Sermon: John 3:22-30: Christ the Center

Reading of God’s Word

“After this Jesus and his disciples went into the Judean countryside, and he remained there with them and was baptizing. John also was baptizing at Aenon [Αἰνών] near Salim [Σαλείμ], because water was plentiful there, and people were coming and being baptized (for John had not yet been put in prison). 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.’” (John 3:22–30, ESV)


Ambition is a prized virtue in our day, isn’t it? When someone has a strong desire to achieve something, and when they work hard and exhibit determination in chasing after that goal (whatever it may be), we say, that person is ambitious, and we commend them for it.

But I think we all know that there are really two kinds of ambition – one that is good and to be desired; the other evil and to be avoided.

Some are ambitious in a selfish way. They have drive and determination; they work very hard; but it is evident that their heart is set upon benefiting only themselves.

But others are ambitious in more of a selfless way. They also have drive and determination; they also work hard; but their heart seems to be concerned (to one degree or another), not only with benefiting themselves, but with the good of others.

In reality it may be difficult to distinguish between the two in people. Those with selfish ambition may wear the mask of selflessness for a time; whereas those who are indeed selfless may appear selfish to some – especially if their hard work and determination bring them a degree of success in this world.

But I think it is clear that there are two types of ambition residing within the heart of man – one selfish, the other selfless – one to be avoided, the other to be pursued.

And may I suggest that there is indeed a third kind of ambition? One that is also selfless, but in far better way. Among those who are driven by selfless ambition are those who possess, what we might call, a holy ambition.

What is the difference between the two? you might ask. 

Think of it. Is it not possible for someone to labor for the good of others while remaining entirely uninterested in the glory of God? There are many who live in this world with that kind of ambition. They are concerned, to one degree or another, with the wellbeing of their fellow man. They work, not only for themselves, but for the betterment of society. Some sacrifice greatly, even laying down their lives so that others may live. They are ambitious in a selfless kind of way – but they may not care a bit about the worship of God. Their life may be devoted to doing good for others, but not to the glory of the God who made them.

By the way, we ought to thank God for those living among us who exhibit the qualities of selflessness. Of course, our desire is that they would worship God; that they would do all things to the glory of God, being driven by a holy ambition. But is it not a great blessing that God, in his common grace shown to all men, would so restrain evil, and so pour out blessing upon the just and the unjust, that he would allow a degree of selflessness to remain within our the hearts of men and among us in our societies?

I think of soldiers – many of them non-Christian and unconcerned about the glory of God – who sacrifice greatly for the good others. I think doctors – many of them non-Christian and unconcerned about the glory of God – who put themselves in harms way, treating patients with with deadly viruses for the good of the patient and for the good of humanity. I think of those acts of heroism that we hear about from time to time – a man or woman putting themselves at risk to save another. Christians and non-Christians do these things! We should thank God that a degree of selflessness exists amongst us. What motivates these, I cannot say for sure. Are these acts done for the glory of man? Perhaps. Are these actions pure in heart? If so, it is by the grace of God that they are. Either way, we should thank God that we, by his common grace, are not as fallen and evil as we could be and that people – Christians and non-Christians – do good to others in a selfless way.

What is clear in the scriptures is that the Christian ought to be driven, not merely by a selfless ambition (as good as that may be), but by a holy ambition. We ought to live our lives for the good of others, yes. But more than that we are to do all to the glory of God. God’s glory is to be our aim.

Holy ambition, though it looks similar in some ways to the selfless ambition found within the world, is, in the end, quite different. When you understand that the worship of God – the glory of God – is the highest and best thing that man can possibly pursue, that has an impact upon the way that you go about serving others. The Christian, though he ought be concerned about the well being of others as they live in this world, must not stop there. Living for the glory of God compels us to go further; to sacrifice and live selflessly that others may be most fully and eternally blessed, coming to the knowledge of God themselves.

John the Baptist – An Example of Holy Ambition 

As I consider this story of John the Baptist I can’t help but see in him a beautiful example of one driven by holy ambition.

Was he ambitious? Indeed he was! He understood his purpose – his calling. He was focused, determined, hardworking, diligent to complete the task before him.

Was he selfless in his ambition? Did he live his life for the good of others? He certainly did! We will see in the text before us that he was willing to sacrifice himself for the good of others.

But we might also ask if he was driven by a holy ambition? Did he live ultimately for the glory of God in Christ? Did he point other to God that they might give him glory? Without a doubt! And this is what made John’s ambition holy. He lived for the glory of God. He lived for this purpose, that others might live for his glory too, finding in him life eternal.

