"The Preeminence of Christ"



          Turn with me to the third chapter of John’s gospel.  The narrative we’ll be looking at this morning is fascinating in part because it speaks of that very brief time in salvation history when John the Baptist and Jesus Christ were simultaneously on this earth and active in ministry.  The greatest man born of woman—the Elijah who was to come, John the Baptist and Jesus the long awaited Messiah had both appeared and were ministering within several miles of one another.  There is this fantastic convergence of the central character in history and his prophet.

Let’s read beginning with verse 22.  After this Jesus and his disciples went into the Judean countryside, and he remained there with them and was baptizing.  23John 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). 25Now a discussion arose between some of John's disciples and a Jew over purification.  26And 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."  27John answered, "A person cannot receive even one thing unless it is given him from heaven.  28You yourselves bear me witness, that I said, 'I am not the Christ, but I have been sent before him.'  29The 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.  30He must increase, but I must decrease."

          The historical context of this story is clear.  John and his disciples are baptizing at Aenon, near the geographical center of Israel while Jesus, or more accurately from chapter four--his disciples are baptizing people in the countryside of Judea perhaps 50 miles away.  As John is baptizing, a nameless Jew engages his disciples and raises some unstated question about Jewish ceremonial purification such as John’s baptism of repentance.  Somehow this conversation led John’s disciples to raise the topic of this other man of God—they don’t even call Jesus by name.  Somehow word had reached John’s disciples that more people were going to Jesus for baptism and this development was not a blessing to them.  We know that because of John’s response to them in this text and also because they exaggerate in verse 26 saying, “all are going to him.”  It’s pretty clear that ALL the people were not going to Jesus but to these jealous disciples, it must have felt like all the people were going to Jesus.

          In order for us to know why they were so jealous, we must understand the context.  Remember that John, for the first several months of his ministry had been THE man in Palestine.  He was the first genuine prophet to emerge in 400 years and the Jews were ravenous to hear him.  We know this because he originally ministered in a town John 1:28 identifies as “Bethany across the Jordan.”  This wasn’t the Bethany five miles east of Jerusalem; this was probably a region 80 miles northeast of Jerusalem and away from any population center.  Yet in spite of this remote location for ministry, Jews from far and wide flocked to hear this man.  When they arrived, he preached a hard message of repentance to them.  He called the Jewish leaders “snakes” and told them that God’s axe of judgment was already coming down upon Judaism.  He condemned the empty religious shell that Judaism had become and called for them to stop foolishly taking pride in their “rich” spiritual heritage and start bearing genuine fruit in keeping with repentance.  He told them about One who was coming after him who would have a threshing fork in his hand to separate the genuine believers from those who were just dead religious chaff. 

John was in a lousy location.  He preached a blistering message of God’s impending judgment and if that weren’t repelling enough, he wore a scratchy, rough camel hair coat and doubtless nursed a chronic case of locust breath.  Yet in spite of all those seeming deficits, the Jews left their towns and villages and traveled miles to hear him because he was the genuine article.  After four centuries of God’s prophetic silence, he was speaking again through this prophet and God had preserved many people eager in Israel who were eager to hear.

          Through no fault of his own, John had become a “phenom"--a genuine celebrity and his disciples would have obviously had a very high degree of loyalty and personal regard for him.  They doubtless also enjoyed the fact that they were on the inner circle of the biggest thing to hit Israel in a very long time.  This story exposes the truth that at some point, they had become enamored with the external trappings of ministry and the celebrity of their teacher, and sadly, they had completely forgotten his central message and his central purpose.  That was—to prepare the way of the Lord, the Messiah who was to come after John and fulfill the Messianic hope for God’s people. In the midst of the countless thrills connected with an exploding ministry, they had managed to completely forget what John was all about.  We know that because when Jesus, the Messiah—the focal point of their teacher’s ministry comes onto the scene, instead of seeing his appearing as the fulfillment of their ministry, they see him as a threat.  They are upset by the fact that Jesus has now taken the center stage in salvation history while their guy had been relegated to the lounge. 

