He who comes from above is above all. John 3:31
This verse is obvious. “He who comes from above is above all.” If it said, “He who comes from below is above all,” I would think, “That’s surprising.” But what verse 31 says is so obvious, I wonder why John says it. Here’s why. One the great things in life is when the obvious becomes obvious. We don’t always see it. So let’s press into this: “He who comes from above is above all.”
If you don’t see Jesus as above all, if you see him on the same level as Muhammad or the Buddha or some other thinker or some other spiritual path, or even if you see Jesus as the best option among others, you don’t see the obvious. The Christian gospel is claiming that Jesus is above all, because he alone came from above.
If you want to believe the gospel, this is the Jesus you have to deal with. If you want to make up your own gospel, that’s different. But you and I are constantly tempted to underestimate Jesus. We have never in all our lives had a single thought about Jesus that did justice to his true supremacy. Our every thought about him has to be forgiven by him to some degree. He is above all.
To the apostle John, that is obvious. But it’s also controversial. The uniqueness of Jesus always has been controversial. It’s not as though John failed to foresee how explosive this would be. Francis Schaeffer said, “The early church was not persecuted because they worshiped Jesus. They were persecuted because they worshiped Jesus only.” The Roman empire had many gods, many shrines, many salvations. If the early Christians added one more into the total mix, no problem. But the early Christians were joyfully saying to their world, “Jesus is above all.” Jesus himself was not killed because of the modesty of his claims. He was killed because of the audacity of his claims. And now in our generation, it’s our turn to spread his audacious claims with joyful confidence, because his supremacy is not a religious ideal to attain to; his supremacy is the reality God has established in this world. Jesus is not knocking on the door of our generation, pleading for admission. He is building his own kingdom in the world today, it will endure forever, and he is inviting us in.
If you want the real Jesus, controversy has to be okay with you. If you’re the kind of person who longs for a real Savior, you can have real freedom from your real sin and helplessness today. But Christ will unsettle you. If the God you believe in never challenges you, you can be sure you made your God up. One way you can know you aren’t worshiping a projection of your own self-idealization is if your God makes you rethink everything and thrills you like nothing else. That’s when you know you’re being freed from what binds you. We have a lot of religion in our city, even a lot of Jesus talk. But have we accepted that Jesus comes from above in a unique sense and is therefore above all? Or have we defined “Jesus” within our own limitations?
That is not to say that other religions and worldviews have nothing to offer. They can have real insights. For example, there is a section in the biblical book of Proverbs (22:17-24:22) that drew upon an ancient Egyptian composition called “The Instruction of Amenemope” from around 1100 B.C. Apparently, the biblical author agreed with aspects of Amenemope, filtered them through his own biblical convictions, redeemed them, consecrated them and brought them into the Bible. Some people far from Jesus are astute observers of reality and morally sensitive to the human condition. That’s why movies and books and art that say something true about life can move us powerfully. What is unique about the Bible is that, unlike smart human hunches, the Bible is an infallible guide. When I draw upon all other resources, I pick and choose. But the Bible establishes the standard of truth. The Bible leads us to the One behind it all. Jesus is our only escape from the prison of our cultural location and our personal biases. He is above all. Have you accepted the original, industrial strength Jesus? Or have you accepted a watered-down version of him without really thinking about it? Until you accept his full claims, you cannot access him, and your life will continue to spiral down with the defunct theories that sound good but cannot help you. Don’t we all need to be shaken up?
Maybe you walked into church this morning too confident that you have accepted Jesus. Maybe all your life you’ve been putting Jesus in the wrong category. And the reason he has always been, to you, mildly impressive and he has never blown you away enough to help you – the reason is, your Jesus doesn’t exist. You made him up. And your little made-up Savior is powerless to help you with what you’re facing today, because he is an idealized version of you. And how can a false you help the real you? It gets worse. Here’s what you’re facing – not only the problems and pressures you feel so keenly, not only your regrets from the past and your fears about the future, not only the certainty of death itself, but far more, you are facing the wrath of God. Verse 36: “Whoever does not obey the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God remains on him.”
