One wishes we had more of the Baptizer’s words.
What we have makes him sound a little like a provider of set speeches. Every syllable seems burdened with meaning, adding up to become sentences that are always profound. One wonders what his smaller talk was like.
Nevertheless it is possible that the evangelists have captured something of the Baptizer’s true character in this speech-centered shaping of their narrative, even given the limitations inherent in the broad sweep of their brush. Perhaps John was a man who spoke seldom, yet was always worth hearing when he broke silence.
We do not have reported speech only from John’s public moments. There is the exquisite private moment when John—more doubtful that we are accustomed to anticipate of a prophet—sends to Jesus his poignant inquiry from prison.
Now when John heard in prison about the deeds of the Christ, he sent word by his disciples and said to him, ‘Are you the one who is to come, or shall we look for another?’ (Matthew 11:2–3 ESV)
Though we come to know John as a man certain of his own place in things, he too had to find his way among the currents set in motion by the Nazarene.
And here, in the third chapter of John (the evangelist’s) gospel, we come upon further private words that have resonated with followers of the one whom John himself followed for the duration of these accumulating centuries. As so often, the context is conflict.
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)
One might have expected prophetic thunder. Not so.
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. (John 3:27–29 ESV)
The career of those whose names we remember often peaks early, their lives ending too soon. John’s zenith was short-lived, located in a desert, provocative to a nation. Now John is in the twilight of his brief trajectory.
He knows this, by most reckoning. He is content with it, all the more because at least in retrospect his responsibility as a herald has been fulfilled. Having served as best man to Jesus’ bridegroom, his joy now overwhelms envy and regret.
He (Jesus) must increase, but I must decrease. (John 3:30 ESV)
Though John speaks for himself, millions of others have processed their own waning importance by whispering to themselves the Baptizer’s words and then sensing something of his joy, as people smile from the shadows on a best friend’s wedding day.