31: Decrease for Glory (John 3:30-36)
31. Decrease for Glory
This chapter is for all of us who might struggle with having to give up what we feel God has given us. Particularly if God then gives that gift to someone else who exercises the gift with more power, grace and success than we did. We have already discovered that John the Baptist had a pretty incredible heart. These verses just increase our respect for him. But it all begins, as with many growth periods in our spiritual walk, with a decrease.
“After this Jesus and his disciples went into the Judean countryside, and he remained there with them and was baptizing. John also was baptizing at Aenon near Salim, because water was plentiful there, and people were coming and being baptized (for John had not yet been put in prison).
Now a discussion arose between some of John’s disciples and a Jew over purification. And they came to John and said to him, “Rabbi, he who was with you across the Jordan, to whom you bore witness—look, he is baptizing, and all are going to him.” (John 3:22-26)
Now we have two major prophetic and evangelistic movements happening. John and Jesus. They both have teams helping them to reach out to people. They are both gathering crowds and people are responding and being baptized. This is surely a great strategy for reaching the lost sheep of Israel.
Jesus is operating in Judea, which had been the southern kingdom and John is operating further up the Jordan in what had been the Northern Kingdom. Together they could reach the whole of Israel. Surely that’s how the Holy Spirit will lead them. It seems the best way of growing the kingdom of God.
In theory it may appear the best and most productive way. But His ways are higher than our ways and the Holy Spirit had another plan.
So a Jew approached John the Baptist’s disciples to talk about purification. It appears that whatever the Jew had said to John’s disciples had drawn attention to the fact that Jesus was gathering larger crowds than John and in fact some of John’s crowd were going to be with Jesus. “All are going to Him.”
It is becoming clear that God’s plan is not to run two very successful ministries alongside each other. That is for the future. Jesus is in town and everything is going to end up focussed on Him. And so John and his disciples watch as gradually his crowds begin to get thinner as more and more people hear what is going on in Judea and drift off to see Jesus.
Of course, John’s disciples are a little put out. I would be too. What is going on? Why can’t we keep going as a complimentary ministry? Why can’t Jesus encourage “our people” to come back to us? Why does He have to take them all for Himself? Surely there’s room enough for us both?
Of course, some of this would happen naturally anyway. John was a unique character, who was a phenomena to watch and listen to. Jesus, by comparison, looked “normal” and ate a normal diet. But He was working miracles. This was not just the promise of lives being changed in the future, this was the reality of lives being changed now. This was not about the kingdom that is going to come, this is about the kingdom of heaven having arrived. No wonder people left John for Jesus.
As we have already noted when this first began happening in John 1:40, John the baptist’s response is remarkable.
He begins his response to his own loyal disciples by explaining the boundary lines for all ministries.
“John answered, ‘A person cannot receive even one thing unless it is given him from heaven.’” (John 3:27).
Whatever we have that has life in it for other people comes down from heaven. If it doesn’t come to us from heaven, we have nothing of eternal value to give. Therefore our ministries are bound by what God gives us from heaven. We cannot truly be what we have not received, although many of us try.
John here is preaching the same gospel as Jesus. We cannot receive “even one thing” of lasting eternal value, unless it comes down to us from heaven. We don’t need earthly, man made solutions. We need heavenly God-birthed, God-breathed ones.
John had been operating within the bounds of the revelation he had been given from heaven. Jesus seems to be operating without bounds. It would appear that heaven is open to Him in a way that it wasn’t open to John. Jesus has already told Nathanael that he would see heaven open and the Angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man, Jesus Himself (John 1:51).
Then John takes a few verses to explain to his disciples and the listening Jews, why Jesus is operating in a much greater grace and anointing to him. He gives them seven reasons:
1. Jesus is the Christ and John is not
“You yourselves bear me witness, that I said, I am not the Christ, but I have been sent before him.” (verse 28).
John the Baptist has an anointing, there is no question about that.
When we talked about the use of the title “Messiah” in John 1:41, we understood that the term means “anointed One”. We referenced how the term was used in the Old Testament of people and objects that were set apart for service to the Lord. Once anointed, the objects, like the tables and lamps in the tabernacle, took on a whole new status. They were just tables and lamps, albeit very ornate and expensive ones, but it was the anointing that made them “sacred” furnishings. They were then handled differently from any other furniture, not because they were worth so much money, but because they had been set apart for the Lord. They were Holy to Him.
The anointing also set apart people for the Lord, whether Kings or prophets or priests. But with that anointing with oil came an anointing in the Holy Spirit. A grace and power from the throne of God to enable these people to carry out the purpose to which they had been called.
