The 1998 movie adapted from John Irving’s ‘A prayer for Owen Meanly’ entitled ‘Simon Birch’ is the story of an undersized young boy named Simon. “Simon was born tiny and with an abnormally small heart. He was expected to die within the first twenty-four hours of his life, but he surprised everyone and lived to adolescence.
A disappointment to his parents and the target of many childhood pranks because of his miniature size and odd-sounding voice, Simon has every reason to question his self-worth and purpose for living. But he embraces his condition and believes that God will use him in a unique, possibly even heroic, way.
Joe, Simon’s best friend, doesn’t believe in God, and he is not the only one who doubts that God has a plan for Simon. Simon’s schoolmates mock him relentlessly, believing his assertions to be one more indication of his strangeness. On one occasion his Sunday school teacher hurriedly tries to hush him so he won’t ‘frighten’ the other children with his musings.
The small town’s minister also doubts that God could have a plan for small Simon Birch. In a conversation between Simon and the minister, Simon asks, ‘Does God have a plan for us?’
The minister hesitantly replies, ‘I’d like to think he does.’ Simon enthusiastically says, ‘Me too. I think God made me the way I am for a reason.’ The minister coolly states, ‘I’m glad that your faith helps you deal with your condition.’
That’s not what I mean,’ Simon states. ‘I think I’m God’s instrument and he’s going to use me to carry out his plan.’
Dumbfounded by Simon’s confidence, the pastor says, ‘It’s wonderful to have faith, son, but let’s not overdo it.’ With that he waves for Simon to leave, shakes his head in disbelief, and whispers with an air of cynicism, ‘God’s instrument.’
A short time later Simon is riding with his classmates in a school bus traveling down an icy road. Suddenly the bus driver veers to avoid a deer, loses control, and the bus plunges into an icy lake. Everyone in the front of the upright bus quickly evacuates out the door, but Simon and a handful of other students in the back of the bus are trapped as the bus begins to sink.
Simon takes charge. He opens a window and commands his classmates to climb out. Last of all, Simon escapes through the window. In the hospital following the accident, Joe assures Simon that all the kids are all right. Simon asks, ‘Did you see how the children listened to me because of the way I looked?’ Joe, with tears in his eyes, replies, ‘Yeah.’
‘With satisfaction, Simon says, ‘That window was just my size.’ ‘Extra small,’ Joe utters with a smile. A few seconds later, Simon dies, knowing that God used him. But what Simon doesn’t know before he dies is that because of his unwavering faith, his friend Joe now believes in God.
Some twenty years later, standing at Simon’s gravestone, Joe says, ‘I am doomed to remember a boy with a wrecked voice, not because of his voice or because he was the smallest person I ever met… but because he is the reason I believe in God. What faith I have, I owe to Simon Birch — it is Simon who made me a believer.[i]
The greatest joy and satisfaction in life can only be found in knowing God and knowing we have a God given purpose in life. That purpose comes as we walk with Jesus. When we do that, we are freed from so much strife, stress, anxiety, disappointment and discontentment.
What causes people to strive and labor in life? What is the compelling motivation that fuels so many people’s lives? Apart from God in our lives shaping our attitudes and desires, our sinful human nature is such that we are often driven by envy. How can we so categorically say that? The Scriptures teach us that. In the book of Ecclesiastes we find that the motivating factor to achieve in life when God is absent is envy.
And I saw that all labor and all achievement spring from man’s envy of another. This too is meaningless, a chasing after the wind.[ii]
Envy is characterized by an insatiable desire. It is similar to jealousy in that they both feel discontent towards someone’s traits, status, abilities, or rewards. The difference is the envious also desire the entity and covet it.
Envy can be directly related to the Ten Commandments, specifically, ‘Neither shall you desire anything that belongs to your neighbor’. Dante defined this as ‘a desire to deprive other men of theirs’. In Dante’s Purgatory, the punishment for the envious is to have their eyes sewn shut with wire because they have gained sinful pleasure from seeing others brought low. Aquinas described envy as ‘sorrow for another’s good.’[iii]
In other words, we are upset when others are receiving blessings; rather than rejoice; envy grieves. In the Middle Ages, envy was classified as one of the seven deadly sins. Matthew in his gospel tells us that it was envy that drove the religious leaders in Jesus’ day to have Him turned over to Pilate to be crucified.
