“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. He must increase, but I must decrease” (vv. 29–30).
After an extended theological comment on Jesus’ meeting with Nicodemus (John 3:16–21), John the Evangelist returns to narrating the story of the ministry of Christ. He tells us that Jesus and His disciples went out into the Judean wilderness, and they were baptizing people (v. 22; although 4:2 indicates that only Jesus’ disciples baptized people). In the course of this work, they ended up not far from John the Baptist, who was “baptizing at Aenon near Salim” (vv. 23–24). This was in the general region that the Jews called Samaria, which was part of the Roman province of Judea. Jesus and the disciples were moving north toward Samaria, where they would meet the Samaritan woman at the well (chap. 4).
Today’s passage, however, tells us more about John the Baptist than about Jesus’ ministry at that point in time. We see in John 3:25 that a debate regarding Jewish rites of purification arose between some of John’s disciples and a Jew outside their group. Since first-century Jews commonly debated issues related to purification, it is not strange that such a discussion occurred. What is interesting is that somehow this debate prompted John the Baptist’s disciples to complain that the ministry of Jesus and His disciples was receiving acclaim: all were “going to him” (v. 26). These followers of John evidently saw Jesus and His followers as rivals and were disturbed by their success.
Yet, John the Baptist did not share this view. He understood that the work of Jesus was supposed to surpass his own. In John 3:27–29, we see John emphasizing his appointed role. His God-given vocation, as important as it was, was to bear witness to One greater than he. He could not have had this important calling unless God had given it to him, but his ministry existed to put the focus on another. Just as the friend of the bridegroom rejoices when the groom gets married and does not seek to be the center of attention at the wedding, so John rejoiced as Christ’s ministry increased.
John the Baptist understood that Jesus had to increase—His glory had to become known and acclaimed—while John had to decrease—his glory had to fade into obscurity. Nevertheless, Scripture tells us that it is in our decreasing that we actually attain greater glory in the end. If we humble ourselves in the sight of the Lord, He will finally exalt us (1 Peter 5:6). Thus, Augustine of Hippo states in a sermon on John 3:30, “May the glory of God then increase in us, and our own glory decrease, that even ours may increase in God!”
Coram DeoLiving before the face of God
Christianity proclaims that the way up is the way down. We are to humble ourselves before God and to serve others. The Lord takes note of such humility and promises to finally exalt His humble servants. The acclaim we receive from Him on that final day will be far greater than any acclaim we might receive from other people on this side of glory.