READ : John 3:29-30
He 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 full. He must increase, but I must decrease.
John 3:29-30 rsv
What would it mean for ordinary people like you and me to call the Lord of the universe our friend?
HE CALLS US FRIENDS
Is it sheer presumption on our part to think about that, to imagine that we could possibly stand in that kind of relationship to the eternal God? It would be, surely, if He had not first come to us and given us that name. Think of this: Jesus Christ calls His followers, those who believe in Him, His friends.
Remember how He said to His disciples on the last night He was with them, “No longer do I call you servants, for the servant does not know what his master is doing, but I have called you friends, for all that I have heard from my father I have made known to you”? They were not simply hired hands, carrying out a superior’s orders. He had taken them, as it were, into His confidence. He had shared His heart with them. He had treated them as friends.
He hinted then at what He would yet do for them. “Greater love has no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.” That would be the supreme evidence that He was being a friend to them, a friend cleaving closer than a brother. And He told them then that they would be friends to Him, that they would treat Him as friends, if knowing Him, understanding His vision and purpose, they did what He commanded them.
THE FRIEND OF THE BRIDEGROOM
Now while there are many then whom the Lord has called His friends, there is only one person of whom we read in the Scriptures who calls himself the Lord’s friend. His name was John, John the Baptist. Once speaking of Jesus and the growing popularity of His ministry, John said this, “I am not the Christ, but I have been sent before him. He 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 full. He must increase, but I must decrease.” John names himself here the friend of the bridegroom, the friend of the Christ, and opens up for us in a moving way what it means to be the Lord’s friend.
We need to get the picture here of what’s happening. John the Baptist, as you recall, had created a sensation in Judea with his fiery preaching. He was a man of the wilderness, rugged, fearless, passionate. The word of the Lord had come to him and he had proclaimed it fervently. Multitudes had been led by him to repentance and had received baptism at his hands in the River Jordan. So great was the stir that authorities came down from Jerusalem to investigate. Unimpressed by their credentials, John called them also to repentance.
In the course of all this, he attracted quite a following. He gathered about him a band of close disciples. But that was never his aim. He persistently testified that he was not the Christ, that he was not Elijah, that he was not the prophet who was to come, but only a voice crying in the wilderness, “Prepare the way of the Lord.”
Now after Jesus had been baptized in the River Jordan and had begun His public ministry, John’s popularity began to wane. Well-meaning friends came to him one day concerned about this, “Rabbi, he who was with you beyond the Jordan, to whom you bore witness, here he is, baptizing, and all are going to him.” It was as though they were saying, “You baptized Him and now He’s baptizing people. Crowds were coming to hear you and now they’re going to hear Him.”
Here John evidences the first mark of a genuine friendship. He doesn’t resent the success and prominence of his friend. Listen to this response: “No one can receive anything except what is given him from heaven.” That puts everything in the right perspective, doesn’t it? We often tend to grow uncomfortable when another person’s star is rising. It seems easier to “weep with those who weep” than to “rejoice with those who rejoice.” We could expect it to be doubly difficult for John the Baptist, because the enthusiastic response of the people to Jesus meant a lessening of interest in his own ministry. He even saw some of those who had been his followers transferring their allegiance.
If John had not been a friend of the Lord, we could well imagine him being crestfallen at this report, defensive about himself and his own work. He might have offered self-serving reasons for this development. He might even have criticized Jesus’ ministry. But whatever struggles there may have been at first in his own soul, John is a true friend. He sees the hand of God in all this. The success John himself had enjoyed, the remarkable effects of his ministry, all that had been God-given. And now what was going on in the ministry of Jesus was also by the blessing of heaven.
If we could always see things in that way, what inner misery we would be spared! I say that from personal experience. I’m a preacher of the gospel myself and I know something of the perils to which preachers are especially vulnerable. It’s difficult for us at times to deal with the success of others who also labor in the gospel. When they are attracting a large following and we labor in relative obscurity, when they show evidence of rich fruitfulness and we don’t see much happening in our own ministries, when they are praised while we are taken for granted, that’s a searching test for us. We may lose our inner peace at such times. We may be troubled by envious feelings or tempted to despise ourselves. What a relief it is, what a breath of fresh air to remember this word: “No one can receive anything except what is given him from heaven!” Whatever gifts a man or woman may have, whatever successes any may enjoy, whatever recognition, accomplishment, fruit, it all comes by grace, all as a gift from God. That awareness frees us to see the successes of our brethren through new eyes.
But John has more to say. He reminds his hearers, “You yourselves bear me witness, that I said, `I am not the Christ, but I have been sent before him.’” He’s saying, in effect, “What you say comes as no surprise to me. The whole meaning of my ministry, the goal of my efforts was to go before this One, to prepare His way. This is the way God intended it to be.”
