Baptism & Spiritual Competition

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John 3:22 – 30

22 After this, Jesus and his disciples went into the Judean countryside, and he remained there with them and was baptizing. 23 John also was baptizing at Aenon near Salim, because water was plentiful there, and people were coming and being baptized 24 (for John had not yet been put in prison).

25 Now a discussion arose between some of John’s disciples and a Jew over purification. 26 And they came to John and said to him, “Rabbi, he who was with you across the Jordan, to whom you bore witness—look, he is baptizing, and all are going to him.” 27 John answered, “A person cannot receive even one thing unless it is given him from heaven.

 28 You yourselves bear me witness that I said, ‘I am not the Christ, but I have been sent before him.’ 29 The one who has the bride is the bridegroom. The friend of the bridegroom, who stands and hears him, rejoices greatly at the bridegroom’s voice. Therefore this joy of mine is now complete. 30 He must increase, but I must decrease.”

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It is clear from this passage that baptism is a major topic of these verses.  It is also clear that there is some discussion that comes about due to these rituals of purification.  Actually, it would be better to translate this word more along the lines of “a strong argument” or “a major dispute”.  Not everyone saw eye to eye on this topic at hand.  And it is also clear that there is a sense of competition, at least on the part of John’s disciples as they saw greater numbers of people flocking towards Jesus, rather than their “Rabbi” John.

Spiritual competition between religious groups and their strong leaders of each is nothing new.  And the discussion (argument) concerning proper spiritual rituals in their interpretation and application is also something that has been around long before the time of Christ.  I do want to speak about the passage above within getting myself or any of my readers into a discussion that is full of spiritual landmines.  But let’s see what we can try to understand and apply to all of who call Jesus their Lord.

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Let me begin with an imaginary dialogue between two clergy.  The first man is the pastor and preacher of an Anglican church.  The second man is the pastor and preacher of a Baptist church.

One day the Anglican minister was talking to the Baptist minister and wanted to understand better their traditional form of baptism.  And so the Anglican said, “If the water is low and only comes up to the thighs, does this constitute baptism for you Baptists?

The Baptist preacher replied, “No.  That would not be enough to call that a baptism.”

So then the Anglican minister asked the Baptist preacher, “If the water comes up to the shoulders of the person, does this constitute baptism?”

The Baptist preacher replied again, “No.  That would not be enough to call that a baptism.”

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One more time the Anglican asked the Baptist preacher, “If the water was high enough to cover the person’s eyes, would you call this a baptism.”

Exasperated, the Baptist preacher told the Anglican minister, “No. Definitely not!!”

And at that, the Anglican minister then calmly went on and said, “Oh, ok.  I see now.  It is the little bit of water that is put on the top of the head of the man that makes the difference.”

It is my hope that I can talk about such a sensitive issue as baptism, not being cavalier about it like the funny story above, and write a good article about it that will be acceptable to people of many different Christian religious groups. 

It is sad that wars have been fought over this point of doctrine, for when one is different from us, and vice versa, then a wall of separation comes between us and them.  The “enemy” then becomes not the true enemies of the Kingdom, the forces of evil in the spiritual realm.  No, the “enemy” becomes the Christian who believes and practices different from me.  How sad!

Great theological debates have come around because of trying to emphasize the form of the baptisms being given.  But here in John’s gospel, the questions that arise do not deal with how baptism is done, but rather they deal with “who” is performing the baptisms. 

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John quickly reminds his followers that John’s primary purpose in coming was to help identify who the “Christ” or “Messiah” was who would save people from their sin.  John compares Jesus to the “Bridegroom”.  The “Bride” would be all those who believe in Jesus and follow Him.  That leaves the “friend of the Bridegroom” (that would be John) who stands to the side and rejoices to see the happiness there is when the Bridegroom will be able to fully redeem for Himself His holy people, all who believe in Jesus.

As hard as it may seem, the issues that carry very little importance to the main thrust of this passage is not baptism, nor the form or ritual of it.  What is most important is that people are flocking to see Jesus and hear His message.  Remember that Jesus has come to be the Light of salvation to all people.  So John does not entertain any thought of competition or jealousy as he sees people go and follow Jesus.

I wonder if you and I would be able to exercise such great humility that John did.  At one point, John did have the center stage of attention as people wanted to be baptized so that their sins would be forgiven.  But John knew that One greater than he had arrived, and so now his job was to encourage people to follow Jesus.  What a great example of faith and selflessness he left for us to follow after.

