He Must Increase
Series: The Gospel of John
We’d all probably agree that the world isn’t ultimately about us, but we still resist it in practice. However, we see in this passage that our greatest joy will come as Christ increases, and all others (including ourselves) decrease.
Someone asked me recently how many weddings I’ve officiated, and I came up with something around 15. Though I did my first one seven years ago, I was able to recall reasonably well the names of the bride and groom for each wedding. But you know what I’d really struggle to remember from those weddings? The best man. The best man is right up front, I always interact with him at these weddings, and he usually gives a toast. But ultimately, the wedding just isn’t about him. In the passage at which we are looking today, we encounter John the Baptist again, a well-known teacher of the Jewish people at the time, and we’re going to see him compare himself to a best man, because he realizes that, much like a best man at a wedding, his life is not ultimately about him. We often resist this, though. When we sense another person is getting more attention than we are, or another tribe is gaining more power than ours, it bothers us. Or we get fixated on what certain people think of us, rather than being fixated on the one this is really all about. But we learn from John the Baptist in this passage that Christ must increase; all others must decrease. This passage gives us 3 reasons: He’s the groom, He’s above all, and He’s the only way to eternal life.
He’s the groom
Our passage begins by telling us that Jesus was baptizing people at the same time John the Baptist was. In chapter 4, John the Evangelist, the author of this book, clarifies for us that Jesus Himself baptized no one, but in saying Jesus did, he’s saying His disciples did. Amid this, a dispute between disciples of John and a Jew about purification arises, and evidently through this they become aware that Jesus’ people are baptizing people, and “all are going to him” they say. Now, of course, it can’t be the case that literally everyone was going to Jesus for baptism. We already saw that some were going to John for baptism, and there was also an overwhelming pattern of people rejecting Christ. So why do John’s disciples say, “All are going to him”?
Have you ever heard a kid say something like, “Mom, everyone in school likes David better than me”? Of course that’s almost definitely not the case, but the exaggeration reveals that the kid is very concerned about people liking David more than him. It seems something like that is going on here. John’s disciples thought they were the only game in town for baptism. Now here comes Jesus, and what do they do? They run to tell John, “Some new guy is taking our business!” They even know that He’s not just some new guy—they identify Him as “He who was with you across the Jordan, to whom you bore witness.” And John the Baptist’s testimony concerning Christ was that He was the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world. Yet still they were exasperated that people were going to Him for baptism, so much that they said “all are going to Him.”
It’s easy for Christians today to fall into a similar tribal spirit. We profess our faith in one holy, catholic, and apostolic church, that every assembly in which the gospel is truly preached, and in which the Lord’s Supper, baptism, and church discipline are administered, is a true church, on the same team as we are. Yet what happens when one starts growing faster than ours? What happens when one has a better building, a bigger kids ministry, a more visible presence serving the community, more theological education opportunities, greater diversity, more highly skilled musicians, and so forth? I confess to you all that one of my biggest struggles as a pastor is the envy and covetousness I feel when I see these things happening in other churches. Social media is a killer for me in that regard. I see another pastor post something encouraging from his church and my heart sinks a little. I hear another pastor tell me about something hard in his church (nobody really posts those things on social media) and my heart is a little glad about it. Do you see how wicked that is? Would you pray God changes that in me? And do you relate? Do you ever feel envious of other churches when comparing them to ours? Even within our own church, we can sometimes resent people who are clearly growing in godliness if they aren’t part of our closest friend group. Or we may resent people from our own friend group who begin growing in ways we aren’t used to.
Let’s look at how John the Baptist responds to such tribalism in his disciples. First he expresses an exasperation of his own: A person cannot receive even one thing unless it is given him from heaven. Recall Jesus’ conversation with Nicodemus just a few verses before these, where repeatedly Jesus is amazed at how little Nicodemus understands, and therefore says that He must be born again to receive His testimony. John the Baptist now sees the same thing about his teaching: He recounts in verse 28 how they themselves know what he said. He already told them, “I am not the Christ,” and yet here they are not getting it. He then gives them an illustration of a wedding in 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.
