What if He meant it? Part 3 of 4: He must increase, but I must decrease

One day, John’s disciples got into an argument with a Jew, probably a Teacher of the Law, and it looks like it didn’t go too well for them. In fact, they were so bugged by it that even though the argument was about “purification rites”, what they complain to John about is that Jesus and his disciples are baptizing more people than they are. And it is in that exchange that John famously says about Jesus and himself: he must increase but I must decrease.

The thread running through this series is the idea that God has made perfectly clear in the Bible how we fit in His plan. That makes sense. You wouldn’t ask someone to come with you into a joint venture if you didn’t first give that person all the facts. So, how come we struggle so often with knowing what is the right choice to make? Is it that the problems before us are truly confounding? Or is it that we have allowed the paradigms of the world to taint our perspective?

In Art, the word palette is used sometimes to mean a color scheme. Rembrandt’s palette is very different from the Zorn palette. In his later works, Van Gogh’s palette shifted to the yellow end of the spectrum. It is hard to imagine paintings by the great masters rendered in a palette different from the ones they used. In the same way, the tools and rationales we use to make decisions in the world don’t necessarily apply to our decisions in the Kingdom of God. The result would not be pretty.

In the passage I am alluding to, John’s disciples are acting with an attitude very familiar in the world: they are acting like members of a sports team; like it’s us versus them. And in that worldview, for us to win, they have to lose. But it isn’t just that “zero sum” game mentality that I want to challenge today. I want to challenge the more fundamental assumption – that is almost a “given” in the world – it is the idea that I deserve to win.

If the Kingdom of God requires of us to abandon this idea, an idea that seems to be almost a basic instinct, how do we get to the point that we can say: “Ok, I get it.”

I don’t think we can accept it just like that, the first time we hear it. And I don’t think sitting through a long set of lectures or months of sermons guarantees we will accept such a paradigm shift either. But if it is indeed what God requires of us, I believe He will make it clear to us, eventually. How long it takes depends on how open our ears are to His voice.

Winning and fulfilment are not the same thing

John 3:25-30 There was therefore a reasoning of the disciples of John with a Jew about purification. And they came to John and said to him, Rabbi, he who was with thee beyond the Jordan, to whom thou barest witness, behold, he baptises, and all come to him.

John answered and said, A man can receive nothing unless it be given him out of heaven. Ye yourselves bear me witness that I said, I am not the Christ, but, that I am sent before him. He that has the bride is the bridegroom; but the friend of the bridegroom, who stands and hears him, rejoices in heart because of the voice of the bridegroom: this my joy then is fulfilled. He must increase, but I must decrease.

The first thing that stands out to me in the attitude of John’s disciples is the fact that we will always seek to rationalize the way we feel. John’s disciples were peeved at losing the argument with the Teacher of the Law. But apparently this same adversary had not succeeded in winning his argument with Jesus and His followers. After all, they were baptizing practically within sight of each other. That is what the verses just preceding lead us to deduce:

John 3:22-24 After these things came Jesus and his disciples into the land of Judaea; and there he abode with them and baptised. And John also was baptising in Aenon, near Salim, because there was a great deal of water there; and they came to [him] and were baptised: for John was not yet cast into prison.

So, it wasn’t just that things were not going well for them that day, but that these competitors of theirs were not facing the same challenge. How is this fair? After all, we were doing this first! So, they go to John and complain that the guy he got into business – by advertising (witnessing) about him – is now butting into their market share.

To them, at that moment, this seems a reasonable complaint to make, a reasonable grudge to hold. Maybe it would be, in the world. But John immediately reminds them that their business is not of this world. God decides who gets what market share.

A man can receive nothing unless it be given him out of heaven…

And then John tries to explain to them how different this worldview of the Kingdom is. And furthermore, he tells them that he never told them otherwise: Ye yourselves bear me witness that I said, I am not the Christ. John knew what he was called to be: The Herald. That’s it. That was his job. He never claimed otherwise. He never aspired to fame and great rewards. He knew the wilderness was his lot… not because that is all he deserved but because that was precisely where he was called to be. And he rejoiced in it.

