22 Then Jesus and his disciples left Jerusalem and went into the Judean countryside. Jesus spent some time with them there, baptizing people. 23 At this time John the Baptist was baptizing at Aenon, near Salim, because there was plenty of water there; and people kept coming to him for baptism. 24 (This was before John was thrown into prison.) 25 A debate broke out between John’s disciples and a certain Jew over ceremonial cleansing. 26 So John’s disciples came to him and said, “Rabbi, the man you met on the other side of the Jordan River, the one you identified as the Messiah, is also baptizing people. And everybody is going to him instead of coming to us.”
27 John replied, “No one can receive anything unless God gives it from heaven. 28 You yourselves know how plainly I told you, ‘I am not the Messiah. I am only here to prepare the way for him.’ 29 It is the bridegroom who marries the bride, and the best man is simply glad to stand with him and hear his vows. Therefore, I am filled with joy at his success. 30 He must become greater and greater, and I must become less and less.
31 “He has come from above and is greater than anyone else. We are of the earth, and we speak of earthly things, but he has come from heaven and is greater than anyone else. 32 He testifies about what he has seen and heard, but how few believe what he tells them! 33 Anyone who accepts his testimony can affirm that God is true. 34 For he is sent by God. He speaks God’s words, for God gives him the Spirit without limit. 35 The Father loves his Son and has put everything into his hands. 36 And anyone who believes in God’s Son has eternal life. Anyone who doesn’t obey the Son will never experience eternal life but remains under God’s angry judgment.” – John 3:22-36 NLT
John brings a wonderful story into our grasp that no other Gospel does. Let us remember, that John has outlived all the disciples and evangelists and pens this wonderful book to give more than anyone else provided. This story is often skipped and the valuable lesson is missed. At first we might not see it, but let us really grasp this lesson and face the facts about the big “H”. Humility, it is a challenging topic and very elusive. Even a cute comic strip character could not retain it.
Charles Schultz, the cartoonist, was poking fun at how difficult it is for us to be humble. We may start out with the goal of being a humble little whatever, but before we know it, we’re into being a world-famous, humble little whatever!
Can you share about some of your challenges with humility? What tactics have you been able to put in place to help? What are some of the dangers you face?
The opposite of humility is pride. Pride is arguably the most deadly and evil of all sins because it’s at the root of all other sins. Pride was probably Satan’s original sin, when he said in Isaiah that he wanted to be like the Most High (Isaiah 14:14). Pride was the bait Satan used to tempt Eve, when he set aside what God had said and assured her that if she ate of the forbidden fruit, she would be like God (Genesis 3:1-6). Whenever I sin, I am arrogantly asserting that I know better than God knows what is best for me. Thus, as Christians we must constantly battle pride and grow in humility. And if you think you’ve attained any measure of humility, you’ve got to be on guard against being proud of your humility!
If anyone easily could have fallen into the trap of pride, it would have been John the Baptist. Who else in human history (apart from Jesus Himself) could claim to have been filled with the Holy Spirit while still in his mother’s womb! No one else in human history had the important role of being the forerunner of Messiah. John enjoyed immediate popular success, as all Jerusalem, Judea, and those from surrounding areas were going out to him in the wilderness to confess their sins and be baptized. Even Jesus testified of John that he was the greatest man in human history. All these things could have fed the pride of this young prophet, barely in his thirties.
Yet in our text John gives his disciples and us a basic lesson in humility. In the face of Jesus’ growing popularity and his own waning popularity, John gives us a one-liner to live by:
He must increase, but I must decrease. – John 3:30
To the extent that John’s motto is true of us, we are growing in humility.
Without pride riling up, can you share how you are decreasing and Christ is increasing in your life?
The story begins by describing two thriving ministries that were taking place close to one another. The exact location of Jesus and John as described here is not actually known, but both were somewhere along the Jordan River, which they were using for baptisms. For clarity, as John discloses in chapter 4, verse 2, Jesus was not actually performing the baptisms, but His disciples were.
A fact that we have to understand is that these baptisms were not Christian baptisms. Jesus was still alive. Rather they were public confessions of sin followed by immersion in water, which symbolized cleansing from sin.
Another example of John writing his letter in hindsight, is how he puts this scene into time perspective by saying this happen before John was arrested. Most likely this was provided because most likely he knew that his readers would have read Mark’s gospel, which makes it seem that Jesus’ ministry began after John the Baptist was arrested. The apostle John wants us to know that the events recorded here happened before John the Baptist’s imprisonment.
