Monday, June 22, 2009

A Lesson in Needing the Eyes of Others to Help Us See what We Fail to See

When I received our mail today we received the mail version of The Bethlehem Star, the weekly publication of Bethlehem Baptist Church of which my wife and I are members. The arrival of The Star reminded me that I promised a few people that I would follow up on a matter that occurred almost a month ago.

Both on-line and in a subsequent issue of The Bethlehem Star John Piper mentioned the correspondence that he and I had concerning John 3:22-30, the passage on which he preached on May 24. See his on-line post at "John’s Crazy Joy: More on Bridegrooms and Purification." Since John decided not to expand upon the sermon he had already preached on May 24, titled, "He Must Increase, I Must Decrease" (on John 3:22-30), I have decided to offer what he might have done if he had decided to revisit the passage either in a sermon or in an expansion upon the sermon.

During the sermon, "He Must Increase, I Must Decrease," John posed the following question,

One last observation. All of this got started in verse 25 because of a discussion over purification. Verse 25: “Now a discussion arose between some of John’s disciples and a Jew over purification.” Did John have nothing to say about this? Did he just leave it behind?

You judge. If John had referred to Jesus the way he did in 1:29, “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” we would say: There it is! There’s the connection with purification from sin. The Lamb is sacrificed for sinners and purifies them from their sin.

Now, since I follow the Scripture readings for the day and the sermonic exposition of Scripture in my Greek New Testament, I was surprised that Pastor Piper did not link the mention of purification (καθαρισμός) in John 3:25 with mention of purification (καθαρισμός) in John 2:6, which is the only other passage in the Gospel that uses καθαρισμός, the word the evangelist uses for ceremonial purification. Instead of seeing the evangelist's word link, Pastor Piper followed a conceptual of purification back to John 1:29.

Pastor John Piper further explains,

But instead, in verse 29, John speaks of Christ as the bridegroom and the church as the bride. But is there a connection between these two in the mind of John—both Johns (the Baptist and the Gospel writer)?

Listen to Revelation 21:9: “Come, I will show you the Bride, the wife of the Lamb.” The bride is the wife of the Lamb. So the Bridegroom is the Lamb that takes away the sin of the world.

So maybe it’s not surprising to hear Paul speak of Christ as the bridegroom of the church, and explicitly say that he sanctifies her and purifies her. Ephesians 5:25-27:

Husbands, love your wives, as Christ [the bridegroom] loved the church and gave himself up for her, that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, so that he might present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish.

So when John tells us that Jesus is the bridegroom and that he has the bride, he is indeed answering the question about purification. The Bridegroom is the Lamb. The Bridegroom does give himself for his bride and purify her from all her sins.

Since Pastor John Piper has been preaching through the Gospel of John, again, I was caught by surprise that he went outside the Gospel to the Apocalypse to explain John 3:29, given the links the evangelist embeds into the narrative of John 3:22-30. I expressed this surprise to him in an e-mail note. He graciously responded saying, "How could I miss that!!!!" I checked one of John Piper's chief resources, D. A. Carson's commentary on The Gospel according to John, and discovered that even though Carson observes that the same word (καθαρισμός) is used in John 3:25 and in 2:6 (p. 210), he mentions nothing significant about this verbal link. So, John Piper is hardly alone in missing the link. Why did I see it and not he? I do not know, other than to say that the word link between the two passages leaped off the page to my eyes. Who can explain why one sees something and another does not see until someone points out a matter? If we see, let us bless the One who gives us sight.

Here is a lesson in how we need one another because we complement one another. One observes what another fails to see. Hence, we need commentaries to draw our attention to things in the biblical text that we otherwise may not see. I learn much from commentators who point to things in the biblical text that I might not otherwise see. We need new commentaries to fill the gaps that earlier commentaries leave. If we highly prize the Bible and regard it as indispensable to our Christian faith, then we will cherish both old and new commentaries on the text as we seek to discover wonderful things in the biblical storyline, things that we have not see before, though they were always there to be seen. So, in this spirit I offer my own brief commentary upon what Carson and Piper passed over. Perhaps others will point out my own shortsightedness reflected in what I present. I welcome any comments.

There are at least two crucial links between John 3:22-30 and 2:1-11.

The first link is expressly verbal, using καθαρισμός in both pericopes. As I explained to Pastor John Piper in a brief e-mail note concerning the links between the two passages, I stated,

John 3:25 and 2:6 are the only two uses of καθαρισμός in the Gospel. Given the context of John 3:22-30, one might have expected βαπτισμός as in Mark 7:4 when Jesus is questioned about ceremonial cleansings. As such, it would have been a clever pun—βαπτισμός and the verbal cognates in the context. However, instead of βαπτισμός, John writes καθαρισμός, almost surely with a twinkle in his eye and perhaps a wry smile on his face, wondering how many of his first hearers and later readers would catch the link with his earlier mention in 2:6 and tease out in their own holy imaginations the beauty and depth of the theological connections between the symbolic significance of Jesus’ miracle at the wedding in Cana and the cleansing now being portrayed symbolically in Jesus’ baptism but also the divinely designed role of John as the friend of the bridegroom whose function it is to disappear once the bridegroom comes for his bride.

In the latter segment of my comment cited immediately above I refer to the other crucial link between John 3:22-30 and 2:1-11. It entails the wedding imagery that John the Baptist exploits to depict his relationship to Messiah Jesus. John, Jesus' cousin, serves the role of "friend of the bridegroom" (ὁ φίλος τοῦ νυμφίου), what the Greeks called the paranymph (παράνυμφος) and the Jews called the shoshabin, though the customs differed.

As the friend of the bridegroom, John played a prominent role, but only for a limited time. Now his prominent role is rendered complete because his function is to present the bride to the bridegroom.

Thus, as Jesus' making of disciples by baptizing them now increases and overshadows John's making of disciples by baptizing, it becomes evident to John the Baptist that his role is drawing to its God ordained end (cf. John 4:1-2). So, John the Baptist reiterates, "A man is not able to receive anything except what is given to him from heaven. You yourselves bear witness that I said, 'I am not the Messiah, but that I have been sent ahead of him.'" In other words, John is saying that he is not the bridegroom; the bride, including the disciples he has been making, does not belong to him but to another. Thus, John announces, "He who has the bride is the bridegroom. The friend of the bridegroom who stands and hears him, the bridegroom, rejoices with joy because of the voice of the bridegroom. Therefore, this joy of mine is made complete. He must increase, but I must decrease."

John understands his role. His role as "friend of the bridegroom" has its ordered restrictions. His fame, though essential for his God appointed role to woo the bride for the bridegroom, is but the fame of the "friend of the bridegroom" not the fame of the bridegroom himself. Therefore, his own renown fades promptly when the bridegroom's voice is heard and he, Jesus, appears to receive the bride prepared for him by John, "the friend of the bridegroom."

1 comment:

Zach Tarter said...

This post was helpful and much appreciated. I once heard Bruce Ware say that as a theologian he has the wonderful job of admiring artistic masterpieces in one room for a time, only to open a door and find another room full of masterpieces to admire! I often feel this way in studying Scripture and your words served as perfect aid in that. Thanks!