An article in the Discipleship Journal in the mid-1990’s said that we live in an age of self-love. There is even a popular magazine on the market entitled “Self”. Words like “narcissism” (the love of self), and “hedonism” (the pursuit of pleasure) are being used more-and-more often to describe our society. I had never heard of those words when I was growing up. Focus on the Family magazine had a short article entitled, “Remember What’s Important to a Man”. Here are a few of the things mentioned in the article: 1) Men fear nothing more than failure. 2). Men are motivated by feeling significant. 3) Men want to manage their own problems and be “Mr. Fix-It”. The apostle Paul warns us in II Timothy 3:2 that in the last days “people will be lovers of self, lovers of money, boastful, arrogant . . . “.
A virtue that is fading among men and women in our society, and in our churches today, is humility. A man by the name of John Seldon made this observation: “Humility is a virtue that all men preach, but very few practice.” In the passage of Scripture we are now studying, John 3:22-30, a man is being described by the apostle John, who not only preached humility, but also demonstrated it by his life and by his attitude. That man is John the Baptist.
I. THE SETTING (verses 22-24)
Verse 22 says, “After these things Jesus and His disciples came into the land of Judea, and there He was spending time with them and baptizing.” Actually, according to John 4:2, Jesus wasn’t doing the baptizing Himself, but His disciples were baptizing under His authority and direction. In that sense Jesus was involved in the baptism proceedings. It appears that they were baptizing in the wilderness areas rather than near the city, and may have been moving around the area where they had begun to baptize.
Verse 23 says, “And John also was baptizing in Aenon near Salim, because there was much water there; and they were coming and were being baptized.” For a short time, until John the Baptist was put in prison (verse 24), the ministries of Jesus and John the Baptist overlapped. From the description given of their locations, they probably weren’t very far from each other. Since they weren’t far from each other, and were doing identical ministries at the time, it’s a natural tendency to make comparisons and “keep score”, as if they were competing with one another.
John the Baptist had a great deal of popularity because of his preaching and his message. Luke tells us that “multitudes went out to hear John.” Matthew tells us that people came to him from Jerusalem, and all of Judea, and all the region beyond the Jordan River. Some of these people were journeying for several days just to hear John the Baptist preach.
II. THE PROBLEM (verses 25-26)
The problem was that the crowds around Jesus were growing, and John’s disciples were becoming worried about it. They didn’t want to see their teacher and leader take second place to anyone else. Verse 25 reads: “There arose therefore a discussion on the part of John’s disciples with a Jew about purification.” At first I wondered what this verse had to do with the verses that follow, but I think it’s beginning to make sense. The Greek word, katharismou, refers to cleansing or removal of dirt. To the Jew, baptism was considered a form of cleansing. They may have been discussing with this Jew about which baptism made you cleaner. Which baptism had the greater cleansing effect: the baptism of John or the baptism of Jesus performed by His disciples? The comparison about their baptisms would lead to comparisons about the two people, John the Baptist and Jesus. You know how one thing leads to another when you start making comparisons!
Well, it’s time to pass the bad news on to John the Baptist and help him come up with a new marketing strategy. Off they go. It says in verse 26. “And they came to John and said to him, ‘Rabbi, He who was with you beyond the Jordan, to whom you have born witness, behold, He is baptizing, and all are coming to Him’.” They don’t even mention Jesus by name. I don’t think they are being derogatory. I think they still don’t know who Jesus is. To them He is “the new Preacher on the block” who is taking away their teacher’s business. They have forgotten, or overlooked the fact that John the Baptist had already encouraged at least two of his disciples to follow Jesus, and they did so (John 1:35-39).
III. JOHN’S RESPONSE (verses 27-30)
A. A Perspective (verse 27)
Instead of feeling sorry for himself and seeking their help, John the Baptist rejoiced at the popularity of Jesus, and is going to give them reasons to rejoice along with him. He begins by looking at earthly abilities and earthly success from a heavenly perspective. “John answered and said, ‘A man can receive nothing unless it has been given him from heaven.” John is saying that all success ultimately comes from the same Source. If God is the Giver, then we should rejoice, not only over what He gives to us, but also over what He gives to others. If Jesus and His disciples are being successful, that should bring us joy because God is being glorified through them.