So we’ve just stumbled into more controversy. The wrath of God? Doesn’t everybody know by now that the wrath of God and the judgment of God and hell and all that – aren’t these outmoded ideas? Haven’t we as a culture outgrown such primitive notions? You might be thinking that right now. You might be wondering, “What kind of church have I walked into this morning?” You’ve walked into a church that takes the wrath of God seriously, because it is serious. The one thing the wrath of God cannot be is trivial and easily dismissed.
We modern Western people dislike the idea of the wrath of God not because we’re so mature but because we’re so spoiled. Miroslav Volf is a Croatian theologian who had to think it through as his nation being mauled by outlaw Serbian forces. He wrote about it in Exclusion and Embrace. It’s easy for us, Volf argues, sitting in our pleasant living rooms in the West, to come up with our high-minded theories. Our villages haven’t been burned, our brothers haven’t had their throats slit, our sisters haven’t been assaulted. Volf lumps the idea of a non-judging God in with “many other pleasant captivities of the liberal mind.” But elsewhere in the world, they’ve suffered enough injustice to believe in the wrath of God. Here is how the biblical doctrine of the wrath of God helps sufferers. Volf: “The certainty of God’s just judgment at the end of history is the presupposition for the renunciation of violence in the middle of history.” In other words, if God has wrath, then the world doesn’t need ours. We can forsake our own wrath, trust it all to God and love our enemies.
But what do you believe? Are you willing to bet your eternal destiny that, as God looks on this world today and as God looks on you, all he feels is warmth and satisfaction and good will? Are you willing to bet your eternal soul on the opposite to what verse 36 says? I’m betting the gospel is true. What are you betting on?
The gospel announces to us that Jesus is above all others, and that he only can rescue us from the wrath of God. We can’t rescue ourselves. We’re too deep into our evil. We need the mercy of God to rescue us from the wrath of God and lead us into peace with God. That’s Jesus, and there is no other Savior. We must deal with Jesus. And we can. That’s why God brought you to church today – for you to hear this and believe it.
John 3:31-36 explains verse 30, where John the Baptist said that Jesus must increase and I must decrease. No longer is the goal of my life within me. Now my preoccupation is outside of me, beyond me. We all tend to think, “I’m a reasonable person. If Jesus can give me my ideal designer life, if he can get my kids into the right schools, if he can make me the next hot preacher in Nashville, it’s okay with me if he gets some glory. I’ll share my stage with Jesus.” John the Baptist would say to us, “What religion is that?” The gospel gets us reveling in the supreme glory of Jesus. Now, in verses 31-36, John gives us four insights to help us all joyously agree, “Jesus must increase, but we must decrease.” How do we get inside the humility of verse 30? Here are four helps.
1. Jesus speaks of eternal things from personal experience
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. John 3:31-32
Now, this earthly speaker is any one of us, including the best and brightest of us. John is simply pointing out how limited we are. We speculate about eternity. We have our hunches – not only about who God is but who we are. Not even human identity is obvious. Look at the debate today about sexual identity, for example. Who’s to say who we are, much less who God is? To “speak in an earthly way” cannot be final. The most solid approach we have is the scientific method. But non-finality is built into the scientific method, because more research is always being done and more data are always coming in. In some areas of life, that works. But what about the big questions – who God is, who we are, how can we get along with one another in this angry world, what lies ahead out in eternity, and so forth? We need a word from God, and we have a word from God – in Jesus. He alone came from above. The night before he died, Jesus prayed, “Father, glorify me in your presence with the glory I had with you before the world existed” (John 17:5). Can anyone but Jesus say that without sounding crazy? But Jesus says many amazing things, and he never comes across as merely brash. But, John says, “No one receives his testimony.” Why? Our pride. It’s hard for us to accept authority. But when we do, it is freeing. What we most dread – coming under authority, receiving the teaching of Jesus not because I always agree but just because he’s the teacher – that radical humility is the only thing that can free us from our limitations. He must increase, we must decrease.