So when the crowd had gathered, Pilate asked them, ‘Which one do you want me to release to you: Jesus Barabbas, or Jesus who is called Christ?’
For he knew it was out of envy that they had handed Jesus over to him.[iv]
In John 3, we have the testimony of John the Baptist regarding Christ. What we discover is a delight and joy in the success of Jesus’ ministry. John, whose purpose was to point others to Jesus, had succeeded. The point of our text is not about the issue raised, which dealt with the fact that Jesus had more people coming to be baptized than John, but rather the issue that John, the gospel writer, is showing us the superiority of Jesus. What God had promised was now being fulfilled or realized in Jesus Christ. In the conclusion of John 3, we discover John the Baptist’s final confession regarding Jesus. In John’s confession we learn three vital things about how we can experience life’s greatest satisfaction.
THE FIRST THING WE CAN LEARN FROM JOHN’S CONFESSION IS CONTENTMENT WITH OUR CALLING
We live in a world filled with dissatisfaction. People are rarely content and often unhappy and lack real gratitude for who they are and God’s gifts and call upon their lives. Be satisfied with how God created you and the opportunities he has set before you. We discover our contentment level when we are tested. How do we respond to challenges, criticisms, setbacks and disappointments? How do we handle it when others advance, and we do not? How do we handle it when others succeed and we seem stuck, not moving forward?
It is so easy to compare ourselves with others. We can easily be envious of those who are doing better and critical of those who are doing worse. We may feel God is unjust because He is blessing someone else while we may be in a time of great trial and testing. We are not in competition with each other.
The apostle Paul, in writing to the Corinthians, explained the sinfulness of such actions.
We do not dare to classify or compare ourselves with some commend themselves. When they measure themselves by themselves and compare themselves with themselves, they are not wise.[v]
We need to embrace the gifts God has given to us and be satisfied with our contribution to God’s overall plan and how He uses us.
Here we see the true character of John the Baptist as he can overcome the temptation of envy and jealousy because he understood what his mission was and rejoiced to see that Jesus was experiencing amazing success among the people.
After this, Jesus and his disciples went out into the Judean countryside, where he spent some time with them, and baptized.
Now John also was baptizing at Aenon near Salim, because there was plenty of water, and people were coming to be baptized.
(This was before John was put in prison.)
An argument developed between some of John’s disciples and a certain Jew over the matter of ceremonial washing.
They came to John and said to him, ‘Rabbi, that man who was with you on the other side of the Jordan-the one you testified about-look, he is baptizing, and everyone is going to him.[vi]
At issue in the minds of John’s disciples in the argument with a certain Jewish person regarding ceremonial washing was not theological, but practical. People were leaving John to follow Jesus.
Apparently the debate with the Jew fostered further reflection amongst some of John’s disciples over the durability of their master’s ministry, especially in light of the rising popularity of Jesus. …Although it is possible to interpret their words as a joyful declaration that their master’s prediction regarding the supremacy of Jesus (1;26-34) was coming to pass, it is far more likely that their words are resentful and embittered. Otherwise the tone of John’s response to them (vv. 27-30) is incomprehensible. Moreover their everyone is going to him is doubtless exaggeration sponsored by resentment, since John was still attracting considerable crowds (v. 23), even if they were now smaller than those attending Jesus.[vii]
Somebody was rising above their rabbi in popularity with the people. They were battling with envy or jealousy. How would this impact them and their future? What needed to change was their understanding, so that they would be able to rejoice in what was happening in the ministry of Jesus. Rather than experience envy, they could celebrate and be satisfied.
THE SECOND THING WE CAN LEARN FROM JOHN’S CONFESSION IS THE CONFIDENCE IN GOD’S CALLING ON OUR LIVES
John understood what God was doing in his life. He understood that all that we have is actually a gift from God and was content with what God was doing in his life. When challenged about all the people going to Jesus, John’s response is instructive and insightful for us. There is neither envy nor jealousy but a deep satisfaction that he was accomplishing exactly what God had called him to do.
To this John replied, ‘A man can receive only what is given him from heaven.
