The Expository Files


“He Must Increase, But I Must Decrease”
John 3:30

The water coolers of the ancient world were abuzz. “Have you heard about that crazy desert preacher?” “ I hear he lives on bugs!” “I hear he called the Pharisees a brood of vipers!” “Do you think it could be the prophet—or Elijah resurrected?” John the Baptist caused quite a stir in his time, and developed quite a following. His preaching was startling, convicting, passionate. Even Jesus said, “Assuredly, I say to you, among those born of women there has not risen one greater than John the Baptist”(Matt 11:11).

Yet since John’s mission was to go before Jesus and prepare the way for Him (Mark 1:2-3), the time came when John needed to fade into the background of the Bible story and allow Jesus His place. It is with considerable grace and humility that John says, “He must increase, but I must decrease”(John 3:30). What can we learn from this statement?

First, permanent inferiority is OK! John always was, and forever will be, inferior to Jesus—and he was perfectly comfortable with this! With all his notoriety, John never deviated from this simple message: “I indeed baptize you with water unto repentance, but He who is coming after me is mightier than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire”(Matt 3:11). John had no pretensions of greater glory than the coming Christ. The Pharisees sent a list of questions to John—whether he was the prophet, or the Christ, or Elijah resurrected—and John never rashly agreed to any inaccurate designation (John 1:19-26). John knew who he was—and that he was inferior to Jesus—and that didn’t bother him. Instead, “He must increase, but I must decrease” reflects a mindset of complete humility in the face of one greater. It is OK for us to not be first, most popular, best looking, most intelligent, or most notable—even permanently!

John shows us that passing the torch is natural—yet still requires humility. “He must increase, but I must decrease” is the thought of each passing generation of God’s leaders who are looking to the future of Christ’s cause. It was the thought of Moses preparing Joshua, and David preparing Solomon, and Paul preparing Timothy and Titus. Yet we should never think that the need for a new generation to take the reins of leadership in God’s work means that relinquishing those reins is easy for a generation accustomed to them! We desperately need the humility to say that we are not as important as the fate of a local church, or the development of leaders in worship and preaching, or the confidence of young believers. Let us promote and encourage them, acknowledging that they must increase, and I must decrease.

John reminds us that the gospel is more important than any one person. Surely his followers warned him to be quiet about Herod’s adulterous marriage (Matt 14:4) so that he could stay out of trouble and keep preaching—yet the gospel was more important than what happened to John. Further, consider what might have happened had John not stepped aside for Jesus—a power struggle, competing teachers and disciples, and a prevention of many disciples from coming to Jesus. Yet John ceding to Jesus allowed Jesus to say, “Assuredly, I say to you, among those born of women there has not risen one greater than John the Baptist; but he who is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he”(Matt 11:11). The gospel can make us greater than we could ever be on our own—and John’s stepping aside allowed that gospel to come in its full power. We may advance the gospel, or detract from its advance—yet it remains far bigger than we are! We must guard against an inflated sense of self in spiritual matters!

“He must increase, but I must decrease” is a distillation of a humble heart. Are we pursuing this humility?

By Jacob Hudgins 
From Expository Files 16.12; December 2009