B. A Reminder (verse 28)
Now John the Baptist reminds them of something he said to them earlier. “You yourselves bear me witness, that I said, ‘I am not the Christ’, but ‘I have been sent before Him’.” Those words were recorded earlier in chapter 1, verses 20 and 23.
Leonard Bernstein, the great music composer, arranger, and conductor of the New York Philharmonic Orchestra for many years. was once asked which instrument was the most difficult to play. He thought for a moment and then replied, “The second fiddle. I can get plenty of first violinists, but to find someone who can play the second fiddle with enthusiasm – that’s a problem. And if we have no second fiddle, we have no harmony.”
Up until this time, John the Baptist was “first fiddle”. Everyone was coming to listen to him. But he is reminding his followers that he was called and gifted to be the “forerunner”, the one sent on ahead to get people ready for the “Master Violinist”. John is saying that it is now his privilege to “change seats” and play alongside Him in harmony and with enthusiasm. In so doing, the sounds of the Master will be all the more attractive and pleasing to the ears of their listeners as the two of them follow the direction of their Conductor, God the Father in heaven.
C. An Illustration (verse 29)
John the Baptist now uses the context of marriage to give a very clear and beautiful illustration of his relationship to the Lord Jesus Christ. The following are his words in verse 29. “He who has the bride is the bridegroom; but the friend of the bridegroom, who stands and hears him, rejoices greatly because of the bridegroom’s voice. And so this joy of mine has been made full.” John the Baptist calls himself the “friend of the bridegroom”. It is not his wedding. His function was to serve the bridegroom. The closest similarity in my culture would be the “best man”. I’m going to compare the two roles so that you can see the differences and gain a better understanding of what John the Baptist has said.
Have you ever been the “best man” at a wedding? If you are married, did you have a “best man” at your wedding? Being a “best man” is quite an honor, isn’t it? It is questionable these days just what the responsibilities of the “best man” are. A classmate of mine was asked to be the “best man” at his friend’s wedding and he had no idea of what he was supposed to do. So he borrowed a book on etiquette from the library. He looked up the responsibilities of the “best man” and it said, “help seat the family and friends of the bride and groom, give the ring to the groom during the ceremony, protect the groom’s car”, and when he read the last responsibility he started laughing. It read, “help the groom dress himself”. Well, the glorious day of the wedding arrived, and as he and the groom were in the dressing room getting ready, he quickly found out why that responsibility was written in the book. The groom was so nervous and his hands were shaking so much that my classmate had to button all the buttons on his friend’s tuxedo for him!
In the Jewish culture during the time of Christ, the “best man” was called “the friend of the bridegroom” (the “shoshben“), and he was in charge of everything: the preparations for the wedding ceremony, the ceremony itself, and the reception afterward. With the exception of the bride and groom, everyone else in the wedding, as well as everyone making preparations for the wedding, answered to him and took orders from him. The friend of the bridegroom was the most-trusted friend of the bride and groom, and had the responsibility of protecting them and acting as a liaison between them, delivering messages to them from each other. He also sent out the wedding invitations or personally delivered them himself. His objective, as he made preparations, was to make this wedding celebration a memorable time of great joy and rejoicing for the bride and groom, their families, and all who were invited.
The friend of the bridegroom’s last and most important responsibility was to protect the bridal chamber. After the wedding the friend of the bridegroom would open the door to the bridal chamber for the bride to enter and make herself ready for her husband. He would then station himself at the door to keep any false lovers from entering. When it became night he would wait and listen for the sound of the bridegroom’s voice, and when he heard it and recognized it, he would let the bridegroom into the chamber and go on his way rejoicing. The lovers were now together. His responsibilities as the friend of the bridegroom were now finished.
