He Must Increase,
But I Must Decrease
James T. Dennison, Jr.
John 3: 22-31
This is the last speech of the Baptist in the fourth gospel. This desert rat; this Elijah redivivus (who nonetheless disclaims that he is Elijahprofound Johannine irony that); this kerux of the fullness of timeJohn the Baptist utters his valedictory and disappears from John's story of Jesus. True, he is mentioned again by Jesus in chapter 5 where his testimony to the truth is compared with the testimony of Jesus himselfChrist's testimony incomparably greater than John's (5:36). And the Baptist's non-miraculous ministry is described by the crowds beyond the Jordan (10:41)contrasting Christ's ministry which is one miraculous sign after another with John who performed no miracles. So that even when he does not speak, John the Baptist is compared to Christ, related to Christ, joined to ChristChrist greater than John; Christ the one before all, even John; Christ the one above all, yeseven John. Christ is the center for John the Baptist; his last speech exegetical of his entire career"He must increase, but I must decrease."
A sermon preached at the Westminster Orthodox Presbyterian Church, Westminster, California, on May 22, 1999 during the service of ordination and installation of Reverend Yong H. Kim as Associate Pastor of the Westminster Church (laboring at Theophilus Orthodox Presbyterian Chapel, Diamond Bar, California).
This last speech of this last of the prophets of the Old Testament erathis last speech casts us back to his first speech. If the last speech of the Baptist is the diminishing of himself in relation to Christ, his first speech is his renunciation of messianic pretense. "I am not the Christ" (1:20). Here is the key to the Baptist's identitya key already provided by the evangelist in his magnificent Prologue. But now from his own lipsno Messiah am I! Not me! There is no pretense in the Baptist; no ambition to be what he is not; no messianic delusions; no guru mentality; no identity crisis; no self-centeredness. "I am not the Christ; I am the voice of one crying in the wilderness make straight the way of the Lord." Not the Christ, and John the Baptist is content to be what he is not. John the Baptist is content with Jesus. It is very difficult for the modern church to comprehend this self-effacing spirit, for the modern church and its leaders are full of themselvesfull of what they are not. But to parade what they are; to parade what they wannabe; to parade what they lust after; to parade themselves: this is the mark of the modern church and its leaders. How incomprehensible is the Baptist to such a self-centered church.
But the Baptist, exempt from any narcissism, declares that indeed he knows who he is. He understands his role in the grand plan of Godin the sweep of the history of redemption. John the Baptist knows himself to be the harbingerthe voice of one crying make ready for the coming of the Lord! John the Baptist knows himself to be the Isaianic forerunnerthe herald of the Ebed Yahweh/Servant of the Lord. John the Baptist knows that he is a man of the desert in preparation for the eschatological transformation to be inaugurated "in the wilderness." What is on the verge of eruption in the days of John the Baptist is the inaugural fulfillment of Isaiah 40-66. Nothing less than the turning of the ages from anticipation to realization is at hand. The end of the age is upon him and John heralds the dawn of Isaiah's golden aeon. And he heralds that eschatological transformation with a water ritea passing through the waters in confirmation that the new age is upon himthe new Isaianic era is both upon him and upon the people of God. The old is behindwashed away in waters of ritual purification; but the newthe new age of the Christthe age of the Spiritthe age of the washing from abovethe age of the washing from out of heaventhat long-expected aeon is upon him.
And he sees! John the Baptist beholds the One upon whom the Spirit rests. John the Baptist beholds the One upon whom the Spirit out of heaven remains and abides. This One washes with no waterthis one washes with no natural orderthis One washes with the Spiritthe Spirit out of heaven. He who comes, brings the Spirit down from heaven and bathes his sons and daughters in the waters of everlasting life.
Here is a messenger of the natural order who proclaims a supernatural ordera baptism from abovea washing from heaven itself a cleansing which comes from the very arena from which the One who himself cleanses comes. John the Baptist knowsnot my baptism, his baptism. Not my natural washing in water, his supernatural washing in water. Not my temporal water rite, his eternal one. Not my provisional ordinance, his eschatological provision.
