22After 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.” 31 He who comes from above is above all. He who is of the earth belongs to the earth and speaks in an earthly way. He who comes from heaven is above all. 32 He bears witness to what he has seen and heard, yet no one receives his testimony. 33 Whoever receives his testimony sets his seal to this, that God is true. 34 For he whom God has sent utters the words of God, for he gives the Spirit without measure. 35 The Father loves the Son and has given all things into his hand. 36 Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life; whoever does not obey the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God remains on him.
Let me share with you a blunt but honest opinion: second place stinks. Really, it does. Second place stinks.
When I was in high school, I saw that the South Carolina Baptist Convention was hosting a speaker’s tournament for teenagers. At that time, I knew that I had been called to ministry, so I signed up for the tournament. I passed through the first and second rounds, then prepared for the final round at St. Andrews Baptist Church in Columbia, South Carolina.
There were, I recall, about ten of us. There was one other guy and myself, and the rest were girls.
I knew when the other guy started speaking that I was in trouble. He was polished, smooth, and delivered a fantastic speak. I figured he would win and, in the end, I was correct. I won first-runner-up and he won the speaker’s tournament.
I’ll never forget when the state Baptist newspaper came out and our pictures were in it. Under his picture it said, “Winner.” Under mine it said, “First-Runner-Up.”
Well, I wasn’t thrilled about second place, but I enjoyed the experience.
A few years later, as a junior or senior in college, I was sitting in a large classroom listening to a lecture. I noticed that the guy next to me looked familiar. I began to talk to him and quickly surmised that he was the guy in the youth speaker’s tournament from some years earlier! I couldn’t believe it. Here I was, sitting next to “First Place” again!
I asked him how things had turned out for him and he replied: “Pretty good. I’m President of the student body here at the University.”
I will admit, to my shame, that I immediately thought, “Well, good grief! This guy is always going to be ahead of me in life, isn’t he!”
I say it with laughter now, and with no small bit of embarrassment, but it really was odd. I half thought, upon moving here to North Little Rock, Arkansas, that I would move into my house only to find that he lived next door to me in a little bit bigger house, driving a little bit nicer car. (I knew he couldn’t have a prettier wife than I did, though!)
Yes, I must admit, I hate second place. To be perfectly honest, none of us enjoy second place, do we? We wouldn’t think highly of a ball team who, entering a tournament, declared publicly that their great goal was to win second place.
I suppose there’s something natural about this, but, really, that’s the problem. Our nature isn’t a good guide. Our nature, after all, is sinful and under the curse of sin. The root cause of our hatred of second place is that, really, we think we are entitled to first place. We practically demand it, don’t we?
I once read a biography on Edgar Allen Poe and was struck by the following statement that he made: “My whole nature revolts at the idea that there is any Being in the Universe superior to myself.”
There you have it. That is actually a pretty good summary of the human condition and conviction. Before we come to Christ, we all say that: “My whole nature revolts at the idea that there is any Being in the Universe superior to myself.”
Of course, when we come to Christ, we should not say such a thing, right? After all, the Apostle Paul said, “I have been crucified with Christ, it is no longer I who live but Christ who lives in me…” (Galatians 2:20) The New Testament, then, sees the Christian life not as the obliteration of the self, but as the rebirth of the self through its death to enslaving sin and reanimation through the resurrected Christ.
So Jesus came not to say that you and your life doesn’t matter. On the contrary, He came to give you your life back. But He came to give us new life through the death of the old life that was bound to sin, death, and hell.
This leads us to an amazing paradox. This means, if you think about it, that our lives begin only when they end at the feet of something greater than and outside of ourselves. We must die in order to live. Consider the words of Jesus in John 12:
24Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. 25 Whoever loves his life loses it, and whoever hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life.
Part of this dying is recognizing that there is something in the universe greater than yourself. Brothers and sisters in Christ, may I be so bold as to remind you that you are not God. I am not God. We are not God.
