christ is to remain in the dark shadows of lostness and judgment. "Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life; whoever disobeys the Son will not see life, but must endure God's wrath" (v.36; cf. 3:18).
John the Baptist understood what some of his disciples had not grasped: We advance in our spiritual lives by stepping back. We grow up into Christ by growing down into deference and obedience. The late Henri Nouwen once wrote this in the New Oxford Review for April 1987: "Everything in me wants to move upward. Downward mobility with Jesus goes radically against my inclination, against the advice of the world surrounding me, and against the culture of which I am a part." Can you not affirm the same thing out of your own experience?
There is some evidence to suggest that a few misguided groups continued to give John the Baptist a prominence he never sought for himself for a few generations after the beginning of the church. They were more devoted to the bridegroom's friend than to the bridegroom himself. They held the herald in higher esteem than the king whose coming he announced. Maybe John needed to include this account for their sakes. On the other hand, I can more nearly imagine that he saw the need to include it from his own observations of how the church was functioning.
How many churches had John heard about that were behaving as Corinth had? That body of believers had chosen up sides on the basis of favorite teachers - Peter, Apollos, or Paul. A fourth group appears to have been employing the name of Christ as divisively as the others were using the names of human teachers. How does one respond to this human tendency to choose a champion and elevate a leader beyond measure? How about telling the story of one man's humility when tempted to play to the crowd?
We grow up into Christ by growing down into lowliness. . . . Off-loading our fantasies of omnicompetence, we start trying to be trustful, obedient, dependent, patient, and willing in our relationship to God. We give up our dreams of being greatly admired for doing wonderfully well. We begin teaching ourselves unemotionally and matter-of-factly to recognize that we are not likely ever to appear, or actually to be, much of a success by the world's standards. We bow to events that rub our noses in the reality of our own weakness, and we look to God for strength quietly to cope. . . .What a wonderful concept! "Growing downward" was something John the Baptist had learned. It was a lesson for which John the Apostle saw a need in the first-century church. Has anyone ever thought the modern church in danger of taking itself too seriously? Has anyone ever seen a teacher acting the role of a celebrity over that of a servant? Has any church ever been divided by misguided loyalty to a pastor, preacher, or person that overshadowed loyalty to the undivided state of Christ's body?
It is impossible at the same time to give the impression both that I am a great Christian and that Jesus Christ is a great Master. So the Christian will practice curling up small, as it were, so that in and through him or her the Savior may show himself great. That is what I mean by growing downward.
Keeping a Clear Focus
Church isn't about us! We are just hands and feet, knees and elbows, warts and scars - each included in the body by grace. Christ is the sovereign head over his body. It is the will of God that he should have supremacy in all things. There are days when all of us need to wear a "Get-Over-Yourself" button in our families. There are other days when that same button should be worn to school or to the office. And there are times when those buttons should be passed out by the handsful at elder meetings, church business meetings, or to whole churches.
Church, what John the Baptist was doing was not about him. When the bright heyday of his personal contribution and success were passed by in the divine purpose, he was able to yield center stage to Jesus.
Church, what John the Gospel-writer was doing was not about him. When he had preached his sermons, penned a few short epistles, and written a couple of longer treatises, he passed the torch to those of us who would follow in Christian ministry.
Church, what we are doing now is not about us. So the guiding principle cannot be what I like, what I want, what is comfortable to me. With whatever gifts and callings are yours in a lifetime, the focus must remain on Christ. This is all about him - the one who has come from above, who offers spiritual rebirth from above, and whose grace makes possible eternal life. And the primary way for any one of us to know that he or she has yielded to Christ is to discover in one's heart the ability to yield to others for Christ's sake!
David Seamands ends his book Healing Grace with the story of the death of an old-world monarch. For more than six hundred years the Hapsburgs exercised political power in Europe. When Emperor Franz-Josef I of Austria died in 1916, his was the last of the extravagant imperial funerals. A processional of dignitaries and elegantly dressed court personages escorted the coffin, draped in the black and gold imperial colors.
To the accompaniment of a military band's somber dirges and by the light of torches, the cortege descended the stairs of the Capuchin Monastery in Vienna. At the bottom was a great iron door leading to the Hapsburg family crypt. Behind the door was the Cardinal-Archbishop of Vienna. The officer in charge followed the prescribed ceremony that had been established centuries before.
"Open!" he cried.
"Who goes there?" responded the Cardinal.
"We bear the remains of his Imperial and Apostolic Majesty, Franz-Josef I, by the grace of God Emperor of Austria, King of Hungary, Defender of the Faith, Prince of Bohemia-Moravia, Grand Duke of Lombardy, Venezia, Styrgia..." The officer continued to list the Emperor's thirty-seven titles.
"We know him not," replied the Cardinal. "Who goes there?"
The officer spoke again, this time using a much abbreviated and less ostentatious title reserved for times of expediency.
"We know him not," the Cardinal said again.
"Who goes there?"
The officer tried a third time, stripping the emperor of all but the humblest of titles: "We bear the body of Franz-Josef, our brother, a sinner like us all!" At that, the doors swung open, and Franz-Josef was admitted.
In death all are reduced to the same level. Neither wealth nor fame can open the way of salvation, but only God's grace, given to those who will humbly acknowledge their need. And, as the example of John the Baptist illustrates so beautifully, the same humility required unto salvation is also required for service to the one who has come from above.
 J.I Packer, "Rediscovering Holiness," Christianity Today, Vol.38, No.13.
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