Yet John testifies that this One who has come is more than bearer of the Spirit; he is the Lamb of God. Yes, he is the supreme Passover Lamb; John the evangelist makes that clear in his crucifixion narrative, chapter 19:14. But John the Baptist, as if summing up all the Law and the Prophets in himself, John the Baptist as the last figure of the Old Testament eraJohn the Baptist sees every sacrificial lamb summed up, come to realization in this Lamb. This last Lambthis final Lambthis all-sufficient Lambthis Lamb who once and for all takes away the sin of the worldthis Lamb who will utter what no previous lamb ever uttered: "It is finished." Sin, guilt condemnation it is finished! I have covered all of your sins; I have remitted all of your guilt; I have cancelled all of your condemnation; I have put all of them to death in my death! Every lamb from the blood of Abel's to the Suffering Servant of Isaiah 53; every lamb from Mount Moriah to Mount Zion: every sacrificial lamb is completed and displacedyeah, replacedin me! This Lamb is your lambthe lamb who once and for all takes away your sin, and by his bloodby his precious blood shed for yousays, "It is finished." To you, this Lamb says, "It is finished; you have passed overyou have passed over out of death into life."
The eschatological bearer and bringer of the Spirit is the eschatological Lamb of God. He is also the Son of God. And the Son of God?He is God! Here is a Christological title which stands out boldly in John the Baptist's inaugural proclamation of he who comes. For the first time, this majestic title for Jesus bursts from the lips of the Baptist at chapter 1, verse 34. And that title, Son of God, will occur on page after page of this gospel to chapter 20 verse 31 together with its concomitantthat the Son of God is the "I AM"the bearer of the theophanic name himself! Surely this fourth gospel is the supreme gospel of the deity of Christ. But the modern church simply cannot abide this. At every point, modernist reductionism brings Jesus downdown to the level of the creature. Currently the progressive theological view is to demythologize and reduce Jesus to a deconstructed Jewish peasantthe so-called marginal Jew. Nor is this a new heresyfrom Arius to the Socinians to the Unitarians to the Jehovah's Witnesses to the liberals, to the postmodern deconstructions of orthodox Trinitarian Christology, the culturally hip modern church cannot confess a Jesus who is God. Like God, shows us God, reveals what God is like, but as you well know from Machen's Christianity and Liberalism and Vos's Self-Disclosure of Jesus the liberal, modernist, postmodern church will not identify Jesus with God. For them, it may not be precisely clear who Jesus is, but it is always clear who Jesus is nothe is not the second person of the eternal Godhead.
But for John the Baptist, if Jesus is not God, God the Son, he is not the Lamb of God who takes away sin! For John the Baptist, if Jesus is not God, God the Son, he is not the heaven-descended Spirit-Baptizer. For John the Baptist, everything collapses if Jesus is not God, God the Son. So too for us. Only if Jesus is "our Lord and our God" are our sins covered. How desperately we need a covering for our sins; and how desperately we need God, God the Son, to cover them! Only if Jesus is "our Lord and our God" are we able to be washed by the baptism from heaventhe baptism of the Spirit. How desperately we need washed, washed from out of heaven; and how desperately we need the One from heaven!God, God the Sonto wash us with heaven's own baptism.
To this point, I have focused on the retrospective element in the Baptist's witness to Christ. This approach is not artificial; it is not contrivedit flows from our text as you will observe. Verse 28 of chapter 3 contains the backward glance to John's affirmations in chapter 1not the Christ, but the one sent before him to bear witness to who he is. But you will observe that John's valedictory speech in chapter 3 contains more than a retrospective glance to chapter 1 and its plethora of Christological titlesMessiah, Spirit-Baptizer, Lamb of God, Son of God. You will observe that chapter 3 verse 29 contains the image of a wedding celebration. Surely this is more than a mere tantalizing connection with Jesus' invitation to the wedding at Cana in chapter 2. John designates himself the friend of the bridegroomthe friend who knows his role when the nuptial night arrivesthe friend who knows that from this time, the bridegroom and the bride are central. Jesus' first miracle was a sign that the wedding feast has arrived for the eschatological bridegroom and his bride. Not the changing of water into bloodrather a wedding gift from the eschatological guestwater into wine. John the Baptist is aware that the bridegroom has come and nownow all who love the bridegroom are guests at his marriage supper. Indeed, this is fullness of joy!
And verses 27 and 31 of chapter 3? With their references to the one from above, the one from heaven? Surely you see it! The testimony of the Baptist dovetails with Jesus' own remarks to Nicodemus: you must be born from above; you must be born from heaven. Heaven itself must birth youintruding its new life, its heavenly life, its regenerate life into your life. The life of heavenfrom abovetaking possession of those who receive itnow reborn, heaven-begotten children of God.
