Sermon, January 3, 2021 | Grace Reformed Church
Happy New Year to everyone! I want to thank you for allowing me the time to be gone last week. I was a little disappointed to spend so much planned time off as a healthy person in quarantine, but alas, these are the times we live in! But the holidays are over, it is a joyous new year, and we begin it just as dependent on the grace of God as we were this time last year, do we not?
So, now that the holidays and the Advent season are behind us, we have another joy ahead of us, and that is returning to our study of the gospel of John. I constantly marvel at this book and am definitely looking forward to continuing in it this spring. To remind me what a treasure it is, over the past month, several passages have entered our minds when we’re talking at home, we remember some passage of great comfort in tumultuous times. And we of course say to ourselves, “where is that verse?” and it seems more often than not, we look it up and it’s from this book, from John. Many passages of great comfort, for sure.
If you can remember back to November, the last time we were in John, we were in chapter 3, and that’s where we’ll return now. You may remember what’s already happened here in chapter 3, we’ve had three messages on it so far. The first two concerned the exchange between Jesus and the Pharisee Nicodemus. There are so many wonderful truths, so much basic theology in those first 18 verses of chapter 3. We heard about the sovereignty of God over all things in how the wind of the Spirit blows where it wishes. We talked about how Nicodemus, like most people, was looking for someone to make his life better, not a Savior that was about to completely transform it, give him an entirely new birth. And we heard about how these people who are born again will certainly, always bear fruit.
And in the second message, we hear Jesus recount the story of Moses lifting up the bronze serpent in the wilderness, that the people who saw it would be saved from the poison of the serpents in the camp, and how Jesus was the greater serpent, the greater Savior, not just of bodies but of souls. And then lastly, as a first message of Advent, we again visited the metaphor of Jesus being the light of the world, and that there are only two reactions to the light, it is either hated or loved. There is no indifference to the light, to Jesus, every person either hates him or loves him. Only two conditions.
So we are reminded of all of those great truths in that episode with Nicodemus that we’ve already studied, and now the narrative turns to something else entirely. We see going on in the chapter, starting at verse 22, another story concerning John the Baptist, and there is much to learn here. So, read with me now in the book of John, chapter 3, verses 22-30. Listen, this is God’s Holy Word.
22 After this Jesus and his disciples went into the Judean countryside, and he remained there with them and was baptizing. 23 John also was baptizing at Aenon near Salim, because water was plentiful there, and people were coming and being baptized 24 (for John had not yet been put in prison).
25 Now a discussion arose between some of John's disciples and a Jew over purification. 26 And they came to John and said to him, “Rabbi, he who was with you across the Jordan, to whom you bore witness—look, he is baptizing, and all are going to him.” 27 John answered, “A person cannot receive even one thing unless it is given him from heaven. 28 You yourselves bear me witness, that I said, ‘I am not the Christ, but I have been sent before him.’ 29 The one who has the bride is the bridegroom. The friend of the bridegroom, who stands and hears him, rejoices greatly at the bridegroom's voice. Therefore this joy of mine is now complete. 30 He must increase, but I must decrease.”
The Word of the Lord.
So after this encounter with Nicodemus in Jerusalem, Jesus goes out to the countryside with his disciples and he is baptizing people. And John the Baptist is also there, and he also has disciples, and he is baptizing people for the purpose of purification as well. Now, the last time we saw John the Baptist was in the middle of chapter 1, and if you remember, John was there in the story to do one thing, and that is to point to Christ. There was a committee of Pharisees and Jews from Jerusalem who came to see him because they wanted to know if he was the Christ. And what did John do? He said no, I am not the Christ, but there is prophecy about me, I’m the voice crying in the wilderness that you’ve been waiting for, and what I’m crying out is that the Christ is here, I’m here to point to the Christ. That is my work.
And next, still in chapter 1, John does only one other thing, and that is to physically, actually point at Jesus, and say “behold, the Lamb of God.” And if you recall, the people he said this to were his own disciples. What did those two disciples do? Immediately, the two of them, John and Andrew, they left John the Baptist and went to follow Jesus.
