“I Am Not the Bridegroom”
May 26, 2019
Faith Presbyterian Church – Morning Service
Our Scripture reading this morning is from the Gospel of John, chapter three, verses twenty-two through thirty-six. Please listen carefully, for this is God’s Word for us this morning.
3:22 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.”
31 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.32 He bears witness to what he has seen and heard, yet no one receives his testimony. 33 Whoever receives his testimony sets his seal to this, that God is true. 34 For he whom God has sent utters the words of God, for he gives the Spirit without measure. 35 The Father loves the Son and has given all things into his hand. 36 Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life; whoever does not obey the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God remains on him.
This is the word of the Lord.
“All people are like grass, and all their glory is like the flowers of the field; the grass withers and the flowers fall, but the word of the Lord endures forever.” [1 Peter 1:24-25]
Let’s pray …
Lord, our eyes long for your salvation
and for the fulfillment of your righteous promises.
Deal with us, your servants, according to your steadfast love,
and teach us your statutes.
We are your servants, and so we ask you to give us understanding,
that we may know your testimonies.
As we attend to your word now,
help us to love it more than gold, even much fine gold.
Make us to consider all your precepts to be right,
and to hate every false way.
Grant this, we ask, in Jesus’s name. Amen
[Based on Psalm 119:123-125, 127-128]
Our text this morning takes place in a period that is not described in the synoptic Gospels – in Matthew, Mark, or Luke.
Each of those Gospels begin its description of Jesus’s ministry with a narration of his Galilean ministry, which we are told, in Mark 1:14, began after the arrest of John the Baptist.
But in verse twenty-four of our text we learn that the interaction we are reading about this morning happened before John’s arrest, during Jesus’s early Judean ministry – so we are getting a glimpse into an event that is unique to John’s Gospel. [Carson, 210]
And in this window of time, we are able to see a dynamic that we don’t see in other periods of Jesus’s ministry: We are able to see how John the Baptist and his followers responded early on to Jesus’s growing ministry.
As we look at that this morning, we will see two things – two things that apply both to them and to us. We will see first that we crave the praise and esteem of others when we grasp at a false identity. And we will see second that we are satisfied and rejoice in the esteem of Christ when we embrace our true identity.
We crave the praise and esteem of others when we grasp at a false identity. And we are satisfied and rejoice in the esteem of Christ when we embrace our true identity.
Let’s look to our text and see where we see that.
So first, we crave the praise and esteem of others.
We see this tendency not in John the Baptist but in his followers. In verse twenty-five some of John’s disciples get in a conversation with another Jew about purification. Presumably, the discussion involved comparisons between John’s baptism, some of the other Jewish washings that had developed in the first century, and in the mix now was Jesus’s baptism. And the discussion leads the disciples of John the Baptist to begin to compare John’s ministry with Jesus’s new and growing ministry. And then we get verse twenty-six, and we read: “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.’”
You can sort of hear the distress in the voices of John the Baptist’s disciples, can’t you?
John the Baptist had been the big name in town – in Mark 1:5 we read that “all the country of Judea and all Jerusalem were going out to” John. Everyone had been flocking to John the Baptist. But now, his disciples say, now “all are going to” Jesus instead.
This might be so obvious that we take it for granted, but we need to pause anyway and ask: Why are John the Baptist’s disciples upset? Why do they care if fewer people are following them and more people are following Jesus? Why would it matter to them at all?
Well … it matters because we, as human beings, crave the praise, and the esteem … and even the worship of other people.
We long for it. We are hungry for it. We burn with a desire for it.
The desire to be praised and esteemed and even worshiped by others lies behind so much of human life and activity.
Time and time again we can find it as either the major driving force in some area in our lives, or at least a minor driving force. In one way or another it lies behind so many of our actions and desires.
It lies behind our desire for career success. It lies behind our desire for our children’s success. It lies behind our desire to live before others at a certain standard of living. It lies behind our concerns over how we look. It lies behind our fears over how we are perceived by other people. So many times, it lies behind the words we speak, the way we dress, the pictures we take, the things we post on social media.
Time and time again we long, we crave, we burn with desire for people to look at us and say: “Look at him.” “Look at her.” “Isn’t he impressive?” “Isn’t she beautiful?” “Isn’t he clever?” “Isn’t she successful?” “Aren’t they wise?” “Aren’t they refined!” “Look how wonderful their children are!”
We long to hear words like that spoken of us. We crave such words.
