Christ and the Seasons of Life
January 10, 2020
“He must increase, but I must decrease” (John 3:30).
In these early days of 2020, I’ve been thinking a lot about this verse. The Lord has brought it to my mind again and again. It’s challenging to look at a verse you’ve known all your life and try to think about it in a new way.
We can begin with a simple question: What was John the Baptist thinking when he said, “He must increase, but I must decrease”? I am struck by the little word “must.” The lexicons tell us it means something like, “It is necessary.” The word was used in Matthew 16:21 when Jesus told his disciples that he “must” go to Jerusalem to die and then be raised on the third day. God’s plan requires him to go to Jerusalem and offer himself on the cross. Jesus must die! The word means something similar in this verse:
Jesus must increase.
John the Baptist must decrease.
Jesus was, is, and always will be the Son of God.
But what sort of “increase” is John talking about? Jesus was, is, and always will be the Son of God. He is infinitely great, and his greatness fills every inch of space, from the tiniest particle to the farthest galaxy in the most distant corner of the universe.
When John the Baptist says, “He must increase,” he is not speaking of the innate greatness of Jesus. God cannot become greater than himself. But the greatness of Jesus is not always seen on earth. Many deny him, attack him, insult him, and millions more ignore him. He came to his own, and his own did not receive him (John 1:11). He came to his own people, and they rejected him. He came to the world he had made, and the world crucified him. He came to his own family, and many did not believe in him.
Jesus came to the world he had made, and the world crucified him
His greatness cannot increase, but the recognition of his greatness increases every day. Jesus must increase in his fame and in his influence. He must increase as more and more men and women from every nation follow him. That’s what John the Baptist meant when he said, “He must increase.”
With that as background, let’s think about this verse under three headings: the man, the message, the meaning.
John the Baptist appears in the New Testament like a bright comet streaking across the sky. Coming out of the wilderness, he preaches a message of repentance, and vast crowds from across Israel come to hear him. John was God’s man for that hour of history. He excoriated the religious professionals and called them to a baptism of repentance for their sins. Over time his fame spread, and a group of men began following him from place to place.
John was God’s man for that hour of history
Then one day Jesus came to John, asking to be baptized. In that holy moment, the Father spoke from heaven, and a dove descended, representing the Holy Spirit coming in power on the Son of God.
Evidently John continued to preach and gather disciples while Jesus did the same thing. It was inevitable that questions would arise about the two competing movements. We can read about it in John 3:25-26:
Then a dispute arose between John’s disciples and a Jew about purification. 26 So they came to John and told him, “Rabbi, the one you testified about, and who was with you across the Jordan, is baptizing—and everyone is going to him.”
At moments like these, you find out the truth about yourself. Anyone can be happy when he pastors the largest church in town. It’s fun being the “leading pastor” for your town, your city, your county, or your state. It’s a heady experience to be interviewed on the radio because your church is growing so fast. It’s a big deal to speak at the Jerusalem Founders Conference because you’ve built a thriving ministry. When that happens, your fame spreads, you get book deals, you show up on the talk shows, and you might be sought out by presidential candidates who want your support. Nothing wrong with any of that, but it’s easy for fame to go to your head. I am often reminded of Bill Gates’ wry comment, “Success is a lousy teacher. It makes smart people think they can do no wrong.” Far more people are ruined by success than by failure. It’s easy to understand how this happened. John had been there first. For a few months, he had been the only one preaching and baptizing and calling the nation to repentance. Suddenly, here comes Jesus who is doing the same thing, and “everyone is going to him.”
Success is a lousy teacher
If you end up face down in the muck and mire of humiliating defeat, you are bound to ask yourself some hard questions. But who bothers with those questions when the sun is shining, you have money in the bank, and everyone loves you? You’re too busy counting Likes on your Facebook page to worry about those pesky questions.
To find out John’s attitude about all this, we can run the clock back to the earliest days of his ministry. Jesus had not yet taken center stage, so the great question in Jerusalem was, “Who is this man called John?” Watch how the story plays out in John 1:19-23:
This was John’s testimony when the Jews from Jerusalem sent priests and Levites to ask him, “Who are you?”
20 He didn’t deny it but confessed: “I am not the Messiah.”
21 “What then?” they asked him. “Are you Elijah?”
“I am not,” he said.
“Are you the Prophet?”
“No,” he answered.
22 “Who are you, then?” they asked. “We need to give an answer to those who sent us. What can you tell us about yourself?”
23 He said, “I am a voice of one crying out in the wilderness: Make straight the way of the Lord–just as Isaiah the prophet said.”
When the Jews asked John, “Are you the Messiah?” he immediately answered no. When they asked, “Are you the Prophet?” he said no again. Then who is he? John answered by quoting Isaiah 40. He is a voice, that’s all. He cries out in the wilderness and announces the coming of the Messiah.
