He Must Increase, But I Must Decrease

John 3:22 – 4:3 After this Jesus and his disciples went into the Judean countryside, and he remained there with them and was baptizing. 23 John also was baptizing at Aenon near Salim, because water was plentiful there, and people were coming and being baptized 24 (for John had not yet been put in prison).

25 Now a discussion arose between some of John’s disciples and a Jew over purification. 26 And they came to John and said 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.” 27 John answered, “A person cannot receive even one thing unless it is given him from heaven. 28 You yourselves bear me witness, that I said, ‘I am not the Christ, but I have been sent before him.’ 29 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. 30 He must increase, but I must decrease.”

31 He who comes from above is above all. He who is of the earth belongs to the earth and speaks in an earthly way. He who comes from heaven is above all. 32 He bears witness to what he has seen and heard, yet no one receives his testimony. 33 Whoever receives his testimony sets his seal to this, that God is true. 34 For he whom God has sent utters the words of God, for he gives the Spirit without measure. 35 The Father loves the Son and has given all things into his hand. 36 Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life; whoever does not obey the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God remains on him.

4:1 Now when Jesus learned that the Pharisees had heard that Jesus was making and baptizing more disciples than John 2 (although Jesus himself did not baptize, but only his disciples), 3 he left Judea and departed again for Galilee.

Good morning, happy new year. We’re glad you’re here this morning. If you’re new, we are preaching through John’s gospel.

The purpose of this passage highlights a transition in the story. John the apostle provides a humble transition between the forerunner, John the Baptist and the Messiah. John’s ministry was to bear witness to the light. And now that the light has come, John fades to the background. It’s a sign of humility, but also the expectation that the story of redemption is moving forward with Jesus as the undisputed focus. It’s the promise of even greater and more glorious things awaiting us in John’s gospel.

Imagine a track relay race. The first runner has the baton and as he approaches the second runner, there is an exchange zone where the handoff takes place. They don’t come to a complete stop, hand off and then the second takes off. Instead, the second runner begins running while the first leg comes to the exchange zone. So there is a time when both runners are active. This is the idea of what we see in the first 3 chapters of John’s gospel.

In chapter 1, when we first meet John the Baptist, he is baptizing in the wilderness. Jesus comes and John testifies to Jesus as the Son of God. He baptizes Jesus, and some of John’s disciples become Jesus’ disciples. Both characters appear in the story and there is overlap. We see Jesus call his disciples, turn water to win, cleanse the temple and encounter a Jewish leader named Nicodemus.

Now John the Baptist returns for a final appearance in the book. He’s mentioned again in chapter 5, but not as a character in the story. For John the apostle’s purposes, this is the end of John the Baptist’s ministry.

By the end of our passage Jesus is preeminent. But this is not a mere literary device. This isn’t simply shifting the focus to a different character for the sake of the story. There are other things affected by this exchange. John, the disciple, is using this to point to the greater realities in the story of redemption as well. As we work through our passage, we’ll see a few things of note. First, the humility of John the Baptist. We’ll see how the exchange echoes other transitions in redemptive history and we’ll see ways that Jesus is a far superior witness than any other witness before.

The structure of the passage is what’s called a chiasm. It’s a writing technique used frequently in the Bible. The first idea corresponds to the last, which is why I’m covering the first three verses of chapter 4 as well. Hopefully you can see how they connect. So each idea is mirrored later in the passage, and the purpose is to drive us to the center of the passage. That’s where we’ll spend most of our time, which is his handoff between John the Baptist and Jesus. Would you pray with me that we have the Spirit’s help to understand all that this passage contains?