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Who Is John the Baptist

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John 1:19 – 28

John’s Testimony Concerning Himself

19 And this is the testimony of John, when the Jews sent priests and Levites from Jerusalem to ask him, “Who are you?” 20 He confessed, and did not deny, but confessed, “I am not the Christ.” 21 And they asked him, “What then? Are you Elijah?” He said, “I am not.” “Are you the Prophet?” And he answered, “No.” 22 So they said to him, “Who are you? We need to give an answer to those who sent us. What do you say about yourself?” 23 He said, “I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord,’ as the prophet Isaiah said.”

24 (Now they had been sent from the Pharisees.) 25 They asked him, “Then why are you baptizing, if you are neither the Christ, nor Elijah, nor the Prophet?” 26 John answered them, “I baptize with water, but among you stands one you do not know, 27 even he who comes after me, the strap of whose sandal I am not worthy to untie.” 28 These things took place in Bethany across the Jordan, where John was baptizing.

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In our study today of the Gospel of John, we see that “the Jews sent priests and Levites from Jerusalem to ask him, ‘Who are you?’”  This may appear to be an innocent request from some of the religious leaders of John’s day, but that could not be further from the truth.  These leaders are mystified by John’s ministry, and his success as mentioned in Matthew 3:5 – 6, immediately leads them into a conflict with each other.

You would think that the question “Who are you?” was rather straight forward and simple.  What’s interesting is John’s response, “I am not the Christ.”  Obviously there is more going on here than our text is able to tell us.  Clearly these priests were expecting John to be some great person since they went on to ask him whether he had the spirit of one of the greatest prophets of the Old Testament, or even the special “Prophet” that Moses hinted about in Deuteronomy 18:18.

In order to understand what is happening, we must look at some of the key words in this text, and then build a picture that makes sense of all of the parts.  Then we will understand what’s going on.  So allow me to give you some important Old and New Testament background, and then let me ask each of us an important question, especially to those of us who are in Christian leadership positions.

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In John’s Gospel, even more than in the books of Matthew, Mark and Luke, the term “the Jews” which occasionally does refer to all members of the Jewish nation, is much more narrowly used by John.  Throughout John’s book, “the Jews” are for the most part the religious leaders (comprised of Pharisees, Sadducees, and the scribes who were experts in the Law of Moses, the priests, the Levites and the elders of the nation).

And we constantly see “the Jews” debating and arguing with Jesus and ultimately demanding that Jesus be crucified. What first starts as arrogance and skeptical resistance, turns in time to become defiant challenge and then open hostility.  So you can pretty much know then from the start that these are the bad guys, the antagonists to all the men of God, and by extension are found to be the enemies of God.

But they should have known better.  They were the inheritors of the Word of God, and the protectors of the Temple and the religious rituals that were to lead the people into the true worship of God.  And we too see time and time again, that it is the church leadership which has become cemented in its ways of religious traditions that have actually managed to keep people away from finding God for themselves.

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And so they challenged John, what he was doing, where he was from, and from whom he got the authority to lead this spiritual revival.  (It certainly did not come from the Jewish leaders.)  But they figured if John was not sponsored within their religious structures, then perhaps he must be one of the three great people who were prophesied in the Old Testament who would come back to help the nation of Israel.

But even before they speak, John denies that he is not the Promised Messiah, the Christ (or Anointed One) whom God would one day send to rescue the nation Israel and becomes its King.  Unfortunately, the leaders and the people had it wrong and thought God would send a human political Saviour who would rescue the nation from the oppression of the Roman occupying forces in Palestine.

But John also said he is not “The Prophet” who would be just like the greatest Old Testament leader, Moses, who rescued Israel out of Egypt.  In Deuteronomy 18:18, Moses prophesied that a Great Prophet like him would one day come to help Israel.  But that was not to be John.  And in Malachi 4:5, the second last verse of the Old Testament, a prophecy was made that Elijah would return before the coming of the Lord.

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I can say that these Jewish leaders had some good questions in one sense.  They knew that John was special.  They just did not know how or why.  The truth of the matter is that John came as a simple servant of the Lord, and even in the midst of great success, he exercised even greater humility.  And why was that?  Because it is never meant to be about us, no matter how important we think we are at times.  No it is all about Jesus, the Man who would come after John.

