Jesus’ words were especially controversial. The arrival of the king wasn’t turning out anything like people had been expecting. The luscious pictures of the Old Testament were ringing true enough, but there was a sinister note that would have been as unpopular then as I guess it is now. No one likes to be told they’re facing the judgement of God1.
Not me, but Him
I think that’s one of reasons the author of John’s gospel chose this moment to turn to John the Baptist (“JtB”). JtB was one of our key witnesses at the beginning of the account – the God-commissioned witness to Jesus. Now that things seem to have gone a bit wrong, he’s the one to turn to in order to straighten things out, right?
Well, in a sense. Those who were concerned about Jesus’ mounting popularity came to JtB to get his input, especially since Jesus appeared to be overtaking the reputation of the Baptist. JtB’s response is unequivocal.
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 must increase, but I must decrease. (vv29-30)
It’s a wonderful and touching image. John the Baptist says that he’s just the best man. He shuns the attention in order to point to Jesus – to get everyone looking at Him. When you’re at a wedding, you’re not supposed to look at the best man. Frankly it’s embarrassing when they take all of the attention! No, much better to have all the cameras facing the happy couple. Leave the best man to stand in the sidelines and enjoy his friend’s moment of glory.
Rather than ‘clearing things up’ or diverting attention away from the awkward conversation which preceded these verses, JtB backs Him. In fact, he backs Him so heavily, he goes as far as to say that he should fade into the background while Jesus takes centre stage.
It’s as though the unassuming Baptist is carrying an enormous cardboard arrow pointing away from himself and towards Jesus, so that there’s absolutely no question. His testimony is much the same as it was in chapter 1 – “Not me, but Him.” Not the deflection of a shy one who hates the limelight, but the clear conviction of his role: to point to Christ.
It’s no wonder, then, that the final few verses of the chapter constitute a glowing reference for Jesus, and an echo of the point that Jesus has just made. Notice the particular focus of the review is Jesus’ words:
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. He bears witness to what he has seen and heard, yet no one receives his testimony. Whoever receives his testimony sets his seal to this, that God is true. For he whom God has sent utters the words of God, for he gives the Spirit without measure. (vv31-34)
The Baptist doesn’t simply ignore the difficulty of Jesus’ words. He doesn’t try and distract us to another feature of His character – which He could easily do. He faces the issue straight on and gets us focused in on the very point that we’re concerned about: Jesus’ testimony. And here’s his point: if Jesus is from above, if Jesus is sent from God, then you’re going to want to listen up. You’re going to want to receive His testimony.
What kind of defence would you go for?
I was just struck as I thought about this how unusual this kind of defence is. My temptation is to point to all of the other things which Jesus did that show His compassion, His love and His mercy towards the downtrodden. I’m inclined to point away from the harsh-sounding words and focus on something gentler.
And that’s as much for my own benefit as for others.
But while there’s merit in seeing a full picture of Jesus, it’s noticeable here that we get the opposite approach. Our attention is pushed squarely into the very testimony that we’ve just found so difficult. And the point is implied: if He’s from above, who are you to argue?
Explicitly, John the Baptist is simply ensuring that our attention is off Him and onto Jesus. But in the context of chapter 3, it’s clear that our author has included this vote of confidence to keep hold of us. Don’t reject this teaching of Jesus. Rather, keep paying attention. Keep listening up. Keep reading on.
After all, it’s only by reading on that we’ll ever work out who Jesus is welcoming into this kingdom of His…
Check back on Wednesday for the next post…