If you recall, I’ve said before, that John’s gospel is entirely Jesus-centric. The whole purpose of the book, John’s aim is to convince you that this person, Jesus, is the Christ, the long-awaited Messiah, so everything that is included is included to serve that purpose. So when we turn back to the story of John the Baptist briefly, we need to ask the question of how this story serves that purpose. And in this case it’s fairly obvious. John is once again, when given the opportunity by his disciples through their complaining, he is taking the opportunity to point to Christ and only to Christ, not himself.
So let’s examine John’s disciples and their complaint a bit, and we’ll perhaps see some of ourselves in their attitude, and then we’ll consider John’s response to them, and how his attitude toward Christ is what ours should be. So back to the text –
Verses 22 and 23 sets a relatively simple stage, tells us that Jesus and John were both in the countryside, not in the city, and they were baptizing. Then there’s a little note in verse 24 that John was not yet in prison. That’s an important note, because in both Matthew and Mark, the simplest reading of the text makes it look like John was put in prison immediately after Jesus’ temptation, that John the Baptist baptizes Jesus, Jesus goes to the wilderness to be tempted, and that when he gets back John is in prison. There is nothing relayed in those two books that happens between those things, and John needs to make it clear that there were some events in between, that Jesus and John did have parallel ministries for at least a time, and this is something that happened then. That’s not a primary point in the sermon, but it is always helpful to see how the gospels fit together. Now to the event itself.
In chapter 1, we see John losing two of his disciples to Jesus, but he didn’t lose them all—he still had followers to his ministry. And these disciples are bewildered by something they see happening. They look at the situation and can’t believe that their leader, their Rabbi, is not troubled by it. They come to John because in them there has been aroused a spirit of envy, envy that John’s followers are dwindling, and Jesus’s are growing. “Look, he is baptizing, and all are going to him!”
That’s troubling if you are a follower of John the Baptist. You’ve hitched your wagon to a horse that’s over the hill. You’ve joined a club that is declining in stature, that’s no longer cutting edge. Remember these baptisms from John were a new thing. Ceremonial baptizing for cleansing was something that the Jews required of Gentile converts, and there were some other ceremonial purposes, but John was preaching the cleansing of Jews too. He had already caused a stir. So his followers were loyal to him, and they were protective of his ministry. They wanted him to be successful.
Doesn’t that arouse some sort of jealousy in your heart? Can’t we understand these disciples? It’s like watching someone else get the credit for your invention, or your great idea. A few months ago a watched “The Founder,” which is the story of Ray Kroc, who we all know as the founder of what? McDonalds. A company so ubiquitous in the world. But he wasn’t the founder. McDonalds wasn’t his invention. The assembly line efficiency and consistency of McDonalds was invented by two brothers, of the name McDonald. What Kroc did was take their system and franchise it, and it exploded into a worldwide restaurant chain, all on the backs of the McDonald brothers and their innovation. There is of course a lot more to the story, and if the film is to be believed Ray Kroc wasn’t the kindest person, but the tension between Kroc and the McDonald brothers has some similarities here. Everyone around was flocking to Ray Kroc, this man who people naturally assumed was the founder of this great restaurant, and the McDonald brothers are understandably indignant. It was their restaurant, their innovation, their life’s work, and he was getting all the profit off of it. In the end, Kroc crafted a bit of a hostile takeover and left the McDonald brothers, the real inventors of the thing that made him rich, he left them penniless. Shouldn’t we feel indignant for them?
Isn’t that the same category of emotion that we see here in the disciples of John the Baptist? He is overtaking your ministry in importance, he’s baptizing like you, but you were first. People are flocking to him, and not to us. Our ministry is in decline, what should be done?
And John responds. He responds by showing us the humility with which we should see our place in the story, our task on the earth. What does he say, exactly?
John answered, “A person cannot receive even one thing unless it is given him from heaven. 28 You yourselves bear me witness, that I said, ‘I am not the Christ, but I have been sent before him.’
