22 After this, Jesus and his disciples went out into the Judean countryside, where he spent some time with them, and baptized. 23 Now John also was baptizing at Aenon near Salim, because there was plenty of water, and people were coming and being baptized. 24 (This was before John was put in prison.) 25 An argument developed between some of John's disciples and a certain Jew over the matter of ceremonial washing. 26 They came to John and said to Him, "Rabbi, that man who was with you on the other side of the Jordon — The one you testified about — Look, he is baptizing, and everyone is going to him." 27 To this John replied, "A person can receive only what is given them from heaven. 28 You yourselves can testify that I said, 'I am not the Messiah but am sent ahead of him.' 29 The bride belongs to the the bridegroom. The friend who attends the bridegroom waits 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. 30 He must become greater; I must become less.”
– JOHN 3:22-30
This scene comes between two encounters that Jesus has with two individuals — Nicodemus and the Samaritan woman. On the surface these individuals look very different, one is a highly moral religious leader and the other a woman of loose morals, yet each of them gains their sense of worth from their actions. Nicodemus feels good about himself because of his high moral standards and religious deeds, whilst the Samaritan woman feels shame because of her moral failings (so much shame that she collects her water at the hottest part of the day when no one else is around). We know the gospel writers weren’t writing comprehensive lists of all the things that Jesus did and said (John 21:25). And we know each gospel writer carefully picked which events to record and where to focus the reader’s attention. So it’s no coincidence that, following Jesus’ encounter with Nicodemus and before his encounter with the Samaritan woman, the writer reintroduces John the Baptist into the story.
The writer takes us out into the Judean countryside where both Jesus and John the Baptist are baptising people (John 3:22-23). It is here that a dispute arises between John’s disciples and a certain Jewish man about ceremonial washing: ‘We thought we were creating a new kingdom with John the Baptist, but more and more people are leaving our group and joining Jesus’ group. So what’s the difference between Jesus’ baptism and John’s baptism? Does Jesus’ baptism work and John’s doesn’t?’ As a result of the dispute, people become frustrated and turn to John. But instead of focusing on the argument, the writer focuses our attention on John’s response. John’s followers are shrinking in number, and his influence is diminishing. So how is John going to respond? How might you respond?
Let’s put this into a church context. What if you’re a pastor and people, for whatever reason, move from your church to another church? What if you’re the leader of a small group and people, for whatever reason, prefer another group leader? What about when you’ve led someone to faith, taught them the scriptures, modelled a life of prayer, and now they don’t need you because they can go to God for themselves? How will you feel when you are no longer their spiritual hero? I’m not talking about the image you portray on the outside, I’m talking about what happens inside your heart. Let’s put this into a work context. How do you respond when people favour someone else more than you? When the work that someone else is doing seems to be more successful, more appreciated and more popular than the work you’re doing? Do you feel the need to react? Do you feel you’re losing something?
The cameras and spotlights are on Jesus. John’s friends love their master and they’re envious of Jesus’ success – so they encourage John to hold onto his influence. May be you’re a parent, and your number one satisfaction comes from hearing your child say, “I need you, Mummy! Daddy, I owe everything to you!” In the early years, you enjoy the fact that your children are dependent on you. Their need of you provides you with a sense of purpose and value. But what happens when they reject you? What happens when they grow up and no longer listen to you? Are you going to demand that they listen to you? Are you going to interfere in every decision they make in an attempt to feel useful and needed? In each of these situations our reactions reveal a lot about what’s going on inside our heart.
OUR HEARTS DESIRE GLORY
A number of years ago I read a book about King Saul, a character found in the Old Testament section of the Bible. Each chapter was about a different incident in Saul’s life that revealed he was looking for something other than God to fill the empty space in his heart. It was one of those books that felt more like a rebuke than an encouragement.
Chapter One: ‘Oh dear,’ I thought to myself, ‘I see a bit of that in me.’
Chapter Two: ‘Yes, sometimes I’m like that.’
Chapter Three: ‘Sigh — Now might be a good time to put the book down?’
The chapters continued until I found I had identified with nearly every point. The next day I put time aside for some therapy (by therapy I mean a morning drinking coffee in Starbucks). The more I searched my heart the more I recognised there were things at the core of my being that I needed more than I needed God, and the attainment of those things was now the driving force in my life. This was part of Saul’s problem. Saul’s son, Jonathan, ordered an attack on the Philistines. But Saul takes the credit for Jonathan’s boldness (1 Samuel 13:3-4). Saul’s heart desperately needed to take glory for things. His own sense of insecurity would not allow any of his close associates (not even his own son) to receive credit.
Eventually the Philistines gathered together to fight the Israelites. But when the Israelites saw they were in danger they hid in caves (1 Samuel 13:5-7). Saul realises his people are scattering, so he makes an offering to God. On the surface he seems to be doing the right thing – turning to God. But we can use religious activities (such as prayer, fasting, leading and teaching) for our own glory. So what is going on in Saul’s heart? Saul sees his followers scattering and decides he needs to win back their support (1 Samuel 13:10-12). Saul was trying to fill the hole in his heart with the praise and approval of his followers. When John’s followers came to him, they thought he might be worried about losing the attention of the crowd – they thought he might be feeling like a failure. But in contrast to Saul, they find John feeling satisfied. John calmly says to them, ‘This great joy of mine is now complete’ (John 3:29).
