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The Life of Jesus - Series 2: Episode 9

John the Baptist explains about Jesus

| Martin Charlesworth
John 3:22-36

John the Baptist challenges Herod Antipas and is imprisoned. John's role is likened to a best man to the bridegroom, Jesus. John affirms Jesus' identity as God and man. Jesus has the Holy Spirit without limit whereas the whole Church, as a body, has the gifts.

John the Baptist challenges Herod Antipas and is imprisoned. John's role is likened to a best man to the bridegroom, Jesus. John affirms Jesus' identity as God and man. Jesus has the Holy Spirit without limit whereas the whole Church, as a body, has the gifts.


Hello and welcome to Series 2 and Episode 9: ‘John the Baptist Explains About Jesus.’

Introduction and Recap

We're still in John's Gospel, where we've been in the last few episodes, as we're following the story that John unfolds of Jesus' life from the period when he's baptised, through to the period when he starts his public ministry in Galilee, which forms the main narrative of at the Gospels. We haven't got to that point yet. We've seen a number of things happening: we've seen Jesus being tempted by the devil; seen him return to the place of baptism, Bethany, and draw five disciples from John who come with him; he's gone back to Galilee to the wedding ceremony at Cana (where he performed his first public miracle - turning water into wine); and then he came back to Jerusalem for the Passover feast. In previous episodes, we've looked at the remarkable event where he went into the Temple and challenged the market traders, turned their tables over, trying to upset the money-changers and those buying and selling animals for sacrifices. In the last episode, whilst he's still in Jerusalem with a handful of disciples (we know of only five, maybe there are a few others by this point), we discussed the remarkable story of a private meeting between Jesus and a Jewish religious leader by the name of Nicodemus. We discussed how Jesus explained to Nicodemus that the essence of true religion and true Christianity - following him - was not about obeying particular religious codes, rules and regulations but about an inner spiritual change so dramatic that it's likened to being born at the beginning of your life - your natural birth - a spiritual birth which Jesus described as being ‘born again’. He said we must be born again in order to enter into the Kingdom of God. As Jesus is in Jerusalem, two very contrasting events take place. John the Baptist is still operating nearby, down by the River Jordan from his base there. He's still baptising, he's still preaching, he's still drawing crowds after him.

John's Gospel now takes us out to the period after the discussion with Nicodemus and takes us to John the Baptist. We hear from John the Baptist some of the things that he was saying at this particular time - after he baptised Jesus, after Jesus had publicly started moving around and teaching and performing miracles to some extent - John then makes some important comments and he explains more about his role, Jesus' identity and the future for Jesus' ministry. That's the topic we're going to discuss today in a passage that's in John 3: 22 - 36, which is the end of the chapter. Join with me, let's read the text and see what John is saying what the significance of it is for us:

‘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.” The one who comes from above is above all; the one who is from the earth belongs to the earth, and speaks as one from the earth. The one who comes from heaven is above all. He testifies to what he has seen and heard, but no one accepts his testimony. Whoever has accepted it has certified that God is truthful. For the one whom God has sent speaks the words of God, for God gives the Spirit without limit. The Father loves the Son and has placed everything in his hands. Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life, but whoever rejects the Son will not see life, for God's wrath remains on (him).’

John 3:22-36, NIV

It's an interesting situation - Jesus and his disciples are described as being in the Judean countryside. This is not their home territory; they come from further north, from Galilee. They're still in the area around Jerusalem, which is called Judea, and clearly they're preaching, teaching and baptising. We haven't got much detail of what's actually happening, but Jesus' followers are baptising some. Maybe they're conducting the baptism of John - we don't exactly know the details of that and they're not mentioned here but Jesus is drawing people after himself. Meanwhile, lots of people are going to John down by the river as well. So there's two things happening in parallel: John is still on the scene and Jesus is travelling around in a similar geographical area and John makes the point here. This is before John the Baptist was imprisoned.

