The Credible Witness
“THE CREDIBLE WITNESS”
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.
Recent events on Capitol Hill have called into question what it means to be a “credible witness.” The “she said” allegations and the “he said” denials over the latest Supreme Court nomination have divided the court of public opinion to the point where many question whether or not “absolute truth” any longer exists. If that is indeed the case, then we are all (in the words of the Apostle Paul) “among all people most to be pitied” (cf. 1 Corinthians 15:19).
Discouraged by the sad news reports being played out on our television and internet screens each evening, some are beginning to ask if credibility is even all that important any more. Why not “live and let live” and “let the chips fall where they may,” they say, regardless of who gets hurt in the process? Just because something is “truth” to one person, does that mean it necessarily has to be “truth” to another. Actually it does. It matters much. Once we embark upon a road of relative truth, we soon arrive at a dangerous place from which there is no return.
In a court of law a “credible witness” is defined as a person whose testimony is trustworthy, believable, and unimpeachable. No reputable attorney wants to place on the witness stand someone whose credibility can be called into question. The responsibility of a witness is to testify to what he has seen, heard, and knows to be true. They can be counted on. Even under cross-examination, the integrity of one’s testimony must remain impeccable if it is to advance the cause that it represents.
As we come to the latter half of the 3rd chapter of John’s Gospel this morning, we must remember that we are still in the early months of Jesus’ public ministry. In fact, the parenthetical note that appears in verse 24 informs us that “John had not yet been put in prison.” While that may seem rather obvious, given that John the Baptist is one of the main characters of this section, it serves as another of the writer’s “time markers.” This is important because the Synoptic writers (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) do not even begin their record of Jesus’ ministry until after John the Baptist had been imprisoned (cf. Matthew 4:12, Mark 1:14) and Jesus had begun preaching in Galilee.
The passage before us states that Jesus was with His disciples in Judea. Therefore, it predates the time in which the Synoptics enter the story. John the writer is here including material that we don’t find there. It would have been a short time after the Passover season, a time made memorable by Jesus’ cleansing of the Temple in Jerusalem and his subsequent interview with Nicodemus. Perhaps in an effort to get away from the attention His presence had aroused at the time of Feast, verse 22 says that “Jesus and his (still small band of) disciples went into the Judean countryside.”
While there a scene plays out that leads to the avowed testimonies of two men named John. The first is that of John the Baptist, and the other that of John the Apostle, the disciple of Jesus and the author of this Gospel account. Before considering their statements, let’s look at the event that prompted them. It is described in verses 22 through 26, where we find exposed...
The jealousy of John’s disciples (3:22-26).
Having found a remote setting away from the city, Jesus and His five disciples are said to have “remained there” and were “baptizing.” Just a few verses later, in verse 2 of chapter 4, the writer adds a word of clarification when he informs us that “Jesus himself did not baptize, but only his disciples.” In other words, Jesus oversaw the baptisms, while His disciples performed them.
The oddity of this circumstance is that John the Baptist “also was baptizing” in the same area at the same time. This suggests that there was some overlap in time in the ministries of the Messiah and His forerunner. The pertinent question is whether there was any significant difference between the baptism of John and that which Jesus’ disciples were administering. I don’t believe there was.
We know from the other Gospels that John’s was “a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins” (cf. Mark 1:4, Luke 3:3). His was a call to “believe in the one who was to come after him, that is, Jesus” (Acts 19:4). But by now Jesus had arrived. In fact, John had been pointing others to Him for some time by now (cf. John 1:29ff). Why, then, would John’s disciples still be baptizing? And why would it be necessary for Jesus’ disciples to baptize as well? It is because the time for calling the nation to “repentance” had was not over. Those who did repent of their sins were, through baptism, identifying themselves with that One who would in time “take away the sin of the world” (John 1:29).
But that would not happen until the Cross, so for now the message of John and that of Jesus were essentially the same: “The kingdom of God is at hand...repent” (Mark 1:15). We are told that “Water was plentiful there, and people were coming and being baptized.” For a time it would seem that the overwhelming response to the message that both John and Jesus preached necessitated that both groups, working in close proximity, baptize those who came. But before long, as we see in verse 25, some tension began to arise.
While we are not told what may have prompted it, “A discussion arose between some of John’s disciples and a Jew over purification.” Actually, it was more than a “discussion” (ζητνσιs”). It was a religious controversy that had escalated into a heated debate. The Jews had numerous ceremonial washings and cleansings associated with their religious pedigree. The “baptism of repentance” was in itself an act of purification which deviated from what the Jews had practiced, and they called its legitimacy into question. It did not have the “stamp of approval” from the Jewish hierarchy, and was, therefore, was considered by the religious elite as inferior and invalid.
