John the baptist’s shrinking ministry.

by K.W. Leslie, 13 May

Which he was okay with. Hey, it was his job to point to Jesus.

John 3.22-36.

The gospel of John doesn’t tell us about John the baptist’s arrest and execution. That’s in the other gospels. I’ll get to it. But in all the gospels, John’s role was to get Judea and all Israel ready for their Messiah. Now that Messiah’s around, John’s job was largely complete—as he himself expressed in John.

What prompted John’s teaching was an incident: Someone from Judea got into a debate about katharismú/“[ritual] cleansing.” Here, I’ll get to the scripture:

John 3.22-25 KWL
22 After these things, Jesus and his students
went elsewhere in the Judean province.
They stayed there with the people, and were baptizing.
23 John was also baptizing in Aenon-by-Salím:
Lots of water was there, and people came and were baptized.
24 John had not yet been thrown into prison.
25 So a debate about ritual cleansing
arose among John’s students and a Judean.

We don’t know which sect this Judean was from. Some of ’em ritually washed themselves obsessively, and others not so much. Ritual washing (vaptídzo, from whence we get our word “baptism”) required you to immerse yourself, fully clothed, in running water. This’d “clean” you from the various things in life which could make you “unclean”—your own bodily fluids, others’ bodily fluids (and any stuff they touched), rot, mildew, dead things, inappropriate food. Before you entered God’s presence, before you went to temple (or for Pharisees, synagogue), he wanted you “clean” first.

John’s baptism technically wasn’t any of those things. His baptism was unique: It symbolizes how people wanna leave behind their “unclean” sinful lives, repent, and turn to God. It’s the same baptism we Christians still practice.

Well, that’s not how Judeans did baptism. Uncleanliness wasn’t about sin. In fact you could be totally sinless, like Jesus, He 4.15 and still be ritually unclean: You could unintentionally touch a bleeder, or someone who recently had sex; you could accidentally touch a dead animal, or step on something rotten; you could obey the Law and bury the dead, Dt 21.23 and in so doing become ritually unclean. (Various Christians argue Jesus is so clean, when he touches an unclean person it cleanses them. But if this were true, Jesus wouldn’t have instructed lepers to go show themselves to the priests Lk 17.14 and get officially clean. Lv 14.1-9)

So we don’t know the details of this debate, but we can guess it was the usual:

JUDEAN. “You’re not doing it right.”
JOHANNITE. “We’re doing something different.”
JUDEAN. “Who gave you the authority to do something different?”

You know, the sort of fight-picking we usually find legalists start. They just aren’t happy unless they’re spoiling someone’s joy.

In the course of this fight, Jesus must’ve came up. Likely by the Judean, ’cause it was John’s students who came to John all anxious about it. Possibly—I’m still speculating—because the Judean didn’t approve of him either.

JUDEAN.Nobody’s doing it right anymore. Not you, not that Galilean JOHANNITE baptizing people south of here…”
Johannite. “Hold up. There’s someone else baptizing people?”
JUDEAN. “Yeah, he and his students. Also talking about repentance instead of obedience. Who’s teaching you guys this heresy? What, is there a school?”
JOHANNITE. “Describe the Galilean.”
JUDEAN. “Middle aged, white hair, students smell like fish. Keeps referring to himself as ‘the son of man.’ Who isn’t a son of man, I’d like to know.”

So, discovering what Jesus’s group was up to, off John’s students ran to tell on him.

John 3.26 KWL
They went to John and told him, “Rabbi,
‘the one who comes after you,’ Jn 1.15
whom you testified about beyond the Jordan:
Look, he’s baptizing.
And everyone is coming to him.”

Jealous of other ministries.

John’s students behave much the same as many Christians who see another ministry growing, doing well, thriving… and they’re envious.

In the United States we’re raised to compete with one another. Life is a contest, there are winners and losers, and we’re encouraged to be one of the winners. Often so much so, we’re never taught how to gracefully handle being one of the losers. (Or, for that matter, gracefully being a winner. ’Cause in order to make us strive all the harder, we’re taught these aren’t just opponents: They’re enemies. Show them no mercy.)

Competition is how a lot of our society works. Businesses compete. Politicians compete. Scholars compete for scholarships, grants… and notoriety. Employees compete for jobs, promotions, perquisites, adn bonuses. Advertisers and entertainers compete for your attention. Even for fun, we compete. Capitalism is based on the idea people are gonna be selfish anyway, so we may as well harness it, and use it to drive the economy.

This attitude leaks into the church way too often. As a result churches don’t cooperate, as sisters and brothers in Jesus’s kingdom. We compete. We excuse it as “healthy competition”—and sometimes it legitimately is, when we remember the goal is to grow the whole kingdom, and not just our outpost. But more often it’s not at all healthy. We find reasons to slam our neighbor churches, our fellow Christians’ ministries, and discourage people from their group in favor of our group. Even though all these groups really belong to Christ. It’s not kind, nor loving, nor of God.