John the Baptist Challenges Herod

We saw in an earlier episode that Luke described the fact that John was subsequently imprisoned by a ruler called Herod the Tetrarch, or Herod Antipas, who ruled in Galilee where John was connected and he ruled in some other areas where John conducted his baptisms. John was a very forthright speaker and we saw in earlier episodes how his message challenged people to confess their sins and to get their lives straightened out. He challenged tax collectors. He challenged soldiers. He challenged the Pharisees - the religious leaders. He challenged rich people to share their wealth with poorer people. He was very forthright and plain speaking and it appears that he confronted Herod Antipas who had decided that he wanted to marry a lady called Herodias who was already married to his brother Philip, who was also a ruler in a different district. She divorced Philip and then married Herod Antipas - which was against the Jewish religion. John confronted Herod over this, and over other things, and was put in prison and ultimately executed. John's point here is, this had not yet happened. We're in a time where John is still active and we'll tell that story a bit later on when we come to it as recounted in the Gospels themselves.

John the Baptist's Role as Prophet

In verses 27 to 30, John the Baptist, very clearly identifies what his role is. In answer to questions he explains, as he has done previously when he's been asked similar questions, that he is not the Messiah. He is, in fact, sent ahead of the Messiah as a prophet. John is a wonderful example of a biblical prophet. A biblical prophet doesn't draw attention to themselves; they're not the central focus of their ministry. Their role is to draw attention to God's revelation and people's situation and to challenge people to get right with God and to find his way in their lives. That's really what prophets did - either on a grand, national scale or on a personal scale. John was operating on a national scale, looking to the whole nation of Israel and calling the nation to be aware that a great moment of opportunity was coming. They needed to seize that moment; they needed to believe in the Messiah while he was there for those three years of his ministry and not miss that opportunity - that was his prophetic ministry. He describes himself, in a beautiful analogy, as like the friend of the bridegroom at a wedding - or perhaps in modern terms what in some cultures we call the ‘best man.’ I've been to a lot of weddings and I've been many different things in weddings: I've officiated or led weddings as a church leader; overseen the weddings of my three children; I've participated as a musician, as a preacher, as someone called to pray; been involved in the hospitality and all sorts of different roles in weddings. It's been part of my life for many decades - something very joyful in a Christian community and with an extended family but I've also occasionally been the best man. The best man, or the friend of the bridegroom to use John's terminology, is an important person but he's not that important. He must look after the well-being of the bridegroom which is often represented these days in the Western world by making practical arrangements, making a speech at the reception, providing the rings during the ceremony and other practical duties. Just being there on behalf of somebody else in the same way that the bridesmaids, and particularly a chief bridesmaid, at a wedding, would have a similar function for the bride.

John describes himself as the ‘friend of the bridegroom’ or, if you like, the ‘best man’ for Jesus to use that particular analogy. I think it's a very powerful analogy because as the wedding progresses from the introduction and the gathering, the travelling and the excitement of meeting to the actual ceremony - and to the actual conduct of the legal wedding, to the blessing of the wedding and to any other things that have to be done, like the signing of the register in many cultures and then the celebration - the focus moves away from the best man or the friend of the bridegroom. It moves well and truly away from him. By the end of the ceremony, he's faded into the background; he's done his job and he's helped the bridegroom through the day, practically, and launched him into his marriage. As the guests say goodbye to the bride and groom, the best man will find that his duties are largely over and all he has to do is help with clearing up the place where the wedding has taken place. John felt a little bit like that and that's why he said, ‘he must become greater, I must become less’. What was happening at that very moment was that Jesus was becoming greater and he was becoming less. At that very moment, in the same district, John was in one place with his disciples; Jesus was in another place with his disciples and John knew that he should be pointing people towards Jesus: ‘I must become less because he must become greater.’ That happens in many weddings throughout the day of the wedding to the best man; a similar experience was happening to John as Jesus was becoming better known. John came before Jesus to prepare the people for Jesus by baptism and to make Jesus well known through his baptism and to affirm Jesus' Messiahship. I want to say that John did a very good job and it's easy to forget the important role of John. What he did was, he made probably tens of thousands of people spiritually awake and alert so that, as Jesus came on the scene they began to connect with him.