As we consider John in this passage he compels us to do three things:

I. Let us be driven by a holy ambition being concerned about the wellbeing of others. 

The first is that we would be driven by a holy ambition, being concerned about the well being of others. John is an excellent example of this way of living. He was more concerned about the good of others than his own prosperity.

Vs. 22-24 – The Stage is Set

Verses 22-24 set the stage for this final, and most extraordinary, story about John the Baptist.

Evidently, Jesus and John the Baptist ministered simultaneously for some time. We would not know about this were it not for the fact that John tells us so in his gospel – the other gospel’s do not mention it.

Verse 22: “After this [after Jesus’ conversation with Nicodemus] Jesus and his disciples went into the Judean countryside, and he remained there with them and was baptizing. John also was baptizing at Aenon [Αἰνών] near Salim [Σαλείμ] [West side of the Jordan half way between the Sea of Galilee and the Dead Sea], because water was plentiful there, and people were coming and being baptized (for John had not yet been put in prison).”(John 3:22–24, ESV)

Notice a few things about verses 22-24 before we move on.

First of all, notice that Jesus and John both were involved with the baptizing of converts. It should be noted that Jesus himself did not baptize anyone – verse 2 of chapter 4 tells us so. Jesus came to baptize, not with water, but with the Holy Spirit according to John 1:33. His disciples baptized though. It seems best to me to understand the baptisms of Jesus and John as descried in this text to be the same thing. These baptisms were baptisms of repentance preparing the way for the Christ. In other words, Christ picked up and continued the baptismal practice of John. Christian baptism, as we have it now, is certainly connected to this early activity of John and Jesus, but it become more full and rich and takes on greater significance after the death, burial, and resurrection of Christ. The thing to be noticed here is that both Jesus and John were involved with the baptizing of converts.

Secondly, notice that it seems as if both Jesus and John baptized by immersion (or dunking under water). There is a longstanding debate within Christian circles as to the proper mode of baptism. The question is should a person be sprinkled with water or immersed in water when they are baptized? Notice that I used the word proper. The debate is over the proper mode of baptism. Something that is improper may still be valid. The phrase in verse 23, “because water was plentiful there”, does seem to suggest that both John and Jesus preformed baptisms by immersion – they (or their disciples) would take a person under the water and bringing them up again – a good amount of was needed for this. It seems to me that if sprinkling, or pouring, were the proper mode of baptism, then John and Jesus could have chosen any location for their ministry. They would have only needed a small bit of water to do the task.

Thirdly, notice that John assumes, when writing his gospel, that people know about the fact that John the Baptist would eventually be imprisoned and killed by beheading. John doesn’t tell that story in full; he only mentions it in passing here. Matthew and Mark tell us that story (Mt. 14, Mk. 6) and John assumes that his audience is well aware of these things.

With that the stage is set for a conversation between an unnamed Jew and John’s disciples, followed by a conversation between John’s disciples and John.

Vs. 25-26 – The Topic of Purification Comes to the Fore

Verse 25: “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 3:25–26, ESV)

It is significant, and should not be overlooked, that the topic which spurred on this entire conversation between John and his disciples was purification. Verse 25: “Now a discussion arose between some of John’s disciples and a Jew over purification…” If this little fact were not significant then it seems strange that John would mention it in his gospel at all.

Purification was the hot topic, evidently. How could a person be pure before God – that was the question that people were asking? Really, it should be on the forefront of our minds as well!

It is important to notice the heavy emphasis upon purification in John’s gospel up to this point. John addresses this theme from a variety of angles. In each instance the point is made most strongly that true purification is found, not in religious ritual, but in Christ Jesus!

Remember how we were told in 1:19-28 that John came baptizing with water. The question is, was purification really possible through John’s baptism? Some thought so. But what did the Baptist himself say concerning this? 1:29: “The next day he saw Jesus coming toward him, and said, ‘Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!’” (John 1:29, ESV) 1:31: “I myself did not know him, but for this purpose I came baptizing with water, that he might be revealed to Israel.”” (John 1:31, ESV) 1:33: “I myself did not know him, but he who sent me to baptize with water said to me, ‘He on whom you see the Spirit descend and remain, this is he who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.’” (John 1:33, ESV) John’s testimony was that his baptism was merely a water baptism. It was symbolic. It did not really purify or take away sin. Christ would purify as he would pour out the Holy Spirit.

