"He must increase, but I must decrease."
This is the famous statement from John the Baptist. People were beginning to leave John and flock to Jesus. Someone came to John the Baptist and said, "Rabbi, he who was with you across the Jordan, to whom you bore witness--look, he is baptizing, and all are going to him." When John is confronted with the reality that he is beginning to lose influence and no longer has the largest audience in town, he simply states that Christ must increase while John himself must decrease.
John the Baptist had a specific ministry to prepare the way for Jesus. He preached, confronted, and called people to repentance. He ministered in the spirit of Elijah, and was used by God to make clear that Jesus was the Christ who had come to bring salvation. John 1:29 records John seeing the Lord and exclaiming, “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!"
John was no slouch. He was powerful, bold, and courageous. In fact, Jesus Himself said of him, "Truly, I say to you, among those born of women there has arisen no one greater than John the Baptist" (Matthew 11:11). What an amazing compliment!
The words of Jesus about John makes John's statement all the more amazing!
First, John the Baptist says "He must increase." Fair enough! My guess is most of us do not struggle with wanting to magnify Christ. We want to see people come to faith in Christ. We rejoice when someone is converted and baptized. Christians get excited to witness the evidence of the grace of God moving through a congregation, a city, and in times of genuine revival, perhaps even a country. I believe we truly want to see Christ increase.
Yet, do not miss the second half of John's statement. He goes on to say, "I must decrease." John must get smaller. I am convinced THIS is where we struggle. While believers truly want to see Christ increase, are we willing to decrease?
It has been said that a majority of Christians do indeed want to see Christ increase, but would prefer for themselves to increase as well. Not that we desire to be elevated above Christ, but maybe Christ could increase ten times over and we could increase only eight. That way, Christ is still the one getting the most glory and the most notoriety, but hey, as long as Jesus is increasing, wouldn't it be good for us to get more attention as well?
John the Baptist did not simply say that Jesus needed to be elevated; he added that as Christ is magnified, John himself would decrease. This is not simply a matter of lifting high the name of Christ, it is at the same time, an issue of seeking to become less. Now THAT is a challenge.
As I have meditated on this statement, I confess my first thought was how much harder it must have been for John to seek to decrease when he was called "the greatest born of women." Then it hit me. It was his humility that made him great. It was his understanding and acceptance of his role that made him powerful. The reason he was so great in the eyes of Jesus was not simply the power of his preaching or the magnitude of his influence. It was his desire to point people to Jesus. It was his life's aim to shine the light continually away from himself so that people would see Christ.
In fact, it was the mission of John the Baptist to gather a large following FOR THE PURPOSE of losing them. His role was to gain an audience so that when it was time for Christ to enter the stage, John could slip off stage and leave his audience to listen to Jesus. It is one thing to go through life without a large following. It is something else to have had it and then lost it. John fully accepted this and in so doing, Christ became greater and John became less.
Let's be clear. John the Baptist did not simply disappear into obscurity. It was worse than that. He was imprisoned and faced a brutal end to his life. Matthew 14:9-11 records, "And the king was sorry, but because of his oaths and his guests he commanded it to be given. He sent and had John beheaded in the prison, and his head was brought on a platter and given to the girl, and she brought it to her mother."
I think it would be fairly easy for us to accept our role if God were to say: "I want you to make much of my Son, Jesus Christ, and tell others about Him. Make Christ the focus of your life. As you do so, I will bless you with a great reputation, fame and prestige, money and cars. Now, you will never be as big as Jesus, but you will have more than you ever imagined as you make Christ increase." We would all jump out of our chair to volunteer for such a mission.
What if the call of God was different? What if it was given to you to make much of Christ and for you to decrease? To be completely ignored? To be hated and reviled? To have no earthly treasures as a recompense of what you have done? Now we understand why the words of John were so powerful. Christ must increase AND we must decrease. Of course, not every servant of Christ has his head severed from his body. In fact, some who magnify Christ do receive earthly recognition. But, if that is the reason we are doing it, we fail to truly live out the words of John 3:30.
May we be willing to make much of Christ in all we do and as we do so, may we not seek any earthly gain or prize. May we be like John the Baptist and have our humility set the pace for how we live. I am praying that we could embrace a life of ever-increasing our light to shine so people see Christ. Yet, as we do so, may we be willing to become less. So much so, that people hear our teaching, witness our sermons, read our notes, and listen to our conversations, and be so impressed with Jesus, that they do not even notice us.
Easier said than done. Oh God, may you make us love You so sincerely, that anything that would dare get in the way of people seeing You would be removed. May you increase and may we decrease.