It is never recorded that John the Baptist was anointed with oil. But he was certainly anointed in the Holy Spirit. The effect of his ministry was much more than he could have done in his own physical strength and resources.
But we also discovered in the previous chapter on the subject, that all the anointed people and objects had another purpose beyond being objects in a temple or Kings on a throne. They were all pointing towards an Anointed One who was yet to come. Someone who would bring to fulfillment all of their ministries and purposes. The Messiah in Hebrew. The Christ in Greek. The Anointed One.
John the Baptist was anointed, of that there is no doubt. But he had already made it quite clear to anyone who was listening that he was not the Anointed One. John had been sent before Him to prepare the way for His coming. The last great anointed prophet before the coming of the Anointed One.
What a privilege. And that is how John saw it. A tremendous privilege. A life call that would eventually cost him his life. Worth it all. And now that the Anointed One has come, it is not only okay for everyone to go to Him, it is right. Because every true anointed one, who is faithful to their call, wants people to go past them to find The Anointed One.
2. Jesus is the bridegroom and John is just the friend (verse 29).
“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 now complete.” (John 3:29)
Wow, what a heart. “The one who has the bride”. John talks as if there are two friends but one beautiful bride. She chooses Jesus. But that is fine by John, for two reasons: Firstly because even though he has served her and prepared her, she does not belong to Him “The one who has the bride is the bridegroom”. And secondly because he loves his friend whom the woman loves and has great joy in seeing them united.
He (John) was the one sent to collect the bride. He goes to her and calls her. He sees that she is not prepared and so he speaks to her and calls her to repentance and readiness. He baptises her, ceremonially washing her in preparation. He wants to make sure that she is properly prepared and attired for when the bridegroom arrives.
He (John) has stayed with her to get her ready in excited anticipation of when He (the bridegroom) will come. He tells her that her love will come. Then they hear His voice in the distance, coming towards them. The heart of the bride races, she looks up. John, the best man of the groom, watches her excitement and is delighted for them both. He is filled with joy because he is seeing the culmination of what he has worked and prayed for.
Now he knows it is time to release whatever role he has played in her life to get her to this place. She learnt to trust and obey him (John) but it was only so that she would learn to love and trust and obey the groom (Jesus). So John is content to begin to fade into the background of her affections because he has achieved his goal. She has found Jesus, it is time to let go.
This moment happens for all true disciplers and disciples. They meet and begin to talk. They build a relationship of trust and friendship. The discipler speaks truth and grace into the heart of the disciple, but it all has a singular purpose (if it is done properly) which is to lead the disciple to Jesus. Once they have met, the discipler’s role changes. They might not disappear completely from the relationship and in most cases they should not as they continue to walk together now as fellow disciples of the same Master. But the roles should definitely change. Now when the disciple asks the discipler “what should I do?” the answer is “what does Jesus want you to do?” Always pushing people into relationship with Jesus, that is our role as Pastors and disciplers. Resisting every temptation to become the answer or the final destination for people’s love and trust.
Lord, please give us John’s clarity and singleness of heart. Let us love the bride, but let us love You more and always be looking to connect the two of you together.
3. Jesus is of heaven and therefore is “above all”, John is of the earth he is “adam” (verse 31)
“He who comes from above is above all. He who is of the earth belongs to the earth and speaks in an earthly way. He who comes from heaven is above all.” (John 3:31)
The Greek word for “above all” is “epano” which literally means to be higher in rank. For those who struggle with the concept of spiritual authority, John the Baptist clearly didn’t. Jesus was “before” him. Jesus was “above” and in fact “above all”. That means Jesus has a higher rank than anyone else in God’s universe. So, of course Jesus is operating in a greater anointing and authority. In fact His anointing and authority is no competition to John but it over-rides what John is doing.
Jesus’ authority over-rides whatever any of us are doing, whether we are regular citizens or heads of state, whether we are shop floor workers or multi-billionaire owners. Jesus is not the competition. Jesus is the boss.
As we saw at the beginning of the first chapter of John’s gospel, He was in the beginning with God, as God. He created, enlightens and sustains all things. “He came to His own” because we are all His own. He “owns” us all. But His own did not receive Him.
But John did. Even though Jesus was drawing all of John’s crowds away to Himself, including some of his disciples. And Jesus wasn’t sending them back. Because John knew who Jesus was and, therefore, who John was by comparison.
Jesus is the highest ranking person in the universe by the express design and will of His Father. John is just a “voice” not even worthy to be the lowest form of Jesus’ servants (unworthy to untie his shoe laces). It is right that everyone goes to Jesus and submits to Him. He is above all.
4. Therefore Jesus is speaking about what He has seen with His own eyes, whereas John is just speaking about what he has heard from heaven (verses 32-33).