Remember Christ’s first miracle at the wedding in Cana. Jesus turned water to wine in what? 2:6: “…six stone water jars… [used] for the Jewish rites of purification…” (John 2:6, ESV) Jesus turned the water, which symbolized purification, into wine (which later would symbolize his blood spilt, through which true purification would be available).

Remember also Jesus at the temple. The temple was the place where the Jewish people were to come and worship. They would offer various sacrifices there in that place in order to be received as ceremonially pure before God. What did Jesus do in the temple, according to John? He cleansed it and then claimed to be the fulfillment of it. 2:19, 21 “Jesus answered them, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up… But he was speaking about the temple of his body.” (John 2:19, 21, ESV) The blood of the bulls and goats offered there in that place did not really take away sin. But Christ would, once for all. He would be the true sacrifice for sin. He was the one through whom all must come if they hope to stand before God truly purified (the book of Hebrews has much to say about this).

And lastly, do not forget about Jesus’ encounter with Nicodemus. Nicodemus was a man greatly concerned about purification. He wanted to enter the kingdom of God. He wanted eternal life; and so he came to Jesus at night inquiring. And what did Jesus say to him? 3:3: “Jesus answered him, ‘Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.’” (John 3:3, ESV) Nicodemus was puzzled by this expression and so Jesus clarified in 3:5, saying, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God.” (John 3:5, ESV) The words water and Spirit would have surely reminded Nicodemus of that most famous passage in Ezekiel 36 which spoke of a day when God would pour out his Spirit upon all flesh and, you guessed it, cleanse them – purify them.

Purification was the hot topic in that day. And it is the hot topic in John’s Gospel. How can person be pure before God? Is it possible through the keeping of God’s law? Through good works? Through religious observance? Through ritual washings? John’s disciples were talking with an unnamed Jew about these things and they were compelled to come to their Rabbi for more clarity. They were apparently troubled that Jesus – the one to whom John bore witness across the Jordan – was baptizing, and that all were going to him. 

All is used here in an exaggerated way. Not everyone on the planet was flocking to Jesus, but many were. Indeed, many who at one time followed the Baptist were now following the Christ.

This bothered John’s disciples. And I want you to see how this is connected to the topic of purification.

If purification were indeed attainable apart from Christ and through religious rituals and washings, then there would have been a reason for John’s disciples to have been upset concerning the fact that all were leaving John and going after Christ. If purification was indeed possible through the water baptism of John, then it was a most foolish thing for John to send his followers after Jesus who, in the end, was doing nothing more than baptizing with water, as John was. All of that would be true if purification were possible through ritual washing and religious ritual.

But, if John’s baptism was noting more than a religious ritual and a symbolic washing pointing to some greater reality – namely, to the real salvation and true purification found in Christ –  then John could do nothing except say follow him and not me. 

Vs. 27-28 – The Baptist is Unyielding in his Witness to the Christ

Listen to John’s words to his disciples in response to their question. Verse 27: “John answered, ‘A person cannot receive even one thing unless it is given him from heaven.’” (John 3:27, ESV) In other words, everything I have is a gift from God. Verse 28: “You yourselves bear me witness, that I said, ‘I am not the Christ, but I have been sent before him.’” (John 3:28, ESV) John reminded these disciples of his that this was his mission and message from the beginning. Never did he claim to be the Christ. Never did he claim to be the end all. His mission was clear from the beginning: to go before and to pave the way for the Christ who was to come.

It’s been said that it is difficult for a person to gather disciples to himself, but far more difficult to, after winning them, convince them to go after another. John evidently experienced that difficulty.

The reason that I admire John so much is because he was selfless. He was more concerned with the well being of others than his own popularity and success.

I would imagine, given the fact that John was only a man, that he struggled with the idea of sending the disciples he had worked so hard to gain away to another. In fact, there are indications in other passages that he did indeed struggle. He was only a man!

But consider his perspective. In essence he said this: I am only a man. Every bit of success that I have experienced is from the hand of God. My life mission was and is to prepare the way for the Christ and to point others to him. And for me to hold on to you as my own disciples would in fact do you harm – purification is what you need, but it’s not found in me. It’s found in the Christ. He must increase, I must decrease. 

How rare it is to find someone of this quality. John the Baptist is a compelling figure. He moves us to selflessness – to live, being more concerned about others than ourselves.

II. Let us be driven by a holy ambition being most concerned about the glory of God in Christ Jesus.

But notice that John’s love and concern for others was not without direction. He was not drifting through life being lead by some vague and subjective conception of what it means to love and sacrifice for the well being others. As I said in the introduction there are some among us who live with a selfless ambition, and we should rejoice in that. But it is far better to live with a holy ambition. The difference between the two is that one is aimed at doing good for others in a general sort of way, whereas at the other has its aim fixed ultimately upon the glory of God in Christ Jesus.