(Prayer) Father in heaven, we thank you for sending your Son to earth. He is the Word. May we treasure every jot and tittle of your word. May it rule over us and strengthen us. Convict us of any unconfessed sin we might have. May we not take it for granted. Israel experienced a famine of your Word. With our abundance of access to your Word, may we not squander it. May we never ignore it or move on from it. I pray that we would be a church that knows your word. That we would know it far better a year from now than we do today. May dads consistently put the Word before their wives and children. May we be a church who doesn’t just talk about the word, but our lives are formed by the Word. This morning may it humble us in our proud and jealous places. May it point us to the greater glory of Christ. May we be filled with courage and hope as we scatter for our week ahead. Please help me as I preach now. May I faithfully handle this passage, may I be clear with what you want said. May your Spirit quicken our hearts to believe and apply this passage. Amen.

Getting our geographic bearings (22-24)

Let’s look at our passage, beginning with some geography. Both Jesus and his disciples and John the Baptist are near watery places baptizing people. Jesus is in the countryside of Judea, or dare I say, wilderness. This certainly echoes the ministry of John the Baptist. Meanwhile John is in a place called Aenon near Salim.

During the time of Jesus, there are three main regions: Judea in the South, Samaria in the middle, and then Galilee in the northern region. And you have an eastern border comprised of the Dead Sea in the south, the sea of galilee in the north and the Jordan river connects these two seas.

Jesus and his disciples are in the southern region, in Judea. This is probably fairly close to Jerusalem, but near the Jordan River. Aenon and Salim are more difficult to locate. If you have a map in the back of your Bible you might have the cities listed but with question marks. Some think it’s in the north near galilee. There is another thought that Aenon is further south in Judea. It’s not a major point, but when we realize that everything in scripture has significance, I think it’s in the south. I’ll explain a little more later and hopefully you’ll see what I mean. Again, not a major point, it doesn’t affect major doctrines or anything like that.

24 (for John had not yet been put in prison).

In v24 John the apostle adds a little note to the reader about the timeline. He is assuming you have read the other gospels, Matthew, Mark, and Luke. He assumes you are familiar with what happened to John the Baptist. Kids, what happened to John the Baptist? He was arrested and ultimately beheaded by King Herod.

This verse is here to help us understand the timeline in John’s gospel. While John the Baptist’s ministry lasted longer in the other accounts, for the apostle’s purposes, this is the end of John’s ministry. The handoff happened here, not at his arrest or death. And the ultimate fate of John the Baptist looms behind the end of his ministry as well. It’s a subtle marker that the handoff is happening.

The opening for jealousy

John 3:25 Now a discussion arose between some of John’s disciples and a Jew over purification.

We’ve seen this topic of purification in John’s gospel before. The water jars at the wedding at Cana were used for purification rituals. Now there is a Jew who is discussing this topic with John’s disciples. This helps answer the ‘who’ question for our passage. John the Baptist is interacting with Jews, and probably Jews who think they understand the things of God. But it’s quickly clear that they don’t understand things the way that John the Baptist does.

26 And they came to John and said 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.”

In other words, the Jews come up to John the Baptist thinking there is a budding rivalry between these two. Aren’t you worried or threatened by this other guy? After all, you were here first! This guy that you baptized is now drawing bigger crowds than you.

Apparently there were greater numbers going out to see Jesus and his disciples. That could certainly lead to jealousy. If we use the wrong metrics, we can be led to jealousy. Think about church growth or social media likes or other areas of life where we compare numbers. Or maybe it’s getting passed over for a promotion, or your brother getting a bigger slice of cake. If we see things as a competition, we can run into trouble. Especially if we see ourselves as the center of the story.

Back during the Exodus, Moses faced a similar situation. In Numbers 11, the Israelites are still wandering in the wilderness and it’s largely a rough time. The LORD calls for Moses to gather 70 elders outside the camp. God was going to meet with them and pour out his Spirit upon them. And they prophesied. 2 men of the 70 remained in the camp. The Spirit rested on them and they prophesied in the camp.

27 And a young man ran and told Moses, “Eldad and Medad are prophesying in the camp.” 28 And Joshua the son of Nun, the assistant of Moses from his youth, said, “My lord Moses, stop them.”

Again, you can almost hear Joshua exclaiming, ‘Moses! You gotta do something! They’re taking away from you! We gotta make sure we don’t have competition. Aren’t you worried? Aren’t you jealous?’

