John 3:22—4:3, Christ Our Bridegroom

[December 19, 2010] Two weeks ago we considered the eternity of the Son of God and last week we considered His witness, and presence through this witness, in time. Today we will consider the particular witness of John the Baptist in John 3. John’s role is to bring us to Christ. We usually think of John as preparing us for the advent of Christ by calling us to repentance. This, of course, is correct but in the Gospel according to John, the emphasis is entirely on Him to whom he bears witness (see John 1:6-8, 15, 19-36; 5:33, 35).

In the season of Advent, we hear John’s witness in anticipation of the coming of Christ—in celebration of His birth, in the Gospel, and when He is manifested at the time of His second advent.

The witness of John here is that, “He must increase, but I must decrease.” The witness itself must give place to that to which it bears witness; every witness is subordinate to the revelation of Christ. This is not an “iconoclasm” of the witness, but rather respect for the witness as such. Ultimately we need to heed the witness and believe into the Son. This is the whole point of the witness: “that all might believe through him” (John 1:7).

Chiasms

Two weeks ago, when considering John 8, I spoke a little about the phenomenon of chiastic structures. It is prevalent in oral cultures and in scrolls, and we find them throughout the Scriptures. Before speech became simply an imperfect medium of data, there was the “page,” and before the page—which began finally to shape human consciousness in the twelfth century—was the scroll, and before the scroll was the spoken word which depended upon the presence of the person who was speaking. The spoken word was represented on the page by letters that signified consonants without vowels. Before letters on the parchment could become word, the reader had to breathe into them, that is, speak them aloud. This is where the vowels came from. They not only represent; they reproduce the spoken word. The fact that the word, in order to be a word, had to be spoken required not only a speaker but the presence of a listener. Before words became an objective record, they existed only in the present tense and implied the personal presence of both the speaker and one who listened.

How far we have gotten from this primal experience of the word, when our ubiquitous “connectedness” does not require personal presence at all! To receive a handwritten letter at least is something physical that I can hold in my hands; it physically connects me to the person who wrote it; they handled it and the ink letters were formed by their own touch. In handling and reading the letter I, as a person, am physically connected to their presence as a person. It is not the same as if we were actually present to each other, but it is something phenomenally different than receiving an electronic transmission. The difference, and distance, is one of degree, but in a society in which so much of the environment that envelopes us is manufactured anonymously rather than handcrafted (by ourselves or people we know), the difference is great, indeed, very great.

One way to consider this is to distinguish between the dialectic of subject-and-object and that of persons. The distinction between subject and object is, in a real way, illusory. The dialectic between persons assumes that the “you” whom I address is also an “I” who addresses me and that the communal space between us is real.

All this is merely to say that chiasms, while we still produce them unintentionally, herald back to a time when we were different, when our minds and the way in which we interacted with reality was different. It was not necessarily more “accurate” but it was definitely more contextual. Today information is much more fragmented and atomized than it was then. In a way, just as it did not occur to them to put spaces between words when they wrote (for the letters represented sounds, not morphemes), information was always contextual. This is not so for us. We imagine that if we isolate information by quantifying it, that it can be objective and therefore more factual—and thus truer to reality—and more—technologically (in the abstract sense of this word)—useful. Let us say, the use of chiasms comes from a more contextualized milieu.

Patterns

Let us return to our present passage. Chapters 2—4 of the gospel form a chiasm and this passage falls in the middle of it, at the moment when the wave recedes back from the shore. The unit begins with the first sign which Jesus did, which took place in Cana (2:1-12) and ends with the second sign which Jesus did, which also took place in Cana (4:43-54). The first sign is followed by Jesus’ judgment of the Temple and His declaring—enigmatically—that He in resurrection will replace the Temple in Jerusalem (2:13-22). The second sign is preceded by Jesus’ discussion with the Samaritan woman about worship, that “an hour is coming when neither in this mountain nor in Jerusalem will you worship the Father” but “the true worshipers will worship in spirit and truthfulness” (4:1-42). Between these is Jesus’ words with Nicodemus about salvation (2:23—3:21) and John’s words with his disciples which we are about to consider (3:22-36). Thus:

A     2:1-12        The wedding at Cana.
    B        2:13-22    The cleansing of the Temple
        C        2:23—3:21    Jesus and Nicodemus
        C’       3:22—4:3         Jesus and John the Baptist
    B’       4:4-42      Jesus and the woman of Samaria
A’    4:43-54    The healing of the official’s son

When things turn around in the center, they take a decidedly more universal shape, from Israel to the Messiah’s church among the nations. Moreover, in John 3:29 John says, “He who has the bride is the Bridegroom.” This is a peak, describing the goal towards which the regeneration that Jesus discussed with Nicodemus leads. Indirectly and allusively, it is preluded by the wedding in Cana and postluded by Jesus’ conversation with the woman of Samaria. This becomes clearer when the chiasmic relationship of the Gospel according to John to the Book of the Revelation is brought out. There the motif of the bride and groom, marital unfaithfulness and the final wedding and union are prominent.

It may at first seem as if Jesus’ important conversation with Nicodemus is followed by an interlude before His next important conversation with the woman of Samaria. The chiastic pattern should warn us not to underestimate the importance of the passage. 

We have discussed the overall pattern into which this passage fits. Let us now consider the passage itself.

The Witness

In verses 22-30 John’s disciples are jealous for the sake of John. Jesus is getting more attention than John: “All are coming to Him.” John, however, recognizes that his role is to bring people to Christ. When people come to Christ, the one who brings them must step aside. The witness does not draw attention to himself but to another. The role of the witness is to point. So, John says, “I must decrease.” This is true not only for John, and all the prophets, but also for the apostolate—for Christian workers and preachers—and saintly role models. No Christian ministry exists for itself, nor is its purpose its subsidiary work (for example, to help people). It exists to bring people to Christ for the sake of Christ. This is even true of the exterior form of God’s covenant with Israel and even the New Testament Scriptures. They do not exist for themselves but to bring us to Christ, to bear witness to Him, to bring forth the revelation of Christ, to open our eyes to see Him, and to bring us to a firsthand or direct knowledge or recognition (epignosis) of Him.

It is not as though the revelation of Christ can be separated from its witness; it cannot be. Yet, the revelation of Christ is also not conterminous or identical with it. The witness is merely the vehicle, even though the vehicle already participates in that to which it bears witness.

The faithful witness, however, rejoices when she or he hands us over to Christ. The witness rejoices when they decrease on account of the increase of Christ. The witness is the friend of the Bridegroom and rejoices to hear the Bridegroom’s voice, to know His presence, but the fullness of the witness’s joy is when the Bridegroom receives His bride. “He must increase, but I must decrease.” For us to behold the glory and beauty of Christ, and more, to see Christ increase Himself in His bride, this is the joy that makes our own life and labor meaningful.

The Bride

Many Christians seem to focus only on personal salvation, and unfortunately many of them do so with a purely self-serving focus. Conversion to Christ is not only about the forgiveness of sins. It is about regeneration (a new birth). Forgiveness (redemption) is what enables regeneration to take place. But regeneration is not a metaphor about change. It is quite literal. We are born of God, not simply adopted by God. The word translated “adopted” means sonship and refers to the rights of the heir (it also can therefore refer to the child coming into those rights at maturation), not necessarily the transfer of parentage in the way that we use the word. Gentiles are adopted in this way into the olive true, the promises given to Israel on the basis of God’s covenant with Abraham (Romans 11). But in the Gospel according to John it refers exclusively to one’s genetic origin. We are born of God.