2. If we agree with Jesus, we’re agreeing with God
Whoever receives his testimony sets his seal to this, that God is true. John 3:33
If you have placed yourself under the teaching of Jesus, you are aligning with no one less than God. The world will disagree with you, but you don’t mind. Your life is now making a new statement – that Jesus is above all. What you’re saying now is that Jesus so perfectly represents God that to receive Jesus is to receive God. You’re reaching outside yourself, outside your cultural moment and all human wisdom, and you’re making contact with God himself. It isn’t easy to stand for him in a world that, for the most part, doesn’t receive Jesus. It’s a big step to take. Here’s why he’s worth it. Jesus gives you God back. Jesus gives you divine forgiveness and hope – nowhere else to be found in all this world.
3. Jesus has the greatest anointing with the Holy Spirit
For he whom God has sent utters the words of God, for he gives the Spirit without measure. John 3:34
Something’s unclear here. Who is the “he” who gives the Spirit without measure? Does Jesus give us the Spirit without measure, or does the Father give Jesus the Spirit without measure? Probably the latter. It fits better with verse 35, as we’ll see. Throughout the Old Testament God gave his Spirit to the prophets, helping them speak the word of God to their generation. The Spirit gave them clarity and courage, as much as each prophet needed to accomplish his mission. But the Father poured out upon Jesus the greatest anointing with the Spirit in all of human history. There is no limit to the spiritual power and wisdom and help stored up for us in Jesus. “From his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace” (John 1:16).
4. The Father has complete confidence in Jesus
The Father loves the Son and has given all things into his hand. John 3:35
The hand of Jesus is filled with powers and privileges belonging to no one else. For example, Jesus said, “The Father has given the Son authority to execute judgment” (John 5:22). Jesus said, “I have not spoken on my own authority, but the Father who sent me has himself given me a commandment – what to say and what to speak” (John 12:49). Jesus prayed to his Father, “You have given [me] authority over all flesh, to give eternal life to all whom you have given him” (John 17:2). The Father loves the Son and has placed everything and everyone in his hands.
Here’s what every one of us must realize. The biggest decision about you is not between you and yourself, not between you and your parents and your past or your spouse and your present or anyone else. Those things matter. But the biggest decision about you is between the Father and the Son: “The Father loves the Son and has given all things into his hand.” We’ve landed in a universe governed not by Self, not by chance, not by the laws of physics, but ultimately by the Father who loves the Son. In a mechanistic universe, the wrath of God would make no sense. But the truth is, we’ve landed in a personal universe, flooded with an ocean of divine love exploding out of the Triune God. We are not the center of that drama. But we can enjoy it. How? Here is what every one of us needs to do right now. Step out of the center, move over to the side, and acknowledge Jesus. Let him increase, and you decrease. But to take center-stage in a universe built to celebrate the love of the Father for the Son is to demand the place of God, and that is why the Bible speaks of his wrath:
Whoever believes in the Son – that is, who accepts his every claim – whoever believes in the Son has eternal life; whoever does not obey the Son – and we disobey him by diminishing him – whoever does not obey the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God remains on him. John 3:36
What do you think of Jesus? Are you standing off at a distance because you think your sins disqualify you? You can see here in verse 36 how God sees that. You can see here that God is not primarily interested in which sins you’ve committed or haven’t committed. God is asking you just one question this morning: Do you believe in the real Jesus? You don’t need to understand him fully first. You accept him fully, and then you begin a journey of understanding. Have you accepted him?
Let’s listen to what the gospel says. When we did not want God, God wanted us. When we would not come to God, God came to us. When we resisted him, he plotted to win us. He became one of us and died on the cross to remove every reason why we must stay at a distance. The way back to God is open and free to you right now. And if the devil himself tells you you can’t come because of your sins, this old hymn tells us how God treats everyone who believes in his Son:
Well may the accuser roar of sins that I have done I know them all and thousands more Jehovah knoweth none!