Now you understand why John the Baptist steps aside from John the evangelist's story of Jesus in chapter 3. From John chapter 4, Christ must increase. Christ's identity and saving work must increase and expand through the display of his miraculous signs, his marvellous discourses, his passion, resurrection and post-resurrection great commission of Peter and the disciples. This one baptized with the Holy Spirit promises to return to heaven and send forth the Spirit out of heaven to drench his people. This one designated Lamb of God will hang upon a cross at Golgotha so that heaven's own judgment in falling upon him will not fall upon usyea, the wrath of God will pass over because this Lamb's blood speaks life, not death. And this one from heaven, with the life of heaven, this one will diewill experience the very antithesis of heavenin a tombin a dark tombin the pit of sheolas a lifeless corpse; only to be born again on the third dayborn again by resurrection from the dead. Jesus himself born from above; Jesus himself regenerated via resurrectionso that we may be born againwe may be born from aboveborn from heaven. Here is the majestic "increase" which John the Baptist saw only afar off, but you and Iwe have seen its fullness. Indeed, he must increase because his historyhis storyis the story of heaven's Sonheaven's childliving our history. Yes, living our history: birth, life, death, burialJesus lives our history that he may transform our history: new birth; new life, resurrection from the dead, a place prepared for us in his Father's many mansions.
If the modern church cannot see John the Baptist as any other than a peculiar wilderness figure, it is because the modern church does not perceive the heavenly witness of the Baptist. And more tragically, if the modern church cannot see Jesus as any other than a man ("he's only a man, he's nothing but a man"), it is because the contemporary church is too self-centered too self-absorbed, too political, too manipulative, too bureaucratic, too personality-centered to allow the Son of God his rightful preeminence. Whether the Reformed Church can understand her moment in history short of the third millennium, God knows. But the indications are not salientdivisions, personal agendas, squabbles, majoring in minors, overstuffed egos, guru mentalities, movers and shakers together with their wannabees! What does any of this wood, hay and stubble have to do with Christwith Christ increasing and youyes, you!decreasing. Liberal reductionism is moralism; conservative reductionism is fundamentalism. But they both have the same systemic root: both are tyrannical.
Hear then the last word of the final prophet of the Old Testamenthear the valedictory of this Elijah: Christ must increase, you must decrease. No! Not the Arminian down the streetyou, you must decrease. No! Not the apostate mainliner on the corneryou! you must decrease. You have no other legacyno other testimonyno other heritage: it is Christ and the increase of Christ or it is nothing! As a particular person said, It is not about us; it is not about us!it is about Christ!
John the Baptist begins with heavenJohn the Baptist begins with heaven's ChristJohn the Baptist begins with understanding himself. I am not the Christhe must increase, I must decrease. Hear this prophet members of the Reformed church; give ear to this desert rat, fathers and brethren of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church. For if you increase and Christ decreases; if you increase and Christ decreases, you will demonstrate that you are not from heaven, you are not born from above, you are not guests of the bridegroom, but like Nicodemus in chapter 3, you are teachers of Israel and have not yet begun to understand these things.
But come, join Nicodemus in John chapter 19; and as you take heaven's child and tenderly lay his body in the tombas you await the heaven-intruded resurrection-life of the third dayyou too will become what Nicodemus became; you will become a master in the New Israelthe Israel born from heaven as Nicodemus finally confessed himself to be; Nicodemus born from above, at last centering his life upon his Lordcradling his Lambcradling his Lamb from the crosscradling his crucified Lamb in his arms.
Fathers and brethren, brothers and sisters, it is Christ who must be central. For Christ alone brings heaven down to your soul in a blazing new birth. Christ alone brings heaven's declaration that all your sins are forgiven in the blood of this Lamb; Christ alone brings heaven's invitation to the wedding to the eschatological wedding to the marriage supper of this Lamb.
I leave you with Christthe bringer of the birth from abovethe baptizer with the Holy Spiritthe forgiver of all your iniquitiesthe very Son of the Fatherthe host at the eschatological wedding feast. Surely you realize even more than John the Baptistsurely you realize, Christ must increase, Christ must increase, but wewe must decrease.