Faithful Last Words

Christ Covenant Church
Jon Marq Toombs
24 April 2016
John 3:22-36

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May the grace and truth of Christ be with you!

Once upon a time some friends and I were a pretty serious foosball players. (Foosball was a popular soccer-style table game back in the day.) Most of my friends were better at it than I was. They must have had stronger wrists and quicker reflexes. But one night I had an uncanny streak of good luck. We were playing a two on two tournament. Bragging rights were on the line and the level of trash talk deserved an R-rating. R for ridonkulous. One guy on an opposing team was off his game. He gave up several goals and his teammate barked, “Dude, what’s wrong with you?!” To which he responded, “I got caught in the transition.” I don’t know why we all thought that was so funny, but we horse-laughed him to scorn and never let him live it down. From that night on, we used that excuse for everything that went wrong. “I got caught in the transition.”

That’s how I feel about the text we are looking at today. It is a transitional text. This story marks a transitional moment in the history of redemption. John the Baptist is the last of the OT prophet; Jesus is the Christ — the true and better prophet, priest, and king.

“John stands at the border of two worlds, two [epochs]. The old has run its course; the time of fulfillment has come, in which, the more the radiantly shining sun begins to shine, the more John’s star will grow dim.” (Ridderbos, pp 147-48)

This text marks the end of John the Baptist’s ministry and the start of Jesus’ public ministry, especially to non-Jewish people.

In this text the apostle John pulls together several loose threads from chapters 1, 2, and 3 and ties them up in Jesus. Think of it as a summary of all we have seen over the past few weeks.

Our sermon text for today is John 3:22-36. If you are able, please stand and listen to God’s Holy Word.

After this Jesus and his disciples went into the Judean countryside, and he remained there with them and was baptizing. John also was baptizing at Aenon near Salim, because water was plentiful there, and people were coming and being baptized (for John had not yet been put in prison). Now a discussion arose between some of John’s disciples and a Jew over purification. 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.” John answered, “A person cannot receive even one thing unless it is given him from heaven. You yourselves bear me witness, that I said, ‘I am not the Christ, but I have been sent before him.’ 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. He must increase, but I must decrease.” 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. He bears witness to what he has seen and heard, yet no one receives his testimony. Whoever receives his testimony sets his seal to this, that God is true. For he whom God has sent utters the words of God, for he gives the Spirit without measure. The Father loves the Son and has given all things into his hand. 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. (John 3:22-36 ESV)

The word of the Lord. May God add his blessings to the reading, preaching, and hearing of his word. All the church says: Amen! You may be seated.

As you are well aware, one of the most controversial matters in the Christian community is baptism. Most Christians agree that baptism was given to us by the Lord, but we differ over what baptism is (an ordinance or a sacrament), who should be baptized (children of believers and new converts or just new converts), when a person should be baptized (before they believe as infants and children or after they believe) and how they should be baptized (by dipping, pouring, or sprinkling). I will not attempt to resolve all those problems today. I just want to you to know that baptism has always been a controversial matter among devout, God-fearing people.

In this story, John the Baptist was baptizing people at a place called Spring (=Aenon) near a place called Salvation (=Salim) where there was much water. And Jesus and his disciples were also baptizing in the Judean land where there was not much water. (We learn later on in the story that Jesus did not actually perform any baptisms — his disciples administered baptism to the people.)

Oddly enough, John baptized where there was many waters, but Jesus and his disciples where there was much less water, and yet he baptized many more disciples than John.

As a result a theological discussion arose between some of John’s disciples and a Jew over purification. We have already touched on purification rites in the story at the wedding in Cana. (Remember how Jesus changed all the water of purification into the wine of celebration.)

This dispute was probably related to the one we saw early on in Chapter 1 where the priests and Pharisees asked John why he was baptizing. They were still trying to make sense of all that when Jesus and his disciples started baptizing.

First, everyone was going down to the Jordan river to get baptized by John. Now, everyone is going out into Judean countryside to get baptized by Jesus.