At a loss in knowing how to respond, John’s disciples brought the matter to their leader, and in doing so exposed some of their own misunderstandings regarding their assigned mission. As topics of controversy tend to do, their emotions led them to move from the matter of ceremonial washings to an outburst of frustration over Jesus’ recent rise in popularity, surpassing that of John. To them, John’s authority as a God-appointed minister was being threatened. With anxiety and uncertainty, verse 26 relates that “They came to (him) and said to him, ‘Rabbi, he who was with you across the Jordan, to who you bore witness—look, he is baptizing, and all are going to him.’”
Without realizing it, these disciples of John were fostering an attitude similar in motive to that which will later be expressed by the Pharisees. In John 11(:47and 48), some of these religious leaders feared Jesus so much that they plotted to rid themselves of Him. The reaction of John’s disciples didn’t go that far, but their jealousy exposed their envy and insecurity. Such a lethal blend invariably leads to shameful responses.
Because it has been entrusted to human hands, no Gospel ministry is completely exempt from jealousy among those who minister it. As in many other areas of life, jealousy in ministry manifests itself in deeply-rooted unhappiness over the blessing of others and discontentment with one’s own circumstances. At one time or another, every servant of the Lord finds himself grumbling over the apparent “fruitfulness” that others seem to be enjoying and the perceived “dryness” of his own ministry.
The only antidote to jealousy is to keep one’s eyes fixed on Jesus. That’s the realization that every pastor and missionary...as well as every layperson must come to. None of us is indispensable to God’s work. We serve Him and His people by appointment and by assignment. To be content with what we have received from the Lord and to serve others well is what we have been called to...no matter how long—or how short—that may be. Our role is to “fulfill the ministry that (we) have received in the Lord” (Colossians 4:17).
When these disciples of John came to him with their concern, he turned it into a “teachable moment.” Beginning in verse 27, we hear about...
The joy of John the Baptist (3:27-30).
Listen to his response: “John answered, ‘A person cannot receive even one thing unless it is given him from heaven.’” In other words, what each one has is only what God has been pleased to give him. That goes for all of us. We are utterly depraved and would have nothing at all but for God’s good pleasure to grant those things that we have...including the gift of life itself.
“But John...,” we can just hear them say. But before they can get the words out, John continues in verse 28: “You yourselves bear me witness that I said, ‘I am not the Christ, but I have been sent before him.’” You see, John the Baptist understood his role in God’s Kingdom plan. The Lord had inspired Malachi (3:1) to write about “the messenger” who would precede the long-awaited arrival of the Messiah; and the same Lord had raised up John to fulfill that role. John recognized and accepted that calling.
You and I have been charged with a similar responsibility...to announce Christ to others and to make Him known. Oh, ours may not be on as grand a scale or as big a stage as John’s, but our assignment is no less important. Are you yet to discover the role God has prepared for you? Are you fulfilling it?
Whatever the task God has marked out for you, it most assuredly will be a selfless one. Listen as John illustrates his mission by employing the imagery of a wedding in verse 29: “The one who has the bride is 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.”
The Lord very often refers to His people as His “bride” in the Old Testament (cf. Isaiah 62:5, Jeremiah 2:2, Hosea 2:16, et al), and in the New Testament Jesus speaks of the Church as His “bride” (cf. Ephesians 5:25-27, Revelation 19:7-8). “I am but the groomsman,” John insists. “Jesus is the Bridegroom. It is He—not me—who receives the Bride. My task is to merely get things set up in advance so that He may claim His Bride when He comes. As His arrival nears, I hear His voice and I know that the time of the wedding is near. This brings me great cause for rejoicing.”
Did you catch that? John’s joy came as result of hearing Jesus’ voice. Have you heard the voice of Jesus? His Word has not grown silent...but perhaps it has fallen on deaf ears. Jealousy of is overcome by the joy of hearing and responding to the voice of Jesus. It is to this that John bears witness.
So, how does that happen? How can we hear Jesus speaking to us? John tells us in verse 30: “He must increase, but I must decrease.” I am persuaded that this is the key to finding the joy that so often eludes those who profess to know Christ. “He must increase, but I must decrease.” He “must” (“δει”) become greater, but I “must” become less.
As the darkness of evening settles in, you and I turn on the lamps in our homes. But when the light of the sun shines brightly the next morning, there is no longer the need for the lamp. That’s the point is making. Back in chapter 1(:9), we learned that “the true light” has come into the world.
