Lessons in John’s Gospel

John 3:22-4:3 – The Baptist’s Exit

The Adult Bible Class of Home Moravian Church; originally broadcast 12-10-06

Introduction: Good morning and welcome to the Adult Bible Class of Home Moravian Church. This is the second Sunday in Advent, and we are broadcasting live from the chapel of Home Church, which will soon be beautifully decorated with greenery for Christmas. Yesterday, men of the church made the annual foray into the words to bring back hundreds of pounds of cedar. Friday night, members of the church will gather and tie the cedar on to long ropes, making garlands of evergreens. I love the Friday night decorating. I think it is an important part of our Advent preparations. Children and adults alike help trim the cedar and bring it into the fellowship hall. In recent weeks I had the experience of having my 6th grade teacher hear me preach for Thanksgiving and my Social Studies teacher from 8th grade was at the Wake Forest lovefeast. It was great to see two women who played such important roles in my life. All our lives have been profoundly shaped by people who sacrifice themselves for the sake of others. A teacher’s greatest joy is the success of his or her students. The teacher must decrease in order for the student to increase. That is the theme of our lesson for this week.

Aenon near Salim:  It is very appropriate in this season of Advent that today’s lesson is about John the Baptist since he is the herald of the messiah. This is the last time he appears in John’s gospel.The Gospel of John is very detailed in its descriptions, and for the most part it is more accurate in its geography than the other gospels. Surprisingly, that attention to geographic detail is not matched by a similar concern for chronological accuracy. For instance, our passage for today opens with a statement that Jesus and his disciples went into the region of Judea even though the previous story took place in Judea. Many modern translators smooth over this difficulty by stating that Jesus left the city and went into the Judean countryside. It is quite likely that this story was originally about a trip from Jesus’ home in Galilee to Judea, but the evangelist placed it after the Nicodemus dialog to press home the connection between being born from above.

            There has been a lot research into the place names given here, Aenon and Salim. These were the names of actual towns, but there are three possible settings for this story. Two of the sites are in the Jordan Valley in Judea. The third and most likely sites are the towns of Salim and Ainun in Samaria where there were many springs in ancient times. The idea that John was baptizing in Samaria connects well with the next story, which takes place in Samaria. There are interpreters who think that the names are merely symbolic, because the names mean the springs of peace.  Thus this story points to the idea that the baptism of Jesus is a well of salvation. This also connects well with the story for next week.

Chronology:                The editor of John’s Gospel added a note to original story that indicates that this event took place before John was arrested, which is a rather obvious thing to point out. Interestingly, this is the only allusion to the arrest of John in this gospel. The other gospels indicate that Jesus did not begin preaching until after John’s arrest. We have already discussed the fact that some of John’s disciples became followers of Jesus. This implies more contact between John and Jesus than is described in the Gospels, and this scene in John’s gospel makes sense. It is safe to assume that the paths of Jesus and John crossed more than once.

Was Jesus Baptizing?            There is another curious feature of this narrative. Verse 22 clearly states that Jesus was baptizing in Judea, presumably in the Jordan River, but at the end of this passage (4:2) it denies that Jesus himself baptized. Only his disciples baptized. Raymond Brown states that this scribal addition “serves as almost indisputable evidence of the presence of several hands in the composition of John” (Brown, The Gospel of John, I:164), and I think he is correct. There is no clear reason why this scribal note was needed, unless it was to counter claims from the disciples of the Baptist that Jesus was simply imitating the master. By correcting one presumed flaw in the gospel, though, the editor caused a problem for the church later. Holy Communion can be clearly traced to the initiative and instruction of Jesus himself, but here is a gospel that denies that Jesus instituted baptism, thus undermining the idea of baptism as a sacrament. As the text now stands we are left with the strange assertion that Jesus’ disciples baptized but he did not. Some researchers have used this evidence that the Gospel of John is anti-sacramental, a claim that we will examine in a later lesson.