The Christian journey begins with a recognition that our attempts at self-deification, at being God, have only served to highlight our great distance from God. When we repent at the feet of Jesus, we repent first and foremost of the native and inherent obsession with our own selves and our own opinions and our own desires and our own will and our agendas that has only served to destroy us. The Christian journey begins not only with the recognition that there is something greater and grander than us, but that He has a name and His name is Jesus. Our Christian journey begins, then, with an amazement at the God we behold in the face of Jesus the Christ and a subsequent rejection of the god we used to think we were. The Christian journey begins with a heart-broken smashing of the altars of our own selves, a rejection of the false god we have crafted in our own image, the casting down of the golden calf that bears our own faces.
And yet, it seems that the “me-culture” in which we live is forever causing us to forget this. Even in the church of the living God we may forget that we are not God if we are not careful. We may slowly and subtly begin to suspect that we, after all, are pretty great and that God, after all, is really secondary.
It can happen! It can! But, ladies and gentlemen, with all due respect, may I remind us that we are not the point. We are not the point!
The church rises and falls on her view of Christ. A church saturated by a holy longing to see and celebrate the infinite greatness of Christ is a church heading in the right direction. A church, however, that is committed to meeting the felt or perceived needs of people, or to providing for the comfort of people, or to offering people entertainment, is a church doomed to fail.
This is because the church was designed to be captured and held by a vision of Christ in His glory. Then, through that vision of and relationship with Christ, the church, under the guidance and with the power of the Holy Spirit, engages people for God’s further glory.
It can be a difficult thing to put Christ first. At the very least, it had to be a temptation for John the Baptist. After all, there was a time when John was the bright star on the scene. All of Jerusalem was going out to the Jordan to be baptized by him, by John. To be sure, John the Baptist always made great efforts to remind the people that he, John, was not the point and should not be the object of their attention. John was keen to tell the curious crowds and the angry religious officials that his entire job was to point to the coming of one greater than himself.
Even so, at least some of John’s followers had trouble with the transition. They seemed to struggle with the fact that the crowds were now running to Jesus and His baptism instead of to their own master, John.
A lesser man, of course, might, in such a situation, find subtle ways to edge on the frustrations of his disciples, but not John. Oh, to be sure, John was human. I do not think it is dishonoring to John the Baptist to wonder if, in some way, he had to struggle a bit internally with feelings of jealousy. But John was a man of God, and all the evidence suggests that at every opportunity given him he sought to downplay the jealousy of some of his own followers and make Jesus look great!
This morning, then, let us consider John as an example of a man who knew and loved Jesus Christ. Let us look at him to see how we, too, should stay focused and attached to Jesus.
To Know Christ Is To Reorient Our Joy To His Joy (vv.22-29)
We first see that some of John the Baptist’s disciples were struggling with the attention that was being given to Christ:
22After 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).
It is interesting to note that John’s ministry did not cease with the coming of Christ. John continued to baptize. But let us note that John’s ministry was not in competition with Christ’s. On the contrary, John simply continued his ministry and his baptism of repentance as a means to draw and point more people to Christ. In the midst of this continuing ministry, some of John’s disciples grow concerned and, most likely, a bit jealous about the crowds’ shifting focus to Jesus and away from their own master:
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.”
Now John has a choice here, does he not? He could do what we might have done and egged on his disciples’ frustration. He could have said, “I know, right? I mean, we were out here baptizing before my cousin, Jesus, came along. They used to listen to me preach. I used to have the big church in town. And then, wham!, here comes Jesus and steals the crowd! I mean, isn’t that sheep-stealing? And what about those folks that used to sit at my feet? Well! I guess all I did for them didn’t matter after all. Go figure! I’ve just been tossed out back, I guess. You’re right: it isn’t fair!”
John could have said that. He really could have. But, instead, he does a curious thing. He begins to talk to his disciples about joy. Listen:
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.
