July 14, 2013
In a “Peanuts” cartoon, Linus tells Charlie Brown, “When I get big, I’m going to be a humble little country doctor. I’ll live in the city, see, and every morning I’ll get up, climb into my sports car, and zoom into the country! Then I’ll start healing people… I’ll heal people for miles around!” In the last frame, he exclaims, “I’ll be a world famous humble little country doctor!”
Charles Schultz, the cartoonist, was poking fun at how difficult it is for us to be humble. We may start out with the goal of being a humble little whatever, but before we know it, we’re into being a world-famous, humble little whatever!
Pride is arguably the most deadly and evil of all sins because it’s at the root of all other sins. Pride was probably Satan’s original sin, when he said, “I will make myself like the Most High” (Isa. 14:14, assuming that this in some sense is describing Satan). Pride was the bait Satan used to tempt Eve, when he set aside what God had said and assured her that if she ate of the forbidden fruit, she would be like God (Gen. 3:1-6). Whenever I sin, I am arrogantly asserting that I know better than God knows what is best for me. Thus, as Christians we must constantly battle pride and grow in humility. And if you think you’ve attained any measure of humility, you’ve got to be on guard against being proud of your humility!
If anyone easily could have fallen into the trap of pride, it would have been John the Baptist. Who else in human history (apart from Jesus Himself) could claim to have been filled with the Holy Spirit while still in his mother’s womb (Luke 1:15)! No one else in human history had the important role of being the forerunner of Messiah (Luke 1:17, 76). John enjoyed immediate popular success, as all Jerusalem, Judea, and those from surrounding areas were going out to him in the wilderness to confess their sins and be baptized (Matt. 3:5-6). Even Jesus testified of John that he was the greatest man in human history (Matt. 11:11). All these things could have fed the pride of this young prophet, barely in his thirties.
Yet in our text John gives his disciples and us a basic lesson in humility. In the face of Jesus’ growing popularity and his own waning popularity, John gives us a one-liner to live by (John 3:30): “He must increase, but I must decrease.” Those words are a convenient outline in reverse of John 3:22-36: “I must decrease” sums up 3:22-30; “He must increase” sums up 3:31-36. To the extent that John’s motto is true of us, we are growing in humility.
The story begins by describing two thriving ministries that were taking place close to one another. We don’t know the exact location of Jesus and John as described here, but both were somewhere along the Jordan River, which they were using for baptisms. As John clarifies in 4:2, Jesus was not actually performing the baptisms, but His disciples were. These were not Christian baptisms at this point, but rather public confessions of sin followed by immersion in water, which symbolized cleansing from sin. It’s interesting that even John Calvin, who practiced baptism as sprinkling, admits that the reference to “much water” indicates that Jesus and John were “plunging the whole body beneath the water” (Calvin’s Commentaries [Baker], p. 130)!
The apostle added the comment (3:24) that John had not yet been thrown into prison because he knew that his readers would have read Mark’s gospel, which makes it seem that Jesus’ ministry began after John the Baptist was arrested (Mark 1:14). The apostle John wants us to know that the events recorded here happened before John the Baptist’s imprisonment.
At this juncture (“therefore” in 3:25 is better translated “now” or “then,” indicating a transition to something new), John reports that a dispute or discussion arose between John’s disciples and a Jew (some early manuscripts read “the Jews,” but the singular is probably original) about purification. The apostle does not give us any further clarification, so we can only guess at the nature of the discussion. Probably it had to do with whether John’s baptism was superior to the Jewish rites of purification. John mentioned those Jewish rites with the water pots at the wedding where Jesus turned the water into wine (2:6). In the present context, Jesus is the bridegroom (3:29). He comes to bring people into a joyous relationship with Himself, not to haggle over Jewish ceremonies. It’s not outward Jewish ceremonies that purify one’s heart, but rather, the new birth from above. So John may want us to see here that Jesus’ ministry went beyond the ceremonial legalism of Judaism.
