Beyond the Lectionary Text: John 3:22-36
by Chelsey Harmon
After the midnight conversation with Nicodemus in which Jesus proclaims who he is and what he is about on earth, the gospel writer solidifies and catapults the message by bringing Jesus and the John the Baptist’s storylines back together in verse 22. Back in chapter 1, John the Baptist is introduced as the man sent from God to bear witness to the light. Living up to that description, at every opportunity that he appears in the story of Jesus, John directs our attention away from himself and towards the Christ.
Because we know the story, we aren’t surprised by what John says about Jesus. But not so for John’s disciples. It would be easy for us to judge John’s disciples a little too harshly, but if you understand what it meant to be a disciple of a rabbi at that time, then their pride in their rabbi is not so surprising. When you were invited to become a student by a well-respected rabbi, you gave your life over to him. You spent an inordinate amount of time by his side. You served him while you watched him, learning how to live from how he lived, what to think by how he thought, what to believe by seeing him live his faith in action. Given the cost of following after your rabbi, it isn’t farfetched to see how that devotion could easily slide into pride and fierce protection—for not only your teacher but for what had become your identity and way of life. And let’s face it, the more prestigious your rabbi, the more prestigious you become as well…
Along with their devotion were the simple facts of what they had witnessed about John and Jesus. John the Baptist’s ministry of calling Jews to repentance and commitment to holy living predated Jesus’ ministry. Jesus himself seemingly submitted to John by going to him in order to be baptized; that baptism served as a commissioning of Jesus’ ministry. Furthermore, Jesus’ first message was the same as that of John the Baptist’s: “Repent!” For all intents and purposes, Jesus’ ministry was built on John the Baptist’s ministry. So when John’s disciples get into a discussion about whose baptism is more effective—their rabbi’s or that other guy’s—there really isn’t any question in their minds. They only have one horse in this race.
One can imagine the scene: feeling the prompting of the Holy Spirit, or perhaps out of simple curiosity, a man seeks out John’s disciples to ask them about the baptism happening at their end of the water. He’s probably planning on repeating the process at the other end with Jesus’ disciples before choosing which one he’s going to submit to. The text doesn’t specify whether or not John’s disciples bring the man who raised the issue with them when they go to talk to John directly about it, but I can imagine this man being the ‘straw that broke the camel’s back’—one in a long line of men who chose to go on down to Jesus— frustrating John’s disciples and their attempts to deliver converts.
Frustrated or not, his disciples finally challenge John to address the “usurper” who is baptizing all the people. They remember Jesus, as they make clear by referring to him as the one “to whom you bore witness.” But, obviously, they haven’t pieced together what John said when he bore witness to Jesus, so John says it again but in a new way, addressing the very heart of their envy, then reminding them what he already said on the matter. John starts off by telling them that their ministry, and the ministry of Jesus, receives what heaven gives, not what they earn or create, not on their own merit. Then, he calls upon them to remember what he has tried to teach them about himself in relation to the greatest gift heaven gives, the Christ. John knows he isn’t “God’s gift to humanity” to use the colloquialism, but Jesus is! For John, God’s gift to him is being able to be a part of what Jesus is doing.
To bring it home, John paints for them a picture. A bit different than our modern weddings where women rule the process, men took a much more active role in making sure all went well on the big day. John describes himself as Jesus’ best man—prepping everything for the wedding, measuring his success by the groom’s happiness and joy at being united with his bride, receiving the groom’s kind words at the party as the only reward or recognition he needs.