He speaks of joy twice here, and he approaches it through an illustration of a wedding. Let us imagine John’s address to his disciples. In doing so, allow me to read the cultural trappings of our weddings into the different cultural setting of a first-century Jewish wedding. Nothing will be lost in doing so and I think this will help us get the point of what John is saying a little more easily. Let us imagine John turning to his disciples and addressing them thus: “Guys, look: I get your frustration, but let me help you get this right. Imagine with me that we’re at a wedding. You’re sitting in the crowd and the wedding’s about to start. You see all the guys standing up front wearing tuxedos. And there’s the groom. There beside him is the shoshbin, the best man. And to the left and right, looking like nervous penguins, are the groomsmen. The preacher is standing there in the middle. And all the guys are waiting for the doors in the back to open and the bride to come down. You guys with me?”
“Yeah,” all of John’s disciples nod.
“Well, imagine with me that the doors to the church open and there, standing in the doorway, is the bride! Oh, man, she looks just like an angel! She’s got on an amazing, white, wedding gown. She’s smiling. Everybody stands up and turns to her, and here she comes down the aisle on her daddy’s arm. You hear the sniffles of some of the ladies in the crowd crying softly at how beautiful the bride looks. Her father is kind of grimacing but trying to look happy. And imagine they’ve come down the aisle and the bride is now just a couple of steps from the bridegroom. He swallows hard and grins nervously at his bride. You know what I’m talking about fellas?”
“Yeah, yeah, John. We’re following.”
“Then imagine, guys, that just as she is being presented to her husband, the best man all of a sudden lunges at her, throws an elbow at the bridegroom, knocks him over, pushes her dad away, grabs the bride around the waist, plants one on her and shouts, “Woooo-hoooo! Ain’t my woman FINE!”
I can see John’s disciples all laughing hysterically at the image. John continues: “I mean, guys, come on! There would be absolute pandemonium, wouldn’t there?”
“Yeah, John, you’re right! That would be crazy…and very wrong!”
“Yeah,” John continues, “it would be.” Then he pauses, looks up for a minute and says, “Guys, listen: Jesus – the one that all the folks are running to – Jesus is the groom. I’m just the best man. I’m not jealous that the bride – the people – want to be with their groom. On the contrary, I feel just like a best man at a wedding. My joy is linked to his joy, and all I want is for their marriage to be a great success.”
St. Augustine imagines John’s point in these beautiful words: “I am in the place of hearer; he, of speaker; I am as the one that must be enlightened, he is the light; I am as the ear, he is the word.”
Do you see? Verse 29 again:
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.
John is saying to his disciples that knowing and loving and following Jesus means reorienting our joy to His. It means determining that what makes me joyful isn’t the real point anymore. Rather, what gives Jesus joy now becomes the source of my joy as well.
Then John puts an amazing bow on the thought. At the end of v.29 he says, “Therefore this joy of mine is now complete.”
Theodore of Mopsuestia summarized this amazing statement in this way:
“My joy is that I see his incorruptible bride keeping her love for him. That all would love him and believe in him – this is the kind of love that is fitting and due him – and most certainly due to him as Lord! If I, instead, wanted to attract the bride to myself, I would be committing an act of spiritual corruption because I would deceitfully pursue a union for which I have no right, and would be committing adultery.”
Don’t miss that, church. John’s joy found its completion where Jesus’ joy began. To put his plans above Jesus’ plans would be adulterous and wrong. Doing the will of the Father brought Jesus joy, so doing the will of the Father became John’s joy as well. Seeing people come to Himself brought Jesus joy, so seeing people come to Jesus brought John joy too.
How about you? How about you?
Can you honestly say this morning that the joy of Christ has redefined and now defines your own joy? Can you say that your affections have been aligned to His? Or are you trying to have it both ways? Are you trying to have the benefits of Christ without embracing and submitting to the joys of Christ? Are you trying to have the gift of salvation that Christ gives without letting Him overtake your heart to such a degree that His mind becomes your mind, that His affections become your affections, and that His joy becomes your joy?
In thinking about joy, I really appreciate how philosopher Peter Kreeft differentiates between pleasure, happiness, and joy:
“Joy is more than happiness, just as happiness is more than pleasure. Pleasure is in the body. Happiness is in the mind and feelings. Joy is deep in the heart, the spirit, the center of the self.