At any rate, the debate between John’s disciples and this Jew may have included the Jew’s comment that the Baptist’s ministry was being eclipsed by Jesus’ growing ministry. This led John’s disciples to come to him with their concern (3:26), “Rabbi, He who was with you beyond the Jordan, to whom you have testified, behold, He is baptizing and all are coming to Him.” Their exaggeration, “all are coming to Him,” was no doubt spawned by resentment or jealousy (D. A. Carson, The Gospel According to John [Eerdmans/Apollos], p. 210). They were jealous on John’s behalf against Jesus’ growing ministry. This sets the stage for John the Baptist’s reply (3:27-30), which is a great lesson in humility. We learn:
Humility stems from understanding who God is and who we are.
John the Baptist clearly understood God’s sovereignty, who Jesus is, and who he (John) was. Thus he didn’t have inflated views of himself. He wasn’t out to build his self-esteem or to promote his own ministry or reputation. His aim was to exalt Jesus. He found great joy in his role of handing off the bride to the bridegroom.
We see this both with reference to John’s view of the Father and his view of Jesus Christ:
John replies to his disciples’ worried report (3:27), “A man can receive nothing unless it has been given to him from heaven.” That truth applies to all spiritual matters, including our salvation (Luke 10:21-22). As Jesus emphasizes (John 6:65), “No one can come to Me unless it has been granted him from the Father.” But here it has special reference to our ministries and the relative fruitfulness of those ministries. He is saying that his role as the forerunner was given to him by God, and he must stay within that role. His words also apply to Jesus: Any popularity or success that He enjoyed in ministry came from the Father.
Paul applies this to us as gifted members of the body of Christ (1 Cor. 12:4-6): “Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit. And there are varieties of ministries, and the same Lord. There are varieties of effects, but the same God who works all things in all persons.” He adds (12:11), “But one and the same Spirit works all these things, distributing to each one individually just as He wills.” In other words, God gives different spiritual gifts, ministries, and results according to His sovereign will. Humility stems from recognizing that this is God’s prerogative as God and bowing before His sovereign will.
In 3:28, John reminds his disciples that he has said, “I am not the Christ, but I have been sent ahead of Him.” Clearly, John knew that Jesus was the Christ, the promised Messiah. Then in 3:29, John uses an illustration from a Jewish wedding: “He who has the bride is the bridegroom; but the friend of the bridegroom, who stands and hears him, rejoices greatly because of the bridegroom’s voice. So this joy of mine has been made full.” John knew that Jesus was the promised bridegroom and that the bride belongs to Him. John’s role was that of the friend of the bridegroom, sort of like our “best man.” His role was to take the bride to the bridegroom and then get out of the way. The focus of the wedding was not on the best man, but on the bridegroom and bride.
In the Old Testament, Yahweh is often pictured as the bridegroom (or husband) and Israel as His bride. For example, in Isaiah 54:5, the Lord tells Israel, “For your husband is your Maker, whose name is the Lord of hosts.” Isaiah 62:5b declares, “And as the bridegroom rejoices over the bride, so your God will rejoice over you.” In Hosea 2:16, the Lord tells Israel that in the future, they will call the Lord, “My husband.” He promises (Hos. 2:19), “I will betroth you to Me forever….” Jesus used this analogy of Himself when He explained to some of John’s disciples why Jesus’ disciples did not fast (Matt. 9:15): “The attendants of the bridegroom cannot mourn as long as the bridegroom is with them, can they? But the days will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast.” The same analogy carries over to the New Testament epistles, where Jesus is the bridegroom and the church is His bride (2 Cor. 11:2; Eph. 5:25-27; Rev. 19:7; 21:2; 22:17).
Now, if Yahweh is Israel’s bridegroom in the Old Testament and John the Baptist proclaims Jesus as Israel’s bridegroom here, then it’s an affirmation that Jesus is Yahweh. Jesus is God. Whether or not John the Baptist put the two halves of this equation together, it is evident that the apostle John through the Holy Spirit wants us to put them together: If God is the bridegroom and Jesus is the bridegroom, then Jesus is God. (James Boice makes this point, The Gospel of John [Zondervan], one-volume edition, p. 223.)