John the Baptist is bearing witness to the fact that the secret to joy is putting ourselves in the proper place...the place that God has for us. In whatever that is, Christ Jesus must have the “preeminence” (cf. Colossians 1:18). Our Lord Himself conveyed that fact when He said in Luke 9:23 and 24), “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will save it.”
The witness of John the Baptist concludes at verse 30. Beginning in verse 31, John the Apostle adds his own word of testimony. Throughout this book he is building a case in support of the Deity of Jesus Christ. As this chapter draws to a close, he uses this final paragraph to argue for...
The judicial authority of Jesus (3:31-36).
These six verses provide a fitting summary to the entire chapter and prepare us for what is to follow. They hearken back to the prologue (1:1-18) which introduced us to the “λογοs,” the “life,” and the “light”...all terms which spoke of the Lord Jesus Christ. His identity here—as it was back in chapter 1—is somewhat veiled...but not to those with eyes to see and ears to hear.
John, who never clearly identifies himself by name throughout this book, explains, “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.”
The phrase “from above” (“ανωθεν”) appeared earlier in this chapter when Jesus informed Nicodemus that he “must be born again.” It’s the same word: “You must be born ‘from above’ if you hope to see the Kingdom of God.” That is because the One who is “from above” brings the message that originates “from above.” The Gospel does not have an earthly origin...no man devised it or came up with it. It has its source in the one “who comes from heaven and is above all.”
It is He—and He alone—who has sat in on the eternal councils of God, so that only He is able to bear “witness to what he has seen and heard.” The testimony of John the Baptist is valid, and the witness of John the Apostle is reliable, but it is Jesus Christ who brings the most credible witness to the truth about God. As we saw last week, He alone is the One who “has ascended into heaven...(and) descended,” and is able to tell us “heavenly things” (cf. John 3:12-13). Only He, by His eternal pre-existence possesses infinite knowledge of God’s providential plan. Therefore, it is to Him first and foremost that we must give ear.
But most do not “receive...his testimony.” We have been conditioned by our senses and our culture to think that “seeing is believing.” Even, Thomas, one of Jesus’ disciples refused to believe that his Lord had risen from the dead until he was able to touch the wounds of His resurrected body (cf. John 20:24-28). Jesus is willing to accommodate any who are willing to honestly examine the “evidence” and believe. But like the “signs” of Jesus that John records throughout this book, we must make certain that our faith is not founded upon those “signs” or the “evidence,” but rather in the One to whom they point.
Thankfully, there are those who do “receive...his testimony” and are able to “attest” and “affirm” “that God is true.” To “set one’s seal” (“σφραγιζω”) means “to certify something as being authentic or credible.” When a person becomes a follower of Christ, that is what he or she does. It is believing what Jesus said about Himself to be true and authentic. In fact, to not believe the testimony of Jesus is to call God “a liar” (cf. 1 John 5:9-10). “Certificates of authenticity” are being insisted upon by autograph collectors of athletes and celebrities because there are so many fraudulent signatures floating around these days. As those who are called by His name—“Christians, “Christ-ones”—we are His “certificates of authenticity.” We bear His “seal” of authenticity, and others should be able to see the reality of Jesus living in and through us.
Verse 34 points directly to Christ. Nevertheless, it would appear to have application for all believers. John writes, “For he whom God has sent utters the words of God, for he gives the Spirit without measure.” Over and over again, John refers to Jesus as having been “sent from God.” But the “links in the chain” do not stop there. At the end of this book, we find Jesus telling His dazed and confused disciples, “As the Father has sent me, even so I am sending you” (John 20:21). And while it is true that God has given to His Son a limitless anointing of the Spirit, we too have been given that same Spirit and are even commanded in Scripture to “be filled with (or controlled by) the Spirit” (Ephesians 5:18) in living for Him.
Just as Jesus has every authority to call on men everywhere to “repent and believe the Gospel,” so He has every right to demand that His people “be filled with the Spirit.” As John tells us in verse 35, “The Father loves the Son and has given all things into his hand”...including the right to pass judgment on unbelief and disobedience. Therefore, this passage concludes with a solemn warning that every one of us needs to hear and consider: “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 most critical message from the most credible witness that any of us will ever hear.