Now a discussion arose between some of John’s disciples and a Jew over purification. – John 3:25 ESV
At this juncture using the term “Now” he moves to a new topic, John reports that a dispute or discussion arose between John’s disciples and a Jew (some early manuscripts read “the Jews,” but the singular is probably original) about purification. The apostle does not give us any further clarification, so we can only guess at the nature of the discussion. Probably it had to do with whether John’s baptism was superior to the Jewish rites of purification. John mentioned those Jewish rites with the water pots at the wedding where Jesus turned the water into wine (John 2:6).
In the present context, Jesus is the bridegroom. He comes to bring people into a joyous relationship with Himself, not to haggle over Jewish ceremonies. It’s not outward Jewish ceremonies that purify one’s heart, but rather, the new birth from above. So John may want us to see here that Jesus’ ministry went beyond the ceremonial legalism of Judaism.
At any rate, the debate between John’s disciples and this Jew may have included the Jew’s comment that the Baptist’s ministry was being eclipsed by Jesus’ growing ministry. This led John’s disciples to come to him with their concern.
“Rabbi, the man you met on the other side of the Jordan River, the one you identified as the Messiah, is also baptizing people. And everybody is going to him instead of coming to us.” – John 3:26 NLT
Their exaggeration, “everybody is going to Him,” was no doubt spawned by resentment or jealousy. They were jealous on John’s behalf against Jesus’ growing ministry. This sets the stage for John the Baptist’s reply, which is a great lesson in humility.
27 John replied, “No one can receive anything unless God gives it from heaven. 28 You yourselves know how plainly I told you, ‘I am not the Messiah. I am only here to prepare the way for him.’ 29 It is the bridegroom who marries the bride, and the best man is simply glad to stand with him and hear his vows. Therefore, I am filled with joy at his success. 30 He must become greater and greater, and I must become less and less. – John 3:27-30 NLT
From John’s response we learn that humility stems from understanding who God is and who we are. John the Baptist clearly understood God’s sovereignty, who Jesus is, and who he (John) was. Thus he didn’t have inflated views of himself. He wasn’t out to build his self-esteem or to promote his own ministry or reputation. His aim was to exalt Jesus. He found great joy in his role of handing off the bride to the bridegroom.
Need to know who we are
John replies to his disciples’ worried report in verse 27,
“A man can receive nothing unless it has been given to him from heaven.” – John 3:27 NASB
That truth applies to all spiritual matters, including our salvation (we can’t save ourselves). Jesus also reemphasizes this in chapter 6 as well:
“No one can come to Me unless it has been granted him from the Father.” – John 6:65 NASB
But here it has special reference to our ministries and the relative fruitfulness of those ministries where we serve. John is saying that his role as the forerunner was given to him by God, and he must stay within that role. His words also apply to Jesus: Any popularity or success that He enjoyed in ministry came from the Father.
God gives different spiritual gifts, ministries, and results according to His sovereign will. Humility stems from recognizing that this is God’s prerogative as God and bowing before His sovereign will.
Need to know who He is
In 3:28, John reminds his disciples that he has said,
“I am not the Christ, but I have been sent ahead of Him.” – John 3:28 NASB
Clearly, John knew that Jesus was the Christ, the promised Messiah. Then John uses an illustration from a Jewish wedding:
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 ESV
John knew that Jesus was the promised bridegroom and that the bride belongs to Him. John’s role was that of the friend of the bridegroom, sort of like what we refer to as the “best man.” His role was to take the bride to the bridegroom and then get out of the way. The focus of the wedding was not on the best man, but on the bridegroom and bride.
If Yahweh is Israel’s bridegroom in the Old Testament and John the Baptist proclaims Jesus as Israel’s bridegroom here, then it’s an affirmation that Jesus is Yahweh. Jesus is God. Whether or not John the Baptist put the two halves of this equation together, it is evident that the apostle John through the Holy Spirit wants us to put them together: If God is the bridegroom and Jesus is the bridegroom, then Jesus is God.
The lesson in humility for us is: humility stems from knowing who God is. The clearer our vision of His majesty and greatness and power and glory, the more we will be humbled in His presence.
Who we are in God’s presence
In our text, we see that John was clear about who he was in the presence of Christ. People were wondering if John was the Christ, which he emphatically denied in chapter 1, “I am not the Christ.” Now he reminds his disciples of what he has repeatedly said:
“You yourselves are my witnesses that I said, ‘I am not the Christ,’ but, ‘I have been sent ahead of Him.’” – John 3:28 NASB
The first principle in Celebrate Recovery is based on this thought of humility.