He responds by saying, “none of this is me, anyway, so why should I be troubled?” Not one person receives anything that did not come from God. Nothing is ultimately of our own hands. Culturally, this is a difficult message for Americans especially to hear. A presidential candidate a few years back famously said “You didn’t build that,” trying to make the point that no one gets what they have entirely by their own work, there’s always help from other people, or, as that particular quote implied, a lot of help from the government. But the reality that John points to here is so much greater than that, isn’t it? A person cannot receive even one thing. Not one thing, he says, without it being given to him from heaven. God gives you everything. It’s not “you didn’t build that” because structures and influences were around you, it’s really “you didn’t build that” because there is nothing that you have the God didn’t give you. And we so easily stop our minds at material things, and that is true—there is not a single material thing that you have that is not a gift from heaven. But there is also not one skill or ability, not one bit of knowledge, not one understanding, not one day of health, not one minute of life, not one breath that you take, that was not given.
So John says, “I have exactly as many followers as God has given me, has planned for me.” And then he gets more specific, he then tells them what he’s clearly told them before: I am not the Christ, but have been sent before him. Not only do I have exactly as many followers as God has planned for me, I also have the task that God has planned for me, the specific task, and that is to point to Christ. It is to point to Christ, not to be him, not to usurp his task in some way. God gave me one task, to point to Christ, not to be Christ, not to share in the task laid out for him, for Jesus.
And to make that point, that he isn’t there to be Jesus or be a little Jesus, he uses this great illustration to show his place in the puzzle.
29 The one who has the bride is the bridegroom. The friend of the bridegroom, who stands and hears him, rejoices greatly at the bridegroom's voice.
The church, the people of God are the bride. Jesus is the bridegroom. We have this imagery throughout the New Testament to show the relationship between Christ and the church. Bride and Bridegroom. What does that make John? The friend of the bridegroom, maybe the best man. Think of a bride and groom even at our traditional wedding ceremonies today. What is the wedding party there for? Are they there to partake in the marriage that is happening? Of course not. They are there as witnesses, not participants. They are there as the collection of people who are most joyous that this marriage is happening, joyful witnesses, not participants. So the friend of the bridegroom, as John says, rejoices greatly at the bridegroom’s voice. He stands to the side, looks at the bride and the bridegroom, Christ and his church, and he is joyful for them.
But go to the other side, the attitude of his disciples, what metaphor would they be using? Not a wedding, but a market. Jesus is taking some of John’s market share. His company, in the same business, is now doing better than their company, even though our company was first. If we plug that into the wedding analogy, they are suggesting that they, as the wedding party, are jealous of the bride and groom. They aren’t joyful about the wedding, instead it fills them with envy to see this going on. How backwards is that?
John is saying to them that you are starting from the wrong position. It’s not that we’ve done this work, and he’s done that work, and now he’s doing better than us. No, it’s not some sort of level playing field. There is no limit to how great you could claim Jesus to be. The two most important people at the wedding are the bride and the bridegroom, every time in that situation. Jesus is not a competitor to John, he is everything. What a glorious expression of humility we see here from John the Baptist. John C. Ryle said when reflecting on this passage:
We can never make too much of Christ. Our thoughts about the church, the ministry, and the sacraments may easily become too high and extravagant. We can never have too high thoughts about Christ, can never love Him too much, trust him too implicitly, lay too much weight upon Him, and speak too highly in his praise. He is worthy of all the honor we can give Him.
John was fine being the bridegroom’s friend. He didn’t wish to elevate himself beyond that, he was basking in the glory of being the one that had the unbelievable privilege of pointing to Jesus. And that’s why he says next “Therefore this joy of mine is now complete.” He had no greater joy than to be the one that pointed to Christ. He valued that task, that place so highly, and he wasn’t looking to ride any coat tails. His joy was complete, and his task was complete, which is why he ended this exchange in verse 30, “He must increase, but I must decrease.” And he doesn’t say “I must decrease” with any sense of hesitation, or disappointment—it is all joy, because Jesus must increase.
There is no record here of how John’s disciples reacted to this response, that John viewed Jesus so highly, took joy in the expansion of Jesus’s ministry, but I hope that they were humbled by the response. If any of them actually were following John for an increase in their own glory, I can imagine that they fell away pretty quickly after that, since he basically told them he had no ambitions to increase his celebrity status—everything he had was for Jesus, the Messiah, something he had told them repeatedly, but maybe they hadn’t heard.