First, John was baptizing with water in order to reveal the Christ who was going to baptize with the Holy Spirit. Now the Christ is baptizing with water and telling religious leaders that Israel must be born of water and the Spirit from above.

In other words, the religious establishment is feeling confused and concerned about the waves of people leaving their camp and going over to the other side.

After the dispute with the Jewish man, John’s disciples started feeling the same way about Jesus.

Sadly, religious communities are not exempt from the spirit of competition. Everyone treats their denomination or congregation as a team in competition with other teams. Everyone plays the numbers game. As numbers increase, it is easy to feel like your team is winning. As numbers decline, it is so easy to feel like your team is losing.

When I meet new people, one of the first things they want to know if how big our church is. I have never ever been asked about how faithful, devout, humble, and loving you are. No one ever asks if you keep the unity of the Spirit and the bond of peace. They just want to know where we are located and how big we are.

A few months ago at a presbytery meeting a brother was taking me around and introducing me to different folks. At one point he said, “Marq is the pastor of a 1,500 member bi-lingual church that wants to come into the PCA.” The tight-knit group of elders perked up and looked at me with great interest. My hype-man said, “Not really. I just wanted to get your attention.”

I don’t want to go too far off the trail, but I will go far enough to say this. God uses a different metric system to measure wins and losses. And it has nothing to do with numbers and noses. As we make our way through John’s Gospel, we will see that every six chapters or so Jesus will look at the mega-church size crowds and say something about the cross that will scatter the crowds and dismantle the wannabe mega-church. That seems so counter-intuitive and counter-productive to us, but it shows us that Jesus (unlike most religious leaders — unlike most contemporary pastors) is not as concerned about filling up empty spaces as we are. He is concerned only about faithfulness in his followers.

Now, I want to be careful and make it clear: Just because a church is small does not mean it’s faithful; and just because a church is large does not mean it’s unfaithful. It’s not about the numbers; we are not in competition with other congregations of Christ’s church. There’s more to faithfulness than the numbers of people sitting around you.

So while the religious leaders were busy crunching the numbers and counting noses, Jesus and disciples were busy calling followers to count the cost and conform to the cross.

Now, let’s get back on the trail of the text.

In response to the baptismal controversy and numbers game, John answered, “A person cannot receive even one thing unless it is given him from heaven. You yourselves bear me witness, that I said, ‘I am not the Christ, but I have been sent before him.’ 

John was not jealous of Jesus at all. The Lord gives and the Lord takes away. He received good things from the Lord, and now he believes better things for the Lord.

He was Jesus’ hype man. Remember how he confessed, “I am the voice of one crying in the wilderness: Prepare the way of the LORD; make straight in the desert a highway for our God…the glory of the LORD shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together, for the mouth of the LORD has spoken.” (Isaiah 40:3-5)

John the Baptizer was doing what all Christian preachers are called to do, what I am doing right now: not make a name for himself, but point his hearers away from himself to Jesus by proclaiming the good news of salvation in Jesus.

John explained to his followers that as great as they think he is, Jesus is even greater.

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. He must increase, but I must decrease.

We have already touched on God’s view of marriage in the story of the wedding at Cana, so I won’t go over that again here. What I want us to focus on is the analogy of John as the best man and Jesus as the groom.

As I understand it, in their day the friend of the bridegroom was like the best man. Several years ago I was asked to stand as the best man at my friend Nick’s wedding. He lives on Long Island in NY, and they had a typical Long Island wedding which consisted of a church service followed by an all-night banquet / dance party. Seconds before the wedding party was introduced a man came up to put a mic on me. I asked, “What’s this for?” He goes, “Waddya mean? It’s for the toast. Hey, Nickie. Talk to ya friend.” Star Wars theme is blaring and Nick turns around and looks at me with this Oops I forgot to tell you something face and he shrugged. I had never been to a wedding like that, or given a toast. The pressure was on. We stared at each other for a second and all of sudden I slapped him on the cheek. He was like, “Hey, you slapped me! Whadya do that for?!” And I was like “Why didn’t you tell me I had to do the toast?!” He said, “I did.” I said, “When?!” He said, “When I said we were doing a Long Island wedding.” I said, “Dude! I’m from Texas!” He said, “Doh!” The doors opened and away we went.