Clearly, the Holy Spirit was at work in inspiring John’s picture of the groom and his joy. Throughout the gospels, Jesus refers directly to himself as the bridegroom, uses a parable to teach about being the bridegroom, and the New Testament letters depicts the church (the people of God) as the bride. Though he may not have understood it completely when he began to baptize and call people to a lifestyle of preparing to meet God through acts of repentance and holiness, John got it when he encountered the living God in Jesus. He understood that he was helping the bride be as beautiful as she could be to meet her groom, all the while knowing that the bridegroom was going to love his bride no matter how she looked. Now for his disciples to follow suit…
It’s unclear whether or not verses 31-36 are meant to be understood as part of John’s conversation with his disciples or whether it’s a commentary provided by the gospel writer to tie together what we’ve been learning about Jesus through these first few chapters. Either way, it’s a call to discipleship. John’s disciples say what they do because they are John’s disciples. John redirects them to understand that being a rabbi isn’t the greatest thing one can be. Jesus comes from heaven, and by his very nature, is greater than anything John could ever be; like a good best man, John wouldn’t have it any other way. The tone that John’s words imply (especially if these verses are his words) is in direct contrast to the envy his disciples brought with them. There is no bitterness in John; he realized that he was going to have to decrease so that Jesus could increase in the lives of his disciples and the world. And (again, if these verses are applied to John) John seems to have all too clear of a picture how difficult the world will have it in trying to accept the greatest gift of heaven. When God offers so much love, so much of himself—not only in Jesus but in the gift of the Spirit, who is “given without measure,” humans have a hard time accepting the truth of the matter. John has told his disciples that he isn’t their Messiah, now if they could only see that the one down the way is who they have been looking for; if they could only devote themselves to him as they have to John, setting their seal upon Jesus’ proclamation! Seals were identity markers—if you put your seal on something, it was like you were staking your claim and reputation on it. In essence, to set one’s seal upon the testimony of Jesus is another way of talking about the same sort of commitment a disciple makes to his rabbi.
John’s joy will be complete if his disciples understand that the bridegroom is waiting to meet them down the way. He is willing to look like a failure if it means that more people come to understand heaven’s gift, the Christ. John truly lived for God’s glory above all else.
In the movie 27 Dresses, Katherine Hiegl stars as Jane, always the bridesmaid, never the bride—literally- 27 times the bridesmaid. Like John the Baptist describes about Jesus, Jane’s joy comes from the groom’s happiness at meeting his bride, not in being noticed or highlighted as a bridesmaid. At one point in the movie she says, “You know how the bride makes her entrance and everybody turns to look at her? That’s when I look at the groom. ‘Cause his face says it all, you know? The pure love there.” That moment is one of the reasons why she keeps torturing herself by agreeing to be her friends’ bridesmaid.
Let me let you in on a little secret, weddings aren’t the most enjoyable part of my pastoral duties. Not every wedding is this way, but the pastor’s role can easily be underappreciated. We’re not usually compensated completely for the work we do because the weddings are for members of our churches; this includes losing some precious evenings and weekend time to weddings, rehearsals, receptions and dinners. Frankly, sometimes being the officiant can make you feel like a piece of furniture—something that needs to be there but only to serve a utilitarian purpose. So when I started to officiate weddings and feeling crappy about my role, I took Jane’s advice—especially at the more traditional weddings where the bride and groom wait to see one another until the actual ceremony. Since I have the privilege of standing with the groom, I’ve been able to witness how he reacts at the first sight of the bride. His emotion is palpable! In that moment, the little bit of the frustration that comes in wedding planning and officiating is washed away as I realize I am about to unite two people in something bigger than themselves. In that moment, when I can almost feel the love between the bride and groom, being a piece of furniture that showcases something so grand isn’t the worse thing in the world.
John describes the Father’s love for the Son, and Jesus himself said that God so loved the world that he gave up his one and only Son, that whoever should believe in him should not perish but have eternal life. (John 3.16) That’s the love that John the Baptist, as God’s best man, got to witness in the life and ministry of Jesus as Jesus met his bride on earth. That’s the pure love all of God’s servants get to witness when they live in such a way that their prestige and honour decreases in order for God’s to increase. And that’s the love that welcomes us into our bridegroom’s arms.
Always the bridesmaid, by the end of the movie Jane got to be the bride. And in a voiceover as she walks down the aisle, she says, “Everything was perfect and I didn’t care because right then the only thing that mattered was the person waiting for me at the end of the aisle and he was looking at me the way I’d always hoped.” Amen.