Dispute over Baptism:           The questions surrounding baptism pre-date the founding of the church, and we should probably not be surprised that Christians today continue to disagree about the meaning of baptism. According to verse 25 there was an argument between John’s disciples and a certain Jew about purification. This is a very awkward verse in Greek. Some ancient manuscripts read “the Jews,” which makes a little better sense. We can easily picture a dispute between John’s disciples and the religious authorities over the nature of baptism. This would agree with the evidence from the Synoptic gospels that John was a controversial figure for the Sadducees and Pharisees alike. Though this makes sense, the oldest manuscripts clearly refer to a single person as the Jew. Some scholars have speculated that in the original text, the Jew was actually Jesus, which would also make good sense in light of what follows, but there is no textual evidence to support this claim. Gail O’Day sums up the difficulty of this verse nicely, “The most that can be said confidently about this problematic verse is that it provides the pretext for the disciples’ complaint in v. 26” (O’Day, 557).       

Jealousy:        Surprisingly, the complaint was not about John. It was that Jesus and his followers were baptizing. John’s disciples were upset that this newcomer had begun his own ministry in competition to John. This kind of thing happens all the time in the history of religion. It is like the fans of Carl Perkins complaining that Elvis Presley made “Blue Suede Shoes” famous; or Moravians complaining that John Wesley took Zinzendorf’s ideas and made a bigger church out of them. In other words, the disciples of John were expressing their jealousy and resentment. They had thrown in their lot with John the Baptist and they didn’t like the fact that there was a competitor doing John’s act. In the other gospels, it was Jesus’ disciples who objected to another preacher casting out demons just like Jesus.

The disciples of John, like the disciples of Jesus in the other story, expected that their teacher would share their resentment and justify their anger. There is no doubt that John the Baptist was a self-confident prophet who openly defied the conventions of his society. We might expect that such a person would be an egomaniac or a religious fanatic who would be very angry that Jesus had not become one of his disciples. But in our lesson, John recognized that he was only a part of a much bigger drama. He did not feed into his disciples’ self-righteous indignation. Instead, he quoted a proverb that is similar to what Jesus said later to Pilate. “No one can receive anything except what has been given from heaven.” (19:11)

This sentiment is similar to the Muslim idea that all that happens is the will of God. There can be problems with this idea. It can lead to a fatalism that justifies lack of self-assertion and action. It can also be used by those with power and wealth to claim their status as a divine entitlement. People tend to use the idea that all that happens is the will of God somewhat selectively. Those who saw the election of our current president as an expression of the will of God had a different view of the election of the previous president, for instance. In our lesson for today, this old proverb is used to minimize jealousy and conflict by offering a wise perspective on life. Let Jesus do what God has called Jesus to do, and if it prospers, then the work of God prospers. John reminded his disciples that their message was not about John the Baptist; it was about God’s salvation. So what if Jesus gained more disciples? As Kris Kringle said in Miracle on 34th St., the important thing is the happiness of the child, regardless of whether Macy’s or Gimbel’s makes the sale. The important thing for John was that people were hearing the message and responding.

The Friend of the Bridegroom:         John uses a wedding metaphor to explain the situation. He is the friend of the Groom, not the Bridegroom. Marriage is an important metaphor in the Johannine writings where the kingdom of God is often described in terms of a wedding banquet. The OT speaks often of Israel as the Bride of God, and there is a Jewish festival in the spring that celebrates the marriage of Israel and God. The Talmud depicts Moses as the best man at the wedding. So, this language of marriage in John has deep Jewish roots. In the synoptic gospels, Jesus used a wedding metaphor to explain why the disciples of John fasted but his followers did not. The wedding is an image of intimacy, love, and joy that has largely been lost in modern Christianity. This story was probably intentionally placed near the story of the wedding at Cana.

            But John is making a very specific point. In Jewish tradition the shoshben is the closest friend of the groom, and in the old days it was the shoshben who made all of the arrangements for the wedding festival. In our society that role usually falls on the mother of the bride, so we miss some of the significance of what John is saying here. John the Baptist is the one who sacrifices and works to prepare for the wedding, but it is the groom and his bride who will be the center of attention. The best man’s efforts are for the sake of someone else. His joy is the joy of seeing a friend enjoying himself and being happy. The best man plays a role similar to that of a mid-wife. He assists in bringing about the joy of another person.

Altruism:         There are scientists and philosophers who claim that all humans are irredeemably selfish. I always assume that such people are just talking about themselves and want to justify their selfishness. I think that they ignore the plain evidence of friendship. There are times when we humans sacrifice our pleasure for the happiness of someone else. I know a man who gave one of his kidneys so that his best friend could live. His joy is fulfilled in the knowledge that his friend can now enjoy riding his motorcycle again. This is the role that the ascetic John claims: his joy is the joy that comes from serving the Bridegroom.

