“A person cannot receive even one thing unless it is given him from heaven” (John 3.27).
This is what John the Baptist said to his own disciples when they noticed that the ministry of Jesus of Nazareth was beginning to pick up momentum. In that moment, John realized that his hour in the spotlight of God’s sovereign plan was diminishing: “He must increase, but I must decrease” (John 3.30).
This man had an understanding of the realities of life from God’s perspective better than many today do. In verse 27 he speaks of the inability of mankind. Not a popular theme—human impossibility—but one oft repeated throughout this gospel. No small wonder when you consider that the writer was one of Jesus’ inner three. For Jesus constantly highlighted that what was impossible for man to do, was not impossible for God (cf. Matt 19.26; Mark 10.27; Luke 18.27).
The question regarding salvation is often debated on the grounds of various terms. The one I wanted to briefly discuss today has to do with the word “receive.” John the Baptist says that an individual “cannot receive even one thing unless it is given him from heaven.” This statement says multiple things at once.
First, the Baptist is highlighting the fact that all things come from God. He is our great benefactor. All gifts come from the Father of heavenly lights as another biblical writer so eloquently put it (James 1.17). Second, the statement speaks of human inability.
I will grant some may not appreciate tying this verse to the question of salvation, but I will explain why I have done so a little later. For now, what I would like you the reader to consider is the implication of the statement.
John the Baptist understood this…
The Baptist is not offering this as a hypothetical situation, but a clear category distinction. No one can “receive” anything unless it has been “given” from above. Nothing…nada…zip…zilch! “If God ain’t giving it, you ain’t receiving it!” to use some of my backwoods charm.
Consider the breadth of what the Baptist is saying. Look at his life. His disciples want to know why he is not upset that Jesus’ ministry is overtaking his own. Jesus is gaining notoriety; whereas, his limelight is quickly fading. And, his response? “Fellas, it’s not a big deal. Everything that we have in life, everything that we received is a gift from God. ‘A person cannot receive even one thing unless it is given him from heaven.’”
What had the Baptist received that was from God? Everything. His birth was brought about miraculously. No doubt his parents Zechariah and Elizabeth wanted to have children. That was their desire, but they were not able. “Elizabeth was barren and both [her and her husband] were advanced in years” (Luke 1.7). But God was gracious to them, giving them a son in their old age (cf. Luke 1.13-14). The Lord gave them a son, and He gave their son a name—John. The Lord gave John a ministry as a prophet. Being from the tribe of Levi he had already received a high calling from the Lord, but an ever-greater gift was granted him in that he was the herald for the coming King—Messiah (cf. Luke 1.15-17).
Again, what had the Baptist received from God? Everything!
Let me put it another way, “Was the life, the calling, and the subsequent ministry that the Baptist “received” from the Lord something that he first had to accept and take? Did he have a right or the ability to refuse what God had granted (gifted) him?”
Well, when did the Baptist receive his calling? Before or after his conception? Before or after he reached an age where he might choose to accept or reject it?
In order to answer those questions, it would seem that defining the term “receive” is our best bet. I have often heard the statement that in order to truly receive something as a gift, then I must be able to choose or reject it. It is then argued, “If I don’t take it or if I don’t have this ability/right, then it is essentially being forced upon me.”
This is a popular method by non-Calvinists to argue against the notion that in order to believe (i.e. have faith in God) one must first be regenerated—i.e. be born-again; born-from-above. For if God has to regenerate me before I believe, then he has not given me a gift but forced me to do something against my will.
(An interesting admission, to be sure, since the Bible is pretty clear we are not willing in our natural state, but perhaps that is a subject for another day.)
An Example Given in his Calling…
Before we go about defining “receive,” let’s see if we can follow the Baptist’s logic in the text. Let’s look at his calling: “did God force John the Baptist into his ministry as a herald of the coming King?” Think…when did the Baptist receive his calling? Before or after his birth? Which came first the calling or the birth? The calling—his being appointed/ordained—came first.
You see, the Baptist’s ministry as a prophet of the Lord was predetermined long before he was born into the world[i]:
- “Behold, I send my messenger, and he will prepare the way before me…Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the great and awesome day the Lord comes. And he will turn the hearts of fathers to their children and the hearts of children to their fathers, lest I come and strike the land with a decree of utter destruction” (Mal 3.1; 4.5-6)
John the Baptist was that messenger sent to the children of Israel in the first century in the spirit of Elijah. Both Jesus (see Matt 11.14; 17.10-12) and the other gospel writers highlight this fact (see Luke 1.16-17, 76; John 1.23; cf. Isa 40.3-5). Again, we must ask, “Was the Baptizer forced into this ministry that he received from the Lord above?”
The only thing forced is the refusal to fully define the meaning and sense of a word. To receive something does not mean “I have to grab for it or be able to reject it, less it not be a gift but coercion.” There are two senses in which this word may be accurately defined and used; either active or passive.
So, in which way did John the Baptist understand his ministry as a gift (something he received) from above. Was it actively or passively received? Obviously, we can show that it was actively received after he grew up, lived in the desert, wore a goat-skinned tunic with a leather belt, eating honey and locust, proclaiming the good-news of the kingdom, calling on people to repent and baptizing them in God’s name in the Jordan River.
Identifying a problem…
However, there is a problem if we want to stop and say:
- “There it is! That proves my point! John the Baptist had to actively accept his calling as a prophet before he did those things.”
Yes, that would be true if the sovereign King over all creation were nowhere found in the discussion, but that is not the case. Not even in the slightest. The necessary prerequisite is that the “receiving” of the calling from God must first be passively applied.
He had received his calling before he was born. God did not inquire of him, “Would you do this thing for me?” Rather, God said “for this purpose you were made.” Did the fact that God predetermined the sort of man the Baptist would be make him any less of a man? No. Was it any less of a gift because it was something that had been granted to him without his consent? No, from his point of view it was an occasion for great rejoicing:
- “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 complete” (John 3.29).
As I said before John the Baptist had a much clearer understanding of the true nature of things than many well-meaning, but poorly informed Christians do today. He looked at his calling and compared what he had received from God as a gift. Not because he grabbed for it, but because God made him what he was. God’s grace was richly poured into the Baptist’s life well-before he could even talk. He received from God truly good things. He identified them as a gift from above, not because his action was the first priority; rather, God’s action was the first priority.
With this insight, he could look at Jesus and say “he is from above and I am from below…He is above all and I am just an earthly man, ‘He must increase and I must decrease’” (John 3.30-31; paraphrased).
I’m not finished with this discussion, but I want to pause for a moment to give you an opportunity to mull these things over. (Well that, and I want to spend some time with my family for our celebration of the 4th of July.) Sometime at the beginning of next week we will return to discuss the term “receive” in a more specific salvific sense; again, looking at the active and passive senses in which it maybe understood.
[i] “Since his days are determined, and the number of his months is with you, and you have appointed his limits that he cannot pass…” (Job 14.5); “…all the inhabitants of the earth are accounted as nothing, and he does according to his will among the host of heaven and among the inhabitants of the earth; and none can stay his hand or say to him, ‘What have you done?’” (Dan 4.35). Just a couple examples, (there are more) that explain how our lives—even our very steps—are sovereignly determined. For further reflection see Jer 10.3; Prov 16.1; 20.24.