The lesson in humility for us is: humility stems from knowing who God is. The clearer our vision of His majesty and greatness and power and glory, the more we will be humbled in His presence. As I’ve said before, this is one of the main lessons that I came away with the first time I read Calvin’s Institutes [Westminster Press]. He presents such an exalted view of God, whom he often calls “the Majesty,” that you just bow yourself in the dust before Him. In Calvin’s words (1.1.3), “Man is never sufficiently touched and affected by the awareness of his lowly state until he has compared himself with God’s majesty.” You realize how little you are in His holy presence. That’s the second lesson that John the Baptist teaches us:
Calvin begins The Institutes (1.1.1) with the profound sentence, “Nearly all the wisdom we possess, that is to say, true and sound wisdom, consists of two parts: the knowledge of God and of ourselves.” John McNeill, the editor, explains (p. 36, note 3), “These decisive words set the limits of Calvin’s theology and condition every subsequent statement.” Calvin expounds on our knowledge of ourselves (1.1.2): “It is certain that man never achieves a clear knowledge of himself unless he has first looked upon God’s face, and then descends from contemplating him to scrutinize himself.” He goes on to say that pride is innate in us all and cannot be dealt with until we look to the Lord.
In our text, we see that John was clear about who he was in the presence of Christ:
People were wondering if John was the Christ, which he emphatically denied (1:20), “I am not the Christ.” Now he reminds his disciples of what he has repeatedly said (3:28), “You yourselves are my witnesses that I said, ‘I am not the Christ,’ but, ‘I have been sent ahead of Him.’”
You may think, “Well, there’s not much danger that I’m going to start thinking that I’m the Christ.” But as I’ve often said, one of the most basic lessons that we all have to learn—and learn again and again—is that God is God; I am not God. When things don’t go the way I’d prefer, I have to learn to bow and acknowledge, “God, You’re God; I’m not God.” Also, although I’ve never had to deal with it (and probably never will), when your ministry is popular and you’ve got crowds of people thronging to hear you speak, you need to keep in mind, “I’m not the Christ; I’m just His lowly slave, sent to point people to Him.”
This lesson stems from John’s comment (3:27), “A man can receive nothing unless it has been given him from heaven.” John recognized that his unique role in history was not something that he had achieved by his own brilliance or hard work. Rather, God had graciously given it to him so that he could point people to Jesus. It had nothing to do with anything good in John. It had everything to do with God’s sovereign, gracious purpose for John.
The apostle Paul reminded the arrogant Corinthians (1 Cor. 4:7), “What do you have that you did not receive? And if you did receive it, why do you boast as if you had not received it?” When Pilate, frustrated that Jesus would not answer him, told Jesus that he had authority either to release Him or crucify Him, Jesus replied (John 19:11), “You would have no authority over Me, unless it had been given you from above ….”
This is such an important lesson to keep in mind at all times: All of my gifts, abilities, and opportunities come from God by grace alone. Everything! Do I have a sound mind? That came from God, who wants me to use it for His purpose and glory. Do I have money? That came from God, who wants me to use it for His purpose and glory. Do I have a ministry or place of service? That, too, came from God, who wants me to use it for His purpose and glory. John knew that he was the forerunner of the Messiah, and he sought to fulfill that ministry which God had given him.
A. W. Pink (Exposition of John, online at monergism.com) points out that John continued preaching and baptizing, even as he saw his influence waning in comparison with Jesus’ ministry. The point is that humility does not mean that we slack off and then blame our lack of results on God’s sovereignty. We should seek to use to the fullest what God has entrusted to us to the best of our ability, giving all glory for any results to Him.
There are two things here:
John’s disciples were concerned because the numbers in his following were going down, while the numbers following Jesus were going up. And John didn’t seem to be doing anything to correct the situation. But when they talk to John about their concerns, he explains that their cause for concern was his cause for great joy. John wasn’t trying to build a following for John, but rather a following for Jesus.