In the first public sign Jesus performed, He showed that He was the true groom, when He provided wine at a wedding. At various places in the Bible, God’s people are said to be His bride, and He their husband. So Isaiah 54:5 – “For your Maker is your husband,
the LORD of hosts is his name; and the Holy One of Israel is your Redeemer, the God of the whole earth he is called.” Jesus is the Lord who has become flesh, and now what John sees when he sees a crowd of people going to Jesus rather than to him is not a source of competition. Instead, he sees a bride going to her groom, and not only is he cool with that, he rejoices in that, because he has a sense of his place in the story. He’s the best man. And best men don’t expect the bride to come to them. They don’t expect to be the center of attention. Instead, they’re happy for the groom to get his bride. Thus, John says, his joy is fulfilled. He says in verse 30, “He must increase; I must decrease.” Of course, when it comes to Jesus’ essential glory, nothing can increase it. He’s already perfect. But here John is saying Jesus’ ascribed glory must increase. More people must see it, acknowledge it, and follow Him. His platform must increase; mine must decrease. His influence must increase; mine must decrease.
No one remembers the best man, right? Are you ok with being forgotten like that? Are you not only ok with it, but could you rejoice in it, like John did? Can you say with him that it is your desire for Christ to increase, but for you to decrease? Pastor Ray Ortlund pointed out on this passage that we often want to say it like this: “He must increase; and then I will increase too.” If you’re a Christian, of course you want Jesus to increase, but we also kinda hope we’ll increase too, that people will respect us more, that we’ll get more popularity through following Jesus, perhaps even that by following Jesus we’ll get a spouse or greater success in our careers, and at least that our neighbors will consider us the “cool” kinds of Christians, not the lame fundamentalist types.
But John the Baptist doesn’t leave us the option that Jesus must increase and I must too. This is a rising tide that can’t raise all ships, because in the end, people can only serve one Master. In John the Baptist’s case that was especially literal in that he had a unique, preparatory role for Christ, such that Jesus’ platform now must increase, and his platform also must decrease. But in the end, it’s true for us too: People can’t ultimately give you attention and give Jesus attention at the same time. If you leave here today and the main thing you think about is how nice the building is, how talented the musicians are, or even, I suppose it’s possible, how good of a public speaker the preacher is, those are all thoughts you aren’t giving to Jesus. Which means if we as Christians are to be faithful to our part in the story, this has to be the cry of our heart: He must increase; I must decrease. Because there will be times when pointing to Christ as John the Baptist did will not increase your popularity at all, and there will even be times when it will make people like you less. But if Jesus’ glory is what we’re ultimately after, we can not only accept that; we can rejoice in it.
If you notice you’re lacking joy as a Christian, could it be because you’ve lost sight of your place in this story? If you look at the places in your life where you lack joy, you’re likely to find the places in your life where you must decrease. I know when I’m feeling sorry for myself, it’s often because someone doesn’t like me, or people aren’t giving me the attention I crave. If you notice yourself getting really flustered when you see someone else getting attention, doesn’t that reveal how much you crave attention? The Bible calls that pride, and pride is the enemy of joy. It leaves you always posturing, always wondering, always insecure, never content with the measure of attention you’re receiving. But what if, instead of tying your joy to the attention you’re getting, you tied your joy to the attention Jesus is getting?