You yourselves can testify that I said, ‘I am not the Christ but am sent ahead of him.[viii]
Whether we are looking at ourselves or others, the proper way to evaluate success is to remember that we can receive nothing unless it has been given from heaven.[ix]
Each man, says John has his allotted gift or ministry from God; his responsibility is to fulfill that. John was appointed to be a herald and witness of the Messiah; he might well be content to have fulfilled that commission. All gifts come from God, including the gift of serving him in this or that capacity.[x]
God has given each of us something to do. We have been given something to accomplish. We are not in competition with others in regard to this. What are some of the things God calls us to do? We are to live out our Christian faith as a witness to those around us. Those who are parents, it is to model and instill in our children a Christian lifestyle and biblical values. We are to be faithful and honest employees. If we are in management, then we are to not only provide a service but also to care for those who work with us and those we serve. Collectively as a church family, we are to serve each other and those we are reaching out to. Jesus called us to ‘make disciples.’ What an amazing thing to think of the thousands of lives we have and are currently ministering God’s love and grace to.
The temptation is to allow sin to deceive us into thinking we are either better or worse than we really are. We may be tempted to think that we are not making a difference, grow weary and give up.
If anyone thinks they are something when they are not, they deceives themselves.
Each of you should test their own actions. Then they can take pride in themselves alone, without comparing themselves to someone else,
For each one should carry their own load.
Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up.
Therefore, as we have opportunity, let us do good to all people, especially to those who belong to the family of believers.[xi]
In other words, rejoice in how God has gifted you, be faithful to the opportunities he has provided for you. That is how we are true to what God has called each of us to do.
For John the Baptist to have wished he were someone else, called to serve in a way many would judge more prominent, would simply be covetousness by another name; if the person he envied were the Messiah himself, he would be annulling the excellent ministry God had given him. Deep discontent over God’s wise, sovereign disposition of people and things would in that instance betray not only unbelief and faithfulness, but the worst form of the perennial human sin, the arrogance that wants to be God and stand where God stands.[xii]
John then goes on to give an analogy from the wedding traditions of his day.
The bride belongs to the bridegroom. The friend who attends the bridegroom waits and listens for him, and is full of joy when he hears the bridegroom’s voice. That joy is mine, and it is now complete.[xiii]
William Barclay shares this insightful cultural understanding of the Jewish wedding tradition.
The ‘friend of the bridegroom,’ the shoshben, had a unique place at a Jewish wedding. He acted as the liaison between the bride and the bridegroom; he arranged the wedding; he took out the invitations; he presided at the wedding feast. He brought the bride and the bridegroom together. And he had one special duty. It was his duty to guard the bridal chamber and to let no false lover in. He would only open the door when in the dark he heard the bridegroom’s voice and recognized it. When he heard the bridegroom’s voice he was glad and he let him in, and he went away rejoicing, for his task was completed.[xiv]
John’s comments to his disciples regarding the nature of the role of the Jewish best man would help them consider what John was saying, that he was satisfied with the fact that he has accomplished his task of seeing the union of the Jewish people as a bride to their heavenly bridegroom, which is the picture in the O.T. God is seen as married to His people.
No longer will they call you Deserted, or name your land Desolate. But you will be called Hephzibah, and your land Beulah; for the LORD will take delight in you, and your land will be married.
As a young man marries a young woman, so will your Builder marry you; as a bridegroom rejoices over his bride, so will your God rejoice over you.[xv]
Finally we come to the heart of the issue.
He must become greater; I must become less.[xvi]
The application in our lives is simply addressing the battle that is going on within our soul. It is the battle of supremacy. Who will be supreme in my life? Christ or me? If Christ is to gain the ascendancy in my soul, I must become less. I must decrease in order for Christ to increase. I must yield my will daily, to allow Jesus to rule in my life.
THE FINAL THING WE CAN LEARN FROM JOHN’S CONFESSION IS A CONVICTION THAT JESUS IS PREEMINENT
What comes from above is above all. What originates in heaven is greater than anything earthly. Therefore what Jesus has to say is greater. The person of Jesus is greater. We need to hear His message, which some have rejected, but for those who receive it, the result will be eternal life. We need to be reminded over and over again that eternal life is not just a forever life but a new and different quality of life in the here and now. Eternal life means a new internal dynamic at work within us, changing us, giving us peace, hope, strength, and courage to face what comes our way.
Here John goes on to tell those who were following him regarding the supremacy of Jesus.
The one who comes from above is above all; the one who is from the earth belongs to the earth, and speaks as one from the earth. The one who comes from heaven is above all.