Why?

Because there he was able to fulfill his calling.

How did he know this was his calling?

Before John was born, the angel Gabriel told his father Zechariah the priest:

Luke 1:13-17 But the angel said to him, Fear not, Zacharias, because thy supplication has been heard, and thy wife Elizabeth shall bear thee a son, and thou shalt call his name John. And he shall be to thee joy and rejoicing, and many shall rejoice at his birth. For he shall be great before [the] Lord, and he shall drink no wine nor strong drink; and he shall be filled with [the] Holy Spirit, even from his mother’s womb. And many of the sons of Israel shall he turn to [the] Lord their God. And *he* shall go before him in [the] spirit and power of Elias, to turn hearts of fathers to children, and disobedient ones to [the] thoughts of just [men], to make ready for [the] Lord a prepared people.

Clearly, John was destined to be a great man, instrumental in the salvation of his people. When he was born, Zachariah himself prophesied these words:

Luke 1:76-79 And *thou*, child, shalt be called [the] prophet of [the] Highest; for thou shalt go before the face of [the] Lord to make ready his ways; to give knowledge of deliverance to his people by [the] remission of their sins on account of [the] bowels of mercy of our God; wherein [the] dayspring from on high has visited us, to shine upon them who were sitting in darkness and in [the] shadow of death, to guide our feet into [the] way of peace.

If you grew up knowing that all this was prophesied about you, it’s hard to think anything could faze you. You know God is on your side. But it goes beyond what people said about him because, as the prophecies stated, John was filled with the Holy Spirit from his mother’s womb. He was a prophet like the mighty prophets of old, that could literally converse with God.

Couldn’t all this go to your head? Absolutely. How come it didn’t? John obeyed the Holy Spirit and the Spirit took him to the wilderness:

tissot's painting of John the Baptist in the wilderness
Painting by James Tissot: A voice calling out in the wilderness.

Matthew 3:4 And John himself had his garment of camel’s hair, and a leathern girdle about his loins, and his nourishment was locusts and wild honey.

How long was he there in the wilderness? Well, he probably didn’t start his ministry until he was about 30 years old; so, we can only guess. But the point is, because he went where the Spirit led him, he learned from that life what he needed to learn.

He learned humility and he learned fearlessness.

Matthew 3:5-10 Then went out to him Jerusalem, and all Judaea, and all the country round the Jordan, and were baptised by him in the Jordan, confessing their sins.

But seeing many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming to his baptism, he said to them, Offspring of vipers, who has forewarned you to flee from the coming wrath? Produce therefore fruit worthy of repentance.

And do not think to say within yourselves, We have Abraham for [our] father; for I say unto you, that God is able of these stones to raise up children to Abraham. And already the axe is applied to the root of the trees; every tree therefore not producing good fruit is cut down and cast into the fire.

The Pharisees and Sadducees, the religious leaders of his day, held great power in that society. If they didn’t like you, if you got in their way, they had the power to excommunicate you and make you a pariah. You would be an outcast from your family and friends. (See John chapter 9 and the reaction of the parents of the man born blind to the questions of the Pharisees.)

But then again, if you’ve lived your whole adult life in the wilderness, what can the Pharisees do to you? He had nothing to lose.

John not only knew the assurance of his calling; he understood his position in God’s plan.

John 2:19-23 And this is the witness of John, when the Jews sent from Jerusalem priests and Levites that they might ask him, Thou, who art thou? And he acknowledged and denied not, and acknowledged, I am not the Christ. And they asked him, What then? Art thou Elias? And he says, I am not. Art thou the prophet? And he answered, No. They said therefore to him, Who art thou? that we may give an answer to those who sent us. What sayest thou of thyself?

He said, I [am] [the] voice of one crying in the wilderness, Make straight the path of [the] Lord, as said Esaias the prophet.

He knew he wasn’t the Elijah that would return one day to help topple the kingdoms of this world (see Revelation chapter 11). He knew he wasn’t the Prophet alluded to by Moses (Deuteronomy chapter 18). He knew he wasn’t the Messiah.