I’m not a member of the biggest church in town. I used to be, years ago. Then I moved to another town, joined another church in my denomination… and ran into other people in my denomination who’d bash the bigger churches in our district. That’s right: Churches who particularly go out of their way to declare themselves sister churches, who share resources, who are supposed to be even more on the same team than usual, bash each other.

Why? Envy. Pure, simple, barely-disguised envy.

It’s a work of the flesh, a form of selfishness which covets other people’s success or wealth. And Jesus had to deal with it among his followers since the very beginning. His own students envied one another, Lk 9.46 or envied outsiders whom God worked through regardless. Lk 9.49 In this story, John dealt with it too: Students who noticed Jesus was gaining… and their master was waning.

Just like Christian college students who insist their school is better than every other school in the world, just like evangelism ministries who want their team to save the world—not those creeps from the other ministry—John’s students felt slighted by someone else’s success. They felt envy.

We aren’t the groom. We’re the groomsmen.

John didn’t directly rebuke his kids for their envy. Instead, he reminded them what he always taught: His job was to prepare people for Messiah. And here was Messiah! Why on earth weren’t they rejoicing? He was.

John 3.27-30 KWL
27 In reply John said, “If it wasn’t given to him from heaven,
this person can’t take a single thing.
28 You yourselves heard me testify:
I said I’m not Messiah.
Instead I’m the one who’d been sent ahead of him.
29 The groom’s the one with the bride.
The groom’s friend, joyfully standing and listening,
rejoices at the groom’s voice.
So this joy of mine is full:
30 He has to grow—and I, shrink.”

I once heard a commentator claim there are no parables in the gospel of John. I don’t know what book he was reading; John used a parable right here. Jesus used plenty of analogies elsewhere in the book, to describe both himself and his kingdom. Anyway, John’s analogy was he’s in a wedding party, and he’s not the groom. (KJV “bridegroom,” ’cause in 1611 a “groom” brushed your horse.)

This wasn’t his party; it’s the groom’s. (In our culture, it’s more the bride’s.) He’s happy to see his friend so happy. And this was always John’s role, and goal. Unlike most ministers, who die long before their work is ever fulfilled, John got to see the fruits of his labors. He got to see the Messiah he’d been proclaiming all this time. And his first thought isn’t, “Well now what do I do with my life?” It’s to celebrate along with him.

No, John didn’t disband his ministry and start traveling with Jesus himself. That wasn’t his duty. He was to keep doing as he was doing, and keep pointing people to Messiah. But people would stop following him, and start following Jesus, as was always the plan. He was fine with it.

Few Christians nowadays are fine with that. When another ministry supersedes our own, or does us one better, we don’t always respond, “Wonderful! This’ll do so much more for the kingdom than I could.” More often: “Who the hell are they? Who do they think they are? We were the ones toiling in the heat of the day, and they just swoop in and have this huge success? Oh no. They need to respect us. They need to get in line. This is our turf.”

No it’s not. It all belongs to Jesus. Either we’re working for him, and always have been; or we aren’t, and never really were. And if our boss promotes someone else, either we trust he knows best—like we’ve been claiming all this time—or we never really did.

Basically when Christians get jealous of Jesus’s other ministries, we’re not being jealous for Jesus; we’re jealous of Jesus. We want the success—not for his sake, but for our own. If it’s for his sake, we’ll be thrilled when any Christian is doing well. Their successes are our successes, for we’re all on the same team. Unless we’re not: Unless, instead of groomsmen, we’re there to compete with the groom for his bride.

John’s understanding of Jesus.

A few bible translations don’t attribute this next bit to John the baptist, don’t put it in quotes. They figure the author of John wrote it—it’s his commentary on the situation.

Why do they do this? ’Cause this passage is pretty advanced theological stuff. And these translators—and a number of commentators—aren’t entirely sure this advanced stuff would come out of the mouth of John the baptist. It’s much too deep for some hairy thunderer who lived in the wilderness on bugs and honey.

Yeah, it’s really condescending of them. If you’re full of the Holy Spirit, as John was, he can make you able to understand anything. Complex theology? Brain chemistry? Quantum mechanics? Like God has a problem explaining any of this stuff to the thickest of his creations. And John wasn’t thick.

John 3.31-36 KWL
31 “The one who came from above is above everything.
The one from earth is from earth. He speaks from earth.
The one who came from heaven is above everything;
32 is the one who sees
and hears the things he testifies about.
Nobody accepts his testimony.
33 The one who accepts his testimony,
confirms God is true.
34 For he whom God sent, speaks God’s words.
He gives the Spirit without limit.
35 The Father loves the Son
and has put everything in his hand.
36 One who believes in the Son
has life in the next age.
One who disobeys the Son won’t see life.
God’s wrath stays on them.”

This isn’t the only passage certain commentators figure was no direct quote. Remember Jesus’s teaching to Nicodemus? They chop our Lord off at verse 15. Everything from “For God so loved the world…” onward, is considered commentary by the author of the gospel. Not an explanation by Jesus.

