When John the Baptist’s disciples are disturbed that Jesus’ disciples are baptizing people and Christ is increasing in importance, they come to their master to complain. John then reveals his role in salvation history.
“He who has the bride is the bridegroom. The friend of the bridegroom, who stands and hears him, rejoices greatly at the bridegroom’s voice. For this reason my joy has been fulfilled. He must increase, but I must decrease.” (Jn 3:29-30)
Friend of the Bridegroom
John the Baptist names himself the friend of the bridegroom, what we would call the best man. In a wedding today, the best man plays only an honorary role by standing at the groom’s side at the wedding ceremony and then offering a toast to the bride and groom at the reception.
This role is akin to but a greatly diminished version of what the friend of the bridegroom did in the Jewish world of the first century. There and in earlier Biblical times, the work of the groom’s friend “is to prepare the nuptial meeting and to act as go-between for the young couple until the time of the marriage, when he presents the young girl to her bridegroom.”
The rabbis called this person the shoshbin. He helped arrange the marriage, acted as an intermediary between the betrothed couple before and after the wedding, arranged all the details of the wedding’s week-long festivities, and even stood outside the wedding chamber to hear the joyful shout of the bridegroom which confirmed the virginity of the bride and the consummation of the marriage.
The Marriage of God and His People
In the Old Testament, the idea of human marriage had already been extended to the theological idea of the relationship between God and His chosen people. In this marriage, the prophet acted as “friend of the groom.” Unfortunately, usually the prophet is a friend who laments “the unfaithfulness of the bride” (Is 5:1-7).
The Marriage of God and His New People
In John’s Gospel, John the Baptist is that important friend of Christ the bridegroom. He has prepared the bride for the marriage through his preaching and baptism. He shares the joy of his friend who has the bride, His Church. That accomplished, he now diminishes into the background.
John the Baptist’s title is friend, but as St. Thomas points out, John means that he has been the faithful servant who has acted out of love for his master: hence, “a faithful servant is like a friend to his master” and he rejoices in His good fortune to have such a bride.
Friend of Christ the Bridegroom
Theologically, John the Baptist is saying that Christ’s relationship with His followers is like a joyful wedding with Christ as the bridegroom and the disciples as the bride. In addition, John’s relationship with Christ and the Church is like the traditional relationship between the friend of the bridegroom, the bridegroom, and the bride. His role is to help prepare the bride and everything else. Once the preparation is completed, the friend of the bridegroom fades away. John is not a friend in the sense of an equal to Christ; rather he is like a friend because he performs all his servantly duties with a spirit of love.
Can this apply to us today?
Christ’s Love for His Bride
One way we can apply it today is to consider the love that Christ has for each one of us, something we can always be prone to forget. In considering the earthly realities of a human wedding and the joy the bridegroom feels for the bride, we can get a glimpse of the affirmation that Christ has for us and the lengths He is willing to go to prove that love.
Christ’s loving affirmation for us is like the courtship and honeymoon phase of the couple in love. Christ’ Passion, which shows the lengths He was willing to go to sacrifice for us, is like the loving self-sacrificing service husband and wife should demonstrate toward each other and their children as the marriage endures. We can also view the difficulties in our lives as the purification we need to undergo to be prepared for the heavenly nuptial feast.
John the Baptist prepared the future bride of Christ through calling Israel to repentance from sin in a symbolic baptism. Christ perfected this purification through sacramental Baptism so “he might present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish” (Eph. 5:25-27).
This first application is mainly contemplative. We ponder these truths, rejoice in the love we have experienced from Christ, and look forward with hope to its definitive fulfillment in the life of the world to come.
The Friend of the Bridegroom’s Apostolate
There is a second application that is more practical and action-oriented. We can put ourselves in John the Baptist’s place through apostolate.
Apostolate is bringing others to Christ, something every disciple is called to do. Like John the Baptist, we cooperate with Christ by helping people prepare for their encounter with Christ who does the real work and who has the primary relationship with that person.
Apostolate is directed to my friend, or my wife, my child, or any other person. That person I help through word and service is thus my friend, but his or her primary relationship is with Christ, not me.
As a friend of the bridegroom, Christ, I experience joy with the signs of success my friend has in growing closer to the Lord. In addition, I want the other’s relationship with Christ to grow and to be greater with Him than with me. Like John the Baptist, I am happy that He increases in my friend’s esteem while I recede in importance to that friend.
 Leon-Dufour, Biblical Theology, 191.
 Spicq, Agape in the New Testament, 99.
 Leon-Dufour, Biblical Theology, 191.
 Thomas Aquinas, Commentary on the Gospel of St. John Part I: Chapters 1-7: 3, 5, 519.