WE MAKE OUR OWN GLORY
We are naturally ‘glory-empty’ people. We might not call it glory, but we have a hole in our heart that we are desperately trying to fill with significance, honour, importance, and self-worth. We shine a spotlight on our achievements; ‘Look at what I’ve done.’ We look at the number of friends we have on Facebook and say to ourselves ‘Look how liked I am’. This works fine as long as we are popular and part of the crowd. But what happens when our popularity is threatened? We provoke one another by looking down on one another. We make other people look small so we can feel bigger. We haven’t changed – we’ve simply made the world around us feel a little smaller, so we can feel a little greater.
When our hearts are empty of glory we start to envy one another. Envy is all about me wanting something you have. I compare myself to you, and because you’re a little more beautiful than me, I want to be like you. Why do I want to be like you? Because your beauty makes me feel ugly – you make me feel less. What about when you’ve got a brand new car and you want to show it off? You feel great. Then you stop at some traffic lights, and someone pulls up alongside you in a bigger and better car. Now you don’t feel so great anymore. Why does this happen? Because we get our glory by comparing ourselves to other people, by provoking and envying one another. Thankfully, Jesus offers an alternative to this self-made glory we try to fill our hearts with --- ‘If anyone thinks they are something when they are not, they deceive themselves. Each one should test their own actions. Then they can take pride in themselves alone, without comparing themselves to someone else' (Galatians 6:3-4).
John isn’t interested in comparing himself with Jesus. John says, “A person cannot receive one thing”—one person—unless it is given him from heaven — that is, from God (John 3:27). The reason why people are leaving John and going to Jesus is because God is giving them to Jesus. John had tested his own actions – he’d done his job – and he knew that this was God’s doing. Are you secure in the journey that God has given to you? Or are you still comparing your journey with the journey of those around you? The gospel creates a new image of ourselves which isn’t based on comparing ourselves with other people (Galatians 5:26, 6:3-5).
JESUS PROVIDES LASTING GLORY
John goes on to say, ‘The bride belongs to the bridegroom. The friend who attends the bridegroom waits 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’ (John 3:29). We are the bride, the bridegroom is Jesus, and John is the friend of the bridegroom. ‘This is my purpose’, declares John, ‘And I am happy with it.’ John had no desire to become anything beyond what God had called him to be and do. John says, “He must increase, but I must decrease” (John 3:30). It must be so. And in this John rejoices. This is the only way to stop the envying, to stop the provoking, and to stop the feelings of insecurity – by decreasing our desire for self-made glory and shining the spotlight on Jesus Christ.
This is what the writer wants us to see. This is why, in between two encounters with two people who are gaining a sense of worth from their actions, the writer tells us a story of a man whose identity is rooted in Jesus Christ and who is secure in what God has called him to do. We are to get our significance and approval, not from the crowds, but from the Bridegroom! Why, when we have been given so much acceptance and significance from Jesus, would be continue to try to find glory else where? Why fill your heart with self-made glory, when you can share in Jesus’ glory?
Jesus, who was full of honour and glory, came to earth and emptied himself so that he could live as one of us. He didn’t consider equality with God something he should chase after (Philippians 2:6). Jesus wasn’t comparing himself to his Father, trying to be equal to Him or better than Him – he was walking in the path that God had set before him. Jesus gave up all his rights, as the Son of God, so that we who have no rights would have the same rights as him. Jesus took the shame that we deserve, so that we could receive the honour he deserved.
Your work or ministry cannot provide you with lasting glory, because you cannot guarantee it will always be successful. You might find that one day, like Jesus, the crowds will leave you and your closest friends deny you. Imagine the pain you will feel in those moments if you are looking to your ministry to provide the glory your heart longs for. Imagine if I pride myself on a good marriage and I use the image of a good marriage to provide me with a sense of righteousness and achievement. When I struggle in my marriage I won’t be able to confess it someone else, or reach out to them for help, for fear that they might stop providing me with the respect I need to fill the hole in my heart.
Let’s go back to the dispute that arose between John’s disciples and a certain Jewish man. Do you think John the Baptist failed to answer the question? I don’t think so. It’s no coincidence that people were having a dispute about how to purify themselves from sin (John 3:25), and in his response John refers them to the bride and the bridegroom. The bride is the wife of the Lamb. The Bridegroom is the Lamb that takes away the sins of the world. Jesus will never stop sanctifying his bride, cleansing her and washing her clean, so that she can be presented to him without spot or wrinkle — holy and blameless in his sight. John knew he was just a voice in the desert pointing the way to one who was greater – to the only one who could take away shame and replace it with glory.
So what does this mean for those of us who trust in Jesus Christ? It means that God has not only forgiven us our sins but also granted us the righteousness of Jesus. We bear Jesus’ righteousness, and therefore we are fully pleasing to God (Romans 5:1). Although we were alienated from God, we are now forgiven and totally accepted by God (Colossians 1:21-22). The ones God has called He’s also justified, and the ones God has justified He’s also glorified (Romans 8:30). Jesus gave up his glory and died as a sacrificial lamb, so that we could share in his glory. We are the bride who deserves nothing, who has earned nothing, yet we get everything because of our relationship with the bridegroom.This is where our supply of glory should come from. It’s the only glory that will not drive us towards provoking and envying one another.
May our hearts learn to rest in Jesus’ glory.