John the Baptist: “He must increase; but I must decrease.”
© 2021 C. O. Bishop
John 3:22-36 (Compare John 1:6-8, 19-34, 36; Luke 1:12-17, 67-80)
As we study through the first few chapters of the Gospel of John, the prophet John the Baptist shows up several times. Taken as a whole, the scriptures that involve him tell us something about his character. Over in Luke 1:12-17, we are told why he had that character: He was filled with the Holy Spirit from his mother’s womb…before he was born. And that state continued through his whole life. In John the Baptist, though we are told very little about him, we can see what a spirit-filled life looks like. There are many other examples, of course, but in John the Baptist, we see some specific traits that could easily be missed in some of the other accounts.
Who is John the Baptist?
John the Apostle introduced him simply as “a man sent from God, whose name was John.”
Luke gives the full background, including the miraculous intervention by God, to bring about his birth, and the fact that he is Jesus’s cousin, and approximately six months older than Jesus. But it concludes that he was growing strong in spirit, and lived in the desert until the time when he was to be shown to Israel.
One of the prophecies concerning this man (Luke 1:17) was that he would going before God “…in the spirit and power of Elijah, to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.” There were a lot of specific prophecies, including the fact that he would not drink wine nor strong drink. So, neither the ordinary wine, of which virtually everyone partook, nor the stronger liquors which were also common. But when he was revealed to Israel, (Matthew 3:4) he was eating a very strict diet, limited apparently to locusts (what we call grasshoppers) and wild honey…and water, evidently. (And, because of his diet, his detractors accused him of being demon-possessed.) He was dressed oddly, too—in camel hair, with a crude leather belt…one passage just says a hide belt. (Camel hair was not seen as a luxury item in those days: this was not a “camel-hair suit.”)
John came as a forerunner for Jesus the King: a herald. He announced the coming Messianic Kingdom, reiterating the Holiness, Righteousness and Judgment of God, and warning those who hoped to enter into God’s kingdom to behave accordingly. Those who believed and agreed with his message, he baptized in the Jordan, as a sign of their identification with the coming King. (That is what baptism is about: it is for identification.)
But, like many thrilling and convicting messages, as people flocked to the messenger, it became a “movement” and others came, just to be seen as part of the movement. John recognized them for who they were, and called them out on their hypocrisy, warning them that their lives had better match what they were claiming to believe! (Matthew 3:7-12) He warned that while he himself only baptized with water, the one who was to come after him would “baptize with the Holy Spirit and with fire.” We frequently ignore the rest of the passage, where he specifies that the fire to which he refers is hell-fire. The believers would eventually be baptized with the Holy Ghost at Pentecost: those who proved to be His enemies would end up in unquenchable fire. This has nothing to do with the “cloven tongues” that looked like fire, landing on the disciples at Pentecost. John was warning of eternal damnation for those who defied the coming King. There is no mistaking his intent in that message, unless we ignore the latter half.
What Sort of Man was John?
It would be easy to see John as a real “fire-and-brimstone preacher…” and, in a sense, he was just that. But he also gave some sound teaching, all within the context of the coming Messianic Kingdom, which both he and Jesus preached. John preached it until he was executed: Jesus, up until the time when Jerusalem rejected Him, accusing Him of serving Satan. After that event, Jesus was headed for the Cross, and He never again offered the kingdom.
The Church was not in view, and it was not revealed in its fulness until more than eight years after His ascension. But by the end of the book of Acts, the Church was well established, and in the book of Ephesians the doctrine is clearly spelled out, and is rather pointedly said to have not been known by any of the Old Testament Prophets. (Ephesians 3:8-12)
So, John was the last of the Old Testament prophets, as Jesus and John both lived out their entire lives under the Law…the Old Covenant. (Jesus said that the New Covenant was the Covenant in His Blood: so, it began after His death, and from a practical viewpoint, it began on the day of Pentecost.)
We see John as a “fire-breather” because of how he confronted the Pharisees and Sadducees, and again, later, as he confronted Herod the tetrarch. But if we look at how he talked to the ordinary people, he seems quite down to earth: He told them to share with one another, care for the poor, don’t cheat other people, don’t abuse your authority.
Even the soldiers, he only told to be satisfied with their wages and to not abuse their authority. Same to the tax-collectors. These both were unpopular people in that society: The soldiers were the “law-enforcement” of that day, and the tax-collectors the IRS of that day. Things haven’t changed a lot: the average person still thinks evil of such government agents. But John gave them sound counsel: he did not tell them to quit their jobs, but only to do their jobs honestly and not to abuse their positions.