If you did that, on the one hand, you would have frequent cause to lament. The Psalmist said to God, “My eyes shed streams of tears, because people do not keep your law” (Psalm 119:136). But you’d also have ample cause to rejoice. You’d not only be ok with other churches growing or people in your church growing, you’d rejoice in it! You’d not only be able to stomach going unnoticed; you’d rejoice in it! And I’ve seen this in people in our church. I think of Kim, who oversees our media team, the team who makes sure lyrics and corporate prayers are on display for us to sing and say together on Sundays. Aside from a few people on that team, nobody sees the work she puts in for our church. And why does she do it? She likes the fact that Jesus gets glory from our worship gatherings. She likes that people are singing to him and hearing His Word. She wants Him to increase, even though it means she decreases, and I know she wants that because I see her joy when I talk to her here on Sundays.
But not only must we decrease; all others we might be prone to follow must decrease. The church is Jesus’ bride; are we going to the true groom? Perhaps you’ve been to a wedding where the best man really tried to steal the show with his toast. That’s awkward, right? But how much more offensive would it be if a bride walked down the aisle and stared lovingly into the eyes of the best man? And yet, how many of us are controlled by what others think of us, instead of being controlled by what Jesus thinks of us, and being concerned with what they think of Jesus? Whose influence in your life needs to decrease, so Jesus’ can increase? How can the voices of others become less significant? How can you begin to rejoice in the increase of Jesus’ glory, even though it must also decrease your own? Beating yourself up about your failure to do so won’t change you. It only happens as Jesus increases in your heart, and that happens as you see that He is above all.
He’s above all
Verse 31 begins to explain further why Jesus must increase, and John the Baptist must decrease. Jesus is the one who comes from above, whereas he who is of the earth belongs to the earth and speaks in an earthly way. It’s not a bad thing to be of the earth; John the Baptist was born of the earth and said true things. But they were earthly things. Jesus brings a superior revelation from heaven, because He’s the only one who’s been there. When we get church envy, what are we envying? That people are going to one group of people of the earth rather than ours? Why should that matter as long as they’re ultimately going to the one who comes from above? When we crave attention, we’re calling people to pay attention to someone who is merely of the earth, rather than the one who comes above. When we are controlled by the opinions of others, we’re letting ourselves be controlled by mere earthlings, rather than the one who comes from above. I was speaking with a friend recently who was involved in the Christian hip hop scene in its early days, and he told me back then he looked up to so many of the rappers for the way they proclaimed Christ in hip hop culture. But as he spent more time with them, he realized they were humans with flaws like anyone else, and it enabled him to be less controlled by what they thought of him. It didn’t make him critical or jaded; it was just a realization that there’s only one who is from above, and He is above all.
When He bears witness, He bears witness to what He has seen and heard, yet no one receives His testimony, verse 32. Whoever does, though, sets his seal to this, that God is true, because He whom God sent utters the words of God. Think about that. There is no other human about whom you can say this. Humans may utter the words of God sometimes, like when we read aloud from the Bible, or when a preacher interprets and applies it rightly, but about no one can we make this general statement: He utters the words of God. Yet every word Jesus uttered was the Word of God, because God gave Him the Spirit without measure. John the Baptist testified earlier in the Gospel of John that he saw the Spirit descend and remain on Jesus. Throughout the Bible, God sends His Spirit upon His anointed messengers, but He does so with a certain measure. Saul received the Spirit for a measure of time to serve as king, but then God removed His Spirit from Saul. The prophets received a measure of the Spirit to speak the words of God in their time. The authors of Scripture received a measure of the Spirit to write down the words of God as they wrote. Ephesians 4 even says every Christian has been given grace according to the measure of Christ’s gift; every Christian has the power now to speak the truth in love to one another.
But only Jesus has the Spirit without measure. Only of Him can we know that everything He says is the Word of God. He is all Spirit, no sinful flesh. His is the one platform worthy of infinite increase, the one platform that won’t be abused or prove hollow. There’s a popular podcast out about the rise and fall of what used to be a large church in Seattle, where the pastor built a large platform, and it didn’t end well. Because while he did utter some words of God, there was plenty of flesh in there too. It should make us a bit nervous when one Christian personality is getting really big, or if we begin to notice that one individual on earth’s voice has massive sway over us. There is only one individual with whom that is safe, and that’s Jesus. Only He received the Spirit without measure, and only of Him can we say that every word He utters is the Word of God. You need to be able to look at everyone else, including the mirror, and say from the heart: Jesus is above you. And because He is, He is also, finally, the only way to life.