But it’s one thing to accept another person’s success as God-given. It’s another to rejoice in it wholeheartily. John goes on, “He 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 full.” What about that? John not only accepts this as the Lord’s purpose; he celebrates it. He rejoices in it greatly. His gladness is full and running over. That’s the wonder of real friendship. Have you noticed this, that when you deeply respect another person it becomes easier for you to accept their popularity or success? You have a sense of rightness about it. You feel that it’s well deserved. But then if you happen also to love that person, then your difficulties can almost melt away. You find yourself feeling happy that they are honored, jubilant when they succeed, because they are dear to you.
I’ve always been fascinated in this connection with the Old Testament friendship between Jonathan and David. Jonathan, you remember, was the son of King Saul and heir-apparent to his throne. Then David appeared on the scene. Jonathan recognized that the Lord had raised up this David and destined him to be the leader of God’s people. Somehow that didn’t sadden him, didn’t disappoint him, didn’t make him angry or resentful. It meant that he, the prince, would never be king. A shepherd boy, a seeming nobody from the wilderness, would be exalted above him. But Jonathan accepted that. What’s more, he actually seemed happy about it, because David had become his friend.
Listen as the ancient writer describes it: “When [David] had finished speaking to Saul, the soul of Jonathan was knit to the soul of David, and Jonathan loved him as his own soul . . . then Jonathan made a covenant with David, because he loved him as his own soul” (1 Sam. 18:1-3). I often think of that as a picture of what it means to obey this commandment: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Matt. 22:39). Jonathan loved David, we read, “as he loved his own soul.” And so he could be as happy in David’s successes as though they were his own.
That’s how John the Baptist felt about Jesus. He called himself “the friend of the bridegroom.” This figure in the ancient world was something like what we know today as the “best man.” It was the duty of this significant person to bring the bride to the bridegroom, to make all the necessary preparations for the marriage, to preside at it, and finally to stand before the bridal chamber until he heard the bridegroom’s voice announcing his arrival.
There’s a great deal of imagery in these words. The God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, remember, was called again and again in the Old Testament “the husband” of Israel. The people of God, the chosen nation, were His bride. Later on, in the New Testament, the Christian church is called the “bride of Christ.” John calls himself here the friend of the bridegroom because he seeks to bring God’s people to Him.
A MODEL FOR US
Here again, John is an admirable model for preachers. The task of the minister, the pastor, the evangelist, is not to attract people to himself or herself but to bring them to the Bridegroom. All our preaching and teaching, our pastoral care and intercession, is meant to lead others into a vital, personal relationship with Jesus Christ. And the more we, like John, love the Lord, the more we are friends of the Bridegroom, the more we rejoice when that happens, the more we celebrate when others turn toward Him. Sometimes, unavoidably, people are drawn to us when we carry on a ministry of the gospel among them. They think highly of us. They may praise us, appreciate us, feel indebted to us. And all of that has a certain rightness about it. But these ties reach fulfillment only if through that interaction with the pastor or the preacher, people come to know, trust and love the Lord. Then the friend of the Bridegroom finds fulness of joy, when they become completely the Lord’s.
Here’s John’s last word on the subject: “He must increase, but I must decrease.” Jesus’ sun is rising. John’s is setting. More and more people will leave the Baptist behind and follow the One from Nazareth. Jesus will teach and preach and heal while John will languish in a prison. Jesus is destined to reign over all the earth, but John will soon die in that prison.
John says it must be this way. There’s a kind of necessity about it. But this “must” in the Bible never describes an inexorable fate but a loving Father’s will. It must be so if His purpose of grace is to be fulfilled, if the salvation of the world is to be accomplished. John views the necessity in that way. He doesn’t accept it as a grim duty to which he must reluctantly submit. He embraces it as the good will of God, as the crowning of his own work and the furthering of God’s larger purpose. Because he is the friend of the bridegroom, his descent as Jesus rises becomes a matter of positive joy.
We sense that strange mixture of things also in the apostle Paul, another of the Lord’s friends. It’s a relatively small thing with Paul whether he lives or dies, so long as Christ is magnified in his body. When he is warned by well-meaning friends not to go to Jerusalem, for example, he says, “None of these things move me, neither do I count my life dear to myself, that I may finish my course with joy, and the ministry which I have received from the Lord Jesus to testify the gospel of the grace of God” (Acts 20:24). Again, “For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain” (Phil. 1:21). There is no explanation for behavior like John’s or Paul’s except the power of a constraining love.
What about you? Can it be truly said of you in any sense that you are the Lord’s friend? Does loyalty to Him so fill your life that everything which exalts His name and furthers His cause fills your life with joy? Can you find within yourself a readiness to step into the background for Him to be honored, even to disappear so that He can be seen? That’s the miracle of grace that happens in our lives when we become aware of His prior mercy. We become the Lord’s friends because He has so marvelously befriended sinful people. We love because He first loved us.
PRAYER: Gracious God, we praise You for the marvelous love You have shown us in Jesus Christ. Teach us what it means in grateful devotion to live as the Lord’s friends. In Jesus’ name. Amen.