John 3:22-30

After this Jesus and his disciples went into the Judean countryside, and he spent some time there with them and baptized. John also was baptizing at Aenon near Salim because water was abundant there; and people kept coming and were being baptized— John, of course, had not yet been thrown into prison. Now a discussion about purification arose between John’s disciples and a Jew. They came to John and said to him, “Rabbi, the one who was with you across the Jordan, to whom you testified, here he is baptizing, and all are going to him.” John answered, “No one can receive anything except what has been given from heaven. You yourselves are my witnesses that I said, ‘I am not the Messiah, but I have been sent ahead of him.’ He who has the bride is the bridegroom. The friend of the bridegroom, who stands and hears him, rejoices greatly at the bridegroom’s voice. For this reason my joy has been fulfilled. He must increase, but I must decrease.”

Let’s just say it: John the Baptist was a puzzle for the early Christian community.

John, you see, was a formidable character, an effective, even charismatic preacher, something of an “old school” prophet, a compelling reformer, and an incredibly popular religious leader who was attracting large crowds to come be baptized by him.

Moreover, several of Jesus’ disciples had begun as John’s disciples. Which is why John the Baptist was something of a puzzle, and perhaps even a bit of a problem, for early followers of Jesus. In short, they wondered and worried about the relationship between John and Jesus. John, after all, came first. And according to several traditions, Jesus himself was baptized by John. Was he, then, Jesus’ teacher or mentor? And did the Messiah need a mentor?

Further, this puzzle and problem may have been perpetuated by some of John’s disciples who did not become Jesus’ followers. Well after John’s death, that is, some of his followers may have claimed that John was superior to Jesus or even that Jesus was really just a follower and imitator of John.

Because of these persistent challenges, each of the Evangelists addresses the puzzle John posed differently. In Luke, for instance, John is portrayed as Jesus’ older cousin, the one who was born before Jesus but always – even when he was just in the womb – pointed to Jesus’ coming. Earlier in John’s Gospel, John the Baptist (who, notably, does not baptize Jesus in this gospel story), John himself denied being the Messiah twice (referenced again in this passage).

To make the point most fully, John the Evangelists first narrates that Jesus’ popularity and prestige has greatly outgrown John’s and then also has John the Baptist explain to his disciples that this must happen because Jesus is greater. Jesus follows John not because John is superior but because Jesus is the culmination and fulfillment of the ministry John began.

Ah, now doesn’t that feel better? J Okay, so once again we have in these documents evidence that while they may serve as Scripture for us, they were first written and offered as pretty down-to-earth testimony that helped early believers make sense of their lives in light of their faith in Jesus, even to the point of clarifying questions about something like the relationship between Jesus and John. And even if this isn’t a question we are concerned about, when we read carefully Scripture continues to help us make sense of our lives in light of our faith, drawing us in the story of Jesus that John also inhabits.

Prayer: Dear God, let us look at all the questions we have, big and small, in light of our faith in and commitment to you. In Jesus’ name, Amen.