29 But Moses said to him, “Are you jealous for my sake? Would that all the LORD’S people were prophets, that the LORD would put his Spirit on them!”

Moses wasn’t shaken, because he had a greater perspective than the others. It’s the same perspective that John the Baptist had. Moses wasn’t threatened by people prophesying, because it wasn’t about Moses, and it wasn’t about those people. It was about what God was doing. And John the Baptist had the same understanding as Moses. He responded to the Jews:

27 John answered, “A person cannot receive even one thing unless it is given him from heaven.

The Humble Testimony of John the Baptist (27-30)

John’s response here is filled with humility. There’s definitely an opportunity to defend himself or justify his own ministry. But just like Moses, John the Baptist has a heavenly and humble perspective. There is no rivalry. Jesus isn’t taking John’s glory. John has no glory to be taken. He understands his role as witness. His job is to point to the Messiah, not be the Messiah.

While this is true for all humanity, it was definitely true to the Jews first. Again, it’s important to realize the author is showing that Jesus will come to the Jews, but they won’t understand. And this is part of John the Baptist’s ministry: to warn and even harden Israel. So far in John’s gospel, we’ve seen the Jews miss it in every way. John 1 says Jesus came to his own, and his own people did not receive him. The Pharisees sent representatives to John the Baptist and Jesus, and neither group understood. Jesus cleared the temple, because it was being misused, and also showed that a greater temple was here. And yet they didn’t understand. Nicodemus, a teacher of the Jews didn’t understand.

Some will repent and believe, while many others will try to place their confidence in their Levitical laws, purification rituals, the temple or rabbinic tradition. And because they lack the heavenly perspective that can only come by faith, they will continue to miss it.

John the Baptist continues on in verse 28 by reminding them that he is not the Christ.

In a book filled with I AM statements from the Christ, John the Baptist makes it clear that he is not the Great I AM. ‘I am not the Christ’ he says. His job was as a witness, and he performed his job well. A witness is not the point. A witness sheds light on the point. Even in a courtroom, while sometimes you hear about star witnesses, they are never actually the point. A witness in court is to give their account and contribute to the truth being told. And ultimately for the truth to prevail in the court of law.

Another analogy for a witness is a witness at a wedding. John the Baptist calls himself the friend of the bridegroom, or what we would call the best man. The best man is not the point, the bride and groom are. The friend of the groom in Jewish culture was to prepare everything before the wedding. The point of the best man is to make the groom look good.

When I was younger my room mate from college asked me to be his best man in his wedding. It was the first wedding I had ever been in, and had no real idea what I was supposed to do. But the one thing I knew from movies and TV shows was the toast. So I worked on a good speech. I had jokes. I had props. It was going to be a roast more than a toast. I was ready.

And then a humbling thing happened. My friend’s reception never got around to having speeches. They went straight from food to dancing and then it was over. I was at first disappointed that I didn’t get my moment in the spotlight, but then I soon understood the point, especially after my own wedding: The best man is not the point! I was not the point of the wedding. The wedding of the bride and groom was the point. As I’ve learned what a wedding is for, it is such a different perspective to be part of a wedding. There is real joy at seeing a godly wedding and the honor it is to merely be invited or participate in some way.

John the Baptist is saying that he has this kind of joy over Jesus coming as the groom. Jesus is coming for his bride, and John rejoices at seeing the groom and also rejoices at the knowledge of being included in God’s people.

John’s role is to prepare the way for the groom,

30 He must increase, but I must decrease.”

This is the motto of every Christian, and maybe especially ministers of the gospel. He must increase. That’s my hope and earnest prayer this morning. And I must decrease. This would be a good, simple verse to memorize. Or like Dave might suggest, write it down, write it on your neighbors arm, build a sign over your kitchen table. Maybe that’s your main takeaway this morning. If you remember anything, remember He must increase, but I must decrease.