He testifies to what he has seen and heard, but no one accepts his testimony.
Whoever has accepted it has certified that God is truthful.
For the one whom God has sent speaks the words of God for God gives the Spirit without limit.[xvii]
There is no suggestion of evil in being ‘from the earth,’ but one of limitation. Even John’s witness, excellent as it was, was subject to limitations because, while he was a ‘a man sent from God’ (John 1:6), he did not come down from heaven as the Son of Man did. Jesus’ own witness is of supreme validity because, when he speaks of heavenly things, he bears witness to what he has seen and heard in the heavenly sphere.[xviii]
The first reason John gives for the supremacy of Jesus Christ is that He originates from heaven and knows heavenly things. We are all earthly, created from the stuff of this world, and need to be infused with life from above.
The second reason John gives for the supremacy of Christ is that He has been given the Spirit without measure, whereas each of us, though filled with the Spirit, have been given a measure to accomplish the task that God has given to us.
Think of that amazing statement. Jesus was given the Spirit without limit. In reading verse 34 it states that the one who God sent speaks the words of God for the Spirit is given without limit. Throughout the Old Testament, God gave the Spirit into people’s lives to accomplish their assigned tasks. Now we are seeing here that Jesus has been given the Spirit without limit. This ideas seems to be supported by the context of the passage. John the Baptist had been saying that Jesus is the Messiah, the anointed One. Now we come to John 3:35 where the Father, Himself testifies of the Son.
The Father loves the Son and has placed everything in his hands.
Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life, but whoever rejects the Son will not see life, for God’s wrath remains on them.[xix]
Some argue that in Christ we have been given the Spirit without measure. The focus generally is upon the human instrument. We tend to idolize people, rather than focus on the source of that life, which is the Spirit. The Holy Spirit as a later edition of the Nicene Creed states: I believe in the Holy Spirit who proceeds from the Father and the Son.
Maybe that’s the reason why there is so much spiritual competition and tension that happens in the life of many believers. Unlike John, we lose sight of the preeminence of Christ. He must become greater, while we become less. It is not about us; it is about Christ. When Christ increases and we decease, envy has no operating room.
The Psalmist reminds us that all glory and honor belongs to God, alone.
Not to us, LORD, not to us but to your name be the glory because of your love and faithfulness.[xx]
When William Carey, the founder of modern missions, was dying, he turned to a friend and said, ‘When I am gone, don’t talk about William Carey; talk about William Carey’s Savior. I desire that Christ alone might be magnified.[xxi]
It is only fitting that we magnify Christ, because ultimately our greatest satisfaction from life comes from Him.
[i] Craig Brian Larson & Andre Zahn, Movie-Based Illustrations for Preaching & Teaching (Zondervan: Grand Rapids, Michigan, 2003), 160-161.
[ii] Ecclesiastes 4:4, The New International Version of the Bible, Zondervan, 2011.
[iii] Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica: Treatise on the Theological Virtues, Sacred-texts.com retrieved 2010-01-02.
[iv] Matthew 27:17-18, The New International Version of the Bible, Zondervan, 1996.
[v] 2 Corinthians 10:12, The New International Version of the Bible, Zondervan, 2011.
[vi] John 3:22-26.
[vii] D. A. Carson, The Gospel According to John, The Pillar New Testament Commentary, (Grand Rapids, Mi: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1991), 210.
[viii] John 3:27-28.
[ix] R. Kent Hughes, Behold the Lamb: Expository Studies of the Gospel of John 1-10, 60.
[x] F. F. Bruce, The Gospel of John, (Grand Rapids, Mi: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1983), 95.
[xi] Galatians 6:3-5, 9-10.
[xii] D. A. Carson, The Gospel According to John, 211.
[xiii] John 3:29.
[xiv] William Barclay, The Gospel of John, Vol. 1, (Westminster Press), 134-135, as quoted in Kent Hughes, Behold the Lamb: Expository Studies of the Gospel of John 1-10, (Wheaton, Il: Victor Books, 1984), 61.
[xv] Isaiah 62:4-5.
[xvi] John 3:30.
[xvii] John 3:31-34.
[xviii] F. F. Bruce, The Gospel of John, 96.
[xix] John 3:35-36.
[xx] Psalm 115:1.
[xxi] R. Kent Hughes, Behold the Lamb: Expository Studies of the Gospel of John 1-10, 62.