He Must Increase, I Must Decrease
From Gospel Translations
After this Jesus and his disciples went into the Judean countryside, and he remained there with them and was baptizing. 23 John also was baptizing at Aenon near Salim, because water was plentiful there, and people were coming and being baptized 24 (for John had not yet been put in prison). 25 Now a discussion arose between some of John’s disciples and a Jew over purification. 26 And they came to John and said to him, “Rabbi, he who was with you across the Jordan, to whom you bore witness—look, he is baptizing, and all are going to him.” 27 John answered, “A person cannot receive even one thing unless it is given him from heaven. 28 You yourselves bear me witness, that I said, ‘I am not the Christ, but I have been sent before him.’ 29 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. 30 He must increase, but I must decrease.”
Now Jesus is finished talking to Nicodemus, and the scene shifts to the Judean countryside where Jesus and his disciples are baptizing (though John 4:2 says that “Jesus himself did not baptize, but only his disciples”). Verse 22: “After this Jesus and his disciples went into the Judean countryside, and he remained there with them and was baptizing.” This is part of the way Jesus was gathering a following: They signified their repentance and faith in baptism.
Two Bands of Baptizers
Then verse 23 brings in John the Baptist again and gets us ready for the main point of this section. Verses 23–24: “John also was baptizing at Aenon near Salim, because water was plentiful there, and people were coming and being baptized (for John had not yet been put in prison).” So the situation is set: Jesus’ band of brothers is baptizing, and John’s band of brothers is baptizing.
For some reason, this triggers a dispute over purification between John’s disciples and a certain Jewish man. Verse 25: “Now a discussion arose between some of John’s disciples and a Jew over purification.” So the issue is purification, and what seems to have set up the dispute was the two baptizing bands.
A Dispute Over Purification?
That’s all we are told. The debate is never described. In fact, when John’s disciples come to John with the issue, it doesn’t even sound like a purification issue. Verse 26: “And they came to John and said to him, ‘Rabbi, he who was with you across the Jordan, to whom you bore witness—look, he is baptizing, and all are going to him.’”
So what’s the dispute over purification? We can only guess. Maybe it went something like this. A Jewish man says to John’s disciples: “Look, you are baptizing lots of people. It looks like a kind of bath or purification. But more and more people are leaving your movement and going over to that other group gathering around Jesus. So what’s the deal with his baptism and your baptism? Does his work and yours doesn’t? Does his really make people pure and yours fails?”
A New Direction in the Conversation
Maybe the dispute over purification was something like that. It doesn’t seem to be the main issue in what follows. It’s never referred to again. It just seems to get things started and then disappear. But that may not be the case. We will see.
What does appear in verses 27–30 is that John the Baptist takes the conversation in a direction that seems to have nothing to do with purification and everything to do with who Jesus is (as the bridegroom) and who John is (as the friend of the bridegroom) and what’s happening in their ministries (as the bride leaves John and goes to the bridegroom)—and especially how John responds to all this in his heart.
John the Baptist Reprise
Now to figure out what is going on in this passage, pause and ask with me why John, the writer of this Gospel, brings John the Baptist back into the picture again. Remember there are hundreds and hundreds of things that could be told about Jesus that John is leaving out. Remember John 21:25: “Now there are also many other things that Jesus did. Were every one of them to be written, I suppose that the world itself could not contain the books that would be written.”
So why, right here after the Nicodemus conversation, does John bring John the Baptist in again to say in verse 28, “I’m not the Christ,” and to say in verse 29, “I am not the bridegroom but only a friend of the bridegroom,” and to say in verse 30, “He must increase, but I must decrease”?
John’s Joy Over Jesus Increasing
We have heard this theme before. John 1:8: He is not the light. John 1:20: He is not the Christ. John 1:21: He is not Elijah and not the prophet. John 1:23: He is just a voice crying in the wilderness. John 1:27: He is not worthy to unstrap Jesus’ sandals. And lots more. John has humbled himself and exalted Christ already. Why does the writer bring him in again right here to do this again—humble himself and exalt Jesus?
Here is what I think the reason is. John doesn’t just repeat himself here. There are new things that he says and new emotions expressed. My answer to why John the Baptist is brought in right here with these words is that he represents a kind of response to what Jesus had just said that confirms what he said and responds to it in his heart in a way that many in that day and this find unintelligible—namely, abounding joy over himself getting smaller and Jesus getting bigger.