The way to pleasure is power and prudence. The way to happiness is moral goodness. The way to joy is sanctity, loving God with your whole heart and your neighbor as yourself.
Everyone wants pleasure. More deeply, everyone wants happiness. Most deeply, everyone wants joy.
Freud says that spiritual joy is a substitute for physical pleasure. People become saints out of sexual frustrations.
This is exactly the opposite of the truth. St. Thomas Aquinas says, “No man can live without joy. That is why one deprived of spiritual joy goes over to carnal pleasures.” Sanctity is never a substitute for sex, but sex is often a substitute for sanctity.”
Kreeft speaks of pleasure, happiness, and joy as a spectrum from lowest to highest. Pleasure is a physical phenomenon. Happiness is linked to moral goodness. But joy is linked to the condition of the human heart. Joy is the deepest and most profound condition in, by, and through which we have a deep and profound peace with the will of God.
I think that holds up nicely. Christian joy is that condition of the believer’s heart in which he or she is so consumed with the beauty and glory of Christ that his or her affections, desires, wishes, and hopes have been aligned to Christ’s affections, desire, wishes, and hopes.
To know Christ is to reorient our joy to His joy.
To Know Christ Is To See Our Ego End Where His Greatness Begins (v.30)
Of course, the greatest challenge that John’s disciples presented to him was the challenge of ego. When John’s disciples complained of the crowds flocking to Jesus, John the Baptist was faced with an amazing choice: would he fall back into his own ego and take offense, or would he let his ego die at the feet of Jesus.
The answer is found in verse 30, in one of the most amazing, humble, selfless statements ever to pass the lips of mortal man. Here is what John the Baptist said to his disciples: “He must increase, but I must decrease.”
That statement is chill-inducing in its astounding humility. “He [Jesus] must increase, but I must decrease.”
I can imagine the stirring storms of intensity in John’s eyes as he says it: “Guys, get this and don’t forget it: I want Jesus to get bigger and myself to get smaller. I want my cousin to get the big crowds. I want them to go to Him, not to me. I want His fame to spread and my own name to slip into obscurity. I want His name in the bright lights and my name off the marquee. I want His ministry to explode and my ministry to have simply accomplished its temporary task! I want Jesus’ to be known and worshiped and spoken of and adored and praised and followed by everybody who walks the earth. I’m not the point, guys! It’s not about me! Guys, it was never about me! He must increase, but I must decrease!”
Church, hear me: to know Christ is to see our egos end where His greatness begins! To know Christ is to see our agendas end where His plan begins. To know Christ is to take the petty furniture of our egos and burn it in a pile out back. To know Christ is to say, “He must increase, but I must decrease!”
Have you said that? Are you saying that? Do you wake up each morning with a profound sense of Christ’s greatness over your own?
Let me ask a more fundamental question: are you convinced of the greatness of Jesus Christ? Is he, in your opinion, the greatest? Now, don’t revert to your Sunday School answers. Answer honestly: in the way that you approach your business, your relationships, and your own life, is Christ and His teachings and His vision and His cross and resurrection the main piece of the puzzle, the key component, the North Star of your path? Do you see Jesus as the greatest and the best?
Even here there is a problem. Actually, calling Jesus “the greatest” falls short of the reality. Here’s how John Stott put it in his amazing book, The Radical Disciple:
“So we may talk about Alexander the Great, Charles the Great and Napolean the Great, but not Jesus the Great. He is not the Great – he is the Only. There is nobody like him. He has no rival and no successor.”
Indeed! He is the Only!
He must increase, but we must decrease.
To Know Christ Is To Accept His Countercultural Message (vv.31-36)
To know Christ is to reorient our joy to His joy, to let our egos die where His greatness begins, and to accept His countercultural message.
I like the word “countercultural,” especially as it applies to Jesus. A “cultural” message is one that is in harmony and agreement with the predominant message of the culture in which we live. If you want to know what our cultural message is, observe the arts coming out of the culture: music, movies, literature, etc. But a “countercultural” message is one that runs against the cultural message, colliding, conflicting, and contrasting with it at key and crucial points.
