He Must Increase, But I Must Decrease

All of us want to finish well. But so many of us do not. Why? Because we too easily cherish our roles in the Great Wedding more than the wedding itself. Which is why John the Baptist1 must become our mentor.

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It was all a bit hard to comprehend.

John’s disciples had understood his mission. He had come to prepare the way for the Hope of Israel. It had been thrilling. The long-expected time was so close — that climactic day when Jesus appeared and John publicly proclaimed him the Messiah. The wonder could yield no words.

But they hadn’t expected to feel marginalized by it.

The past year had been a heady one. John had blazed across Judea like a shooting star, the first real prophet in Israel for four centuries. All eyes had been on him from king to peasant. And he called them all to account, including the self-righteous Pharisees. When John spoke God moved and people repented and were baptized. No one had spoken like this man. From all over Palestine people had flocked to hear him. The oppressed, weary people of God, living under Tiberius’s thumb and Antipas’s corruption, had hope again. These disciples had seen revival. And they had been in the middle of it.

Then abruptly they weren’t. The surge had moved past them toward Jesus. Of course, it was wrong to be envious of the Messiah. But still, how could their beloved rabbi — and they with him — suddenly be relegated to the periphery after all that God had done through them?

They couldn’t help but express their perplexity to him: “Rabbi, he who was with you across the Jordan, to whom you bore witness — look, he is baptizing, and all are going to him.”

John, who had been staring at the water, turned his intense eyes to them. They were filled with joy.

He said nothing for a moment. He felt compassion for them. He understood. He knew their inner conflict. He knew their sincere godly ambition for the kingdom. And he knew their selfish ambition to have prominent roles in it. He knew how the latter insidiously wove itself into the fabric of the former and how difficult it could be to discern one from the other. This was a moment of sifting for them, of heart-exposure.

He had spent a lifetime being prepared for his brief ministry of introduction. Those years in the wilderness God had worked him over, ruthlessly laying bare his deeply entrenched and multifaceted pride and training him to die to it. This discipline had brought about the peaceful fruit of the righteousness of faith. He had learned to anticipate his Replacement more than his own prophesied prophetic role. He had learned to love the Bridegroom’s appearing and not love the celebrity of being the Bridegroom’s best man. But that had not come easily.

Learning to love the Great Wedding more than their part in it would not come easily to them either. He knew they loved the Bridegroom. But they were just learning that when the blessed Lord grants one a role to play, one must perform it faithfully, but never grasp it. For the Lord also takes away. The role is not the reward. The Lord is the Reward.

With affectionate empathy John replied, “A person cannot receive even one thing unless it is given him from heaven.” He waved them to sit down beside him. “You yourselves bear me witness that I said, ‘I am not the Christ,’ but have been sent before him. 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. He must increase, but I must decrease.”

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We must remember that our role is not our reward. Jesus is our reward. Roles will begin and they will end. And the only way for us to end well is if in our heart Jesus has increased and we have decreased.

What rises in your heart at the thought of Jesus giving another a more prominent role in his wedding? How much do you long to have a more prominent one? How well are you prepared to end the role he has given you? What if he gives your role to someone else?

The wedding is not about us. It’s about him. And we never want to compete with the Bridegroom for the bride’s attention and affection.

1This narrative is taken from John 3:25–36.

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Jon Bloom (@Bloom_Jon) is the author of Not by Sight: A Fresh Look at Old Stories of Walking by Faith and serves as the President of Desiring God, which he and John Piper launched together in 1994. He lives in the Twin Cities with his wife, Pam, their five children, and one naughty dog.