"After this, Jesus and his disciples went out into the Judean countryside, where he spent some time with them, and baptized. Now John also was baptizing at Aenon near Salim, because there was plenty of water, and people were coming and being baptized. (This was before John was put in prison.) An argument developed between some of John’s disciples and a certain Jew over the matter of ceremonial washing. They came to John and said to him, “Rabbi, that man who was with you on the other side of the Jordan—the one you testified about—look, he is baptizing, and everyone is going to him.”
To this John replied, “A person can receive only what is given them from heaven. You yourselves can testify that I said, ‘I am not the Messiah but am sent ahead of him.’ The bride belongs to the bridegroom. The friend who attends the bridegroom waits and listens for him, and is full of joy when he hears the bridegroom’s voice. That joy is mine, and it is now complete. He must become greater; I must become less.” - John 3:22-30 (NRSV)
I have no idea what John the Baptist knew about Jesus. I have no grasp of what it felt like to live in an Israel dominated by Rome, or what a common inhabitant expected from the Messiah. What is more, I cannot trace all the implications of the gospel writer’s imagery. Why this fixation on bridegrooms? Nevertheless, this passage is a clear and striking testament to John’s joy—joy in being a friend of Jesus, in hearing his voice, in knowing that he has finally come. For a moment, think with me about the source of this joy and what it means.
Jesus Christ the God-Man performed signs, shared wisdom, and changed lives. His chief task on this earth, however, was to die. This is apparent from the attention and focus the gospels accord his passion. And through Jesus’s death, we are somehow reconciled to God. We know this, and words fail us. But consider this: in the man Jesus—his life and act—God spoke more directly to us, and showed us more about Himself, than He has ever done before or since. Jesus’s life, and especially his death, reveal the essence of God.
God is an enigma. At times we feel His blessing, but at others we feel what seems like His curse. Although life contains rapture, it is also cruel. Natural calamity takes innocent life and evil insinuates itself into every human heart. We all suffer and die and we seldom know why or where God is. But we do know what Jesus has done, and we have the Spirit along-side us. Amazingly, we need not defend ourselves against an angry god or, like the ancient pagans, appease a gaggle of conflicting deities merely to secure a full harvest. Instead, we know from Jesus that God seeks us out. Us! His entire agenda is to call us back to Him. He literally debased and killed Himself (or His Son, which is worse) so that He could know us and we could know Him. And He did this in complete freedom. We played no part in it; in truth, we worked against it. So while sometimes we see God as Janus-faced, we can trust that, at His core, He is love. And not simply tepid, go-along-to-get-along love, but fierce, possessive, triumphant love.
I think, whether he knew it or not, John the Baptist was tapping into the joy that this knowledge of God brings—the knowledge that Jesus brought to us by living and dying. It sounds strange to say, but imagine how cosmically lucky we are to have this God and not another. Does this not fill us with boundless joy, the deep kind that persists in our unhappiness, that contents us in our want, that assuages our obsessiveness, and that ultimately humbles us? Truly, “he must increase, but I must decrease.”
Roger holds a B.S. in Business Administration from Biola University, an M.A. in Theology from Fuller Theological Seminary, and a J.D. from the University of Pennsylvania. He currently clerks for a judge in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania. He and his wife Lessa live in South Philadelphia with their two daughters. He has never met an IPA or a Russian novel that he didn't enjoy.