The Attention Is Going to Jesus
Look how verse 29 emphasizes John the Baptist’s joy: “The friend [that’s John] of the bridegroom [that’s Jesus], who stands and hears him, rejoices greatly at the bridegroom’s voice. Therefore this joy of mine is now complete.” Those are strong words: “rejoices greatly” and “this joy of mine is not complete.” Great joy. Complete joy. All owing to what?
The Bridegroom is getting all the attention. The cameras are flashing all in that direction. The rice is all flying in that direction. The honeymoon is in that direction. And nobody glances back at the silenced voice sitting on the church steps. The voice of the Bridegroom, the voice of the Shepherd, has replaced the voice crying in the wilderness. And in a few months, the sword of Herod will absolutely silence John’s voice (cf. verse 24). And John’s response to this—to this diminishing, this decreasing? This great joy of mine is now complete (verse 29).
“Who Is This Egomaniac?”
That was not Nicodemus’ response to Jesus. And there are many today who find this response to the exaltation of Jesus (above his friends) unintelligible.
Last Tuesday, May 13, for example, NPR played an interview with an author who quoted Jesus in Matthew 10:37–38 and asked in his book, “Who is the egomaniac speaking these words?” What Jesus said was,
Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me, and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me. And whoever does not take his cross and follow me is not worthy of me.
Jesus is clearly demanding that we treasure him over everyone and everything else. To many people today, that is sheer egomania. And the people who respond that way find John the Baptist’s reaction unintelligible. It’s the opposite of their own. They see that Jesus demands that we love him more than anyone—that we follow him, trust him, enjoy him, be satisfied in him, delight in him, obey him more than anyone else. That’s true. He does. And their response is exactly the opposite of John the Baptist’s. They remain where Nicodemus was. Flabbergasted (John 3:9). Or appalled.
When Jesus Increases, Joy Increases
But John the Baptist says in verses 29–30, “Therefore this joy of mine is now complete. He must increase, but I must decrease.” When Jesus becomes greater in the world and I become lesser in the world, my joy increases. And when this is the purpose and plan of Jesus himself, it is not egomania. It’s love.
So my answer to the question of why John the Baptist is brought in right here is to illustrate a joyful response to the radical things Jesus had been saying to Nicodemus about himself and about the sovereign work of God in salvation. You could call it a joyful response to God’s sovereign self-exaltation.
How Will John Respond?
Let’s take a closer look to see the connection more closely. Jesus had said in verse 21 that unlike the man who loves darkness and hates light, the man who does the truth “comes to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that his works have been carried out in God.” In other words, one of the main marks of the born-again person is that he loves for it to be clearly seen that his new birth, his new deeds, new attitude, new affections are “carried out in God.” That is, in the power of God. He loves to make it clear that his newness is a work of God—a work of sovereign grace.
Now notice how the words of John the Baptist relate to this. John’s disciples say at the end of verse 26 that John is losing followers: “All are going to him.” What will John’s response be?
This Is God’s Plan
Verse 27: “John answered, ‘A person cannot receive even one thing unless it is given him from heaven.” His answer is that the reason these people are leaving him and going to Jesus is that God is giving them to Jesus. “A person cannot receive one thing”—one person, let alone a throng—unless it is given him from heaven (that is, from God).” That’s the point of verse 21—the people who come to Jesus love to make it clear that God gave them to Jesus. This is exactly what we saw last time in John 6:37, “All that the Father gives me will come to me.”
In other words, these words of John the Baptist are here because they underline and confirm the sovereign work of God in people coming to Christ that Jesus just spoke about in John 3:21 and 3:8. “You wonder why they are turning away from me and going to Christ,” John says. “God is doing this. He is giving them to his Son (6:37, 44, 65). And it will be clearly seen that their coming has been carried out in the power of God.”
Then in verse 28, John tells his disciples that this is no surprise because God sent him for this very thing—that people would turn away from him and go to Christ. Verse 28: “You yourselves bear me witness, that I said, ‘I am not the Christ, but I have been sent before him.’” God sent him for this. This was God’s plan. Gather a people and then give them up. Rise like a star in the wilderness, and then burn out like a meteorite. That’s the plan. John knows it. And as it happens, his joy increases.
The Voice of the Bridegroom
Then he totally surprises us with a new image in verse 29. “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.”