So what of us? How do we apply this to our lives? Well, obviously we should strive to be more like John the Baptist and less like his jealous followers, but what does that mean? This world makes that difficult, though. The phrase “the grass is always greener on the other side of the fence” is a pretty accurate summary of how we spend most of our time, our thinking. Whether it’s a job, or a relationship, or a material blessing, we are constantly looking beyond what we’ve been given to things that other people have been given. I’m of course not talking about any ambition, as if all strivings are evil, but how often are our ambitions driven by envy? They so easily can be, and very often are. It is something that we need to constantly pray about, to discern our motives. Do I want that job or promotion because in that way I can give more glory to God for the gifts he’s given me, or because I simply want more money?
And this happens even within the church, does it not? The Old Man in us is always so ready to trade Jesus for something lesser. We chase celebrity in so many different arenas. We have celebrities in the church, do we not? People who we like to quote, people for whom we would jump at the chance to hear them speak, people whose Bible Studies we follow, people whose books, blogs, or Facebook pages that we read just because they wrote it. It’s not a litmus test, and there are many good people who have done it, but I’m always a little suspicious of celebrities in the church who name their ministry, “Insert My Name Ministries.” Some do it for identification, but others do it for their own glory, and their followers give them glory. If having a corporation was a thing 2000 years ago, what would John the Baptist name his “ministries?” I don’t think it would be “John the Baptist Ministries.” Pointing-to-the-Messiah Ministries? Crying in the Wilderness Ministries? It wouldn’t have his name in it, I bet.
I’m reminded of Paul and our study of Philippians last year. Remember the humility he showed when thinking about the spread of the gospel. It wasn’t Apostle Paul Ministries that he was looking for followers to, it was the gospel and nothing else. He even gloried in the fact that the gospel was being preached in such a way as to hurt him. Remember Philippians 1:15-18
Some indeed preach Christ from envy and rivalry, but others from good will. 16 The latter do it out of love, knowing that I am put here for the defense of the gospel. 17 The former proclaim Christ out of selfish ambition, not sincerely but thinking to afflict me in my imprisonment. 18 What then? Only that in every way, whether in pretense or in truth, Christ is proclaimed, and in that I rejoice.
The Old Man in Paul must have grumbled as he wrote that. I certainly don’t feel like rejoicing about it! So for us, this is one lesson, boast in nothing except Christ. If truth is truly being proclaimed, rejoice in it! The second application is for the church at large, in her many denominations. We have an issue of party rivalry in the church, and we have from the beginning. Paul preaches against it in the earliest times of the church. In 1 Corinthians 3:
For while there is jealousy and strife among you, are you not of the flesh and behaving only in a human way? 4 For when one says, “I follow Paul,” and another, “I follow Apollos,” are you not being merely human?
5 What then is Apollos? What is Paul? Servants through whom you believed, as the Lord assigned to each. 6 I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth. 7 So neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth.
It’s all for the gospel, not for us. Do we want to see this church grow, this denomination grow? Absolutely! But it had better not be because we want our corner to do better, like John the Baptist’s followers, it should be because we believe that this church and denomination are where the gospel is being most faithfully preached. We don’t follow a pastor, we don’t follow a visible church, we don’t follow a denomination or a ministry or anything else. We follow Jesus Christ. He is all. He is the only one and it is only his gospel, as he said it, in his scriptures, that is the true way of salvation. There is no other way, only Jesus.
Pointing to Christ, ever and always and in every way, that is where we need to be. We thank God that he allowed us such a shining example in the ministry of John the Baptist. May God bless us to have our lives point to Christ as unabashedly, as completely, and as joyously as his did. That is our prayer today, because as John said, we receive nothing that isn’t a gift, and that includes our faith, our effort, and our humility. Amen. Let’s pray.
Dear Heavenly Father,
We do come to you today and rejoice at the glory of the bridegroom and his bride. Help us to remain faithful in our focus on him and our rejoicing in the building of his church, not in celebrity, not in our own glory, but always only in his. Thank you for each and every gift you’ve given to us this day. In Jesus’s precious name, amen.