However, this is only the beginning. God’s purpose is to have a bride for the Son. As Eve came out of the Anthropos (the Adam), so the church comes out of Christ and shares His nature. As Eve stood face to face with Adam in the union of one flesh, so we are face to face with Christ in personal union, sharing His human nature and participating in His divine nature, awaiting the divinization of our human nature in Him. The bride shares not only in the natures, but in the perichoresis of the Persons. We exist in the love of the Persons of the divine nature—which gives rise to the divine nature as such. The love that the nuptial imagery alludes to is that which exists between the Persons, and we participate in this through the Holy Spirit who is this (hypostatically) between the Father and the Son. Indeed, our own spirit—not the insulated soul as such (which is impersonal)—is that part of us which makes us persons to one another, and which is awakened to personhood by the dwelling and comingling of the Holy Spirit within it. We become the bride of Christ when regeneration takes place, but we are yet far from ready for the wedding. The bride needs to come into “her own”; she needs to mature in her union with her Beloved. It is her own divinization—the divinization of her human nature (without the loss of it)—that constitutes the marriage. And, it takes place corporately. We grow into the bride-prepared-for-her=Husband in spiritual relationship to one another, as persons. This is what the church is (so Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s doctoral dissertation), and why true fellowship is sacramental.

The Scriptures begin with the nuptial relationship between Adam and Eve and end with the nuptial relationship of Christ and the church. It is a central theme that runs throughout the Scriptures. The men of the Scriptures often have a difficult time at marriage. Patriarchal marriage was unjust. The hardship of this kind of marriage and the problems that ensued (seen strictly from the male’s perspective, who is often blind to his mistreatment of the wife)—the adulterous wife and the wife who has turned to prostitution—is used to illustrate the problem that God has with His people. That God should have this problem is instructive for us about the nature of sin and the world more than it is about the nature of divine love (which is terribly distorted in this lens). However, also running through the Scripture (and often subterraneously) is the love that marriage is supposed to embody. We see this most clearly in the Song of Songs—though it depicts the courtship and marriage of a sultan-like king with a harem—where the eros of human passion more properly illustrates the divine love. It was not until the troubadours of southern Spain that romantic love comes into its own. Though it lacks the purity of spiritual love, because it does not escape the confinement of the soul to the image of the other rather than their person, it nevertheless bears witness to spiritual love, for it is this spiritual love for which it strives. The love to which it bears witness is the love between Christ and His own, and the love His own will one day know for each other in Christ.

The bride of Christ is the increase of Christ. When, in the Gospel according to John, Christ breathes into His disciples and they receive the Holy Spirit, He breathes Himself into them (as John 14—16 make clear). They are thus regenerated. After thatm He manifests Himself to them as a Person. So He is both within them, vitalizing their spirit with the Holy Spirit so that they are now persons, and He is person-to-person with them, having taken them up into the personhood of God. They are in Him and He is in them; they are thus His increase; and with this being so, they are His bride-in-waiting.

This is a big deal, but we are not done yet.

He gives the Spirit Not by Measure

John makes several statements about Christ. “He who comes from above” or “from heaven is above all.” “What He has seen and heard, of this He testifies.” Last week, Jesus said, “If I testify concerning Myself, My testimony is not true” (John 5:31). John 5 actually clarifies what Jesus means here. He testifies to that which is from above, to that which is heavenly, in other words, to the revelation of Himself, which is invisible to the soul. John 5 says that it is the Father who testifies to Him through His works and through the Scriptures—and through Jesus’ words in that He never speaks out of His soul but only speaks what the Father gives Him to speak.

If we receive this testimony, that is, if Christ reveals Himself to us, then we have set our seal to this: that God is true. That means that we have authenticated it; we have established or proved to ourselves the reality of God and the truthfulness of His self-revelation in Christ.

This is because Christ bears witness to that which is from above and heavenly by speaking the words of God. The word here for “words” is rhema (in contrast to logos) and refers to the instantaneous and present speaking of God. In other words, when He speaks, God is speaking. To receive His testimony is for God to reveal that to which His testimony bears witness. As Jesus said to Peter, “Flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but My Father who is in the heavens” (Matthew 16:17). To not hear the Father’s voice is to only hear what is of the earth. “He who is of God hears the words (rhema) of God; for this reason you do not hear them, because you are not of God” (John 8:47). You are only hearing with the soul and not the spirit.

