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He Must Increase!

John 3:22-36

Transitions can be difficult, whether it is changing jobs or careers, moving from state to state or even from one house to another. Changing churches is never easy and blending families after a divorce or death requires great grace. Many people have a hard time with change, though it is a part of life. We observe in the Bible God’s people struggling with transitions between Moses and Joshua, David and Solomon, Elijah and Elisha and in today’s text, between John the Baptist and Jesus Christ.

John the Baptist was the last prophet under the Old Covenant (Lk 16:16); Jesus came as the mediator of the New Covenant (Heb 8:6; 12:24) which He ratified by His death (Lk 22:20; I Cor 11:24). Up to this point John was very popular, while Jesus  was unknown. But now crowds were beginning to flock to Jesus. In God’s sovereign plan, John’s and Jesus’ ministries overlapped. But they weren’t rivals; John clearly understood his subservient role as the forerunner to the Messiah. As difficult as it is for anyone to admit that their time and influence is fading, John did so with insight and grace.

In John three we see John and the passing of the Old Covenant (22 – 30). After the cleansing of the Temple, the Passover, and the discussion with Nicodemus, Jesus took his disciples out of Jerusalem and into the Judean region of the Jordan River. Jesus’s preaching ministry inevitably led to repentant believers who sought baptism. Jesus’ disciples baptized (4:2) near where John was preaching and baptizing in Aenon near Salim, close to Samaria. They baptized there because the water was deep enough to immerse people. John’s Gospel informs us that this event took place between Jesus’s temptation and John’s imprisonment.

There arose a discussion among John’s disciples about ritual purification (baptism being a ritual) which led to the topic of the diminishing number of followers John had in comparison to what Jesus was attracting (25, 26). John’s envious disciples saw Jesus as a competitor who was gaining popularity at their master’s expense. They missed the purpose of John’s ministry, which was to point the nation to the Messiah! John was not bothered but embraced his role. God had sovereignly granted him ministry and if God chose to change or end that ministry, John was content and joyful. John used the imagery of a Jewish wedding to drive the point home. The friend of the bridegroom (best man) was responsible to bring the bride to the bridegroom and then make sure the wedding celebration went smoothly. How foolish for the best man to try to upstage the bridegroom!

Once, a Presbyterian pastor introduced Hudson Taylor with many superlatives, using the word “great” repeatedly. When Taylor came to the pulpit he said quietly, “Dear friends, I am the little servant of an illustrious Master.” In what might be the humblest statement uttered by anyone in scripture, John said, “He must increase, but I must decrease.”

Next we see Jesus institute the New Covenant (31 – 36). Bible scholars do not agree on who said these words, but it would appear they are the last recorded words John gave to his disciples. He gives four reasons to accept the supremacy of Jesus Christ.

First, Christ had a heavenly origin (31). “From above” is the same word translated “born again” in 3:3 and 3:7 speaking of the heavenly origin of the new birth. John the Baptist declared himself to be of the earth. John was a man sent from God (1:6); Jesus in contrast was God incarnate (1:11, 14).

Secondly, Christ knew the truth firsthand (32-33). Jesus’ teaching is superior to anyone else’s because His knowledge is not secondhand. He is the source of divine revelation. Then, Christ has the Spirit without limit (34). John the Baptist was filled with the Holy Spirit from his mother womb (Lk1:15) but the Holy Spirit is limited by man’s fallen human nature. But in Christ there was never a conflict with between the Spirit and Christ.

Finally, Christ received all authority from the Father (35, 36). All authority in Heaven and on earth has been turned over to the Son. No man can remain neutral in regards to Jesus Christ – we either accept Him or we reject Him.

John knew his work would soon be finished. Not long after this, he was arrested and beheaded by Herod Antipas, ruler of Galilee. John proclaimed the supremacy of Jesus Christ and what he said with his lips he exemplified with his life. He promoted Jesus’ ministry at the expense of his own.