’Cause it’s high Christology. Christology is theology about Christ, and it’s called “high” when it recognizes he’s God. (“Low” when it’s not so sure about his divinity.) Since the writings of John—his gospel, his letters, and Revelation—are full of high Christology, these commentators figure the author’s the one with the advanced Christ-theology. Not John the baptist. Not even Christ Jesus himself.

(And according to some commentators, not even the apostle John himself. They believe the earliest Christians actually didn’t think Jesus is God—that all the passages saying so were added by later Christians, like in the second or third centuries. Or voted into Christianity by the bishops of the Council of Nicea in 325. Really it’s ’cause they aren’t sure Jesus is God, so they’re reading their doubts into their historical interpretations.)

So once you remove the quotes from this passage, you can take these words right out of the prophet’s mouth, or right out of our Lord’s mouth—and take away the whole point of this gospel: Testimonies. More than once, the author deliberately pointed to the fact he was quoting others. Jn 1.19, 19.35, 21.24 His gospel is a collection of other Christians’ witness to Jesus. Not so much his own. That, he could do in his letters. 1Jn 1 Knock away the testimonies, and you knock a few inches away from our belief in Jesus’s deity.

The reason I figure John the baptist did teach this passage is because it fits so well with what he just taught: Jesus is greater than he, and he must become less. And here’s why. Jesus came from above. He’s above everything. Whereas John was just “from earth,” and all he knew was what he was told. Jesus had the experiences. John just had a message. Jesus has the authority and power. John was just the herald, speaking secondhand stuff which isn’t even close to Jesus’s level of intimacy with the Father.

This is why we gotta follow Jesus. Not John, though John’s great. Not prophets, though (the real ones, anyway) are likewise great. You know how humans are: We build entire sects around our prophets. We even name churches and schools after ’em. John’s followers could’ve easily turned Johannism into a new branch of the Hebrew religion. (Or, to coin a term, they could’ve called themselves Baptists.) But the Johannites were always meant to fold into the Nazarene’s group. The words of John were always meant to point people to Jesus—and the words of Jesus are eternal life.

That’s why we Christians revere John, and why Jesus speaks so highly of him. He understood Jesus when no one else did. But like Jesus later said, anyone in the kingdom can reach John’s level. Lk 7.28 Follow Jesus, and he’ll make you a John-level prophet too.

But what about John’s doubts?

Now for the naysayers: John the baptist, they point out, is the guy who sent messengers to Jesus to ask, “Are you the guy, or should we be looking elsewhere?” Mt 11.3, Lk 7.19 If John the baptist had doubts about who Jesus was, how could this same guy teach about “the one who came from above”? Jn 3.31 What about the John the baptist in the other gospels—the John the baptist with doubts?

The “John the baptist with doubts” didn’t exist. That’s a misinterpretation.

Here, let’s check out that story:

Luke 7.18-23 KWL
18 John’s students told John about these things,
and calling two certain students of his,
19 John sent them to the Master, asking,
“Are you the One to Come, or ought we seek another?”
20 Coming to Jesus, the men said,
“John the baptist sent us to tell you,
‘Are you the One to Come, or ought we seek someone else?”
21 At that time, Jesus had cured many
from disease, plague, and evil spirits.
Many blind people were given sight.
22 In reply Jesus told them, “When you go,
tell John what you saw and heard:
The blind see. The crippled walk. The lepers are cleansed.
The deaf hear. The dead are raised. The poor hear the gospel!
23 How awesome for anyone
who’s not tripped up by me.”

But Jesus’s message was not for John.

Remember John 3. The baptist’s students had grown jealous of Jesus—because they didn’t know who he was. Their master knew. They didn’t.

When their master was arrested and thrown into prison, they continued to follow John the baptist. Not Jesus, like Andrew and Philip had. They didn’t follow the greater one; they stuck with the lesser one. Even though he himself said he wasn’t Messiah. Jn 1.20

So sending two of them to see what Jesus was up to—to see for themselves his miracles in action—was to give them faith. John already had faith. That’s why he sent ’em with just the right question for Jesus to answer by revealing himself to them. And Jesus played along.

Part of the reason for the gospel of John was to fill in the blanks in Luke, and one of those blanks is the misconception John lost heart while in prison. Hey, such an experience might shake anyone. Maybe John cracked a little. But certainly not that far. He knew who Jesus was. He’d seen for himself.

It’s why Jesus followed up with some really nice compliments about John. Lk 7.24-30 Hardly what you’d say to someone you had to rebuke ’cause of their serious lapse of faith. But John had no such lapse. His students were shaky—which is why John sent ’em to the one who’d give them great faith.

And when we get the shakes, Jesus is the one we need to turn to. Go visit one of Jesus’s ministries. Go look at all the people who’re getting blessed by it. Especially if it’s one where miracles happen—where the blind do see, the deaf do hear, as well as the poor hearing the gospel. That’ll unshake your faith.