          One thing that is fascinating to me is how the Baptist handles this wretchedly sinful response from his disciples.  Based on what we know about John’s fiery ministry of repentance and judgment, you might assume he would say something like, “You fools have completely missed the point!  You are guilty of petty envy, jealousy and coveting someone else’s ministry.  In fact, you are guilty of coveting another person’s bride and its not just any person and its not just any bride.  You are guilty of coveting the bride of the Messiah.  Have you not heard a word I have said in the past six months?!”  This great incendiary prophet doesn’t say anything like that to his disciples who have completely misunderstood his ministry despite the fact that they had heard his message countless times.  No, instead he gently teaches them again who he was and who Jesus was.

          He speaks of the preeminence of Christ.  John’s disciples had lost sight of the fact that their lives and ministries were to be all about this Messiah and their lack of Christ-centeredness had produced the rotten fruit of envy and jealousy.  Most of the rotten fruit in our lives also originates from those areas of our heart where we have placed something ahead of Christ. John gently helps them and us to see why it’s not only necessary for Christ to be preeminent; it’s also the best thing for us.  Joy is released into our lives when Christ alone is the absolute, unrivalled center of our universe.  From this teaching John gives to his disciples, I find three truths that will help us keep Christ preeminent and in so doing, preserve our joy.

The first truth is--we keep Christ preeminent in our life and ministry by: Remembering that the parameters of our life and ministry are established by God’s perfect sovereignty.  By “parameters” I mean several things.  The parameters of your life and ministry include your sphere of influence—who you have an impact on, your income bracket, your gifts and talents, whatever outward success or notoriety you may have achieved.  These are ultimately determined by God, not your performance.  We see this in verse 27.  There John says to his disciples, “…A person cannot receive even one thing unless it is given him from heaven.”  John is saying, “The One who determines the scope of my ministry—down to its smallest detail and the One who determined the scope of the Messiah’s ministry, is not me but God.  God is the One who has shaped my ministry—it all comes from him, not some strategy or method or my own personal charisma.”  In the midst of his disciples’ jealous outburst about the ascendancy of Christ and John’s decline in popularity, John tells them that both his meteoric rise and his comparative “fall” ultimately had nothing to do with him or the fickle whims of the Jews.  John’s disciples wanted to reverse the recent trend in transfer growth from John to Jesus.  They were looking for human reasons for the change in the wind’s direction.  They wanted to know what needed to be changed in order to rejuvenate his ministry.

          John knew their desires were both sinful and futile.  Ultimately, the issue wasn’t anything he was doing or not doing—he was faithful in his ministry.  John knew that the boundaries of his ministry were established, not by any circumstance or influence that he could or should change, but by the sovereign will of God.  “…A person cannot receive even one thing unless it is given him from heaven.”  We’ve seen this in our own lifetime in the case of Billy Graham.  There were any number of evangelists who preached as well as Billy Graham in the 1950’s.  He just happened to be in the right place at the right time with the “right stuff,” all of which were pre-determined by God.

          We must not misunderstand this truth about God’s sovereignty.  We are not saying that God’s sovereignty frees us to be careless with our life and ministry because after all, God is sovereign and he will bring to pass what he wants.  That is not Biblical and that is certainly not the way John understood the sovereignty of God in his life.  He knew beyond doubt that God had sovereignly ordained the entire scope of his ministry, but he also gave it everything he had.  He took tremendous risks and went full bore all the way for God until it ultimately cost him his head.  Likewise, we should always be striving to be more faithful in life and ministry.  The sovereignty of God in ordaining the parameters of our life and ministry never releases us from our responsibility to give it up for God.  But it is equally true that all our blood, sweat and tears will make zero impact for God apart from his sovereign will.  God is sovereign and we are responsible—that is what the Bible teaches.  The point is—John’s disciples had been blinded by their personal agendas and were unknowingly questioning what God had ordained from John’s ministry. 

The Baptist is simply saying what Paul later wrote to the Corinthians.  For who sees anything different in you? What do you have that you did not receive? If then you received it, why do you boast as if you did not receive it?”  Boasting about the good times and fretting about the bad times are both mutually exclusive to a Biblical understanding of God’s sovereignty in your life. John’s disciples were fretting about their teacher’s perceived “fall” and the Corinthians’ were boasting about their perceived “successes.”  Both were wrong for the same reason—both ignored the overriding role of God’s sovereignty.  Job affirmed this truth.  At the onset of calamities he said, “The Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord.”[Job 1:21]  If you are living with the assurance that it is God’s sovereign will that lays out the parameters of your life and ministry, you will be liberated from the wretched bondage of comparing yourselves to others.  It’s not about them or you, it’s about God’s sovereign will.

