Now a discussion arose between some of John's disciples and a Jew over purification. 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.” John answered, “A person cannot receive even one thing unless it is given him from heaven. You yourselves bear me witness, that I said, ‘I am not the Christ, but I have been sent before him.’ 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. He must increase, but I must decrease.”
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. He bears witness to what he has seen and heard, yet no one receives his testimony. Whoever receives his testimony sets his seal to this, that God is true. For he whom God has sent utters the words of God, for he gives the Spirit without measure. The Father loves the Son and has given all things into his hand. 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.
(John 3:25-36 ESV)
Without suggesting for a moment there is a hierarchy of material in the Bible, for it is wholly the Word of God, let us suggest that the traditional way of looking at Scripture leaves open the damaging view that all Scripture is doctrinal in nature.
1. Old Testament:
a. History (Genesis to Job)
b. Poetry (Psalms to Song of Solomon)
c. Prophecy (Isaiah to Malachi)
2. New Testament:
a. History (Matthew to Acts)
b. Letters (Romans to 3 John)
c. Prophecy (Revelation)
It is as if the words of Jesus and the things Jesus said and did should have the same weight placed on them as the writings of Daniel or of Paul. And because Paul is responsible for the largest portion of the New Testament, Evangelical Christians have long abandoned the Old Testament witness and the Gospel witness in favor of what really is a hierarchy of doctrine, built on a series of proof-texts, largely from the writings of Paul. It is not a stretch to say Evangelicals have tended to be Paulists more than Christians.
Paul himself warns against this in 1 Corinthians. “What I mean is that each one of you says, “I follow Paul,” or “I follow Apollos,” or “I follow Cephas,” or “I follow Christ.” Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul? (1 Corinthians 1:12-13 ESV) Is it a sensible place to start a theology of doctrine with, for instance, verse from 2 Timothy? All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be competent, equipped for every good work.
(2 Timothy 3:16-17 ESV). While this is true, it is not the place we ought to begin building our doctrine. All Scripture is not doctrine, just as not all squares are rectangles. We must say, however, that all doctrine comes from Scripture, or we will be on very shaky ground, indeed.
But what if we look at Scriptures the way a disciple of the First Century might have. The teaching they received worked more like this:
1. Old Testament
a. Primary Source Material (The Core Law)
b. Secondary Source Material (Specific Laws built around the Core Law)
c. Tertiary Source Material (History, Prophecy, and Poetry – how the Law impacted real life situations)
And so their view of the burgeoning New Testament material might have been similar:
2. New Testament
a. Primary Source Material (Jesus)
b. Secondary Source Material (Commentary on what Jesus did and said)
c. Tertiary Source Material (History, Prophecy, and Poetry – how Jesus impacted real life situations)
Now we can ask the question of what John is actually getting at in John 3. Here, perhaps, is the Primary Source Material:
Question: “Rabbi, he who was with you across the Jordan (Jesus), to whom you bore witness—look, he is baptizing, and all are going to him.”
Answer: “A person cannot receive even one thing unless it is given him from heaven. You yourselves bear me witness, that I said, ‘I am not the Christ, but I have been sent before him.’
The Secondary Source Material in John is really interesting. I wonder if John the Baptist really said the next sentence or if this is John the Apostle commenting. Given the reference to the bride (the church), this is certainly written from the view of a few years’ distance: 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.
The voice changes back to John the Baptist: He must increase, but I must decrease.”
Why does any of this matter? I think, because it has the effect of exalting Christ to the highest place at all times in our reading of Scripture. The key to this passage from John 3 turns out to be, “I am not the Christ, but I have been sent before him,” and “He must increase, and I must decrease.”
May Jesus be exalted to the highest place in your life today.