Jesus’ message has always been countercultural and Jesus Himself was countercultural. This is why He always sounded like He was upside down in the world. This is why the world (and, oftentimes, the church) struggled and struggles to understand Him. Jesus spoke and thought in a way that highlighted His origin from above and our enslavement to the ways of the world. This is how John puts it in verse 31:
31 He who comes from above is above all. He who is of the earth belongs to the earth and speaks in an earthly way. He who comes from heaven is above all. 32 He bears witness to what he has seen and heard, yet no one receives his testimony.
“No one receives his testimony,” John says. The more we are immersed in our culture, the harder it is to get a handle on what Jesus was saying and doing. His message was countercultural. More than that, His message was the message of God, and lost people do not care for the thoughts of God. But John the Baptist goes on to say that knowing and loving Jesus means accepting without reservation His countercultural message. Hear verses 31-36:
33 Whoever receives his testimony sets his seal to this, that God is true. 34 For he whom God has sent utters the words of God, for he gives the Spirit without measure. 35 The Father loves the Son and has given all things into his hand. 36 Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life; whoever does not obey the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God remains on him.
To be a believer in Christ means taking up the joy of Christ, letting our own egos stay nailed to the cross, and then trusting, believing, embracing, and walking in the message of Christ.
Do we really believe the truth of what Jesus said and who Jesus is? “Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life,” John says in verse 36. But that belief, if true, should evidence itself in our lives as we follow and obey Jesus. This explains the shift in verbs in verse 36. Watch closely: “Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life; whoever does not obey the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God remains on him.”
Belief, then, is obedience. Disbelief is disobedience. You cannot say you believe if you will not obey.
To know Christ is to believe and walk in His will. To truly believe in Christ is to see His miraculous and life-transforming power flesh itself out in our day-to-day existence. This is how Lois Cheney put it:
There was a place
Where the unbelief was so great
Jesus, the Son of God,
Could not heal and help,
And so he left them.
Has anyone seen Jesus lately?
That’s not a bad question, really. “Has anyone seen Jesus lately?” Have you? Have I?
Jesus, the Son of God, lives and reigns on high. He is still in the business of turning worlds upside down, of transforming lives from the inside out. He still confronts and challenges both the world and His church.
If you know Him, embrace His joy, abandon your own ego, and believe and follow the Risen King!
 Hervey Allen. Israfel: The Life and Times of Edgar Allen Poe. (Murray Hill, New York: Farrar & Rinehart, Inc., 1934), p.589.
 “The bridegroom’s ‘friend’ here may be the shoshbin (sometimes compared with our modern ‘best man’), a highly honored position that involved much joy. (A shoshbin would undoubtedly be chosen with more forethought than the ruler of the wedding banquet in 2:9.) The shoshbins of bride and groom functioned as witnesses in the wedding, normally contributed financially to the wedding, and would be intimately concerned with the success of the wedding. Some have linked the shoshbin with the marriage negotiator. This was probably sometimes the case; agents (shaliachim) often negotiated betrothals, and sometimes these agents were probably significant persons who might also fill a role in the wedding, which might fit the image of John as one ‘sent’ by God. But such agents were sometimes servants, not likely to become shoshbins…Jewish teachers reported that God himself acted as Adam’s shoshbin, his best man.” Craig S. Keener, The Gospel of John: A Commentary. Vol.1. (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 2003), p.579-580.
 Francis J. Moloney, S.D.B., The Gospel of John. Sacra Pagina, vol.4, ed., Daniel J. Harrington, S.J. (Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press, 1989), p.110, n.30.
 Theodore of Mopsuestia, Commentary on the Gospel of John, trans., Marco Conti, ed., Joel C. Elowsky. Ancient Christian Texts, eds., Thomas C. Oden and Gerald L. Bray(Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2010), p.38.
 John Stott, The Radical Disciple (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2010), p.20.