My responsibility as best man was nothing compared to the responsibility of the best man in Jesus’ day. Back then, the best man was not in charge of throwing a bachelor party, playing practical jokes, or making silly toasts. He was charged with taking care of the virgin who was betrothed to marry the bridegroom. In other words, he was a trustworthy friend whose job it was to make sure that other potential suitors knew that she was spoken for and that they needed to move along and look for someone else. He was also charged with “hyping” the bridegroom — with making sure that everything was ready for the wedding and that the bridegroom was was ready for the bride.

Since we are not as familiar with the OT as people were in John’s day, he analogy of the bridegroom does not strike us with the same force that it struck his followers. They would have known right away that John was ascribing to Jesus all the attributes of Yahweh.

God spoke to his people through Isaiah the prophet and said:

You shall no more be termed Forsaken,
    and your land shall no more be termed Desolate,
but you shall be called My Delight Is in Her,
    and your land Married;
for the Lord delights in you,
    and your land shall be married.
For as a young man marries a young woman,
    so shall your sons marry you,
and as the bridegroom rejoices over the bride,
    so shall your God rejoice over you. (Isaiah 62:4-5)

And God spoke to his people through Hosea the prophet and said:

“And in that day, declares the Lord, you will call me ‘My Husband,’ and no longer will you call me ‘My Baal.’ … And I will betroth you to me forever. I will betroth you to me in righteousness and in justice, in steadfast love and in mercy. I will betroth you to me in faithfulness. And you shall know the Lord. (Hosea 2:16, 19-20)

[Note: Ezekiel 16:1-14 is a graphic portrayal of the courtship and marital love between Yahweh and Jerusalem.]

So, when John says, I am the friend of the bridegroom, he is simply echoing the prophets and declaring Jesus to be the fulfillment of these promises.

Jesus is the Bridegroom who comes to take bride for himself from all the nations of the world. He will pay the bride price by laying down his life for her and by taking it up again. He will kill the dragon and get the girl.

John was so delighted to see the Christ that he went out leaping for joy and rejoicing in the Lord. (Malachi 4:2 ESV)

This is the last time we will see or hear John in this series. So I want us to take a moment to bid him farewell.

John the Baptist is one of the most dispensable men in all the scriptures. He was like a mirror that reflected the light, but he was not the source of the light. He was a burning and shining lamp in a dark world, but he was not the light of the world.

He came only to bear witness about the light, and when he accomplished his task and fulfilled his mission, he was taken away.  

John was like the moon, and Jesus was like the sun of righteousness who rose up with healing in his wings. Just as the lesser light must give way to the greater light, so John had to fade away while Jesus continued to “fill the world with his rays” (Calvin).

John testified that the true light, which gives light to everyone, was coming into the world. And when the true light of heaven came into the world, the light of earth went into heaven.

You have all heard the expression “Famous Last Words.” Almost everyone is fascinated with the last words of famous people. Except for Karl Marx. As he was about to die, his housekeeper asked if he had any last words, to which he replied, “Go on, get out! Last words are for fools who haven’t said enough!” (To which we might respond, “And for fools who have said too much.”)

Here are a few Faithful Last Words from some famous John’s you all know:

John Calvin’s last words were, “I am abundantly satisfied, since it is from thy hand.”

John Knox said, “Live in Christ, live in Christ, and the flesh need not fear death.”

John Wesley proclaimed on his deathbed, “The best of all is, God is with us. Farewell! Farewell!” (Source: Preaching.com by Michael Duduit)

In John’s Gospel, the last and final words of John the Baptist are as follows:

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. He bears witness to what he has seen and heard, yet no one receives his testimony. Whoever receives his testimony sets his seal to this, that God is true. For he whom God has sent utters the words of God, for he gives the Spirit without measure. The Father loves the Son and has given all things into his hand. (John 3:22-36 ESV)

The last thing John wanted his hearers to know is that Jesus is the Word made flesh: the God-man who descended to earth that we might ascend to heaven; the Teacher who proclaims the truth that we might no longer believe lies; the Savior who comes from above that we might be saved from all that is below.

