No pastor today is a prophet like John, but our ministries — small or large — bear the same gracious character; they are all “given . . . from heaven” (see Acts 20:28). All our successes are little Isaacs, children beyond the power of flesh and blood, pointing to the God who “calls into existence the things that do not exist” (Romans 4:17) through the ministries of frail men. And so, Christ must increase.
In his book The Whole Christ, Sinclair Ferguson notes that many Scottish pulpits once bore the words of John 12:21 on the inside, so that only the preacher could see them. Whenever a pastor stood in such a pulpit, he would find himself confronted with the same words some Greek visitors once spoke to the apostle Philip:
Sir, we wish to see Jesus.
We wish to see Jesus. Deep in their souls, all God’s people wish the same from their pastors. “Sir, would you tell me of Jesus? Would you show me again my King in his beauty? Would you warm my heart with another glimpse of his glory? Would you uncloud the heavens and give me a sight of him?”
And deep in their souls, God’s faithful pastors wish to say yes. Their hearts beat with the famous words of John the Baptist, that prophet of the lifted voice and pointed finger: “He must increase, but I must decrease” (John 3:30). At their best, pastors are matchmakers between the bride of Christ and her glorious Groom.
Yes, at their best. But of course, pastors are not always at their best. Sometimes, a small inner voice suggests, “He must increase, and I must too.”
Alone in the Jordan
Even as a young pastor — with months, not years, of official ministry behind me — I feel this split ambition. At times, the words “he must increase, but I must decrease” burn like holy fire in my bones. And at other times, they just burn.
Maybe, my flesh sometimes proposes, I can show others Jesus while also showing something of myself. Maybe I can win others’ hearts to Christ while also winning their hearts to me. Maybe some of the glory I preach can fall upon my shoulders. But then I take a closer look at the context of John’s words, and I find the rebuke, and the help, I need.
Perhaps you remember the situation. God had given surprising fruit to the ministry of the Baptist, that desert-dwelling, locust-eating prophet. His sermons about the Christ had drawn thousands to his river pulpit in the Jordan. Some Jews wondered if John himself might be the Christ (John 1:19–28).
And then, at the height of the awakening, the crowds leave as quickly as they came, for the Lord, whose way John had been preparing, suddenly appears on the way (John 1:29–31; 3:22). John finds himself knee-deep in the increasingly obscure Jordan of his ministry, the banks once so full of people now nearly bare. His disciples draw the humbling conclusion: “Rabbi, he who was with you across the Jordan, to whom you bore witness — look, he is baptizing, and all are going to him” (John 3:26).
All are going to him. Moments like these reveal a man’s heart. Has he preached Christ for Christ’s sake, or for the sake of a bustling ministry? Has he counted baptisms for Christ’s kingdom, or for his own? Has he rejoiced to hear others praise Jesus, or praise John?
In words that likewise deserve a place on every pulpit, John leaves no doubt: “He must increase, but I must decrease” (John 3:30).
Heart of the Baptist
To be sure, John spoke these famous words at a unique moment in redemptive history. The age of the Christ had come; therefore, the age of old-covenant prophecy had ended.