You will notice that there are only two options presented: “belief in the Son” or “disobedience to the Son.” There is no neutrality when it comes to deciding where you stand in relation to Jesus Christ. You either “believe in Him” or you “disobey Him.” The two options stand as polar opposites to one another. To “believe” is to “obey,” and to “disobey” is to “disbelieve.” Listen carefully to Merrill Tenney’s explanation of this point:
The contrast of believe and obey in verse 36 assist in defining the former term. Belief is obedience to the utterance of God; disobedience is unbelief. Belief is thus defined as commitment to authority rather than a passive opinion.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer put it in even more succinct terms when he said, “Only those who obey can believe, and only those who believe can obey.”
I plead with you to not look upon this lightly, my friends. Your opinion of Jesus matters more than you may have ever possibly imagined. Do you believe in Jesus to the extent of having committed your life—indeed, your eternal being into His care? Have you submitted to His Lordship and assumed the role as His servant? If not, then no matter how “good” or “moral” or “religious” you may happen to be, you will never be “good enough,” “morally upright enough,” or “do enough religious things” to do what only Jesus can do for you. It is in His righteousness alone that we stand. “Solus Christus,”—“only Christ”—the Reformers declared...and so must we today.
Verse 36 tells us that the person who yields to Jesus Christ “has (present tense) eternal life.” But the one who rejects the message and work of the God-sent One “shall not see life (ever); but the wrath of God remains (again, present tense) on him.” God has already pronounced judgment upon the world, and the only way to have that sentence commuted is to embrace the Son. The foundation for that belief is that Jesus has already absorbed in our place the execution of God’s wrath.
Allow that thought to sink in, and then consider that God’s justice demands that “wrath” be imposed upon those who remain in unrepentance and unbelief. If faith in the Son is the only way to inherit eternal life, and is commanded by God Himself, then failure to trust Him is both disobedience and unbelief. Interestingly, this is the only place in John’s Gospel where “the wrath (‘οργη’) of God” is found. That it is mentioned at all should serve to awaken, alert, and alarm us.
If you are here this morning and you are not a Christian, I need to explain to you what is about to happen in just a few minutes. After I lead us in prayer, the members of our church family will stand and say our church covenant together. This is our pledge to the Lord and to one another that we will live and serve one another in obedience to Christ and in accordance with the principles of the New Testament. After that, everyone who has trusted Jesus for the forgiveness of sins and vowed to live faithfully for Him will be invited to partake of the Bread and Cup. Even if you are not a member of this church but you have repented of your sin and are trusting Him, you are encouraged to join us as well. We call this “the Lord’s Supper” because it has been given to the Lord’s people as an ordinance to be observed until He comes again. Therefore, if you are not one of His by faith, I strongly caution you not to eat the Bread or drink the Cup. To do so apart from a saving relationship with Jesus is, as the Scripture says, to incur judgment upon oneself.
But before we observe this ordinance that Jesus has left for His Church, let me point out three statements for us to see from this 3rd chapter of John’s Gospel. Each is prefaced by the words, “You must (‘δει’)..” That little phrase denotes “absolute necessity,” and is an expression of the predetermined will of God.
- The first is found in verse 7, where Jesus told one of the most religious men of His day, “You must be born again.” In order for a person to receive the forgiveness of sin and have eternal life, he or she must have a “new birth.” It is something that we cannot do for ourselves...it is something that is granted to us “from above”...from heaven, from God.
- The second comes from verse 14, where Jesus declared that He “must...be lifted up,” meaning that He would—according to God’s sovereign plan—become our sin-bearer by being crucified on our behalf. But his execution would result in His exaltation, the act by which those who would be His would be drawn to Him. Without the cross, there is no salvation.
- And then finally, as we have seen this morning from the witness of John the Baptist in verse 30, “He (Christ) must increase, but I must decrease.” That is the way of the maturing Christian life. Jesus is the preeminent One and it is to Him that we owe our allegiance and it is in Him—and Him alone—that we place our trust. Day by day we must more and more yield to His sovereign Lordship.
Apart from a recognition and adherence to these three “musts,” no one can be a Christian. If you have submitted to Christ in this way, then you are invited to the Table. As you eat and as you drink, ask yourself if you are doing so credibly. Having examined your own heart, then eat thankfully and drink humbly, permitting Him to meet you at your point of need. Hear afresh these words from the Apostle Paul, after which I will pray. And then—without another word—we will distribute the elements, and then we will eat and drink together.
“For I received from the Lord what I also delivered to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it, and said, “This is my body which is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” In the same way also he took the cup, after supper, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.” For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.
Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty concerning the body and blood of the Lord. For anyone who eats and drinks without discerning the body eats and drinks judgment on himself” (1 Corinthians 11:22-29).
This is the Lord’s instruction to His Church. Let us bow respectfully before Him now.