John the Baptist exemplifies this virtue well. He knew his role, especially in relation to the Lord. His job was to testify to the truth of Jesus, and then fade into the background. Growing up the way John did, he certainly was familiar with the job description of a prophet. It wasn’t glorious, and it wasn’t a cushy job. Hebrews 11 gives a good summary of the prophets. It’s true many did amazing signs and wonders, but it rarely ended well. What’s even more incredible is that he was content to do it. He rejoiced at his role coming to an end.

Sometimes we hear the word humility and we think passivity. That’s not true humility. John the Baptist certainly wasn’t passive. He got after people. He called them a brood of vipers. He rebuked Herod for his wickedness. Humility and boldness are not opposed.

The Baton is Passed (30)

So, we see the humility of John the Baptist, we have heard his testimony, he rejoices at the coming of the bridegroom, which means he’s reached Jesus with the baton. Here is where the baton is passed. And this also picks up on a biblical theme among prophets: Prophetic succession.

Since the time of Moses, and actually before Moses, God has provided the office of prophet. And there are a few times in scripture where there is an exchange to a new prophet. I think that is something that the apostle John picks up on in our passage. This idea of a handoff appears in the Old Testament as well. There are two other significant handoffs that we can see in scripture.

First, Moses to Joshua. We’ve already seen that Joshua was Moses’ assistant, but at the end of Moses’ life, God tells Moses that he will not go into the Promised Land. Instead, the LORD appoints Joshua to succeed Moses and bring the people in to the Promised Land.

Numbers 27:18-20 So, the LORD said to Moses, “Take Joshua the son of Nun, a man in whom is the Spirit, and lay your hand on him. 19 Make him stand before Eleazar the priest and all the congregation, and you shall commission him in their sight. 20 You shall invest him with some of your authority, that all the congregation of the people of Israel may obey.

Moses lays hands on Joshua and it says he invested some of Moses’ authority into Joshua. Again, there is an exchange zone of sorts. There is a divine baton-passing. Moses dies shortly after he commissions Joshua. Moses died in Moab on a mountain where he could see Jericho and then Joshua buried him.

Now Joshua will enter the land. What are the most famous events in Joshua’s life? He crosses the Jordan River and defeats Jericho. From there they win several victories to possess the land.

When you compare the two ministries, there are also some overlaps. Moses’ ministry is a grind. He deals with constant grumbling and the first generation all die in the wilderness. You might summarize Moses’ ministry like this: The people mostly rebel with glimpses of victory.

Joshua sees almost the complete opposite: mostly victory with glimpses of rebellion and frustration. He meets the head of the LORD’s Army, is charged to be strong and courageous and with the second generation of Israel, does in fact take the land.

So, we have an exchange between the leaders of Israel, the second surpassing the first in status and the transition happens near the Jordan river and Jericho.

Now we move ahead to a pair of prophets, Elijah and Elisha. Their stories are found in first and Second Kings. You probably know the story of Elijah being taken away in a chariot of fire. Any guess where that happened? Before the chariot came, Elijah and Elisha came to the Jordan River, Elijah took his cloak, rolled it up and struck the water. And the waters parted and they crossed over into the land. And, just like Joshua, it was on the way to Jericho.

And there’s more parallels between Elijah and John the Baptist and Elisha and Jesus. Elijah’s ministry was to Israel, warning them of their wickedness. If they do not repent then they will be removed from the land and go to exile. He especially warned about the wicked house of Ahab. If you remember the battle between Elijah and the prophets of Baal, that was during the time of Ahab.

When Elijah prepared to leave, Elisha asked for a double portion of the Spirit. This was granted to Elisha, showing his ministry would be even greater than Elijah’s. Elisha witnessed the fall of the house of Ahab. What Elijah had started; Elisha saw was finished.

Elisha’s ministry was filled with lots of similar stories to the life of Jesus. He did miracles like making water better, cared for widows, even making food go further than it really should, healed leprosy. He even raised a boy from the dead.

Now you might ask, ‘wait, I remember in chapter 1 that John the Baptist said he is not Elijah. Why are you now comparing him to Elijah?