One result of his sound teaching (and his prophecies concerning the coming Kingdom and the coming King) was that people began to jump to the conclusion that perhaps he was that king. (Which is very odd…he had already told them very plainly that the King was someone else!)
So, then they wanted to know whether he was Elijah, since they knew that there was a prophecy that Elijah would come before the great and terrible day of the Lord. And John told them plainly that he was not Elijah, which was perfectly true. (Elijah will come during the great tribulation, just before Jesus returns in Glory. But John is John.)
John made no special claims regarding himself. He did not attract attention to himself except as he spoke and acted to direct people’s attention to the Messiah. He claimed nothing for himself, declaring that he himself was not worthy to untie the sandals of the coming King, nor even to carry his shoes.
He sought no glory for himself. When he eventually rebuked Herod for taking his sister-in-law as his wife, Herod shut him up in prison. We can’t be sure what Herod would have done, but we do know that eventually, he put himself in a position where he felt obliged to have John executed.
From prison, John began to wonder about the ministry of Jesus, whether He really was the Messiah: (Luke 7:19-23) So, he sent messengers to ask. Jesus had them hang around and watch: He cast out demons, healed the sick, and preached to the common people…the poor. Then he told the messengers to go on back and tell John what they had seen: He knew that the fulfilled prophecies would answer John’s questions more fully than a simple “Yes!”
What was the nature of John’s ministry, as compared to that of Jesus?
Initially, John’s ministry drew a lot of attention, just as it was intended to do: People publicly confessed their sins and were baptized in repentance, choosing to believe his message. When Jesus arrived, and was baptized by John, John knew who He was for the first time: John did not want to baptize Jesus, and protested that he himself needed to be baptized by Jesus. Jesus told him, “Allow it to be so for now, that we may fulfill all righteousness.” Jesus needed to be identified with the message of John, because John preached the coming Kingdom, and Jesus was the King!
John was completely humble: his ministry was designed to be eclipsed by that of Jesus. So, when he pointed out Jesus to the crowd (more than six weeks later, after Jesus’s fasting in the desert) he said, “Behold the Lamb of God which taketh away the sins of the World!” He did not say anything to connect himself to Jesus, even, or try to “share some of the spotlight,” so to speak: He simply pointed people to Jesus.
The day after he had announced Jesus to the crowd, he gently “nudged” two of his own disciples, directing their attention again to Jesus. They responded by leaving John the Baptist, to follow Jesus. In this matter alone, we begin to see what it means to be a man filled with the Holy Spirit: Over in John 16:13, 14, we see that the Holy Spirit does not speak of himself, but speaks to glorify Jesus. So, John the Baptist, under the direct influence of the Holy Spirit, behaved just as the Holy Spirit behaves: He glorified Jesus, and directed others to Him!
Very few modern preachers would willingly turn their own proteges away, to deliberately send them to follow someone else. But John did exactly that, and then continued his preaching of the coming kingdom.
Was there a Conflict? No!
But the time came when Jesus’s ministry began to overshadow John’s ministry. John’s protégé’s were offended for his sake, evidently, as they came and told him that Jesus was baptizing more people than John was (although the scripture points out that Jesus Himself was not baptizing at all—his disciples were.)
John 3:22-36 tells us the rest of the story:
22 After these things came Jesus and his disciples into the land of Judaea; and there he tarried with them, and baptized. 23 And John also was baptizing in Aenon near to Salim, because there was much water there: and they came, and were baptized. 24 For John was not yet cast into prison. 25 Then there arose a question between some of John’s disciples and the Jews about purifying. 26 And they came unto John, and said unto him, Rabbi, he that was with thee beyond Jordan, to whom thou barest witness, behold, the same baptizeth, and all men come to him. 27 John answered and said, A man can receive nothing, except it be given him from heaven. 28 Ye yourselves bear me witness, that I said, I am not the Christ, but that I am sent before him. 29 He that hath the bride is the bridegroom: but the friend of the bridegroom, which standeth and heareth him, rejoiceth greatly because of the bridegroom’s voice: this my joy therefore is fulfilled. 30 He must increase, but I must decrease. 31 He that cometh from above is above all: he that is of the earth is earthly, and speaketh of the earth: he that cometh from heaven is above all. 32 And what he hath seen and heard, that he testifieth; and no man receiveth his testimony. 33 He that hath received his testimony hath set to his seal that God is true. 34 For he whom God hath sent speaketh the words of God: for God giveth not the Spirit by measure unto him. 35 The Father loveth the Son, and hath given all things into his hand. 36 He that believeth on the Son hath everlasting life: and he that believeth not the Son shall not see life; but the wrath of God abideth on him.