Yet a person can only hear the words of God if her spirit has been awakened. The words, “for He gives the Spirit not by measure,” probably does not refer to the Father giving the Spirit to the Son but rather the giving of the Spirit to those who have received Jesus’ testimony. “He who receives His testimony has set his seal to this, that God is true—for He whom God has sent speaks the words of God—for He gives the Spirit not by measure.” This looks forward to when the resurrected Jesus breathes the Holy Spirit into the disciples. It is the Holy Spirit that regenerates us and opens our eyes to the truth—or reality—of God. The Father gives the Son the Spirit to give to us. And the Son gives the Spirit without measure, that is, without limit. Our salvation is not limited to a certain likeness or resemblance to Christ. The divinization of our human nature will continue to the full measure of Christ, in other words, infinitely.

“The Father loves the Son and has given all into His hand.” This has two senses. One is that the Father has put the Holy Spirit (all that the Father has) into the hand of the Son, to give the Holy Spirit as He wills. This refers to the previous verse. It also refers to the Father giving us to the Son, for Him to give eternal life (John 10:29; 17:2). This refers to the following verse.

Believing into the Son

We can only believe into the Son because the Son gives us the Holy Spirit without measure. Then we can receive His testimony, that is, the revelation of Himself, and thus authenticate the reality of God and the truthfulness of His self-revelation. If our spirit is enlightened by the revelation of Christ, we believe into Him. The language in the Gospel according to John is clear: we do not just believe something about Jesus as when we agree that certain propositions are true, or believe “in” Jesus as when we put our confidence and faith in Him, but we believe into Him, so that after we believe we are in Him. It is because of this that we then possess eternal life. Eternal life is the life that is in Him, the divine life by which He rose from the dead. When we receive eternal life we are not just made immortal (interpreting eternal life to mean everlasting life), but we receive a life that has no beginning or end and for which the past and the future exist in the present moment. It is God’s own life that we are given, and by which we are regenerated. It is because we receive this that it can be said that we are literally—“genetically”—born of God, for we possess the divine life as our own new life.

John then says that whoever disobeys the Son shall not see life. The word for “disobey” (sometimes translated “disbelieve”) is apeitheō. The word for believe in the first part of the verse is pistis. Apeithō has a different cognate. It does not mean believe or disobey in the usual sense. According to John Nelson Darby, a competent linguist, “It is the obedience of submission to his person, not practical obedience to his commands, whatever proof this may be of the other; but it is not exactly the same thing as believing on him as an object revealed in grace.” The word is also used in Hebrews 3:18. I would venture to translate it, “He who does not submit to the Son’s person shall not see life.” This refers to submitting to His witness, that is, to the revelation of Himself.

Those to whom He spoke and who rejected what He claimed, were not just rejecting certain “beliefs” nor rejecting moral injunctions that He promulgated, but were refusing to open themselves to His person. As a result, they were cutting themselves off from the divine life. They were, in effect, locking themselves within their own soul, hermetically sealed off from their spirit (if that were possible), as if their artificially constructed self were real, as if it could exist without spirit.

“The wrath of God abides upon him.” John does not say that the wrath of God will come upon him or her but that it will remain where it is. Outwardly we all exist under the wrath of God. Inwardly we do too unless we come to know the forgiveness of our sins. If we know the forgiveness of our sins, we are inwardly liberated from the wrath of God. We experience the joy of God’s presence, and live in the experience of His love. But if we cut ourselves off from God, this is not possible; and we all have done so (that is, we have cut our souls off from God) by virtue of coming into our human consciousness within the matrix of the world. Unless something new happens to us, something unprecedented, something “from above,” we will remain locked in our soul and enslaved to the powers that dominate the world. Jesus offers the joyous liberation from this by inviting us to believe into Him and participate in the divine life.

He calls us to perceive who He is and believe into Him. Do you see yet? Keep looking. Even if you think you see, or in fact do see, keep looking. God opens our eyes more and more. As God does this, through His grace, then more and more we can set our seal to this, that God is true, and know what it means to be the divine Bridegroom’s beloved.

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