Today’s reading is John 3:22-36 (ESV):
Final Witness of the Baptist
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.”
The One from Heaven
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.
I’ve walked through Harvard Yard almost every day for two and a half years, the most magical years of my life. Some of those walks have required me to step gingerly through crowds of tourists, while others have been accompanied by little other than the sound of my footsteps through fresh snow. And during each of those walks, I look around and can’t help but be amazed by my fellow travelers, journeying to class in the Science Center or meetings in Boylston or p-set sessions in Lamont. It is they who make Harvard the magical place that it is: their passion, their curiosity and commitment to learning, their thought-provoking ideas and conversations, their enthusiasm for life and for making a difference. But some days feel less magical, and the fellow travelers become impersonal and indifferent, no longer classmates and friends but competitors for grades and letters of recommendation and fellowships. Jealousy becomes the only word to adequately describe my feelings, because their successes only stand in sharp contrast to my failures. I feel lost, lonely, resentful, and very much a failure.
The foundation of today’s passage, John 3:22-36, is the all-too-human emotion of jealousy, situated in a critical moment of transition from the prophetic era of the Old Testament to the coming of the Messiah. We see the ministries of John the Baptist and Jesus occurring simultaneously, each baptizing in a different part of the Jordan River. John’s followers, express annoyance and disdain at this rival ministry. Perhaps they even feel a tinge of self-doubt as to whether they had been following the right person all along. John’s followers turn to John, hoping to provoke a response. They claim that “all are going to him” and refuse to even use Jesus’s name, instead referring to “he who was with you across the Jordan.” With their spiritual position on shaky ground, they demand reassurance from John.
But John refuses to see things on their terms. In response, he gives us a clear and convincing message: he is not the Messiah, but rather the best man witnessing the church’s marriage to Christ, a clear parallel of the Old Testament depiction of Israel as the bride of Yahweh. As Paul later explains to the Ephesians, John baptizes with the baptism of repentance, and this baptism is precisely intended to point the way to the Messiah who was to follow him. Rivalry or competitiveness would only serve to detract from Jesus’ higher calling, one of justification and forgiveness and overwhelming love. If Jesus is prospering and people are going to him, then John has every reason to celebrate.
John the Baptist concludes his exhortation to his followers by declaring, “if He must increase, then I must decrease.” Baptism is merely a means to an end, with Jesus Christ as its object and eternal life as its promise. John recognizes that he, too, has the responsibility to hear and respond to his own witness, gaining satisfaction in not merely what he has accomplished for God but what God is accomplishing for him. In increasing, Christ becomes one who gives, and in decreasing, John becomes one who receives. What John grasps and his followers do not is that John, being “of the earth,” is finite and limited, but Jesus, as the distributor of the Spirit, has been given all things through the Father’s love. Only in Jesus can we find eternal life, and this eternal life is a present and real experience, not a future expectation.
Competition is an inescapable aspect of our time at Harvard, and it is far too easy to extend that aspect of our life into an aspect of our mindset. We internalize the pressure we feel from our professors and classmates, who become judges rather than friends or mentors, and we feel a need to impress and outdo those around us in order to avoid a feeling of crushing failure and emptiness. But when we step back to examine the cosmic perspective, it no longer makes sense to constantly compare ourselves with others, because all of us are of the earth, both in origin and in kind: steeped in sin, flawed, human, undeserving of God’s glory which Jesus has been sent to exalt. C.S. Lewis called for us to “play great parts without pride and little ones without dejection.” We are ultimately defined not by how high on the class curve we rank or how many comps we survive, but rather, by whether we are following Jesus so that the glory of God may increase, because all of us, like John, are image-bearers of the one who brings eternal life and truth.
Eric Yang ’18 is a Junior in Pforzheimer House studying Economics.