Jesus is God and Man

The second half of this passage, verses 31 to 36, has a series of statements by John in which he affirms Jesus' divinity as God and as the Son of God. For example, he says that Jesus ‘comes from above and is above all.’ This indicates to us he is no ordinary human; he's a unique human being whose origin is in his divine status as the Son of God. It's important to remember that, although Jesus became a man at a certain period of time and took on human identity and physical being, he was always Jesus the Son of God in eternity as God. He's always been God; there's never been a moment when Jesus hasn't been in heaven, in eternity, in a permanent eternal relationship. In that sense, he was from above but he is a human being from the time that Mary conceived him in her womb by the miraculous intervention of the Holy Spirit, as we saw in the earlier episodes dealing with Jesus' birth. He says that: Jesus comes from above; is above all; is sent by God and speaks his words; and is the Son of God.

John goes on to make a very interesting statement which we're going to reflect on in a moment: he's given the Spirit, the Holy Spirit, ‘without limit.’ I wonder what that means? That's an intriguing phrase, we'll come back to it. He says that the Father has placed the bringing of salvation into the hands of Jesus and, therefore, we must believe in him in order to be saved. There are many ways in which the Gospels seek to persuade us that Jesus is not just a prophet, a moral teacher, a religious leader, a guru, a healer, an example of loving humanity, or any other definition that we might want to give him. All these definitions are far too small for the Jesus revealed in the Gospels. Here is the unique Son of God, coming to bring salvation to the earth. I know that there'll be people reading this from a variety of religious backgrounds, or people who may even consider themselves to be fairly non-religious, or even secular, or agnostic, or perhaps even atheist. Many people honour Jesus as a religious leader, or teacher, or guru, but haven't really faced up to the fact that the whole of the New Testament claims that he is actually the unique, one and only, Son of God. God and man in one person, who came to perform a unique function of saving the human race that no one else could do. I'm encouraging you to reflect on this passage, as on many other passages, and think whether your view of Jesus is an adequate view of Jesus.


I want to just make a few final reflections. Here's a very interesting passage in terms of identifying - we've seen it before, we'll see it again - the Trinitarian relationships of God. The three persons of the Trinity - Father, Son and Spirit - are mentioned in the same passage again. We see this pattern time and time again which reminds us that any view of God we have which does not understand that Jesus is fully God, that the Holy Spirit is a person and fully God; any view that's lesser than that is much lesser than the view given to us by the New Testament and by the Gospels. But let me, in reflection, focus on one particular phrase that is intriguing and very, very important. When John says that Jesus was given the Spirit ‘without limit,’ verse 34, ‘God gives the Spirit without limit,’ we need to try and understand what this means and what it means for us. I want to make a practical application for us if you are a Christian believer today. John's statement here suggests that not only does the Spirit empower Jesus, as we've already discussed (and that was very clear from his baptism when the Spirit descended on him in bodily form like a dove and he was subsequently ‘full of the Spirit’ and went ‘in the power of the Spirit’) according to the Gospel narrative. We see the Holy Spirit is within him and empowering him but we also see that he has the Spirit ‘without limit’ - that the Spirit's activities are many. The Holy Spirit can do many things: perform many miracles, give many spiritual gifts to individual people. The phrase having ‘the Spirit without limit’ suggests that Jesus could operate in any spiritual gift, to whatever extent he needed, at any time that he needed to. The spiritual gift of teaching; the spiritual gift of healing; the spiritual gift of performing miracles of provision; the spiritual gift of having supernaturally given knowledge that it's not possible to know by any human means; the spiritual gift of casting out evil spirits and overcoming spiritual darkness in people's lives and driving that force out from them - and other gifts that we could name - these gifts are mentioned in the New Testament. But it appears that Jesus could function in any, or all, of those gifts and he could use them at any time that he needed. The Spirit's gifts were given to him ‘without limit.’

But what does that mean for us if we are Christians? We obviously don't have the Spirit without limit, but 1 Corinthians 12 teaches us, as a Christian community, how the Spirit functions within our midst and I want to compare this with what John has just said about Jesus as a point of reflection and application. So I want to turn to 1 Corinthians  12: 4 - 14. This is a passage talking about at the activity of the Holy Spirit and his gifts to the Church:

‘There are different kinds of gifts, but the same Spirit distributes them. There are different kinds of service, but the same Lord. There are different kinds of working, but in all of them and in everyone it is the same God at work. Now to each one the manifestation of the Spirit is given for the common good. To one there is given through the Spirit a message of wisdom, to another a message of knowledge by means of the same Spirit, to another faith by the same Spirit, to another gifts of healing by that one Spirit, to another miraculous powers, to another prophecy, to another distinguishing between spirits, to another speaking in different kinds of tongues, and to still another the interpretation of tongues. All these are the work of one and the same Spirit, and he distributes them to each one, just as he determines. Just as a body, though one, has many parts, but all its many parts form one body, so it is with Christ. For we were all baptized by one Spirit so as to form one body—whether Jews or Gentiles, slave or free—and we were all given the one Spirit to drink. Even so the body is not made up of one part but of many.’

