In the first half of John 3 we find Nicodemus (John 3:1-11), an educated and a wealthy man, a ruler of the Jews and ‘the’ teacher in Israel, in conversation with Rabbi Jesus, albeit at night. In the second half of John we have another conversation, this time between the disciples of John the Baptist and their Rabbi John: An argument developed between some of John’s disciples and a certain Jew over the matter of ceremonial washing. And they came to John and asked him, “Rabbi … (John 3:25-26a). As with the conversation with Nicodemus and Jesus, this conversation is in the form of question and answer.
In my view the best learning about God’s ways is done in real life situations, in the midst of a personal problem or a crisis. As Churchill is supposed to have said, “Never let a good crisis go to waste.” John’s disciples were facing a mini-crisis. Jesus was preaching and baptising somewhere near Aenon near Salim, which was the place where John was preaching and baptising (John 3:22-23). There was plenty of water at Aenon, much needed because of all the people who were coming to hear John. The text also mentions that John had not yet been put in prison (John 3:24) – i.e. he was still in the full flow of his ministry. In this context an argument developed between some of John’s disciples and a certain Jew over the matter of ceremonial washing (i.e. baptism). Was this the first heated discussion over the matter of baptism? John’s baptism certainly seemed to the Jerusalem authorities (represented by the certain Jew) to be unacceptable. We don’t know the details of the argument, but we do know that it spilled over into a potential rivalry between the ministries of John and Jesus. To add to this crisis everyone was going over to Jesus (John 3:26). This was a case of a new church starting up down the road and everyone going to the new church. John’s part of the river, where there was plenty of water, was now looking rather empty.
The argument with the certain Jew questioned the validity of John’s ministry. Now John’s disciples were insecure as everyone was deserting John for Jesus; the disciples of Rabbi John were not happy bunnies.
So John responded to his anxious disciples. This raises for us the question of how we respond when others do better than us, or are more popular, or get a promotion and we don’t, or when another church grows and ours doesn’t. We may have been born from above, and have a new nature, but the old sinful nature with its sinful jealousies cling on. All these sinful tendencies need to be brought to the foot of the cross, considering ourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus (Romans 6:11).
We find in John the Baptist a response to Jesus’ success which is exemplary. Since he was secure in his own call he was able to exalt Christ rather than himself. John understood that ‘heaven rules’: A person can receive only what is given them from heaven (John 3:27). He understood the supremacy of Christ. He also knew his own role (John 3:28). John was a man sent from God (John 1:6); he was a voice of one crying out in the wilderness (John 1:23); he came to bear witness to the Light although he was not the Light (John 1:8). He came not to build his own reputation but to point people to Jesus. So when everyone went over to ‘Jesus’ church’ he must have thought ‘Mission accomplished!’
John illustrated his call: the bride belongs to the bridegroom (John 3:29a). A wedding day is the big day for the bride and groom and it is they who are the centre of attention. William was Harry’s best man but all the attention was on Harry and Meghan. The friend who attends the bridegroom waits and listens for him (John 3:29b). Anything the bridegroom needs the best man is there ready and waiting to serve him. This is how John saw himself in relation to Christ. Our primary call is to serve Christ and this should help us to set aside rivalries and jealousies. In a word, John recognised the supremacy of Christ.
Paul also taught about the supremacy of Christ,
Colossians 1:15-19 He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation. For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things were created through him and for him. And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together. And he is the head of the body, the church. He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, that in everything he might be preeminent. For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell.
When John saw everyone going over to Jesus he didn’t speak to his disciples through gritted teeth. For him it was pure joy! The friend of the bridegroom is full of joy when he hears the bridegroom’s voice. That joy is mine and it is now complete (John 3:29c). When Jesus is the centre we know where our joy comes from, not from the things of this world, but from hearing the bridegroom’s voice, the living Word. So John says without hesitation, He must increase, but I must decrease (John 3:30).
The disciples of Jesus needed to overcome their squabbling and insecurities and follow the example of their Rabbi John by recognising who Jesus is: 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 (John 3:31). The modern hymn ‘Above All’ goes,
Above all powers
Above all kings
Above all nature and all created things
Above all wisdom and all the ways of man
You were here before the world began
John was a man sent from God but he was still a man of the earth and spoke of the earth. He was not the Light or the Messiah who came from above. He was from below and was sent to witness to the Light. John spoke the word of God – Jesus was the word of God (who was with God in the beginning and who was God (John 1:2)). Like John, we are called to bear witness to the Light.
In the church at Corinth there was a lot of arguing and rivalry about different teachers, not unlike the arguing of John’s disciples. Paul said they were immature and acting like spiritual babes in Christ, not spiritual but carnal. Paul made it clear that the different teachers were simply servants gifted by God through whom they might believe. No-one is more special than anyone else (1Corinthains 3:1-5). Paul in Romans points out that God has given grace to each one of us and it is before his own master he stands or falls (Romans 14:4). If someone else gets the promotion and not me, it’s ok because God has given an area of service to each one. If a sibling does better than me, it’s ok because a man can receive nothing, except it be given him from above (John 3:27). God gives gifts to His church from which we can all benefit. But the aim is to follow Jesus and be the person God has made me to be. Jesus is above all and therefore we can be content in every situation.