Why the mention of the bridegroom’s voice? Why does the friend of the bridegroom—John the Baptist—rejoice greatly over the bridegroom’s voice? Perhaps only because his voice means he is here. And the friend is glad he’s here. But I suspect it’s more than that. John the Baptist described himself in John 1:23 as “the voice” crying in the wilderness. His own voice has gathered a people. But now they are all leaving and going to Jesus. Why? Because another voice is being heard. A greater voice. A stronger voice. “The sheep hear his voice, and he calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. . . . The sheep follow him, for they know his voice” (John 10:3–4).
The bridegroom has the bride because the bride has a voice, and the bride knows the voice of her husband. And she leaves John and goes to him. John rejoices in the voice of the bridegroom, not just because the bridegroom is here, but because the voice gathers the bride—and it gathers her precisely away from John. Which is why the next words out of his mouth in verse 30 are, “He must increase, but I must decrease.” It must be so. And in this I rejoice.
The Divine Must
The “must” of verse 30 is very important. This is God’s must. It’s the must of a divine plan. In verse 27, God gives people to Jesus, and they leave John the Baptist and go to Jesus. This is God’s doing. This is part of the “must” of verse 30.
And in verse 28, God sends John not to be the Christ but to go before and point to him. So it’s God’s plan that John gather a people and then send them away to Jesus. This is part of the divine “must” of verse 30.
Jesus’ Superior Voice
Then in verse 29, John focuses on the bridegroom’s voice. This is a voice superior to his own voice. This voice raises the dead (5:25; 11:43). This voice is known by all the sheep, and they follow (10:3–4). This voice woos and wins the bride. She knows her husband and goes to him. The one who has the bride is the bridegroom. We know that; she would not go to another. This is God’s doing. It is part of the “must” of verse 30.
So John sums up God’s work in verse 30: “He must increase and I must decrease.” He must. This is the plan of God. The Son of God, the bridegroom, will be exalted. He will be glorified. He will increase in the eyes of man. Or as verse 21 says, it will be “clearly seen” that the new works of all his people are his work.
To See John’s Response—And Imitate It
And contrary to all ordinary human nature, this is why John the Baptist rejoices with great joy and calls his joy finally full. Verse 29–30: “[He] rejoices greatly at the bridegroom’s voice. Therefore this joy of mine is now complete. He must increase, but I must decrease.”
This is why John, the writer of this Gospel, records these words here. Nicodemus was baffled by the Christ-exalting sovereignty of God in the new birth. John saw it and loved it: “Nobody leaves me and goes to Jesus unless it is given him from heaven (verse 27). And there they go—away from me to Jesus—so this is the work of heaven. This is the glorification of the Son, the Shepherd, the Bridegroom, the sovereign voice. He increases, and I decrease. And this is the fullness of my joy.”
That is what John, the Gospel writer, wants us to see. And be.
What About Purification?
One last observation. All of this got started in verse 25 because of a discussion over purification. Verse 25: “Now a discussion arose between some of John’s disciples and a Jew over purification.” Did John have nothing to say about this? Did he just leave it behind?
You judge. If John had referred to Jesus the way he did in 1:29, “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” we would say: There it is! There’s the connection with purification from sin. The Lamb is sacrificed for sinners and purifies them from their sin.
The Purified Wife of the Lamb
But instead, in verse 29, John speaks of Christ as the bridegroom and the church as the bride. But is there a connection between these two in the mind of John—both Johns (the Baptist and the Gospel writer)? Listen to Revelation 21:9: “Come, I will show you the Bride, the wife of the Lamb.” The bride is the wife of the Lamb. So the Bridegroom is the Lamb that takes away the sin of the world.
So maybe it’s not surprising to hear Paul speak of Christ as the bridegroom of the church, and explicitly say that he sanctifies her and purifies her. Ephesians 5:25–27:
Husbands, love your wives, as Christ [the bridegroom] loved the church and gave himself up for her, that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, so that he might present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish.
So when John tells us that Jesus is the bridegroom and that he has the bride, he is indeed answering the question about purification. The Bridegroom is the Lamb. The Bridegroom does give himself for his bride and purify her from all her sins.
Turning to the Savior
And so in the end, it’s not so strange, is it, that John the Baptist would see this bridegroom increase—and see all his followers turn to the bridegroom and see himself decrease—and say, in this my joy is complete?
They are not turning to an egomaniac. They are turning to a Savior. A Lamb. A Protector. A Provider. A Leader. Like none they’ve ever known. How could they not love him more than anyone else?