He must increase, but I must decrease . . . (John 3.30)
This is one of my favorite verses in all the Bible. Not only is it a great declaration of humility; it is also an awesome prayer for any and all believers to pray. I would say it encompasses beautifully and succinctly a prayerful attitude. Perhaps, better than any passage throughout Scripture, in only a few brief words.
Of course, it will never even be the most popular verse in its own chapter! But, along with that other verse in John 3, this verse should be close to it. Once we receive the grace proclaimed to us in 3.16, we should immediately turn to the humble attitude of 3.30. This is a prayer which can accompany us all the days of our faith journey. From the very first steps to the last hill we climb.
It is given to us by John the Baptizer, a man who received his fair share of attention. He was popular with the crowds. They flocked to him. They hung on his every word. They listened and believed his message. They repented. They were baptized. They became his followers, his disciples.
The religious and political leaders had a very different reaction to this locust-eating, camel-hair wearing, want-to-be Elijah out on the banks of the Jordan. They considered him a threat. They thought he was a fanatic; a danger to their ways and customs.
They thought the only way to deal with such a threat was execution. Better to silence him, then have him growing more and more in popularity with the people. Better to squash while the squashing was good, then allow him to continue to give them black eye after black eye.
After all, who did he think he was? This man of humble birth. This country boy preacher. This man who seemed to care nothing for the possessions of the world. This man who spit in the face of everything they deemed important and measuring one’s success before men and God. Who was he? What authority did he have? Either he was out of his head or a charlatan. Maybe something worse?
Hmm, this is beginning to sound a bit familiar with another fellow from those parts. In fact, in many ways, their lives would mirror one another.
I mean just think about it for a moment. Both were extraordinary births. Both had an angel announce their coming. Both were of a similar age. Both preached repentance. Both preached the nearness of the kingdom of God. They both railed against the presumptuous Pharisaism of the day. They both drew huge crowds. They both were plotted against. They both were executed to silence their message and influence.
Of course, for all the similarities, there was one whopping distinction: one claimed to be the Christ and one patently, unequivocally did not.
I suppose we could say John was as close to being the One as one could be without actually being the One. And, to John’s credit (if I can phrase it that way), he got it. He knew it and acknowledged it. He did not pretend to be something he wasn’t. Though, it seems to me, many would have believed him and followed him as such if he had. No, John would not become one in a long line of want-to-be Messiahs.
He knew his role and he did it proudly. He was not the Christ. He was the one who came to prepare the way for the Christ. So close, yet an eternity away from it.
John made it clear, in no uncertain terms, that though he was anointed by God; he was not the Anointed One.
How many would have been tempted to take that next step? How many would have been lured away by the fame and enticement of the masses? How many would have allowed the people to assume whatever they wanted?
I mean, just listen to John and Jesus’ messages . . . they are incredibly similar. It’s almost as if, in many ways, they are reading the same script! Their demeanor, their simple way of life. The fact both had disciples and huge followings of people. Man, talking about being right there!
It reminds me of that scene in the Bill Murray comedy, Groundhog Day. The scene unfolds where Andie MacDowell’s character, Rita, is naming the traits of her perfect man. Bill Murray’s character, aptly named Phil, is listening and ticking off how he meets or exceeds, if not all the characteristics, then at least the majority. He even says something to the effect of, Man, I’m really close on this one.
John was in a similar boat. He was close. He was there. But, he did not fall in the trap. I don’t know if he was even tempted by it. But, I have a feeling many (including myself) would have been.
Maybe this is one reason Jesus said of John, among those born of women, none is greater than John. (Lk. 7.28) That is quite an accolade, from no one other than the Incarnate Lord himself.
As I said earlier, for all the similarities, there were obviously major distinctions. Only one was born of a virgin. Only one had the Father testify, Here is my beloved Son . . . . Only one was the God-Man. Only one was perfection in flesh. Only one was the I AM. Only one was, in John’s own words, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.
John would lose his head for his preaching and refusal to minimize the ethics he proclaimed. His death, while sad and unjust, did not bring about salvation for even one sinner. Jesus, on the other hand, would be lifted up and through his death, salvation would be offered freely.
John understood it wasn’t all about him. John knew he wasn’t the master of his own destiny. John got it.