So let me ask each of us who are Christians?  Are we more like The Jews, or are we more like John.  Think about it.

Be A Witness For Jesus

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John 1:6 – 8

Testifying Concerning the Light (Jesus)

6 There was a man sent from God whose name was John. 7 He came as a witness to testify concerning that light, so that through him all might believe. 8 He himself was not the light; he came only as a witness to the light.

The first five verses of this chapter of John take us on a tour of spiritual grandeur that is mind stretching, taking us all the way back to the very beginning of time itself.  Verse 6 and following helps to give the historical setting into which Jesus, the Eternal Word stepped out of eternity and entered into our world of space and time. But we don’t start this opening scene looking at the life of Jesus, but the one who would prepare the way for Jesus and His ministry.

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The College Press NIV commentary gives us a good picture of the ministry of the man who preceded Jesus, whom we have come to know from the Gospels as John the Baptist.  It says:

There came a man who was sent from God; his name was John. History within earthly time is now reached with John the Baptist. He was sent from God, his message was repentance, and his action was immersion in water, so that his audience could publicly certify their repentance.  1

Something that I find interesting in John’s Gospel it that although we learn a lot about him through the messages he proclaimed and the interaction he had with the Jewish leaders, we do not know much about the success of his preaching among the people.  We need to turn to other gospel writers to see that multitudes of people were constantly coming to John to publicly confess their sins and to be baptized.

In anyone’s books today, that would be considered a very great success.  You would think that John would have been proud of his accomplishments.  Not so with John the Baptist.  He knew the very heart and mind of God and he knew that the purpose of his ministry was to bear witness to God’s Son.  The primary purpose of this life was to be there at that specific time to be able to give testimony concerning one man, Jesus.

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Again looking at the NIV Commentary, we can see better who John the Baptist was:

John’s real purpose was not (1) to save the world (he never died or rose for anyone), nor (2) to seek recognition as the Messiah of Old Testament prophecy (he acknowledged that he was not the Messiah), nor (3) to found the Kingdom and/or the church (he was not even a part of or in the kingdom/church [Matt. 11:11]). John’s purpose was (4) to testify or to bear witness to the Light, who was Jesus.  2

Now in a way, all of us are witnesses in life.  We witness things happening around us and what others are doing.  Some of us are called by our judicial systems to testify as an eyewitness concerning what we may have seen happened.  That is a rare thing to be called into court to be a witness.  But as for John, the entire meaning and purpose of his life was to be a witness leading others towards the Light, leading them to Jesus.

That sound awfully radical, doesn’t it.  And yet, remember what Matthew 5:16 says, “In the same way, let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven.”  Just like John, there is meant to be a primary purpose that permeates our daily lives (regardless of what else we may be doing in life) and that is to lead people to God and to Jesus by what we say and do.

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One more thing to notice concerning “being a witness for Jesus” is that there is a goal to be kept in mind.  Specifically, just like John, the goal of us speaking the truths concerning Jesus is so that people will “believe the message that we speak.”

I know that it is hard for most of us Christians today to even speak up at all about our faith in Jesus.  To not only state the facts about Christ, but to try to even persuade people to believe these truths is a huge step that many of us feel uncomfortable to do.

But let us remember what is given to us in verse 8 above.  Again just like John, we are not the Light.  Jesus is the Light.  And light is something that draws the attention of people.  When the sun comes out from behind a large cloud, faces turn towards it.  Many insects will swarm around a light bulb or a candle.  When we are in the dark and feel lost, if a flashlight turns on, we immediately breathe a sigh of relief and head to that light.

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I found an interesting little story that says:

Dr. Alexander of Princeton once described a little glow-worm which took a step so small that it could hardly be measured, but as it moved across the fields at midnight there was just enough light in its glow to light up a step ahead, and so as it moved forward it moved always in the light.  3

I feel like all of mankind can be compared to this little glow-worm.  We don’t often know where we are going in life.  But if we can let Jesus, the True Light, shine in our darkness, no matter how deep that darkness is around us, we will find our direction and purpose in life, just like John the Baptist did.

Bryant, B. H., & Krause, M. S. (1998). John. The College Press NIV commentary (John 1:6-7). Joplin, Mo.: College Press Pub. Co.

Ibid.

Tan, P. L. (1996). Encyclopedia of 7700 Illustrations: Signs of the Times. Garland, TX: Bible Communications, Inc.