If you’re working hard in your job and you prosper, then praise God because he sovereignly ordained your prosperity.  If you’re working hard and you are struggling, then praise God because he has sovereignly ordained your struggle—he is doing something deeper in your life than simply increasing your bottom line.  The same truth applies across all areas of your life and ministry—your teaching, your serving, your parenting, your finances, your notoriety—what people think of you.  Again, this does not release us from doing our best, but it does enable us to boast in God instead of either blaming ourselves or exalting ourselves depending upon the circumstances.  John kept Christ preeminent by remembering that the parameters of his ministry were established by God, not himself.

A second truth is found in verses 28-29.  John continues, “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.”  These verses teach us that we keep Christ preeminent in our lives and ministries by:  Seeing ourselves primarily in relationship to our purpose in life, which is to point to Christ.  It’s no coincidence that the people in the New Testament who made the biggest impact for Christ are those who had the clearest sense of who they were in relationship to Christ.  Paul was a servant of Christ, an apostle who preached the gospel to the Gentiles.  CHRIST defined his life and ministry and John here, “the greatest man born of woman” according to Jesus also had a very clear and explicit sense of who he was in relationship to Christ.  He says, “I am not the Christ, but I have been sent before him.  John says that he is not the bridegroom but “the friend of the bridegroom”--the best man at his wedding.

John uses this rich Old Testament wedding metaphor to illustrate to his disciples who he was in relationship to Christ.  Christ is the bridegroom—he’s just the best man.  At the wedding, the best man is not the one in the spotlight.  No best man would say to an officiating pastor after a wedding, “Say, I noticed you publicly introduced the bridal couple to the guests…so where was MY introduction. I WAS the best man, you know!”  The wedding is not about the best man—everyone knows that.  Ironically, in our self-absorbed culture the phrase “it’s not about me” has become trendy.  From this text, it is arguable that John was the original, New Testament “it’s-not-about-me” guy.  Again, it’s no coincidence that this man who Jesus says such impressive things about, in virtually every text where he is spotlighted defines who he is in relationship to Christ.  The other detailed treatment of John the Baptist in John’s gospel is in 1:20 and following. 

 The Jewish religious were in dialogue with him and asked him"…Who are you? We need to give an answer to those who sent us. What do you say about yourself?"  23He 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.)  25They asked him, "Then why are you baptizing, if you are neither the Christ, nor Elijah, nor the Prophet?"  26John answered them, "I baptize with water, but among you stands one you do not know,  27even he who comes after me, the strap of whose sandal I am not worthy to untie."   John the Baptist, like Paul overwhelmingly saw himself through the lens of who he was in relationship to Jesus.  He was “the voice” sent from God to prepare the way of the Lord.  Don’t miss John’s utterly Christ-centered sense of self.

Do we see ourselves through this overwhelmingly Christ-centered lens?  How do we most often think of ourselves?  Do we see ourselves primarily in terms of our relationship to Christ, or is our self-lens more influenced by what we do for a living—“I am a business man?” Do we see ourselves primarily in relationship to our spouse, “I am so and so’s wife” or our kids—“I am so and so’s mom or dad?  Do we see ourselves primarily in relationship to our notoriety—“Many people have heard of meI have hundreds of people under me?” Maybe we define ourselves primarily by our tax bracket, or the neighborhood we live in, who are friends are, where we go to church.  If we fundamentally define ourselves in any way outside of our relationship to Christ, we are idolaters.  Christ must be the primary Definer of our life and sense of identity, nothing in this world.

When Jesus’ ministry took off, John wasn’t troubled by that at all.  In fact, as we’ll see he was delighted.  His disciples were stressed out over it because they had come to define themselves, not by Jesus their Messiah, but by their teacher and the scope of his ministry.  Because they had tethered their sense of who they were to John’s ministry, when things changed, they had a train wreck.  We’re the same way.  One way to know where your idols are—those things that, more than Christ, inform your sense of identity, is to notice how you respond when certain things start to go south.  If get your identity from your kids and they don’t turn out as you want, then you will not only have a crisis with them, you’ll have a crisis within yourself.  If you lose your job or the profit line goes way down, how does that affect your core identity? 