And that is where the Baptist ultimately takes us. He compels us to, not only be concerned about the well being of others in general way, but to be most concerned with bringing glory to God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

What I am saying is that John had Christ at the center of his life. He understood that the best thing he could do for others – the most loving thing he could do – was point them Jesus. He lived for the glory of God and knew that others needed to do the same.

Vs. 27-30 – The Baptist’s Final Testimony Concerning Jesus

Look at how Christ centered the Baptist’s life was. verse 29: “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.” (John 3:29, ESV)

John used a beautiful illustration to help his disciples better understand how he viewed his relationship to Jesus Christ. He used the metaphor of a wedding. He mentions three figures: the bride, the bridegroom (groom), and the friend of the bridegroom (best man).

You can picture these three in your minds, can’t you? In this illustration Jesus is the groom. John is the best man. And the bride is all who go after Christ and become his disciples – the Church.

The image is powerful, isn’t it? John used this illustration to paint a picture and to make the point, saying, Jesus and I are not equals. He is greater than I. It’s time for him to have center stage. How wrong it would be for me to stand up on my friends wedding day and to steal the show. How wrong it would be for me to come in between the bride and the groom. My job is simple. I am to prepare the way and I am to serve as a witness. That is all. 

The illustration is powerful. And I think is powerful because, in some respects, it is more than an illustration. These words are also very true and real. Christ really is the groom. The church (all who follow Christ) really is the bride. And John really was the first and most significant witness to the Christ as he functioned much like the best man would in a wedding. He made preparations for the wedding day and served as a legal witness.

“He must increase, but I must decrease”, was John’s perspective. It could be no other way. Jesus and John were not equals. One was from above, the other from the earth. One’s ministry symbolized purification, the other’s actually provided it. One was the best man, the other the groom himself. “He must increase, but I must decrease.”

This text urges us to ask ourselves difficult questions.

First of all, are we ambitious? I do hope so. I do hope that our lives are marked by purpose; that we are clear in regard to our mission; devoted; hard working. It is good to be ambitious.

Romans 15:20: “and thus I make it my ambition to preach the gospel, not where Christ has already been named, lest I build on someone else’s foundation,” (Romans 15:20, ESV)

Secondly, we must ask ourselves are we selfless in our ambition? Selfish ambition is of the evil one.

Philippians 2:3 says: “Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others.” (Philippians 2:3–4, ESV)

James 3:13: “Who is wise and understanding among you? By his good conduct let him show his works in the meekness of wisdom. But if you have bitter jealousy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not boast and be false to the truth…. [vs. 13] For where jealousy and selfish ambition exist, there will be disorder and every vile practice.” (James 3:13-14, 16, ESV)

Thirdly, we must ask ourselves is the glory of God in Christ Jesus our highest aim? In other word’s, is our life’s purpose the exultation of Christ in all things? It ought to be. No matter your profession; no matter your situation or circumstance – the glory of God should drive you if you are a Christian. “He must increase, I must decrees” should be the motto of our life.

Oh, that we would love in this way in every setting of life – in our homes with our spouse and with our children, in our places of employment, in our schools, in our friendships, in the communities in which we live – Oh, that we would be like the Baptist living, not for self – not for vain glory and self advancement – but for others and for the glory of God. Oh, that we would cherish Christ as he did, wanting nothing more than to see others chase after him that they might be made pure and have life to the full.

There are some who, upon hearing talk like this, think to themselves, how delusional these Christians are – how miserable they must be! Many can’t imagine living a life like this with Christ at the center and selflessness as a supreme virtue. How miserable they must be, they reason. 

But John the Baptist compels us in one more way.  

III. Let us be driven by a holy ambition that we might possess joy to the full.  

He compels us to be driven by a holy ambition that we might possess joy to the full.

Notice the way that John speaks of all of this. Verse 29: “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.” (John 3:29, ESV)

There is no greater joy than to have Christ at the center. There is no greater joy than to live for the glory and exultation, not self, but of God.

“Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.” (Matthew 10:39, ESV)

“The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life and have it abundantly.” (John 10:10, ESV)


Church, be ambitious. Live with determination and resolve. Set your eyes on the prize and press onward. Be ambitious – but be sure that it is a selfless ambition that drives you. More than that, pray that the Lord would give you a holy ambition. That you would see Christ as infinitely valuable, worthy of all praise – that you would live for the glory of God in all things and find joy to the full in him.


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