If you know who you are, you don’t have to pretend to be someone else
John the Baptist has a very clear self-image. He knows who he is, and more importantly, he knows who he isn’t. If you know who you are, you don’t have to waste time pretending to be someone else. Once you have a good grasp on God’s calling on your life, you won’t try to fool people into thinking you’re something you’re not.
He’s not the Messiah.
He’s not Elijah.
He’s not the Prophet.
He’s a voice for God. Nothing more, nothing less, nothing else.
God raised up this man, for this ministry, at this moment in history. John knows that, and because he knows it, he can be content with who he is, where he is, and what he is doing.
John knew his days were numbered.
Did he know he would end up with his head on a platter? No, he didn’t know that because God had not revealed that to him. But like the men of Issachar, he understood the times and knew what he should do (see 1 Chronicles 12:32).
John knew his days were numbered
Did he know he didn’t have long to live? No, because God hadn’t revealed that either. Soon enough Herod would find a reason to have him thrown into a lonely jail in a remote region on the east side of the Dead Sea. On this day, John the Baptist had no inkling of what was to come. But he saw clearly that the rising of Jesus meant his ministry would soon come to an end.
Did he sense the coming doubts that would fill his mind (Matthew 11:1-6)? That period of gloom happened after he ended up in jail, locked up for speaking the truth to Herod. There he languished for days, weeks, months. Prison time is hard time, and if John gave in to his fears during those lonely days, at least we can say he has lots of company across history. Many a man has doubted in the darkness what he believed in the light. I simply ask, when John made his statement, did he foresee his own doubt? The answer must be no.
What, then, did John know? He knew his ministry was coming to an end. A forerunner in the Bible went ahead of the king, announcing his imminent arrival. He cleared the way for the king to come to his subjects. Without the forerunner, the people would not be prepared when the king came to town.
That means the forerunner was essential but only for a little while. His job came with an expiration date. But the catch is, the forerunner didn’t know the date until it arrived. The moment had come for John the Baptist to exit stage right.
It’s never easy to let go
That’s never easy for any of us. Life has its seasons. We’re born, we learn to crawl, then we walk, then we speak, then we begin to make friends, then we go to school, suddenly we are teenagers, but then we go to college, and somewhere along the way, we get our first job. We may fall in love and get married. Soon enough the kids come along, with all the attendant joys and burdens. But kids don’t stay kids forever. For better or worse, they grow up and leave us. We move from job to job, making friends (and perhaps a few enemies) along the way. We make our money; we buy and sell and move around. We have friends who enter and exit our lives. Eventually we retire, and maybe we move to Florida. One day we take a nap but don’t wake up. Such is life for all of us.
John the Baptist understood something that often causes us to struggle. He saw clearly that the major season of his life was ending.
He saw it.
He accepted it.
He didn’t fight against it.
One day you take a nap but don’t wake up
Every job has an expiration date.
Friends come and go.
Dreams don’t last forever.
Gone were the heady days when all Israel flocked to hear him preach in the Judean wilderness. Gone were the scathing sermons, denouncing the hypocrisy of the Pharisees. Gone were the fantastic days when he and his men would baptize multitudes in the Jordan River.
How could he “decrease” so cheerfully? John himself gives us the answer:
- He knew that everything he received came from God (John 3:27).
- He knew he was the “best man” but Jesus was the bridegroom (John 3:28-29).
If you know the source of your power, and if you know who you are, you don’t complain when you must decrease. John wanted Jesus to increase in fame and followers. He wanted more people to follow Jesus even if that meant fewer people followed him.
Consider the morning star that appears in the night sky, heralding the coming sunrise. But when the sun rises, the morning star disappears because it has done its duty. John was a bright star who faded away with the Son of God began to rise like sunlight in the morning.
The morning star fades when the sun rises
Did John fail? Not at all. He succeeded in every way. So it is that we all will rise and fall during the course of a lifetime. God only requires that we be faithful like John was faithful. Better to be forgotten because we did God’s will than to be remembered because we didn’t.
We all struggle to let go at times. No one likes to hear, “We don’t need you anymore,” because we all want to feel indispensable. It couldn’t have been easy for John to let go of his fame–and even harder to do it willingly. Most of us grasp and hold on tight when something we value is being taken from us.
I saw a church sign that asked a simple question: “Are we too fond of our own will?” The answer is yes. We are all by nature “fond” of our own will. We like liking what we like.
We like liking what we like
I have a few things on my mind as I type these words, including some burdens regarding dear friends who need special help from the Lord. I pray he will grant those requests. Plus I have plans for my future and things I want to accomplish. So, yes, I’m “fond” of my own will. But Jesus taught us to pray, “Your will be done” (Matthew 6:10). Only one will can be done at a time. Either God calls the shots, or you do. Either he is in control or you are in control. It’s not easy to pray like that because it means giving up control of your own life.