Sometimes a man’s disciples are more zealous for his reputation than he is. On one occasion when the Spirit came on two young men in the camp of Israel so that they prophesied, Joshua, who was Moses’ helper, said (Num. 11:28), “Moses, my lord, restrain them.” But Moses replied (11:29), “Are you jealous for my sake? Would that all the Lord’s people were prophets, that the Lord would put His Spirit upon them!” A similar thing happened when the apostle John saw someone casting out demons in Jesus’ name and tried to prevent him, because he wasn’t part of their group. But Jesus replied (Mark 9:39), “Do not hinder him, for there is no one who will perform a miracle in My name, and be able soon afterward to speak evil of Me.”
The lesson is, we aren’t in competition with other churches or other ministries. If they’re preaching the gospel and teaching God’s Word, then we’re on the same team. We can rejoice that the Lord’s work is prospering, even if our work is not as large as the other work. Our responsibility is to be faithful with what the Lord has given us to do.
John’s aim and his joy was to bring the bride to the bridegroom. By the way, you probably don’t think of John the Baptist as a joyful man. He was the austere prophet who thundered (Matt. 3:7), “You brood of vipers, who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?” He was angry when the religious hypocrites did not follow Jesus. But he was full of joy when he heard the bridegroom’s voice and could bring the bride to Him. If people followed after Jesus, John’s purpose had been fulfilled. His joy was full.
Under the glass on my desk I have this quote from Robert Murray McCheyne: “I see a man cannot be a faithful minister, until he preaches Christ for Christ’s sake—until he gives up striving to attract people to himself and seeks only to attract them to Christ.” We always need to keep in mind that it’s all about the bridegroom and not at all about the best man. “He must increase, but I must decrease.” Finally,
This is implicit in John’s motto, “He must increase, but I must decrease.” Like the morning star, John was fading from view as the sun rose in the sky. John’s being expendable also implicit in the parenthetical comment (3:24), “For John had not yet been thrown into prison.” When you get thrown into prison, it’s easy to wonder about God’s sovereignty and about your role in His plan. John himself began to wonder as he sat in prison, “Was I mistaken? Is Jesus really the Christ?” He sent some of his disciples to ask Jesus (Matt. 11:3), “Are You the Expected One, or shall we look for someone else?” In other words, “If You’re the Messiah, why don’t You get Your forerunner out of this miserable jail?” Jesus replied (Matt. 11:4-6), “Go and report to John what you hear and see: the blind receive sight and the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear, the dead are raised up, and the poor have the gospel preached to them. And blessed is he who does not take offense at Me.”
It’s important to remember that being a faithful servant of the Lord does not guarantee a trouble-free life. John the Baptist was the faithful, God-appointed forerunner of Messiah, but he got thrown into prison and had his head cut off in his early thirties. We aren’t guaranteed long lives or impressive results in our ministries. The Lord could take me out of the picture today and His work would go right on according to His plan. He owes us nothing. It is our great joy if He uses us in some way to exalt Christ and to bring others to exalt Him, too.
Andrew Murray (Humility: The Beauty of Holiness [Christian Literature Crusade], p. 12) writes,
Humility, the place of entire dependence on God, is, from the very nature of things, the first duty and the highest virtue of the creature, and the root of every virtue. And so pride, or the loss of this humility, is the root of every sin and evil.
Are you working at growing in humility and pouring contempt on all your pride (to use Isaac Watt’s line, “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross”)? If I’m growing in humility, Christ is increasing and I’m decreasing. If I’m growing in pride, self is increasing and Christ is decreasing.
I recommend three short books: Andrew Murray, Humility (75 pages); C. J. Mahaney, Humility ([Multnomah], 172 pages); and, Stuart Scott, From Pride to Humility ([Focus Publications], 31 pages, which is a chapter from his book, The Exemplary Husband.) Or, if you’re up for it, read Calvin’s Institutes ([Westminster Press], the first three books, which are the most spiritually rich, are 1008 pages). He favorably quotes (2.2.11) Augustine, who cited a public speaker who said the chief rule in eloquence is “Delivery.” The second rule is, “Delivery.” The third rule is, “Delivery.” So Augustine said, the three precepts of Christianity are first, second, and third, “Humility.” Make John the Baptist’s motto yours: “Jesus must increase, but I must decrease.”
Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2013, All Rights Reserved.
Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, Updated Edition © The Lockman Foundation