By porthkerryandrhoose, May 31 2017 08:30PM
Do you have box sets at home or use Netflix or Amazon Prime Video? Do you follow long-term drama serials on TV? If so, you may have noticed that many episodes start with a catch-up clip before the opening credits. My favourite drama series is the West Wing – yes, I own the box set, and yes, some of the discs have started to wear out! Many of the episodes begin with ‘previously on the West Wing…’ followed by a montage of scenes from previous episodes, or occasionally previous series. Sometimes, this is a just a chance to catch up if an episode has been missed – remember the series was broadcast before the days of TV on demand. But occasionally, scenes were replayed because they had a bearing on the episode that was to follow. Something that occurred in previous episodes was about to develop further.
Today’s section from John’s gospel has a flavour of the catch-up or recap about it. Some of the things he relates have been said before. However, the repetition is not merely a restatement in case his readers missed the point or failed to understand, the testimony given is going to be developed and there are new revelations about Jesus. Firstly, we have an incident among John the Baptist and his disciples which leads John to repeat his ‘I am not’ statement from chapter one. We also hear from John the Baptist, in his description of his own role in relation to Jesus, a model for Christian discipleship. Finally, we are given a glimpse of the Trinitarian nature of God as John affirms Jesus’ authority and demonstrates interaction between Father, Son and Spirit.
Let’s begin by looking at the incident between John the Baptist and his disciples, as described in verses 25-28. John’s disciples have been arguing with someone about ceremonial washing. From the nature of their complaint to John, it is quite likely that the person they were arguing with is a follower of Jesus. What is the nature of their complaint? V 26 tells us: ‘They came to John and said to him, “Rabbi, that man who was with you on the other side of the Jordan – the one you testified about – look, he is baptising, and everyone is going to him.”’ There may be a certain amount of envy on the part of the disciples – that Jesus is becoming more popular than their own teacher John. However, they have also failed to accept or misunderstood John’s testimony about Jesus. They acknowledge that John told them about Jesus but haven’t grasped what John said about him. So John puts them right and reminds them of his first testimony. In v 27, John tells his disciples ‘A person can receive only what is given them from heaven.’ If Jesus is gaining followers – more followers than John as his disciples complain – then it is God’s will that it is so. John reminds his disciples (v 28) ‘I am not the Messiah but am sent ahead of him.’ He himself is not God’s chosen one but he has been sent by God as a witness to the one who is – Jesus.
Have you failed to accept some of the things you’ve been taught about Jesus? Are there things you’ve misunderstood? How do handle that sort of situation? John’s disciples were envious of Jesus’ popularity and complained to John about it. However, John doesn’t reject their questioning. He answers their questions and teaches them further, as we will see. If you are seeking understanding or struggling to accept something, it’s good to ask questions. Go back to your preacher for clarification; read the Bible passage again for fresh understanding; or ask a faithful friend with a good grasp of Scripture to help. Don’t complain like John’s disciples, but don’t leave your questions unanswered!
Next, we look at John’s description of his role in relation to Jesus and how it models Christian discipleship for us. He uses the analogy of the bridegroom and the friend attending him. In the gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke, Jesus refers to himself as the bridegroom, so the analogy is not unfamiliar now – though it may have been to John’s disciples. In John’s analogy too, Jesus is the bridegroom and John the friend who attends him. Just as the friend is a witness of the bridegroom’s marriage, so John the Baptist is now a witness of Jesus’ ministry. In v 29 John says ‘The friend attends the bridegroom and listens for him, and is full of joy when he hears the bridegroom’s voice. That joy is mine, and it is now complete.’ This may be another message for John’s disciples – that he is happy with Jesus’ success in ministry and in proclaiming the kingdom of God, and so should they be. In v 30 John goes on to say, ‘He must become greater; I must become less.’ John continued to fulfil God’s will for his life by testifying about Jesus after Jesus began his ministry but he continues to demonstrate the humility we first saw in chapter 1. John’s joy is not in a job well done of proclaiming the arrival of Jesus but in seeing Jesus proclaim God’s kingdom and in recognising that God has revealed himself to humanity in Jesus. This is a model of true discipleship for us.
Do you have the humility of John the Baptist? Can you see yourself purely as a messenger for God? Can you simply take joy in God’s revelation of himself in Jesus? These are indeed things to strive for, as all too often we feel the glory and pride of a job well done. We run the risk of elevating ourselves – or being elevated by others – to a status we don’t deserve and can’t maintain. In doing so, we mask the light of Christ and put God’s glory in the shade. If we are to gain the humility of John the Baptist then perhaps we should seek to emulate him in word and action. In word, we should give glory to God as John did: ‘He must become greater; I must become less.’ In action, too, we should seek to give glory to God rather than ourselves, so that all our actions point towards Jesus. We won’t always get it right but humility also comes from the ability to admit that we’ve got things wrong – and trying again.
Finally, we see John affirm the authority of Jesus and give a glimpse of the Trinitarian nature of God. This may be John the Baptist continuing to teach his disciples, or it may be John the Evangelist summarising this chapter. Either way, Jesus’ authority is affirmed through a comparison to John the Baptist in v 31: ‘The one who comes from above is above all; the one who is from the earth belongs to the earth, and speaks as one from the earth. The one who is from heaven is above all.’ There are echoes here of Jesus’ conversation with Nicodemus in vv 12-13 ‘I have spoken to you of earthly things and you do not believe; how then will you believe if I speak of heavenly things? No one has ever gone into heaven except the one who came from heaven – the Son of Man.’ Now John tells us that ‘as one from the earth’ John the Baptist testifies to the things of God that God has revealed to him but Jesus, ‘the one who comes from heaven’ speaks of heavenly things – he speaks directly of the God who is behind the activity on earth. Furthermore, John says that to hear Jesus is to hear God. He says in vv 33-35 ‘Whoever has accepted it has certified that God is truthful. For the one whom God has sent speaks the words of God, for God gives the Spirit without limit. The Father loves the Son and has placed everything in his hands.’ Jesus is not simply voicing a message from a distant God, he is God’s Son. Through these verses, we also see the interaction and relationship of God in Trinity, Father, Son and Spirit. Jesus has not just received God’s message, but also God’s Spirit – and ‘without limit’. Jesus also has the Father’s love and God ‘has placed everything in his hands.’ In these verses, we are reminded that heaven has been opened at the baptism of Jesus. The Son and the Spirit have both descended from heaven to earth, sent by the Father, who is the source of all things and who has given all things to the Son. That Jesus has received the Spirit without limit shows that he has full authority from God. It is with this authority that God’s gift of eternal life is offered, as in vv16-17 and here in v 36: ‘whoever believes in the Son has eternal life, but whoever rejects the Son will not see life, for God’s wrath remains on them.’
Are you ready to accept God’s gift of eternal life? Have you already accepted it? It doesn’t require any grand gestures on our part and there’s no criteria to meet. We can come as we are because God asks us simply to believe in his Son. In a few moments, we’ll have an opportunity to declare our belief in God’s three-fold nature – whether for the first time, or as a reaffirmation. Will you take that step today?
Let us pray
Loving Father God, thank you for calling John the Baptist to prepare the way for your Son Jesus. Thank you for his witness and his example of discipleship. We’re sorry for the times when, like John’s disciples, we fail to accept or understand who Jesus is and the message of love and salvation that he brings and for when we fail to show true humility as John did. Give us the courage to ask questions to help us in our faith and help us to make Jesus greater and ourselves less in our words and actions. Strengthen our faith in your Son through your Spirit so that we may always be assured of your gift of eternal life. In Jesus’ name, Amen.