He’s the only way to eternal life
So verse 35 tells us that not only has the Father given the Son the Spirit without measure, but the Father so loves the Son that He has given all things into His hand. In other places in John we’ll see that the Father has granted the Son to have life in Himself. It makes sense, then, that He’s the only one who can give us life. In giving all things to the Son, that means there is nothing that God kept back to give to someone else, like John the Baptist, or like you and me. So it’s not just that whoever believes in the Son has eternal life, as the first part of verse 36 says, but that whoever does not obey the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God remains on Him. The Father has given all things to the Son; if you do not believe in Him, it doesn’t matter whether you follow John the Baptist or if everyone else of the earth thinks you’re great. Eternal life is not in them.
So do you see how much it matters whether Christ increases or someone else does? There are only two possible eternal positions that this verse allows for any human, and they turn on where one stands with Jesus. Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life. Whoever does not obey the Son: The wrath of God remains on them. By the way, notice that the contrast to believing in this verse is not unbelief; it’s disobedience. Throughout John we’re going to see that we’re saved by faith alone apart from our obedience, and sincere faith always leads to obedience. So if you claim to believe but don’t obey Jesus, you shall not see life. Notice also that to not see life doesn’t just mean you die. It means the wrath of God remains on you. It was already there, and it will remain even after you die.
Why was it already there? Because from birth each of us has loved ourselves more than we’ve loved God and others. As a result, we’ve craved the attention that only rightly belongs to God, and have used others to get it rather than offering ourselves to God to serve Him and them. And how could God not be wrathful toward that? Now when you think of the wrath of God, don’t think of erratic human wrath. God is perfect and unchangeable; He doesn’t just get set off in an instant. So the great theologian Geerhardus Vos says the wrath of God is “not a sudden surge of passion but an evenly strong yet lasting and rational impulse of God’s holy will.” In other words, God wills to judge evil because He is just, and His justice moves Him against evil in a way that is best expressed by the word wrath. If you were to see a child being abused, something in you would probably move in you to want the abuser stopped and brought to justice, and it would probably feel like wrath. The idea here is that is an image of God’s justice, which acts in an evenly strong and rational manner against all sin.
And, we are sinners. Each of us, then, sits under the wrath of God by nature, and unless we believe in the Son, that wrath will remain on us. However, the God of wrath is the same God who gave His Son for the world. On the cross, Christ suffered under the wrath of God for the sins of whoever would believe in Him, and it is only through faith in Him that the wrath of God will thereby cease to remain on them. He is now above all once again because He has risen from the dead to eternal life with the Father in heaven, and whoever believes in Him not only will receive that eternal life in the future, but has it now. Notice again the present tense of verse 36: Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life. Believe in the Son today, and you have eternal life.
But we can’t say that about John the Baptist. That’s why he must decrease, and Christ must increase. We can’t say that about ourselves. Trying to get people to pay attention to you isn’t helping them. You can’t save them! There are only two possible positions in which they can stand: Either they have life, or the wrath of God remains on them, and the difference between them will not be what they think of you. It will be whether they believe in the Son. And so who cares whether their faith comes and is nurtured through you, or through our church, or through another church? And who cares, ultimately, what people think of you? On judgment day God isn’t going to ask you for a couple references. He’s not going to say, “Well now what does your boss think of you, or your neighbors, or your co-workers, or even your pastors?” He’s going to say, “Do you believe in my Son?” Even now, nothing matters more. He’s the true groom, He’s above all, and life comes only through Him. Our greatest joy will come as He increases; don’t let anyone else get in the way, not even yourself.