“He bears witness to what he has seen and heard, yet no one receives his testimony. Whoever receives his testimony sets his seal to this, that God is true.” (John 3:32-33)
Jesus is from above and is speaking as One who has come from the throne room of God in heaven. John is of the earth (“Adam” in the Hebrew) and therefore speaks like someone from the earth, even though he has been given his message from heaven.
It is the difference between listening to a local man who has had a brief phone call with one of the officials of a King or Emperor who rules the land but lives far away, versus listening to the Son of the King or Emperor who has spent all his life in the presence of his father and has both the knowledge and the power of his father invested in him. Of course, when the King’s Son comes, the wise will stop listening to the local man and go to hear what the Son has to say.
Jesus has seen, experienced and lived what He is speaking about. John has grown up with what is “of earth”. He sees, experiences and lives “of earth” but has received something from heaven which he is passing on. But when the Son comes, it is right that everyone goes and listens to Him. He has lived in His Father’s house, from eternity, and understands everything of His Father’s plans and purposes. He has His Father’s heart and motivations and will only do and speak what He has first heard from heaven.
In some ways it is “job done” for John. He held the fort till Jesus came. He has helped people with the limited knowledge and understanding that he had but now the One and Only has come and people can now listen to Him. If and when they do truly listen to Him, then they will be truly hearing the Words of the One true God.
5. John speaks by the anointing of the Holy Spirit but Jesus has the Spirit without measure (verse 34).
“For he whom God has sent utters the words of God, for he gives the Spirit without measure.” (John 3:34)
John was filled with the Holy Spirit in his mother’s womb. He came into the world empowered by the Holy Spirit. He has been speaking in the anointing of the Holy Spirit to an entire nation and that entire nation has been shaken and many awakened, by his words. But again, Jesus has more.
Whatever John’s capacity was for the Holy Spirit, which was great compared to most of the rest of us, it was still limited. Limited by his earthiness. Although he was as separated from the world, as other-worldly, as a man could be.
Jesus has no such limitations. He is “of heaven”. He is “of God”. He is sent by God. He is God. He has the Spirit without measure. He gives the Spirit without measure.
He gives the Spirit without measure to those who will utter the words of God. What an invitation that is for those of us who would be a “voice” for Him.
6. Jesus is the beloved Son of the Father, the second person of the Trinity, fully God even though fully man and as such God has given “all things” into Jesus’ hands. John is just fully man (verse 35).
John the Baptist had a remarkably mature theology for the age in which he lived and ministered. Firstly he had a very clear understanding of the Trinity. He saw the role of the Father, the Son and the Spirit all working together. He also clearly saw what most of his compatriot’s couldn’t see, that the Father’s plan was to place everything into the hands of his Son.
The Jews were waiting for the Messiah. They had great expectations of Him. Their expectations were too small. They were looking for someone to ascend the throne of Israel and throw off the Roman yoke. John the Baptist understood that the Son would ascend the throne of everything and throw off every evil yoke. He understood that this wasn’t a future occurrence but was already happening.
“The Father loves the Son and has placed everything in his hands.” (John 3:35)
John the Baptist’s theology was Paul’s theology. The Father wants everything, both in heaven and earth, under the feet of Jesus. Consider these verses from Paul’s first chapter of his letter to the Ephesians church.
“he made known to us the mystery of his will” (the Father’s will) “according to his good pleasure, which he purposed in Christ, to be put into effect when the times reach their fulfillment—to bring unity to all things in heaven and on earth under Christ.” (Ephesians 1:9-10)
“That power is the same as the mighty strength he exerted when he raised Christ from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly realms, far above all rule and authority, power and dominion, and every name that is invoked, not only in the present age but also in the one to come. And God placed all things under his feet and appointed him to be head over everything for the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills everything in every way.” (Ephesians 1:19-23)
Not only was John’s theology remarkably mature, but so was his spiritual sight. He could see that Jesus, this man who walked the same earth as him, was that Son. Despite the fact he looked totally normal, like any other man, he was the heir to the throne of all things. As such, it made perfect sense for “all” to go to Him, even if it mean them leaving John. All are going to go to a Him at some point anyway. All are going to bow before Him. It is right and proper because the Father is putting all things in Jesus’ hands
7. Jesus is the Lord of life, the only One who can turn aside the righteous, deadly, wrath of God against us, John can only point us towards Him (verse 36).
Again God the Father has made it all about Jesus. He has given Jesus to be a shield for us against His own wrath towards us.
“Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life; whoever does not obey the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God remains on him.” (John 3:35)
The word for “wrath” here is “orge” in the Greek. It is the only time it is used in John’s gospel. It is used elsewhere in the New Testament, particularly by Paul when he refers to the righteous anger of God. He makes reference to the wrath of God 11 times in Romans alone.