Realize I’m not God; I admit that I am powerless to control my tendency to do the wrong thing and my life is unmanageable. – Principle 1
A great reminder is that God is God; we are not God. When things don’t go the way we’d prefer, we have to learn to bow and acknowledge, “God, You’re God; I’m not God.”
We get our next lesson from verse 27 where we face the facts it is not what we do for God, but what God has done through us.
A man can receive nothing unless it has been given him from heaven. – John 3:27 NASB
John recognized that his unique role in history was not something that he had achieved by his own brilliance or hard work. Rather, God had graciously given it to him so that he could point people to Jesus. It had nothing to do with anything good in John. It had everything to do with God’s sovereign, gracious purpose for John.
This is such an important lesson for us to keep in mind at all times: All our gifts, abilities, and opportunities come from God by grace alone. Everything! If we have a sound mind? That came from God, who wants us to use it for His purpose and glory. Do we have money? That came from God, who wants us to use it for His purpose and glory. Do we have a ministry or place of service? That, too, came from God, who wants us to use it for His purpose and glory. John knew that he was the forerunner of the Messiah, and he sought to fulfill that ministry which God had given him.
It has been pointed out that John continued preaching and baptizing, even as he saw his influence waning in comparison with Jesus’ ministry. The point is that humility does not mean that we slack off and then blame our lack of results on God’s sovereignty. We should seek to use to the fullest what God has entrusted to us to the best of our ability, giving all glory for any results to Him.
Proper perspective of success in ministry
Success does not necessarily mean having a large attendance or following. John’s disciples were concerned because the numbers in his following were dwindling, while the numbers following Jesus were going up. And John didn’t seem to be doing anything to correct the situation. But when they talk to John about their concerns, he explains that their cause for concern was his cause for great joy. John wasn’t trying to build a following for John, but rather a following for Jesus. Sometimes a man’s disciples are more zealous for his reputation than he is.
Have you ever served or volunteered for Jesus and it just fizzled or faded away? Do you struggle with keeping momentum and popularity with where you serve?
The lesson to grasp is that we aren’t in competition with other churches, community groups or other ministries. If they’re preaching the gospel and teaching God’s Word, then we’re on the same team. We can rejoice that the Lord’s work is prospering, even if our work is not as large as the other work. Our responsibility is to be faithful with what the Lord has given us to do.
Motivation of ministry
John’s aim and his joy was to bring the bride to the bridegroom. Many times John the Baptist is not seen as a joyful man. He was the austere prophet who shouted, “You brood of vipers, who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?” He was angry when the religious hypocrites did not follow Jesus. But we need to grasp the concept that he was full of joy when he heard the bridegroom’s voice and could bring the bride to Him. If people followed after Jesus, John’s purpose had been fulfilled. His joy was full.
There will be seasons that we pass through. There will be ups and downs while serving Christ. This is implicit in John’s motto, “He must increase, but I must decrease.” This is a quote from a man that will be thrown into prison and ultimately be executed, not without some doubt.
It’s important to remember that being a faithful servant of the Lord does not guarantee a trouble-free life. John the Baptist was the faithful, God-appointed forerunner of Messiah, but he got thrown into prison and had his head cut off in his early thirties. We aren’t guaranteed long lives or impressive results in our ministries. The Lord could take us out of the picture today and His work would go right on according to His plan. He owes us nothing. It is our great joy if He uses us in some way to exalt Christ and to bring others to exalt Him, too.
Humility, the place of entire dependence on God, is, from the very nature of things, the first duty and the highest virtue of the creature, and the root of every virtue. And so pride, or the loss of this humility, is the root of every sin and evil. – Andrew Murray
Are you working at growing in humility and pouring contempt on all your pride? If we are growing in humility, Christ is increasing and we are decreasing. If we’re growing in pride, self is increasing and Christ is decreasing.
- New American Standard Bible: 1995 update. (1995). LaHabra, CA: The Lockman Foundation.
- Tyndale House Publishers. (2013). Holy Bible: New Living Translation (Jn 3:22–36). Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale House Publishers.
- The Holy Bible: English Standard Version. (2001). Wheaton: Standard Bible Society.
- A lesson in humility. Bible.org 2013. https://bible.org/seriespage/lesson-19-lesson-humility-john-322-30. Steven J. Cole
- Andrew Murray (Humility: The Beauty of Holiness [Christian Literature Crusade], p. 12) writes,