And even if you are a Christian, I am willing to bet that more often than not, you long to have those words spoken of you more than you long to have them spoken of Jesus Christ.
I’m willing to bet that in your relationships with non-Christians you spend more time worrying about what they will think of you from your interactions, than you do worrying about what they will think of Christ based on your interactions.
I’m willing to bet that often in your relationships with Christians outside our tradition, outside our congregation, you spend more time concerned that they see how superior your way of doing things is to theirs, how superior our theology, our worship, our ethics, or our tradition is to their theology, or their worship, or their ethics, or their tradition – that you often spend more time concerned with that, than you spend concerned with the brotherly love that comes with shared faith in Christ and the desire to spur one another on in the faith.
I’m willing to bet that in your relationships even with Christians here, in this congregation, that you care much more that people’s esteem of you be elevated when they see you, than that their esteem of Christ be elevated. When they see the good in your life, of course you’d say you want them to give glory to Jesus for it … but deep down you want them to give glory to you even more. And along the same lines, you would much prefer to keep your sin hidden than to have it known – even if having it known would serve as a testimony to the grace and forgiveness of Christ in the gospel.
We burn with desire for the praise, and esteem, and worship of others. And it shapes almost everything we do.
In the followers of John the Baptist, it comes out in this moment where they express their distress that the people who had been following them are now following Christ.
How has the same desire for praise played out in your life? Where do you see it most?
That is, we might say, the presenting problem in our text.
And it leads to a question. Why do we crave the praise, esteem, and worship of others? Why do we hunger for it?
What is at the root of these desires?
John the Baptist tells us starting in verse twenty-seven and going into verse twenty-nine. There we read: “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.’”
What is John the Baptist saying here?
John is saying that at the root of the craving his disciples have is a misunderstanding about their identity.
It’s actually stronger than that.
John is saying that at the root of their craving is the fact that they have grasped at a false identity for themselves.
He reminds them in verse twenty-seven that it is God who makes each person who they are – who decides their identity and their place in the world and then gives those things to them as a gift.
And then he reminds them in verse twenty-eight that his place, his identity, is not that of the Christ. He is not the messiah. And neither are they.
Now … John has said this before, back in chapter one … but now he has to either remind his disciples that he said it … or he has to tell them that he really meant what he had said. That it wasn’t an act. It wasn’t false humility. He really believes it.
And implied in that statement, John the Baptist is saying that the root behind our craving for praise and worship from others is that we have seized a false identity – we have acted as if we are the Christ. We have acted as if we are God.
John the Baptist is showing us that what is really behind the craving his disciples express is a deeper desire to be God.
And the Bible tells us again and again that the same thing is true of us. The same thing is true of me and you. The same thing is at the heart of our sin. We want to be God.
Why do you crave the praise, esteem, and worship of others so much? Why do you burn for it? Because you want to be God – at least to those around you.
John the Baptist tells us that this is the root of those desires. You can see those cravings in your life, right? You can see this connection as well, can’t you? If you let your mind go and consider how you’d most like to be treated by others, the fact is that the picture that begins to emerge is one in which you’d like everyone around you to treat you like you are God. Right? John the Baptist shows us that that is what is at the heart of our feverish thirst for the praise and worship of others.
At the root of our craving is a desire to be God. But of course, … we are not God. It is exactly that point that verses thirty-one through thirty-five of our text emphasize. You and I may be many things, but we are not God. We are not the Christ.
And yet … we still try to be. And the fact that we are trying to be what we are not leads to two other elements of this craving that are found in our text. What we see is that trying to find satisfaction by feeding this craving with what it asks for, is first of all a form of spiritual adultery, and second it is an exercise in futility.
So first, it is a form of spiritual adultery. John the Baptist lays this out in the metaphor he gives us in verse twenty-nine. There John the Baptist says that the people of God are the bride, that Jesus is the bridegroom, and that he, that John, is the friend of the groom. The role of “friend of the groom” that John identifies is something of a formal role in Judea in the first century. It was something like a best man in weddings today, but even more significant. It was a role filled by an especially trusted friend of the groom, and the man in that role was responsible for organizing the details and presiding over a Judean wedding. [Carson, 211; Brown, 152]
The implication is that a man in John’s position would be doing something unfaithful to Christ his Lord if he were to inappropriately seek the affection of Christ’s people – just as a specially trusted groomsman would be doing something profoundly unfaithful towards the groom if he were to inappropriately seek the affections of the bride.