1 Corinthians 12:4-14, NIV

Here's a beautiful explanation. Every single believer, whoever you are, is baptised by one Spirit and you enter into what is called the ‘Body of Christ,’ so the Church is described like a human body. But we see earlier on, that the Spirit gives gifts to individual people in Church as he decides. God the Spirit decides which gifts to give to different people - he might give certain gifts to me and he might give certain other gifts to you. If I have any gift, it comes from him, it's to be used for his benefit; if you have any gift, it comes from him. It's to be used for his benefit and, of course, for the benefit of other people. The Church as a whole will, if it functions well in any local community (or more widely, but let's just take a local church as our example because that's the reality for most of us) that church has the potential of using all the spiritual gifts and all the miraculous spiritual gifts that God wants to give. This will happen as different members of that church operate in different spiritual gifts. Some may have a particular gift of healing, or teaching, or working miracles, or having particular depth of wisdom to understand the ways of God, for example. Jesus had access to all those gifts; he had the Spirit ‘without limit.’ The Church can only exercise those gifts as a whole unit as, if you like, a body. This is an interesting analogy, isn't it? The human body is a combination of different capacities in different parts of the body: the internal organs, the limbs, the mind and the brain, the eyes, the ears, the mouth et cetera. We have all these capacities but the body only really functions when it's all functioning together for a common purpose and every part is working well. The Church is designed to be like that as the Spirit distributes gifts and we all exercise the gifts that God has given. We, therefore, become like Jesus - the corporate Church becomes like Jesus the individual person. He had access to every gift, at any time in any capacity wanted. He was the Son of God - there was no limit. For us there is a limit. The Holy Spirit gives gifts to us according to his will. We can't have them all. It wouldn't be appropriate or possible for that to be the case but, between us, we can represent all those gifts and then the Church becomes healthy and strong and filled with supernatural power (because most of these gifts are imparting something supernatural when they are functioning). Just as Jesus has the Spirit ‘without limit,’ so the Church has that same Spirit distributing gifts amongst us. We depend on each other to function effectively as the Body of Christ.

Two things to say in conclusion. Number one: John, again, is a wonderful example of humility. He says he can only receive the ministry and the calling that God has given him and then all he has to do is fulfil it. Do you know that's true for you and me? I have a certain ministry and calling and a lot of things I'm not called to do (lots of things I'm not able to do) and it's wise for me just to stick to the things that I can do and to do them as well as I can - and the same applies to you. What are you called to do and to be? What gifts has God given you? What callings do you have? I would encourage you to exercise them, to fulfil them, but with the humility of John (which is not focusing on yourself, but focusing on the benefits of what you do for other people).

John concludes, and my final comment is, reminding everybody of the urgent need to believe in Jesus and to follow him: ‘Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life, but whoever rejects the Son will not see life, for God's wrath remains on them.’ The greatest imperative, the greatest thought we can take away from this, is the need to believe and trust in Jesus wholeheartedly and John (John the Baptist) has been explaining how and why we should do this. Let's heed his advice and follow him in the path that he took in being a wholehearted follower of Jesus saying that ‘he must increase and (we) must decrease.’

Thank you for reading.

Study Questions

The following questions have been provided to facilitate discussion or further reflection. Please feel free to answer any, or all the questions. Each question has been assigned a category to help guide you.

  • Exploring Faith
    Exploring Faith
    1. Do you have a ‘best man’ role in the weddings of your culture? Discuss the role described by Martin Charlesworth. Does it help to understand John’s role, and yours?
  • Discipleship
    1. John challenged people to get right with God and to find his way in their lives. In what ways can you challenge people to do this?
  • Further Study
    Further Study
    1. John is a wonderful example of a biblical prophet - they are not the central focus of their ministry; God is. How was John like an Old Testament prophet, and in what ways was he very different?
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