Jesus is the Word became flesh to get close to you and to get you close to God. He came down here because he loves you and cares for you.

Every religion in the world teaches what you must do to go up to god, what you must do to get life in the afterworld, what you must do to gain ultimate blessings and rewards. Every religion in the world requires you to work harder and do better in order to reach your destination.

Every religion except one.

The Christian religion does not teach what you must do to go up to god, it proclaims what God did to get to you. God came down here to get you and take you up there. God came here to give you the free gift of eternal life over there. Not on the basis of your works and efforts, but on the basis of his grace and power.

The world is in big trouble. Not just the physical world, but the people in the world. The serpent has struck everyone of us with sin. And “death hangs over all unbelievers, and keeps them oppressed and overwhelmed in such a manner that they can never escape.” (Calvin).

Apart from Jesus Christ, people like you and me and your friends and families and neighbors and coworkers and strangers and enemies are all condemned under the wrath of God.

Jesus hears your cries. He sees your pain. He knows your struggles. He loves you. Not from a distance, but up close and personal. That is why He drew near to help you.

But here’s the bottom line:

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.

With these words, we set before you life and good, death and evil.

If you obey the commandment of the LORD your God, [by believing in Jesus Christ,] then you shall live and the LORD your God will bless you. But if your heart turns away, and you will not hear, but are drawn away to worship other gods and serve them, then you shall surely perish. (Deuteronomy 30:15-18 ESV)

Now, this commandment — believe Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God — is not too hard for you, neither is it too far off.

It is not in heaven, that you should say, ‘Who will ascend to heaven for us and bring it to us, that we may hear it and do it?’ Neither is it beyond the sea, that you should say, ‘Who will go over the sea for us and bring it to us, that we may hear it and do it?’

But the Word made flesh is very near you. He is in your mouth and in your heart, so that you can believe in him. (Deuteronomy 30:11-14 ESV)

“If you turn your back on life, where will you go but into death?

If we turn your back on light, where will we go but into darkness?” (Newbigin, p 48).

If our families and friends turn their back on the truth, where will they go but into falsehood and lies?

If they turn their back on grace, where will they go but into wrath?

We preach all these things so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name. (John 20:31 ESV)

So believe him now, put your trust him today, that you may have life in his name forever. (John 20:31 ESV)

“Don’t die without knowing the cross” and don’t live without believing the Christ.

Don’t get caught in the transition.

Pastoral Prayer — Based on Isaiah 64

O LORD, we pray that you would rend the heavens and come down, that the mountains might quake at your presence— as when fire kindles brushwood and the fire causes water to boil— to make your name known to your adversaries, and that the nations might tremble at your presence! When you did awesome things that we did not look for, you came down, the mountains quaked at your presence. From of old no one has heard or perceived by the ear, no eye has seen a God besides you, who acts for those who wait for him. You meet him who joyfully works righteousness, those who remember you in your ways. Behold, you were angry, and we sinned; in our sins we have been a long time, and shall we be saved? We have all become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous deeds are like a polluted garment. We all fade like a leaf, and our iniquities, like the wind, take us away. There is no one who calls upon your name, who rouses himself to take hold of you; for you have hidden your face from us, and have made us melt in the hand of our iniquities. But now, O LORD, you are our Father; we are the clay, and you are our potter; we are all the work of your hand. Be not so terribly angry, O LORD, and remember not iniquity forever. Behold, please look, we are all your people. Your holy cities have become a wilderness; Zion has become a wilderness, Jerusalem a desolation. Our holy and beautiful house, where our fathers praised you, has been burned by fire, and all our pleasant places have become ruins. Will you restrain yourself at these things, O LORD? Will you keep silent, and afflict us so terribly?

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