John Calvin, commenting on this verse gets quite explicit about the nature of such things. He says that the man who tries to receive the sort of praise and worship from people that is due only to Christ is like a groomsman who is trying to sleep with the bride before his friend’s wedding. [Calvin, 134]
That might be an uncomfortable metaphor for us … but Calvin is right. God has made his people, and ultimately all people for himself. The Bible repeatedly uses the imagery that God, that Christ, is the bridegroom and his people are his bride. And in that marriage relationship Christ gives himself fully for his people, giving up himself even to death on the cross as an act of sacrificial love for his bride, so that she might be his. And in response the people of God give themselves fully to Christ. And among other things, this self-giving takes the form of worship. And so, when we – when you and I – seek from other people the sort of worship that is rightly due only to Christ, we are like adulterous friends of the groom – trying to seduce his bride.
Think of that area, that group of people, whose worship you crave – whether people in the world, or other Christians, or those who are close to you. John says that your calling is to point them to their true spiritual husband – to point them to Jesus Christ. And that when instead you seek their worship for yourself, you are trying to get them to commit spiritual adultery with you.
And you and I do that every day. If we see it clearly, our craving for such worship from others should repulse us.
But as we consider it, not only should we see it as repulsive, but we should see it also as an exercise in futility.
Trying to feed our craving for worship and praise with the worship and praise of other people will never actually satisfy us.
And that comes up in our text as well. It underlies the very complaint that the disciples of John the Baptist bring in verse twenty-six. They had the praise and esteem of others. What did it do for them? Well, it didn’t leave them satisfied, that’s for sure. Instead here they are, complaining and fretting over attention going to someone else. The esteem and approval they received did not actually leave them satisfied.
The novelist David Foster Wallace gives a picture of this in one of his stories. In it he portrays a scene where a young tennis prodigy who is working to make it to the pros has an honest discussion with a coach who also serves as a spiritual advisor and mentor, over the student’s desire for fame.
The student comes to this spiritual mentor and “haltingly confesses to an increasingly crippling obsession with tennis fame. He wants to get to the Show so bad it feels like it’s eating him alive. [He longs] to have his picture in shiny magazines.” It’s so bad that “sometimes he finds he can’t eat or sleep” because of how horribly he is overcome with envy for the adults who have already made it big, and who “have up-at-net action shots of themselves in magazines.” “The obsession with future […] fame makes all else [in life] pale [by comparison].” At its core, the student confesses that he wants to be looked at by others and worshipped. And he believes that once he is – once his pictures are in magazines and people look at him with admiration, then he will be satisfied.
The mentor looks at the student. “You feel,” he says, “[that] these men with their photographs in magazines care deeply about having their photos in magazines. [That they] derive immense meaning [from it].”
“I do.” the student answers. “They must. I would. Else why would I burn like this to feel as they feel.”
The mentor thinks for a moment. “Perhaps they did at first.” he says. “The first photograph, the first magazine, the gratified surge, the seeing themselves as others see them, the hagiography of image, perhaps. Perhaps the first time: enjoyment. After that, do you trust me, trust me: they do not feel what you burn for. After the first surge, they care only that their photographs seem awkward or unflattering, or untrue. […] Something changes. After the first photograph has been in a magazine, the famous men do not enjoy their photographs in magazines so much as they fear that their photographs will cease to appear in magazines. They are trapped, just as you are.”
“Is this supposed to be good news?” the student asks. “This is awful news.”
“The truth will set you free.” the mentor replies, “But not until it is finished with you.”
“You are deluded.” the mentor continues, “But this is good news. You have been snared by the delusion that envy has a reciprocal. You assume that there is a flip-side to your painful envy of [famous professionals]: namely [their] enjoyable feeling of being-envied-by-[people-like-you]. [There is not.] […] You burn with hunger for food that does not exist. […] To be envied, admired, is not a feeling. Nor is fame a feeling. There are feelings associated with fame, but few of them are any more enjoyable than the feelings associated with envy of fame.”
“The burning doesn’t go away?” the student asks.
“What fire dies when you feed it?” the mentor replies. [David Foster Wallace, Infinite Jest, 388-389]
The form that your desire for praise and worship takes might not be the same as this tennis student’s – it might not be for public fame. It might be more modest in desiring simply the worship of those in your field of work, or in a similar situation or stage of life as you, or in your local community, or in our congregation, or even just in your family – but whatever scope it takes, we all desire to be worshipped … just as this tennis student describes.