There are two things that are happening. First, John the Baptist apparently either didn’t know the connection to Elijah, or he was answering that he wasn’t literally Elijah.

Second, the rest of scripture clearly makes John the Baptist the promised Elijah. Malachi tells of the day that Elijah will be sent ahead of the LORD. Someone like John the Baptist will come. Jesus himself tells his disciples that John the Baptist was Elijah after the Transfiguration. So despite what John the Baptist said in chapter 1, he is the figurative second Elijah who has come.

Now back to our text, where we see the baton passed from John the Baptist to Jesus. While the details are a little different than the other exchanges, it’s clear that this exchange is from the lesser servant to the greater. It takes place near the Jordan, and in my opinion, it at least makes me wonder whether Aenon near Salim was probably in Judea, maybe even close to Jericho. I can’t prove that conclusively, but to me it fits more with the text than other ideas.

At any rate, hopefully you can see the bigger theme of succession. One prophet gives way to the next and now we arrive at The prophet, the Son of God.

John’s witness is complete and Jesus becomes the sole focus of the story. And just like in the case of Joshua and Elisha, we can expect to see even greater things going forward. So far in John’s gospel, the author has highlighted one sign: turning water to wine. Now they will pick up in both frequency and also the amount of glory. Jesus will reveal his identity through the I AM statements. And ultimately the action will head to Jerusalem, where just like John the Baptist, Jesus will meet a humbling fate at the hands of others who reject his message.

The Testimony of the Son (31-36)

It’s not exactly clear whether verses 31-36 are said by John the Baptist, or they are simply an explanation from the author, John the apostle. But either way it is a description of Jesus in comparison to the witness of John the Baptist. And there are at least four ways that we see Jesus as a greater witness than John’s, or anyone else in the history of the world. We’ll go through each of these quickly.

John 3:31 He who comes from above is above all. He who is of the earth belongs to the earth and speaks in an earthly way. He who comes from heaven is above all.

a. Jesus came from above

Verse 31 says that John the Baptist came from the earth, no one would disagree with that. But now, he emphasizes that Jesus has come from heaven. This guy who was baptized by John, and is now out in the wilderness with some disciples, actually came from heaven. Jesus succeeds John as a better prophet, because his origin is greater.

We have already seen this in a few places in the first 3 chapters. In chapter 1 Jesus is talking to his disciples and he says, Truly, truly, I say to you, you will see heaven opened, and the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man.”

It’s not as clear, but Jesus is telling his disciples that he is different than other Rabbis or leaders. He has a different origin. This is made clearer in Jesus’ encounter with Nicodemus. Nicodemus, a teacher of the Jews, doesn’t understand what Jesus is saying. So Jesus responds and says ’If I have told you earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you heavenly things? 13 No one has ascended into heaven except he who descended from heaven, the Son of Man.’

Jesus is better because he comes from heaven and he is above all.

b. Jesus is a better Word

32 He bears witness to what he has seen and heard, yet no one receives his testimony. 33 Whoever receives his testimony sets his seal to this, that God is true. 34 For he whom God has sent utters the words of God

Jesus bears witness to God, just like John the Baptist. But his testimony is greater because he is a better word. Jesus was sent to utter the words of God. That is the job of a prophet. But we know from John 1, that he is greater than other prophets. He is the actual word of God. And even further, Jesus is God.

c. Jesus has the Spirit without measure

34b for he gives the Spirit without measure.

Verse 34 gives another way that Jesus is greater than John the Baptist. Jesus’ coming and being an even greater testimony is the Spirit coming upon him in a greater way.

Joshua received some of Moses’ spirit and wisdom. Elisha received a double portion of the Spirit after Elijah. Now Jesus possesses the Spirit without measure.