D. An Explanation (the Old Testament Prophets)
Now that we have a basic understanding of a first-century Jewish wedding, let’s see how it applies to John the Baptist. If he is the friend of the bridegroom, then who are the bride and groom, and when is the wedding? John the Baptist doesn’t give any details in answer to those two questions because there is no need to do so. The prophets have already given those details, and because they are Messianic prophecies, his listeners know them very well. Let’s take a look at them and you will see what I mean.
John the Baptist had already told his disciples that he was the forerunner, in fulfillment of Malachi’s prophesy at the very end of his book. Now He is telling them that the Messiah is no longer coming – He’s already here and He is the One they are complaining about! I can just see their eyes widen in amazement as he gives them the news! Now that marriage-illustration he just used is bringing many prophesies to their minds because the long-awaited Messiah is here. In several places God refers to Israel, or alludes to Israel, as His bride. For example, in Isaiah 54:5 says, “For your husband is your Maker, whose name is the Lord of hosts”. Isaiah 62:4,5 says, “But you will be called ‘My delight is in her,’ and your land, ‘married’. . . And as the bridegroom rejoices over the bride, so your God will rejoice over you.” In Hosea, God tells the prophet Hosea to marry a harlot as a visual depiction of what Israel has done to Him. In Hosea 2:19, God tells the people of Israel, “And I will betroth you to Me forever. Yes, I will betroth you to me in righteousness and in justice.”
It’s obvious from the illustration that John the Baptist uses in verses 28-29 that the groom refers to Jesus Christ. There is debate, however, about whether the bride he refers to is Israel or the Church. I’m personally convinced that the bride, in this case, is Israel because he is speaking to Jews, his ministry is to the nation of Israel, he is using the Old Testament as his backdrop, his purpose is to introduce the nation of Israel to their Messiah, and the church-age doesn’t begin until Pentecost (Acts 2).
Now we come to one of my favorite verses in the Bible: John 3:30. After I turned my life over to Jesus Christ, and was reading the whole New Testament once a week, this verse, John 3:30 was the first verse that I wrote down on the inside cover of my Bible. To me, it described the essence of living the Christian life, and I wanted Christ to become more and more evident in my life. John the Baptist gave that response in Aramaic, and we don’t know what Aramaic words he used. But I believe that he said those words with a smile on his lips and his face beaming with joy!
In verse 30, John uses a particular word twice. It’s the English word “must”. We often think of that word as being negative and unbending. As you were growing up, do you remember times when your parents used that term when speaking to you? Was it used when telling you to do something you didn’t like to do or didn’t want to do? Was the conversation something like this: “Do I have to? . . . Yes you must!” Was it one of those “end of conversation” conversations? In order to keep from getting a wrong understanding of the apostle John’s reasons for using that word, we need to take a close look at the Greek word that has been translated “must”.
The Greek word that is used in verse 30 is dei. Remember that John is writing these words to a Greek-speaking audience who are influenced by the Greek culture In the classical Greek writings the word dei was often associated with fate – an inner compulsion or calling that spurs a person on and brings personal fulfillment. The word is sometimes used to describe the fulfillment of one’s destiny. These descriptions may be closer to the meaning of John’s words. In that case, it would not only be motivated by joy but produce greater personal joy as a result.
There is no clear Hebrew equivalent to this Greek word – no word or phrase that matches it exactly. So what is the Christian equivalent of the Greek word dei, and the Greek concept of fate? How do you translate it into Christian terms that we might understand. As the result of studying the person of John the Baptist, I believe that a truly humble person is not a person who tries hard to be humble. He is not a person who makes it a point to be humble by wearing humble facial expressions, saying humble words and doing humble deeds. A truly humble person is definitely not a person who considers himself to be humble!
I sincerely believe that a truly humble person doesn’t even think about humility. (MORE TO COME)
Welcome to another work-in-progress. This project is nearing completion, and there is so much more to learn from the illustration that John the Baptist uses to describe his relationship to Jesus. Please come back to see how it progresses and visit other completed sites when you have the time and desire. May we find rest for our souls from the One who is “meek and humble in heart” – the Lord Jesus Christ.