Remember, this is John the Baptist telling his own disciples the difference between himself and Jesus. Apparently, thus far not all of them had understood.
Verse 30 is the key verse, here: “He must increase, but I must decrease.” That is actually the key to the life of a disciple of Christ! It is not about you or me: it is about Jesus! The less people see of “Me,” and the more people see of Jesus, the better my service will be.
John had a ministry similar to that of a comet: A comet is there in the sky, temporarily, reflecting the light of the sun, and catching the attention of all the people of the earth, as a rule…and it passes rather quickly, and then, after a few days, it is gone. But the Sun continues to shine.
John reflected the light of the Son of God, for a short time, and some were attracted to him alone, not recognizing that He only reflected light. John 1:7, 8 clearly says that “John himself was not the light, but he bore witness of the light.” And John verbally confirmed this truth on several occasions. Some of his disciples eventually transitioned to become believers in Jesus. Some (including the Pharisees and Sadducees, whom John had warned about being fakes) probably did not. It is relatively easy to join a movement, join a church, go to meetings, sing songs, pray prayers, etc. and to fool people around you. That is what the Pharisees and Sadducees were doing.
But there are no counterfeits in the Body of Christ, proper: the Holy Spirit sees our hearts, and takes the believer at the moment of faith, and plants them in the Body of Christ. It is impossible to fool the Holy Spirit: He is God! He knows our hearts. No one fools God!
John called his disciples to bear witness, saying “Remember, I said ‘I am not the Christ!’” Then he said something really interesting: this is the first mention of the “Bride and the Bridegroom:” He said, “He that hath the Bride is the Bridegroom!” He pointed out that the friend of the bridegroom who stood and heard his voice (we might call him the “best man” today) rejoices to hear His voice. Then he said, “This my joy, therefore, is fulfilled!” His greatest joy was to see the Bride beginning to accumulate to Christ, the Bridegroom! That should be our Joy, as well!
John’s testimony regarding Jesus: (John 3:33-36)
John went on to say that Jesus came from Heaven, and that He testified of what He had seen and heard. He said that those who willingly receive the testimony of Jesus are setting their seal to the fact that God is true. He concluded that whoever believes on the Son has everlasting life (present tense) …and that he who does not believe the Son, not only does not have the life, but shall not see life; but rather, the wrath of God abides upon him!
What a stern warning! And it is exactly what he had said from the beginning. John was completely consistent in his teaching. He always pointed people toward Jesus, and he always told them very plainly the results of belief and of unbelief. He never “sugar-coated” the truth.
We frequently try to persuade people by “sweet words.” Perhaps sometimes that bears fruit, especially with little children: but Jesus did not do that, nor did the Apostles, and John the Baptist certainly did not. Jesus was usually pretty gentle, it is true…but not always. He said very clearly that the way into eternal life was narrow and tight, and that few would enter therein. He went on to say that the way into eternal destruction was broad and easy, and that many would go there.
But I have heard preachers teaching exactly the opposite: One in particular told me, “I always assume people are already saved unless they give me reason to believe otherwise.” Another, from the pulpit, stated that “No one has ever been saved by being told that they are a sinner!”
The fact is: Jesus said, “no one comes to the Father but by me.” That is pretty narrow, all right! And He had already taught that the majority will reject His Grace and be lost. So, why would I ever assume that people were “already saved?” And finally; no one has ever been saved without finding out that they are a sinner: What do you think they are they being saved from?
We need to think carefully about what it is we are telling people. And we need to think carefully about our motivation: If I am attempting to get more people to attend this church, I have wrong motives. If I am attempting to “have a bigger following,” then I have wrong motives. Paul warned the Ephesian elders that leaders would arise within the flock who desire to “draw away disciples after themselves” and “not considering the flock.” We need to point people to Jesus. That is what John the Baptist did, throughout his ministry. We need to maintain the concept that “He must increase, but I must decrease!” Otherwise, the reverse is very likely to occur: We will puff ourselves up, to the dimming of the Cross.
Lord Jesus, we want to direct people’s attention to You: to turn their eyes to You as their Savior and to turn their hearts to You as their Lord. Help us to step out of the way and allow you to pour your grace through us to the dying world so that You can save those who will believe. Cleanse our hearts and make us clean channels for Your Love and Mercy.