He must increase, but I must decrease.
— John the Baptist (John 3:30, NRSV)
How many people in successful ministries, I wonder, would be able to say what John the Baptist did, and do so with joy?
It would be wonderful if we had the backstory of how John became a prophet, how he received his calling to be the preacher of repentance preparing the way for God’s Messiah. Unfortunately, we don’t.
But here, in his final appearance in the Fourth Gospel, we are given a magnificent portrait of a man who had received his calling with joy and took it with the utmost seriousness — without falling into the trap of taking himself too seriously at the same time.
As we saw in the previous post, John the Baptist’s disciples approach him with a problem: Jesus’ disciples have also begun baptizing, and more people are going to Jesus than coming to John. You get the sense that despite John’s deference to Jesus the Messiah, his disciples feel a tad jealous of Jesus’ success, as if he were poaching on John’s territory.
John’s response to this line of thinking is direct and to the point:
No one can receive anything except what has been given from heaven. You yourselves are my witnesses that I said, “I am not the Messiah, but I have been sent ahead of him.” 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. (John 3:27-29, NRSV)
John knows that his ministry is from God, and that is enough. And he reminds his disciples of what they have already admitted: Hey, you yourselves remember what I said — that Jesus is the Messiah, not me. Follow that out to its logical conclusion. Who’s the real star of the show here?
And in case they need further illustration, he gives them one. You know how the prophets speak of God as the bridegroom and Israel as his bride. Well, I’m not the bridegroom. I’m the best man, the bridegroom’s friend. My job is to make sure the bride is ready and deliver her to the bridegroom. After that, I step aside. And not only do I do this willingly, I do it with joy! Yes, joy! What kind of best man would I be otherwise? So you tell me that “everyone” is going to Jesus? That’s as it should be, and I couldn’t be happier.
And then he utters that most humble of sentences: “He must increase, but I must decrease.” There’s a sunset clause built into his contract, and he knows it. But he doesn’t fight it — he welcomes it. He knows his place in the story. It’s been an important one, and he rejoices to have been part of it. But now, it’s time for the story to move on without him.
Interpreters differ as to whether the end quotes go here at verse 30 — as in the NIV and NRSV — or later, at verse 36, the end of the chapter. I take “He must increase, but I must decrease” to be John the Baptist’s final words in this gospel, uttered against the background of his coming martyrdom (alluded to in vs. 24). They are a fitting epitaph, from which we have much to learn when it comes to the work we do for God. More on that in the next post.