But you aren’t really in control anyway. It only seems that way.\
We aren’t in control anyway
The happiest people are those who say, “I’ve decided to let go and let God take charge.” So many of us go through life with a clenched fist, trying to control the uncontrollable, trying to mastermind all the circumstances, trying to make our plans work. So we hold tightly to the things we value—our career, our reputation, our happiness, our health, our children, our education, our wealth, our possessions, our mates. We even hold tightly to life itself. But those things we hold so tightly never really belonged to us. They always belonged to God. He loaned them to us, and when the time comes, he will take them back again.
Happy are they who hold lightly what they value greatly.
What are you struggling with today? What are you holding on to so tightly that it almost makes your hands hurt? What is it that you are afraid to yield to God? Whatever it is, you’ll be a lot happier when you finally say, “Your will be done,” and then open your clenched fist.
No one had to tell John to let go. He knew the time had come.
If you live long enough, you will both increase and decrease. Recently I read one of those “where are they now” articles about actors who were famous in the 1980s. Some were superstars back then. A few of them still are, but most of the stars of yesterday have faded away into obscurity.
Happy are they who hold lightly what they value greatly.
When Doris Day died last year, the obituaries noted that her career began in 1939 as a big band singer. She recorded 650 songs between 1947 and 1967. That’s impressive. She co-starred with Rock Hudson in several movies in the 1950s. Her recording of “Que Sera, Sera” became a big hit. They called her “America’s Sweetheart,” and so she was, at least for a while. But her Wikipedia entry notes that her years of commercial activity ended in 1989, 30 years before her death at 97.
If we live long enough, we will end up the same way. Life has its seasons, and it is a measure of our maturity to understand the seasons and to accept them from the hand of the Lord.
That’s the real meaning of John 3:30. Jesus “increasing” necessarily meant John “decreasing.” John had done his job magnificently as the forerunner, but those days had come and gone. Now that Jesus’ ministry has begun, he no longer needed someone like John the Baptist to prepare the way. Strange as it may sound, John’s success (his “increase”) guaranteed the end of his public ministry (his “decrease”).
John didn’t envy Jesus
John didn’t envy Jesus, even though John’s disciples seemed to have that problem. And who could blame them? Jesus’ increase meant their leader would soon decrease in reputation and magnitude. If everyone flocks to Jesus, who is left to listen to John? No wonder his disciples worried about their future.
But for John there was no worry, no fear, no doubt, and no need to hold on tight to his position. He understood that if his “increase” had been God’s will, then his “decrease” was also God’s will.
We live in a “what have you done lately” kind of world. We all get weighed in the balances of life. Only the best among us can respond with the grace of a John the Baptist. He embraced his “decrease” because of his bedrock faith in the sovereignty of God over the details of life. He knew he had been raised up “for such a time as this,” and when that time was over, he would slip out of the limelight.
His life came to a shocking end when Herod had him beheaded, but even that was part of God’s plan for his life. God used John’s death to convict Herod about the true identity of Jesus (Luke 9:7-9). In a sense, John continued to prepare the way of the Lord in his death as he had in his life.
What a great man.
What a magnificent life.
What a model for us to follow.
John embraced his “decrease” as part of God’s will for him
Here is the watchword for every pastor: “He must increase, but I must decrease.”
Here is God’s message to every missionary: “He must increase, but I must decrease.”
Here is the path forward for every Christian leader: “He must increase, but I must decrease.”
John 3:30 is John the Baptist’s final public statement. Everything else he says happens during his imprisonment. So if this is his final declaration, we can say, “What a tremendous way to wrap up your public ministry.” No wonder Jesus said that among those born of woman, there has never been any one greater than John the Baptist (Matthew 11:11). His final public statement reveals the secret of his success.
Let everyone who reads these words say, “He must increase, but I must decrease.” How blessed we would be, and how happy our churches would be, and how powerful our impact in the world would be if we took John’s words as our own.
Give God the Glory!
If you are “increasing” (and some of us are), give thanks to God, use your fame and fortune for the Kingdom of God, and don’t take credit for your success. Give God the glory. Remember that your “increase” will not last forever. You need not feel ashamed of your blessings, but never take them for granted.
Jesus is Lord now and forever!
If you are “decreasing” (and some of us are), give thanks to God for that too. The seasons of life come and go, and you never know what tomorrow may bring. Let God use you in your weakness, your doubt, and your uncertainty. You are not less of a Christian because life is hard right now. Ask God to give you an open heart to praise him right where you are.
When we come to the bottom line, we find that the message of John 3:30 is the same for all of us, no matter whether we are “increasing” or “decreasing.” If we believe in Jesus, then our whole goal must be to make him first in all things.
Seasons come and go, but Jesus is Lord now and forever. Hold on to that truth in the months to come. If Christ is magnified in us this year, we will not have lived in vain.