In his book The Whole Christ, Sinclair Ferguson notes that many Scottish pulpits once bore the words of John 12:21 on the inside, so that only the preacher could see them. Whenever a pastor stood in such a pulpit, he would find himself confronted with the same words some Greek visitors once spoke to the apostle Philip:
Sir, we wish to see Jesus.
We wish to see Jesus. Deep in their souls, all God’s people wish the same from their pastors. “Sir, would you tell me of Jesus? Would you show me again my King in his beauty? Would you warm my heart with another glimpse of his glory? Would you uncloud the heavens and give me a sight of him?”
And deep in their souls, God’s faithful pastors wish to say yes. Their hearts beat with the famous words of John the Baptist, that prophet of the lifted voice and pointed finger: “He must increase, but I must decrease” (John 3:30). At their best, pastors are matchmakers between the bride of Christ and her glorious Groom.
Yes, at their best. But of course, pastors are not always at their best. Sometimes, a small inner voice suggests, “He must increase, and I must too.”
Alone in the Jordan
Even as a young pastor — with months, not years, of official ministry behind me — I feel this split ambition. At times, the words “he must increase, but I must decrease” burn like holy fire in my bones. And at other times, they just burn.
Maybe, my flesh sometimes proposes, I can show others Jesus while also showing something of myself. Maybe I can win others’ hearts to Christ while also winning their hearts to me. Maybe some of the glory I preach can fall upon my shoulders. But then I take a closer look at the context of John’s words, and I find the rebuke, and the help, I need.
Perhaps you remember the situation. God had given surprising fruit to the ministry of the Baptist, that desert-dwelling, locust-eating prophet. His sermons about the Christ had drawn thousands to his river pulpit in the Jordan. Some Jews wondered if John himself might be the Christ (John 1:19–28).
And then, at the height of the awakening, the crowds leave as quickly as they came, for the Lord, whose way John had been preparing, suddenly appears on the way (John 1:29–31; 3:22). John finds himself knee-deep in the increasingly obscure Jordan of his ministry, the banks once so full of people now nearly bare. His disciples draw the humbling conclusion: “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 3:26).
All are going to him. Moments like these reveal a man’s heart. Has he preached Christ for Christ’s sake, or for the sake of a bustling ministry? Has he counted baptisms for Christ’s kingdom, or for his own? Has he rejoiced to hear others praise Jesus, or praise John?
In words that likewise deserve a place on every pulpit, John leaves no doubt: “He must increase, but I must decrease” (John 3:30).
Heart of the Baptist
To be sure, John spoke these famous words at a unique moment in redemptive history. The age of the Christ had come; therefore, the age of old-covenant prophecy had ended. And when the sun rises, all candles can be blown out (to paraphrase Karl Barth). For John, then, “I must decrease” meant “my ministry of preparing the way must end.”
Yet God requires the same “decrease,” on a spiritual level, from all who have been charged to proclaim “not ourselves but Jesus Christ as Lord” (2 Corinthians 4:5). And in the verses preceding John’s declaration, he opens up his humble, Christ-loving heart to show us where words like his come from.
‘All I Have Is from Above’
A person cannot receive even one thing unless it is given him from heaven. (John 3:27)
John’s first response sounds a note of spiritual realism. The crowds, the baptisms, the confessions of sin, the repentance, the surprising spiritual fruit — all of these were, in John’s eyes, not earned, but “given.” From the start, John knew his ministry was a received ministry, a bestowed ministry, a given ministry. And so, wherever he looked, he could see no good thing that did not bear the label “Gift.”
No pastor today is a prophet like John, but our ministries — small or large — bear the same gracious character; they are all “given . . . from heaven” (see Acts 20:28). All our successes are little Isaacs, children beyond the power of flesh and blood, pointing to the God who “calls into existence the things that do not exist” (Romans 4:17) through the ministries of frail men. And so, Christ must increase.
‘I Am Not the Christ’
You yourselves bear me witness, that I said, “I am not the Christ, but I have been sent before him.” (John 3:28)
During the height of his ministry, John found need to clarify rumors circling on the banks of the Jordan. “He confessed, and did not deny, but confessed, ‘I am not the Christ’” (John 1:20). And now again, he makes the same confession to his disciples, whose words effectively urged him to act like he, not Jesus, was Israel’s Christ.
“In a strange irony, we who preach Christ sometimes can act like we ourselves are the Christ.”
In a strange irony, we who preach Christ sometimes can act like we ourselves are the Christ. Sometimes we consider ourselves indispensable to the mission. Sometimes we hunger for others’ praise as if we ourselves could satisfy a soul. Sometimes we rise early and go late to rest, not from holy zeal, but from a sense that, unless we build the house, the others labor in vain (Psalm 127:1–2).
We may do well, silly as it sounds, to regularly repeat the Baptist’s words to the rumors circling within: “I am not the Christ.” And therefore, I must decrease.
‘The Bridegroom Is My Joy’
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. (John 3:29)
There is more than one kind of must. There is the must of duty: “I must decrease, because Christ deserves prominence.” But there is also the must of delight: “I must decrease, because joy in Christ compels me.” And here we reach the inner chamber of John’s heart, the secret spring of his humility: joy — and not just any joy, but the joy of the bridegroom’s friend.
“Here we reach the inner chamber of John’s heart, the secret spring of his humility: joy.”
The bridegroom’s friend, John tells us, enjoys a peculiar kind of joy: not the joy of attention, but the joy of attention giving. He would rather “stand and hear” the bridegroom’s voice than have ten thousand stand and hear his own. He would rather live unseen in the Jordan, and watch all Galilee, Judea, and Jerusalem stream to Jesus, than draw the crowds to himself. He would rather see the bride’s eyes from the side, as she stares into her Groom’s, than to see them head-on.
“He has obtained the height of his wishes,” John Calvin writes. “He has nothing further to desire, for he sees Christ reigning and people listening to him as he deserves” (Calvin’s New Testament Commentaries, 4:81). To be seen as Christ’s minister, to be heard preaching Christ — these are partial joys, and often tinged with self. But to see others loving Christ, and to hear them worship him — these are full joys, complete joys, the first bells of the coming wedding.
He Must Increase
We would be wrong, of course, to deny that faithful pastors deserve the love and respect of their people. “Esteem them very highly in love because of their work,” Paul tells the Thessalonians (1 Thessalonians 5:13). But a pastor’s “work” is the same as John’s: not the work of winning others to ourselves, but the work of winning them to Jesus. In other words, pastors deserve their people’s esteem only as they help their people esteem Jesus more.
We cannot offer others joy in ourselves. We cannot offer them peace. We cannot offer them forgiveness or hope or rest of heart. But we can offer them Christ. We can preach from the aisle, as it were, leaving the altar clear for the presence of their bridegroom.
And to that deep request in every Christian’s soul — “Sir, we wish to see Jesus” — we can respond, “With all my heart.”