When asked to explain his identity he explained it in terms of his calling: I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, prepare the way for the Lord.

I think this response tells us all we need to know about John: ‘I am who God called me to be. And I know what my job is: It is to speak out.’

Where is my Identity?

Remember the last time you met someone for the first time? After exchanging names and niceties, didn’t the conversation eventually gravitate toward what you do for a living? And when that happens, don’t we often reply with our title?

Here the Pharisees gave John every opportunity to impress them with his title.  They asked him if he is the Christ and he just said no. But he could have said, “No, but I am his Herald. Here let me remind you of the Scriptures that talk about me… See? I come before He does!” He didn’t do that.

They asked him if he was Elijah. He just said no. Yet, he could have said, “Well, I don’t think you understand that there is more than one Elijah. I am not the one that went to heaven in a chariot of fire, because his time has not yet come. But I am here in his spirit and his power. Just like that day at Mount Carmel, Elijah shocked thousands of Israelites into remembering who God is, in the same way I have come to shake the people up to remember that God is, and that God has not forgotten them.”

They asked him if he was the Prophet announced by Moses. He said no. But he could have told them, “But I am the last prophet you will ever get. So, wake up and listen to me!” He didn’t do that.

So, they ask him, “who are you; what do you claim for yourself?” And he gives them no name from Scripture, no title, no justification from himself. His entire identity is in what God called him to be.

Can we do the same?

Why are we so focused, so dependent on the titles and the position they denote in the world? I mean, of course, I understand: those titles, those positions declare our influence; they define the power that we have to accomplish something in this world: for the good of our family, for our own advancement, for our self-fulfillment. Furthermore, in most cases that position, that title, was hard earned. I worked hard, studied hard, paid in sweat and tears. I deserve that title and all the benefits it confers because I won it.

In the world… sure. But what about the Kingdom of God?

Is my success in the Kingdom of God measured by how far I have come, by how much I have won? It is a basic human need to want to matter. But should I care whether or not I matter to the world? I know who I matter to…

John 2:24-27 And they were sent from among the Pharisees. And they asked him and said to him, Why baptisest thou then, if thou art not the Christ, nor Elias, nor the prophet? John answered them saying, I baptise with water. In the midst of you stands, whom ye do not know, he who comes after me, the thong of whose sandal I am not worthy to unloose.

Or the way Matthew remembers it:

Matthew 3:11-12 *I* indeed baptise you with water to repentance, but he that comes after me is mightier than I, whose sandals I am not fit to bear; *he* shall baptise you with [the] Holy Spirit and fire; whose winnowing fan [is] in his hand, and he shall thoroughly purge his threshing-floor, and shall gather his wheat into the garner, but the chaff he will burn with fire unquenchable.

With that retort John reveals his complete humility. He is not even worthy to untie the sandals of the Messiah – maybe alluding to the most menial job a household slave could do which was to take off the sandals of his master and wash his feet.

Maybe there is even a deeper meaning here because as we will see later, Jesus declared that of all born of women no one was greater than John the Baptizer. But even he, the greatest of all mankind could not bear one of the sandals of Jesus. I have often thought that this was an allusion to the Book of Ruth, and the custom related in it that the kinsman redeemer, the one who could redeem all the lost property, would seal the deal by taking the sandal from the other party. If so, John, the greatest prophet of all history, the one called by God to call everybody to repentance, even he is not worthy enough to redeem all that was lost at the Garden of Eden.

Only One was worthy.

You see, in the story of humanity, there is only One winner: Only One who could conquer hell and the grave. The fact is: all of us have lost. But the Good News is that when He won, He chose to take us all in with Him across that finish line:

John 1:6-13 There was a man sent from God, his name John. He came for witness, that he might witness concerning the light, that all might believe through him. *He* was not the light, but that he might witness concerning the light. The true light was that which, coming into the world, lightens every man.

He (the Word, the Light) was in the world, and the world had [its] being through him, and the world knew him not. He came to his own, and his own received him not; but as many as received him, to them gave he [the] right to be children of God, to those that believe on his name; who have been born, not of blood, nor of flesh’s will, nor of man’s will, but of God.

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