Matthew quotes John the Baptist talking about the wrath of a God when he addresses the Pharisees in Matthew 3:7.
“You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?”
Jesus, as God, feels that passion of anger Himself. Like the Baptist, he experiences the same emotion (it is the same word “orge” in the Greek) when faced with the callous hearts of the Pharisees, who would deny someone healing just because it was the Sabbath.
“And he looked around at them with anger, grieved at their hardness of heart” (Mark 3:5)
Just in case we think that is a one off and Jesus doesn’t really feel the same anger as His Father, the Holy Spirit clearly shows John the apostle that it is both the wrath of the Father and the wrath of the Lamb that we need to fear.
“Then the kings of the earth and the great ones and the generals and the rich and the powerful, and everyone, slave and free, hid themselves in the caves and among the rocks of the mountains, calling to the mountains and rocks, “Fall on us and hide us from the face of him who is seated on the throne, and from the wrath of the Lamb, for the great day of their wrath has come, and who can stand?” (Revelations 6:15-17)
The kings and the great ones, the generals and the rich and the powerful and everyone, slave and free, will cry out “hide us” from the wrath of God. They will be shouting to mountains and rocks.
But God has already prepared a hiding place for everyone from His deadly anger (and it is deadly). We can all find a hiding place in the Son, in Jesus, if we choose to receive and believe in Him. We need to, before it is too late.
It will be too late for those who do not “obey” the Son. That word is translated as “not believe” in some translations. It does mean “not believe”, but it is a stronger word than just that. We can take it to refer to someone who is just casually indifferent to Jesus. But the Holy Spirit is not talking about casual indifference or innocent ignorance here. The Greek word implies a perverse, wilful rejection of and opposition to, Jesus. Someone who is stubbornly unpersuadable to the truth about Jesus. The wrath of God remains on such a person.
Holding on to unbelief might appear to be the better short term option. It leaves us in control of our own lives (or that is the lie we choose to believe). In one sense, it does leave us in control of our lives and our destiny. We will live a less than fulfilled life and are destined for the wrath of God when we die.
Submitting ourselves to the truth of who Jesus is and His claims on our lives (because it is an act of submission) appears to be a loss of control. But in fact it is a release of control into the most loving and kind of hands and a breaking free from the control of a darkness that is ultimately deadly.
That is the seventh reason John the Baptist gives his followers to explain why it is good for all people to go to Jesus. John was just the voice to warn people of the wrath that was to come. Jesus is the only place that people can go to hide from it. Such people find eternal life instead of facing the deadly consequences of their sin.
As a result of those seven reasons, John already knows what must happen:
“He must increase, but I must decrease.” (John 3:30).
There can be no complimentary gift or ministry to Jesus. He sees and knows all things. All things have been given into His hand. He is the only shelter from the wrath of God and the only entrance into the life of God. The Father is making it all about His Son.
There is only one way for John to go and that is to diminish. He doesn’t just diminish into some pleasant retirement by the sea. Surely that would have been the kind thing for God to do, seeing that John had given up his life to serve Him, only to be put to one side once a “greater than he” had arrived. John gets the opposite to a quiet retirement. God has something greater for him.
In the end it takes him to a prison cell with only a couple of loyal disciples left. In the clutches of an enraged despot and, more dangerously, a seriously offended despot’s mistress. It leads to an inevitable conclusion. His head on a platter as the highlight of a drunken orgy.
Better than a quiet retirement? Is that the way God rewards His faithful servants?
I don’t want to diminish the pain, loneliness, fear and doubt that John and many others like him have suffered. But yes, it is better.
He died as the last of the great prophets. The pinnacle of a long line of bold, history making men and women who had given their lives to be a voice.
He died as the first of the great martyrs. Stephen is rightly proclaimed as the first church martyr. But John the Baptist was the first true martyr in the days of the Christ. He was the first who got to lay his life down for Jesus.
Before the throne, there is none of earth like John the Baptist. The best of the old, the herald of the new. He did not die some quiet death in some comfortable bed (which I wouldn’t begrudge anyone and I would quite fancy myself). God chose something better for him.
His courage brought his head on a platter before a despot King, to the sound of singing and dancing in a drunken orgy.
His faithfulness, despite his doubts, brought his soul in great triumph before the throne of heaven, to the sound of angelic thunder in great glory.
“I must decrease” he had said. But kingdom decrease is never a step down or backwards into the shadows. It is one giant step closer to glory.
Those who put their hope in Him are never put to shame.Posted on: June 6, 2018Peter Todd