Although those things are difficult, if we are deriving our sense of self from Christ, they should not severely impact our level of contentment.  My life is about Christ and nothing in this world can separate me from the love of Christ, so I’m OK.  I may be unemployed—my kid may be faltering—my house may be repossessed, an important person in my life may have just failed me big time, but I am not going to crash and burn because that’s not where I get my identity.”  If my sense of identity is formed by Christ and his justifying work for through the cross then I am safe because NOTHING can shake that!  If it’s anywhere else, I am in idolatry and headed for the rocks.  John’s identity was firmly in Christ.  That’s why he soared with joy when Jesus started “talking” away his people. “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.” 

John’s greatest source of joy was seeing Jesus made much of. We should regularly monitor the source of our joy.  Does our greatest joy come from how we are doing in our marriages or families or church or job or is it in those areas of our lives and ministries where Christ is being made much of?  When we hear of the gospel’s penetration into a formerly closed mission field, do our hearts leap for joy because Christ is being exalted?  When we hear of someone’s else’s business or ministry taking off and bringing Christ glory, is our temptation toward jealousy swallowed up by the overpowering sense of joy that comes from knowing that Christ is being magnified?  That’s what happened with John.  John’s disciples had the wrong source of joy and when it was threatened, they went into a tail spin.

That leads to our third truth.  The third way we can keep Christ preeminent in our life and ministry is by: Internalizing the truth that it is impossible to simultaneously make much of both Christ and ourselves.  John concludes his teaching to his jealous disciples in verse 30.  He must increase, but I must decrease.”  John is not simply pointing to a sociological phenomenon.  He’s not simply saying, “Brothers, Jesus is now the main event, so I will quite naturally fade a bit.”  Both of the verbs in verse 30 are in the present tense and that implies continuous action.  Christ, his name, his fame, his influence must continually, on an ongoing basis, increase in importance to me—but I must be continually decreasing.  That is, the big “I”—my own sense of importance and what people think about ME must continually and increasingly become less and less important to me.  That’s what this verse means.  There are at least two reasons for the absolute necessity of this inverse relationship between Christ and self.

One is because God has embedded into the cornerstone of his kingdom the truth that all the glory goes to Him.  Isaiah 48:11 says, “For my own sake, for my own sake, I do it, for how should my name be profaned?  My glory I will not give to another.”   If God will not share his glory, then it follows that our role is to decrease because that glorifies him.  Show me someone who is actively promoting their own name or fame and I will show you someone who is not seeing Christ increase in importance or influence in their lives.  More specifically, show me an area in our lives where it’s important for us to get the credit and I will show you an area where Christ simply will not be magnified because we have made that area about us.  It’s in the areas of our lives where it doesn’t matter whether we get any recognition—where we are willing to let someone else get the credit, where we resist the temptation to broadcast our contribution to the cause that Christ is exalted. 

A second reason is because Christ has set the example for us to follow and it is self-decreasing, not self exalting. “Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus,  6who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped,  7but made himself nothing, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, 8he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.” Christ modeled a life of self-denial.  God intentionally put his human frailties on display in his passion and we should expect no less.  Paul knew this.  When he pleaded with the Lord to remove his thorn in the flesh—this demonic source of suffering, God responded, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in your weakness.”  Therefore I will boast all the more gladly in my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me.”   In the Baptist’s verbiage, God is saying, I am increasing in your decreasing.  Paul said, “Then that brings me joy—I will gladly boast in your increase through my decrease.”

          It’s impossible to simultaneously make much of ourselves and Christ. The fact that these truths are seen so often in the Bible should tell us that God is really serious about us keeping Christ preeminent.  But we must understand that none of the things we have talked about are the least bit possible in our own strength.  Apart from the radical, miraculous work of the Holy Spirit we are just like John’s disciples—more concerned about our name and fame than Christ’s.  Ask God to show you those areas of your life where:  1. You are not rejoicing at God’s blessing of someone else’s life or ministry.  2. Your primary sense of identity is shaped more by the things of this world than by Christ and 3. Those areas where you are either exalting in yourself or being crushed because of comparisons you are making between yourself and others that come because you have forgotten that it is ultimately God’s sovereign will, not you that accounts for a person’s success or impact.  Finally, we must repent of our self-centeredness and by God’s grace intentionally look for ways to make less of ourselves and more of Christ.  This is the Christ-life.  This is the life of the cross.  May God give us the grace to live lives that, like John the Baptist’s, clearly manifest the preeminence of Christ and the joy of the Lord.


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