I’d love to tell you all about my time in London or Paris. Yes, I’ve been to both cities. But pretty much all I know of them personally is this or that part of the Heathrow and De Gaulle airports. And I wouldn’t be much of a tour guide even of those. You’d be much better off getting travel advice from a native Londoner or a Parisian.
I’m reminded of that fact as I read John 3. As mentioned in a recent post, I take John the Baptist’s humble statement, “He must increase, but I must decrease” (vs. 30, NRSV), as his final words in the Fourth Gospel. It’s a fitting testimony to his character as a man who knows his place in God’s story and rejoices to have his part to play and not a line more.
And just as fittingly, what follows is the apostle John’s commentary on the episode between the Baptist and his disciples, a forthright reminder of the uniqueness and superiority of Jesus:
The one who comes from above is above all; the one who is of the earth belongs to the earth and speaks about earthly things. The one who comes from heaven is above all. He testifies to what he has seen and heard, yet no one accepts his testimony. (John 3:31-32, NRSV)
If that part about the one “who is of the earth” sounds repetitive in English, it’s worse in the Greek: “the one being of the earth is of the earth and speaks of the earth.” Awkward.
But I don’t think John is trying to say anything esoteric or mystical. As we’ve seen, some of the Baptist’s followers were miffed that their master’s popularity was dropping in the polls. Though had heard their master declare that Jesus was the Messiah, the full import of that statement had yet to sink in.
John therefore makes the point for his reader: Everyone knows that there’s a difference between heaven and earth, between above and below. Someone who comes from heaven is obviously superior to someone who is from the earth. And there is, in fact, One from heaven, as I’ve been saying right from the beginning of the story: it’s Jesus. John the Baptist could and did speak of heavenly things — but not as one who knew them first-hand. When he spoke of heavenly things, he could only do so as one born here on the earth. Jesus, the One from above, could give truly authoritative testimony about what God was doing. Unfortunately, no one listened.
John doesn’t literally mean that no one listened to Jesus. Quite the contrary, Jesus had many disciples, well beyond the inner circle of the Twelve. But the statement that “no one accepts his testimony” is deeply ironic: Well, what do you know about that? Seems like some people would rather listen to an earthling speak of heavenly things than to listen to someone who’s actually from there.
That doesn’t make John the Baptist’s role unimportant or irrelevant. But it does put things in their proper perspective.
And we should keep that perspective in mind whenever we find ourselves becoming a bit too enamored of the writing or speaking of anyone who claims to represent Christ.