            The best friend must step aside for the sake of the one he loves, just as a coach has to step back to let the athletes succeed. It is precisely because the Baptist is preparing for the Messiah that he must decrease. He is a steward preparing for the coming of the king. His work will be completed by someone else. In the church calendar, the birth of Jesus is placed on Dec. 25, the date when it is evident that the days are increasing. In contrast, the birth of John was placed on June 24, when the days begin to decrease. Even the calendar reminds us that those who proclaim Christ must learn to step aside and rejoice that people follow him not the preacher.

One From Above:      The last five verses of chapter 3 repeat the themes that were part of the conversation with Nicodemus. The one who comes from heaven has the authority to speak of heavenly things. Many readers do not like how much repetition there is in the Gospel of John, but we have to remember that repetition is essential to memory. What is intriguing about repetition in John’s gospel is how many of the sayings of Jesus are presented with the kind of slight variations we would expect from an oral tradition. Rather than include just one version of an important saying of Jesus, this gospel includes the variations that have been remembered in the church.

            One question that has troubled commentators for nearly 1800 years is just who is speaking in this section. We naturally assume that it was John the Baptist since he was speaking just prior to this, but modern translators disagree about where to place the ending quotation marks. Many believe that the speaker here is the evangelist who is interpreting the meaning of Jesus. A strong case can be made for Jesus as the speaker of these verses, at least originally. They closely parallel other speeches by Jesus in John’s Gospel. As we have already seen, it is virtually impossible to determine when Jesus is speaking and when it is the evangelist because the author of this gospel was convinced that he was presenting the true teaching of the resurrected Jesus. What most likely happened is that the evangelist included a statement of Jesus from oral tradition that was intended to summarize and reiterate the teachings given in both the Nicodemus conversation and the final witness of John the Baptist.

Father and Son:          Rather than repeating what was said in the previous two lessons let me highlight the distinctive ideas in this section. First, there is an apparent contrast between the witness of John the Baptist, who was of this earth, and the teaching of Jesus who came from heaven. This was not an insult to John, but it serves an indication that John and his baptism were part of the old covenant. Jesus brings a new revelation that is confirmed by the Spirit of God. Second, there is a strange statement that no one accepts the testimony of the one from heaven. This must be hyperbole since the next verse refers to those who do believe. Third, v. 34 refers to the Son as the one who gives the Spirit, which will become an important theme later in the gospel. Fourth, in this passage we have a transition from the word God to the word Father. It appears that these are equal terms, God is the Father and the Father is God.

            Increasingly in this Gospel, Jesus will speak of his Father. This is not the Aramaic “Abba,” but the Greek “Pater.” We should not make too much of the supposed gender of God the Father. The word is used here primarily as a word of relationship. God is Father because Jesus is the Son; therefore those who listen to the words of Jesus can be confident they are listening to the words of God. To obey Jesus is to obey God because God has given all things to the Son.

Conclusion:     The final point to bring up in this passage is the note of judgment at the end of this speech, which repeats the themes of John 3:16-3:18. Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life, but the wrath of God remains on those who do not obey. To believe in the Son means to place one’s life in the Son. This is a commitment, a way of life. Just as some people believe in science or in the stock market or in Marxism, John calls us to believe in the Son as the one who gives meaning and purpose to our existence. Notice the curious contrast between believing in the Son and disobeying him. To believe in the Son is to do the will of the Son. Such belief gives life. This is not just a matter of heaven after we die. It is life unending.

            The last thing to note in this passage is the grim ending. Those who disobey the Son will endure the wrath of God. We saw this same sense of judgment in last week’s lesson, but here the judgment is identified as God’s wrath. There are only 5 times in the four gospels that God’s wrath is mentioned. Three of them are in connection with the witness of John the Baptist, as we have here. John’s Gospel does not spell out the nature of the wrath of God, but clearly it is in contrast to the life that is given through the Son. The evangelist was no doubt familiar with the OT idea that God sets before us life and death. We must choose. Do we live in the Son or do we choose the path of death? In the previous century, humans used science and technology to kill hundreds of millions of people and bring us to the brink of global extinction of all life. We have seen the path of death and wrath. Perhaps in this century, we can choose the path of Jesus.

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