RC Sproul describes it this way, “When God anointed His Son as the Messiah, the Holy Spirit was not given to Him in a piecemeal or partial fashion. God the Father did not measure out a little dose of the Spirit to give to His Son; rather, He poured out the Spirit on the Son in immeasurable dimensions. (John commentary p.53)

The signs and wonders that Jesus will do, the teaching and claims he will make, are all done in the power of the Holy Spirit. And if he possesses the Spirit without measure, it’s easy to see how his ministry will be more glorious than anything that we have seen until now in scripture.

d. Jesus is loved by the Father

35 The Father loves the Son and has given all things into his hand.

The fourth way Jesus is the greater witness is that he was loved by the Father. I love my nieces and nephews. I love the kids at Grace. But I have a special love for my own kids. The Father has a special love for the Son. The Father has always loved the Son.

And when it says that God, the Father, has given all things into his hand, it’s saying Jesus possesses everything that the Father possesses. The church father Augustine said this about the verse ‘Therefore, having deigned [to condescend to give] to send us the son, let us not imagine that it is something less than the Father that is sent to us.’ (Bruner p.229)

The Son perfectly images the Father. To believe in the Son, means we have union with the Son. Which means the father looks at us like he looks at his son. If we are loved by the Son, then we are loved by the Father.

I’m sure there will be time in John’s gospel to see this idea unpacked in greater length, but for now, at least recognize that the idea of the Father loving the Son is a huge one. It’s not just a throwaway line that sounds nice. There are a lot of deep truths wrapped up in that one idea.

Notice also that all three persons of the trinity are tightly connected in verses 34 and 35. We have the Father giving the Spirit without measure to the Son, whom the Father loves and has given all things into his hand. The apostle John packs so much in, that we can’t exhaust it all.

Verse 32 and 33 give the two possible responses to the testimony of Jesus. Either receive the gospel or don’t receive it. And now the apostle John pushes the need for a response again in verse 36. For those who do not receive the testimony of John about Jesus, or Jesus about himself, wrath awaits, as verse 36 makes clear. But for those who receive the faith to believe the testimony, will be saved to eternal life.

Responding to the gospel requires a response. It requires faith given by God. But it also requires humility. It’s the acknowledgment that we are not God, we are not good apart from God and we need God to fix the mess we find ourselves in. These are not easy things to admit. In fact, they are impossible without God granting us the humility to do them. But that is the only way we can escape wrath.

And the way God rescues us, is through the ultimate act of humility. Jesus, the glorious Son of God, whom all the prophets pointed to. Who dwelled eternally in heaven. The very Word who possessed the Spirit without measure, and who the Father loved, he is the one who humbled himself. He took on flesh, experienced all the things we do, witnessed the effects of the Fall, yet without sinning himself. And he went lower. He went all the way the cross. And like John the Baptist, even in his humility, he experienced joy at accomplishing his mission. Hebrews 12:2 Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God.

Jesus suffered immense humiliation through his betrayal, arrest, trial and death. And yet he endured it all for the joy that was set before him. And only those who are humbled by their sin, and willing to admit that there are no rivals of Jesus will be given the faith to receive eternal life.

Back to geography (4:1-3)

We come to the end of the passage and we return to geography. It brings us right back to where we started, in Judea, with Jesus and his disciples and baptism. But there is now no mention of John the Baptist. The Pharisees are mentioned in relation to the controversy about Jesus drawing larger crowds, but nothing about John. The tangles John encountered from the Jews will continue with Jesus. He will face increasing scrutiny from the Pharisees.

So we come to the end of the exchange zone. The baton is passed, John’s ministry comes to an end, and Jesus’ ministry will pick up steam for the rest of John’s gospel. The transition also points to the winding down of Israel and the Old Covenant as the New, better covenant is ushered in through Jesus.

For those in Israel who missed the testimony of John, they will have further chances to either repent and believe the testimony of Jesus, or harden themselves and reject the Savior.

As we look ahead in John’s gospel, we’ll see Jesus do more signs and wonders. He’ll become more explicit about who he is. He is the Great I AM, and John the apostle will begin highlighting this in a variety of ways. Just like when Joshua and Elisha were greater successors than Moses and Elijah. Jesus is the greater witness.