And our attempts are also just as futile as his spiritual mentor explains. Because worship from others will never actually satisfy us. Receiving what we grasp at will never actually fill us and bring an end to our craving. It is, in the words of the mentor, merely feeding the fire. Or, to borrow a phrase from Fredrick Buechner, it is like “the craving for salt of a man who is dying of thirst.” [Buechner, 45]
We want to be God in our hearts … and so we seek the praise and worship of others … which leaves us unsatisfied … and so our desire to be like God grows … and we crave the worship of others even more … which leaves us even more unsatisfied … which intensifies our demands to be God further … which increases our craving for worship … and so it goes on and on in a downward spiral.
Our false identity reinforces our false desires which turn around and increase our false identity, and on it goes.
This is the dark spiral our text sets before us. And it is at work in each one of our lives. Where do you see it in yours?
It is a spiral that leaves us unsatisfied because it is based on a falsehood – it is based on an unreality. You and I desire to be God … but we are not God.
We were not made to be satisfied by the praise and esteem of other men and women. It’s not who we are. It’s the wrong thing for the longings of our hearts. A thirsty human being is designed to be satisfied with water. If he consumes salt instead, he is acting contrary to his true identity, and he will not be satisfied.
If the praise and esteem of other men and women are not what we are made for, then what are we made for? What is the solution?
Well, this brings us to our second point.
Our first point was that we crave the praise and esteem of others when we grasp at a false identity.
Our second point is that we are satisfied and rejoice in the esteem of Christ when we embrace our true identity.
And the key turning point is the embracing of our true identity. And it is what John the Baptist directs us to in verse twenty-nine. There John tells his disciples that he is not the bridegroom – he is the close friend of the bridegroom. And that itself is worth pausing and reflecting on.
Because when we hear that statement by John, it doesn’t carry the weight with us that it should. Because we have far too superficial of an understanding of friendship. That’s in some ways a symptom of our culture. We see friendship as the kind of relationship with the least commitment, and often without much depth of intimacy. But the ancient world did not view it that way. They viewed it as a deep and meaningful relationship. They saw closeness, and significance, and commitment in true friendship. And even if that were not so, the closeness and commitment is emphasized here in the specific role that John the Baptist refers to for himself – John is referring not just to any friend, but to an especially trusted friend who was entrusted with matters as intimate and important as the groom’s wedding.
John’s identity, and yours and mine, is that of a trusted and beloved friend of the groom. It is a role of intimacy, purpose, and trust.
First, it is a role of intimacy. There are many biblical pictures of our relationship to Christ. He is our savior, he is our shepherd, he is our king. But John 15:15 also tells us that he is our friend. And in John 15 he means it as a term of intimacy.
Now, some Christians in our culture love the idea of Jesus being our intimate friend and neglect the idea of him being our transcendent king. That’s a mistake. But I’m not sure we do much better if we embrace him as our transcendent king and then reject thinking of him as our intimate friend. These are Jesus’s words from John 15:15, and John the Baptist’s in verse twenty-nine of chapter three. They’re not my words. If you’re uncomfortable with the concept, you need to take it up with Jesus and with John. Those are the words they chose. They tell us that we are friends of Jesus in a way that points to our intimacy with him.
It also points to our purpose. Jesus has called us to a specific role in relating to his bride – in relating to those he is calling to himself. And it is not the role of receiving their worship. It is the role, instead, of directing them to him. In every relationship you have, you are called to direct people to Christ, the true bridegroom of their soul.
To non-Christians you are to direct them to him, that they might discover him as the bridegroom their soul has been longing for all their lives, even though they don’t yet know it.
To Christians, you are to be encouraging their growth in their faith by directing them to Christ, pointing them to how he gave himself for them so that they should give themselves for him.
To your spouse you are to remind them that as deep and wonderful as your love is for one another, neither of you can satisfy the needs of the other’s soul, but you are instead to direct them to Christ, the true source of satisfaction.
To your children or to children whom you minister to, you are to direct them to Christ the true shepherd of their souls.
As a friend of Christ, as a friend of the bridegroom, you have a role of intimacy with the groom, and you have a purpose in your relationship to the groom.
And along with that, you have a role of trust. Whatever scope of influence you have been given – whether it is large or small – whether many people look to you, or whether it is a small group of peers, or whether it is one or more little ones at home – whatever scope God has given you, he has given you a role of trust. He has entrusted you with a level of influence in someone else’s life. Just as the chosen friend of the groom had in the ancient world, so you have an influential role to fill. You are to use it not for your own selfish gain, but for the good of the bride and groom. The groom has entrusted you with that role.
