“He must increase, but I must decrease.” ~ John the Baptist
From Pastor Thomas Kruggel
Seven words…. that’s all. Short, simple and straightforward, yet profound, poignant and penetrating. I think my little six year old Poppy could read them, but I’m not sure that even Einstein himself could fully decipher them. This declaration spoken from Jesus’ lifelong relative (and “friend of the bridegroom” ) thousands of years ago, and even preached from our own pulpit just months ago, has mystified me from the day I first breathed divine air. Even today, dozens of years later, I cannot read these words without them stopping me dead in my tracks. Their meaning, their applicability… what are they for me, for us?
This guy (John the Baptist) was seemingly impetuous. He had “fire-in-his-belly”, fueling “fire” from his mouth. John called it like he saw it, he didn’t mince words. He was considered an enigma, a freak, eating strange food and wearing odd clothing, yet multitudes flocked to him. Why some even said, “He has a demon!” (Matthew 11:18b) On the other hand, John was a servant, humble, self-effacing, honorable, and merely saw himself as a needle that pointed away and toward another. His courage, passion and conviction landed him in prison, leading to his head being dished up on a platter. Contrastingly, the guilty hands stained by his blood represented everything John did not.
Just before his gruesome death, and right at the climax of his truncated “career”, the tables turned for John. The throngs that were magnetized by him ricochet to another. It just so happened to be toward the one John called “… the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1:29b), the one John was all along straight up about. John was always adamant about making it crystal clear that it was never about him, that he was not the Christ – not even close. So it only seems natural in one sense that John would simply say (when Jesus showed up on the scene) that the time had come for the one he’d been talking about all this time to rise up and for him to step aside.
Part of me sort of just wants to stop there and say to myself, “Oh, I get it. Of course Jesus the Christ must increase and John the trumpeter must decrease”, and leave it at that. But ripples still pulsate in the glassy pools of my heart. Could it be that some greater relevance is accessible for me and for us too? Can John’s desire also be mine and ours even though we’re not the one “crying in the wilderness” (John 1:23)? “Please God, let it be so.”
We’re separated now by space and time but, as radical and stanch as John was, we still share much alike. Our spiritual heritage is identical, and our godly ancestral position equal (cf. Ephesians 2:1-3, Galatians 3:26). He doubted as we do, but is loved as we are (cf. Luke 7:20, John 3:16). His temptations were common, with his hope and belief the same as us (cf. I Corinthians 10:13, Romans 4:23-25). And the ultimate need to be rescued from his nature, like ours, remains unchanged today. His innate desire to be for himself what only Jesus could appease was (and is) identical for all mankind– to elevate and honor ourselves above our Creator. This is why and what John bellowed from the riverbanks. What he harkened unto the crowds he harkened unto himself, and then he symbolically cleansed with water those who recognized their need to be brought low that a Savior might be high.
Sound all too familiar? Probably, especially if you’ve been a follower of Jesus or attending Grace Bible Church for quite some time. This is the essence of what we call good, great news, and we Christians talk about it all the time. But I sometimes get discouraged after all these years because my desire to be prominent and renowned can still take precedence over lauding Jesus. It happens when I want to be first in a competition that others might see my prowess, or when I advance in my vocation to be held in superior status, or when I have more facebook friends than another that my popularity might be on display, or when I blog so that others might think I’m profound, or when I worship with exuberance that my passion might be distinguished, or when I raise three children and adopt three others that my sacrifice might be flattered, or even when I write this newsletter article that my contribution might be complimented. These inklings stream through my veins. I want to increase, even though I know all too well that what John said earlier is right, “A man can receive nothing, unless it has been given him from heaven.” (John 3:27) Crazy thing is I sometimes don’t even know how to shift the honor due Him toward Him. Please don’t tell me I’m alone.
In a way, John’s fame was greater than Jesus’ before He “officially” stepped into the foreground. John had just about everyone’s ear – from the commoner to the highest ranking officials. Surely he faced the lure of self-promotion and aggrandizement square in the eyes. Yet he yielded all of who he was to Jesus. And John went even further, wholly surrendering that Jesus “must” increase and, conversely, he “must” decrease. It’s imperative, it’s the quintessence of being Christian, and it’s the consistent message he’d been saying from the beginning. John was never described as desiring anything but that Jesus be amplified and John abridged. He saw himself but as only a voice, just a voice. In fact, John considered himself to be so insignificant he wasn’t worthy to perform even the lowliest of all slave labor tasks – loosening the ties of the Master’s sandals (cf. Mark 1:7). “But how, John? How?”
In the natural realm, for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction (Newton’s Third Law). When a force is exerted upon an object, a counterpart force is exerted in the opposing direction. In the supernatural realm, for every exaltation there is an opposite humiliation. When someone genuinely deflects adulation to another, a counterpart resignation is accepted by that someone. And for anyone to increase and the other to decrease, there simply must be a relative comparison to another, otherwise how would anyone be higher or lower if there wasn’t someone, something to measure against?
Nowhere is it recorded that John measured himself against another human being. On the contrary, it appears he couldn’t have cared less how he stacked up alongside another, and that would be everyone, except one – the One, Jesus. And in this case, John demanded that he himself only be brought lower that Jesus might be brought higher. The irony of it all is that the One John wanted to elevate had to become the lowest that we all might be united with the Highest. “… the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world” was also “the Lamb that was slain” (Revelation 5:12). And “the Lamb that was slain” descended that He might ascend “far above all the heavens” (Ephesians 4:10), where He is now preparing a high place for us (cf. John 14:2-3).
We’ve come full circle, and so it is here I (we) must stop, and it is here where I (we) should always stop – at the cross, at the good, great news. All of life always boils down to this. With Jesus now in our foreground, we plainly cannot be focused on two objects at one and the same time. The object of myself, ourselves, or another simply must, and will, decrease as the object of Himself increases.
He must increase, but I (we) must decrease.
Tom is one of our vocational pastors. He teaches our Getting Acquainted with Grace Class and leads our Sunday morning prayer meetings.