I’ve actually been meaning to post this for quite some time now, but I’ve been reminded of it again and am finally getting around to it. I have in my 20-year-old NIV Study Bible on page 1599 a 3″x4″ Post-it Note affixed overtop of the notes on the bottom of the page. It contains three bullet-points referring to a text on that page, with a few brief notes about each one. The note represents advice at-the-ready that I could share with a group for anywhere from 5 minutes perhaps up to full sermon length. It always seemed a good idea to have something at the ready, and it is a bit of advice that I shared with leaders and leaders-in-training and people in ministry training or prophetic ministry. And now here it is on the blog. I say there are three lessons, but really it’s a single lesson in three points, designed to remind us who we are and put us in our place.
We’re looking at John 3:27-30, but since most Bibles incorporate verses 22-36 as a single section, let’s look at that here in the NLT to get some context. Of course, John 3 is best known for one particular exchange, that between Jesus and Nicodemus… and this is what has just taken place in John’s gospel.
Then Jesus and his disciples left Jerusalem and went into the Judean countryside. Jesus spent some time with them there, baptizing people.
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. (This was before John was thrown into prison.) A debate broke out between John’s disciples and a certain Jew over ceremonial cleansing. 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.”
So far we know that John is a practical fellow, going where there’s a lot of water to do his dunking (my apologies to the sprinklers and pourers). Apparently John’s disciples don’t want to be on the losing side of something they don’t know isn’t a competition, and after they get themselves into an argument about ceremonial cleansing, they come to John with their problem. They want him to do something about this Jesus, this “Johnny-come-lately” baptizer whose baptismal crowds are starting outnumbering John’s. Surely something must be done. “You know the fellow,” they tell John. “He’s the guy you said was the Messiah.” You know they’re in trouble when they’re concerned about the Messiah having a bigger market-share than they do, and they want to take action to “correct” the problem! I guess they didn’t stop to think about just who the Messiah is and what he’s supposed to do. John’s reply starts in verse 27.
John replied, “No one can receive anything unless God gives it from heaven. You yourselves know how plainly I told you, ‘I am not the Messiah. I am only here to prepare the way for him.’ 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. He must become greater and greater, and I must become less and less.
“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. He testifies about what he has seen and heard, but how few believe what he tells them! Anyone who accepts his testimony can affirm that God is true. For he is sent by God. He speaks God’s words, for God gives him the Spirit without limit. The Father loves his Son and has put everything into his hands. 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.”
So John sorts them out, and tells them, “Hey, boys — I’m just an earthling! The Messiah is so different, he’s the one with the words of God and the authority of God. He’s the way to God, not me. Now, you’d think that would have been obvious, but in the midst of John’s popularity, his disciples got quite caught up in it, and they missed the obvious. We’ll look backwards through verses 27-30 and pick out three principles that leaders ought not forget.
1. More Jesus, Less You (v.30)
The NLT says “He must become greater and greater”, but those of us recalling older more literal translations recall the phrase, “He must increase, I must decrease.” This is all about humility… John knows he’s not the subject of his message, and he steadfastly refuses to take that place. When I used this with those in prophetic ministry, I used to give the example of Moses. We know two things about Moses that he had more of than anyone else — he had greater revelation of God than anyone else, and he was the most humble man on the face of the earth. John has this key lesson down pat: “It’s not about you.” Maybe he’s read and understood Ezekiel 36:22-31, where God lists sorts of wonderful things that God is about to do for the nation of Israel, all this stuff about cleansing them and ensuring they have good crops and giving them a new spirit and a heart of flesh instead of stone, no more disgrace — all great stuff. But he leads off the list by saying that he’s not doing this for their sake, but for the sake of his own name that they have profaned and disgraced with detestable practices, which they will remember after he blesses them. Humility is the first lesson, and it should be the most obvious. John knows he’s the subordinate, and that’s just fine with him. Contrast this with Diotrephes, “who loves to be first”, and whose pride leaves him condemned by name in scripture for eternity… his sin does not go unnoticed, pridefully lashing out to maintain his position. Ironically, center stage is what he wants, but it comes in a most dishonoring way.
2. You are the Friend, not the Bridegroom (v.29)
This is a big one, because people tend to forget that it’s not about them. And if it isn’t then what are they there for? Here’s the answer: you’re there to be the friend of the Bridegroom. The job of the Bridegroom’s friend is to prepare and care for the Bride (even as part of the Bride) for the Bridegroom that the Bride will one day present herself to him. The whole reason that the friend does this is for the sake of the Bride and the Bridegroom — it’s completely selfless; it has to be. This is critical, in fact, because it’s been the cause of many a downfall and many an injury within the body/bride of Christ. To prepare the Bride for another, one must love the Bride fully and act for her sake, and for the Bridegroom’s. At the risk of creating a vulgar image, if you put your hands on the Bride without love, for your own purposes, whatever you get out of it, you will abuse her. This is an illegal act for the friend of the Bridegroom. Instead, you must love her as one who occupies a position of trust: a friend, the “best man” at a wedding.
Leaders may often allow their own needs to be met through their ministry to others. In being “needed” by the church, they find their own significance and use this to build themselves up in their mind. This is not the place to find one’s worth and significance, as it drives the need to be engaged in the lives of others, transferring the benefit of the relationship from the parishioner to the minister. Again, this is a recipe for disaster that has caused pain and hurt to those in the pews as the pastor discards them to move onto another based on his own need to “help” others. This must be selfless, always bearing in mind that the actions are on behalf of others.
It can be thankless, but the simple response should be, “We are unworthy servants who have simply done our duty.” Because once again, it’s not about us. It is fully expected that the apostles come last, as other leaders should also expect… “on display at the end of the procession, like men condemned to die in the arena.” It sounds ignoble, but it is in fact the call to leadership. Unfortunately, there are leaders who love praise from men more than praise from God… praise which feeds their personal needs and sends them back to “ministry” for more.
3. You Receive Only what Comes from Heaven (v.27)
Leaders can appear confident, outgoing and ambitious, which makes them attractive for others to follow. The ambition is the problem, as some have all sorts of wonderful plans and schemes to increase their “sphere of influence.” While their churches may grow, some of what happens can be simply the natural result of their own efforts, driven by consumer marketing under pressure from their ego. Looking to other churches or ministries, they may even become jealous at the success of another. The truth that John is stating here is that the “success” of a person’s ministry is derived by what God entrusts to him — no more, and no less. With this understanding, it is pointless to inflate one’s position by embellishing numbers, statistics, and accomplishments like the C.V. that bears little resemblance to the actual job applicant. John is content with what God has entrusted to him, and whether that increases or decreases is left to God as he remains faithful to what God has called him to do. Paul told the Romans not to think too highly of themselves, but to consider themselves with sober judgment. I think he meant that for all of us — or would have, if he’d known we’d still be reading. A caution is issued to the Colossians against those who “delight in false humility” and talk about their visions and revelations at length. They have been puffed up with pride in these notions — in other words, they think too much of themselves and make efforts to convey the idea that others should think so highly as well.
In a sense, these three things can be summed up in what I call “The Popeye Principle.” Of course you remember that great philosopher and theologian, Popeye, who was fond of saying, “I yam what I yam, and that’s all that I yam.” The Popeye Principle is simply this: Don’t try to be more than you yam.