So, the role of friend of the groom as described by John the Baptist here is a role of intimacy, and of purpose, and of trust.
But finally – and importantly – it is a role of joy and satisfaction. It is a role in which we can find the satisfaction for what our souls truly crave.
We see that in the second half of verse twenty-nine. John the Baptist says: “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.”
We were not made to be satisfied by the voice of the bride. That’s not what we were designed for. Trying to satisfy our deepest longings with the praise of the bride is like trying to quench our thirst with salt.
We were made instead, John tells us, to find our joy and satisfaction in the voice of the bridegroom. That is the thing that satisfies our deepest longings. That is the water for our thirst.
You are a creature made by God who is designed to have its hunger satisfied with food, its thirst satisfied by water, and the longings of its heart satisfied with the love and esteem of Christ.
And this is what Christ offers you in the gospel. He offers it not because you have earned it, but because he has earned it for you. He offers it freely as a gift. He knows of your attempts of spiritual adultery. He does not shrug them off, he does not dismiss them. But instead he has paid the price for them in your place – he has accepted the penalty that you deserved, in his death on the cross. And so instead of the condemnation you deserve for your attempts at spiritual adultery, he offers you grace and friendship.
He calls you to intimacy, and says to your soul, cleansed by his blood, that he loves you and delights in you. He calls you to new purpose and seeing your attempts to love him in return he says to you “well done good and faithful servant.” He calls you to join in his work in this world and entrusts you with gifts to use to that end, saying “I will be with you always, to the very end of the age.”
It is this esteem, received from Christ, that we are designed for. It is only this that can satisfy the cravings of our souls. In him our joy is complete. In him, we are happy to decrease in the eyes of the bride, because we are satisfied that we will not decrease in the eyes of the bridegroom.
And then, as we hear and receive his love for us, we can begin to relate to other people as we were made to. We are no longer motivated by the need for their praise and worship. We are no longer driven by the craving for their adoration. We are free, as we receive the love of Christ, to love others as we are meant to. We can seek their good, and not our own. We can direct their gaze to Jesus, rather than to ourselves.
When we embrace our true identity as beloved friends of Christ, we are satisfied and rejoice in the esteem of Christ, and we are freed to serve others as we are meant to. And the joy we receive in Christ reinforces our true identity, which increases our joy and right service, and so on.
In other words, … if grasping at a false identity leads to a downward spiral of emptiness and craving, then laying hold of our true identity leads to an upward spiral of joy and purpose.
The key to all of this is knowing who you are. John the Baptist had peace – more than that, he was filled with joy – because he knew who he was in relation to God and in relation to everyone else around him.
We are called to the same.
You are not the Christ. You are not the bridegroom. Give up on your frantic work to secure the praise and worship of the bride. It will never satisfy you anyway.
In Christ though, in the gospel, in the reception of God’s mercy purchased for you on the cross, you are a friend of God – you are a beloved friend of the bridegroom. Listen to his voice in his word, in his gospel, at his table, by his Spirit, and let those words shape you. He loves you. He has purpose for you. He has entrusted you with a role in his kingdom.
And rooting your soul in that, letting your soul be satisfied with that, you can go forth and serve those around you. You can direct people to Christ by word and deed, and when they come to know him more deeply, then you can say: NOW my joy is complete. You can delight in decreasing in the eyes of others – because you know you will never decrease in the eyes of Christ.
This sermon draws on material from:
Brown, Raymond E. The Gospel According to John. vol.1. Anchor. New York, NY: Doubleday, 1966.
Buechner, Frederick. Wishful Thinking: A Theological ABC. New York, NY: Harper & Row, 1973.
Calvin, John. Commentary on the Gospel According to John. Vol. 1. Translated by William Pringle. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1847 (2005 Reprint).
Carson, D.A. The Gospel According to John. PNTC. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1991.
Morris, Leon. The Gospel According to John. NICNT. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1971.
Wallace, David Foster. Infinite Jest. New York, NY: Back Bay Books, 1996. [An important disclaimer: While I have drawn from this work in this sermon, I would not recommend this book for most readers. It contains disturbing content that many would find troubling, and caution and wisdom must be exercised by Christians in knowing what would be profitable for them to read and what they should personally avoid.]