Here are some rough notes from a sermon I preached yesterday on John 3:25-36. I hope you find them edifying!
The Joy of Decreasing for the Fame of His Name
- The context
- The Joy of Decreasing
- The Preeminence of Christ in All things
I want us all to come away with the realization that as Christians we ought to be continually “decreasing” in order that the fame of Jesus might “increase.” There are by-products of this, and one of them is that we will realize great joy.
The imperative to decrease is fueled by the fact that we, as the bride of Christ, have a bridegroom who is worthy of our devotion, obedience and love.
Read with me the words of John as inspired by the Holy Spirit
3:25-26 Now a discussion arose between some of John’s disciples and a Jew over purification.  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 John had this great ministry going here across the Jordan. He was attracting a lot of followers and many of these men began to get concerned when the crowds died down. Soon they learn that they’re not showing up in more because they’re more interested in what Jesus has to say, so they’re following Jesus instead of John.
So John’s disciples are saying, in affect, “Houston we have a problem!”
Oddly enough, we’re presented with the issue in an odd context. The Apostle says that the disciples of John were arguing about purification, and then in verse 26 they seem to move on to a discussion on the ministry of Christ and how people seem to be leaving John’s ministry and going to Jesus’ ministry. So this sort of leaves you scratching your head because you might wonder, “What in the world does purification have to do with anything? And why didn’t they finish talking about the discussion over purification?” It just seems like an odd piece of information to stick in there all by itself.
In order to understand the context, we need to understand what these men were talking about. What is the connection between their discussion of purification and their anxiety over the flourishing of Jesus’ ministry?
I think John Piper is on the right track when he says that perhaps there was a confusion over whether or not John’s baptism was “working” since all these people were getting baptized and then going over to Jesus’ ministry. You have a purification issue John! Or so they seemed to be saying…[i]
You see what was going on here is that people were finding in Jesus the words of life. They were finding peace. The man who would be washing souls for all eternity was attracting a bigger crowd than John.
This man would later say, “I counsel you to buy from me gold refined by fire, so that you may be rich, and white garments so that you may clothe yourself and the shame of your nakedness may not be seen, and salve to anoint your eyes, so that you may see” (Rev. 3:18).
John doesn’t answer the purification issue directly but rather indirectly, by saying that the bride of Christ will be purified by the bridegroom who is the perfect and spotless sacrificial lamb. The marriage picture is the same – we die for our wives, we love them, we sanctify them by washing them in the Word.
John is going to point them to the fact that it is the bridegroom who purifies the bride – and there is cleansing found in no other avenue.
This is the context for John’s answer…
The Joy of Decreasing
3:27-29 John answered, “A person cannot receive even one thing unless it is given him from heaven.  You yourselves bear me witness, that I said, ‘I am not the Christ, but I have been sent before him.’  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.
John begins answering them in verse 27 with a rebuke – he’s basically saying, “nothing that is happening now would be happening if it were not in God’s will and if He had not ordained it to be happening.”
It sounds similar to what James says, “Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change” (James 1:17).
Note “who stands and hears him” is significant. This is the voice of the Lord. This is the life-giving power of God in audible form. This is the voice that called out “Lazarus!” from the tomb. This is the voice that John had been waiting for!
“No body would be going to Jesus if heaven weren’t giving them to Jesus” Piper says.
Look at how incredibly happy John is that Christ is the one who is getting the glory; it causes him to “rejoice greatly.” Let’s not miss this. He is so happy because his ministry is coming to a close, and that means that Christ’s ministry is about to bloom. Not only is he rejoicing but also his joy is “complete.” John finds his ultimate purpose in his exaltation of Christ. This is what makes him ultimately happy, ultimately joyful.
So this is the key point here: John’s purpose and joy in life now and in the hereafter is inextricably tethered to the fame of Christ’s name.
3:30 He must increase, but I must decrease.”
What an amazing statement. Can you say and can I say truly, “He must increase, while I, PJ, must decrease.” It is this decreasing that which is the mechanism that brings him joy.
But what does it mean to “decrease”? I believe it means to value and treasure Jesus’ reputation (fame) and glory over and above our own fame and glory.
John Piper paraphrases John’s statement this way, “When Jesus becomes more in the world and I become less in the world, my joy goes up.” Piper continues by saying that John’s response is “a joyful response to God’s sovereign self-exaltation.”
You see, for John the Baptist, his joy increased as Jesus’ ministry increased. His spiritual joy increased as his own worldly fame and ministry decreased. The more his ministry magnified Jesus, the more joy he was going to have. This is because his identity and happiness was not determined by his own fame and success, but was indivisibly indissolubly bound to Jesus.
In order to give this truth life, John uses the picture of the bride and his bridegroom. The bridegroom was coming – and what could be better for the bride!
I am reminded of Charles Wesley’s famous hymn ‘Come Thou Long Expected Jesus’ because it echoes John’s heart. There is a line in that hymn which calls Jesus the “Dear Desire of every nation” and the “Joy of every longing heart.” That’s what He was for John.
Christian, it is God who who kindles these desires and thoughts of the heart within us. It is a desire inhering within all who have been born of the Spirit and joined to the body of Christ.
Paul expresses it this way:
If then you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth. For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ who is your life appears, then you also will appear with him in glory. (Colossians 3:1-4)
Therefore our joy is realized now by nature of the hope we have for the future.
For all who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God. For you did not receive the spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received the Spirit of adoption as sons, by whom we cry, “Abba! Father!” The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs—heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him. For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us. (Romans 8:14-18)
Therefore it is the Spirit living in us who testifies to us that we are 1. United to Christ and 2. Have a great hope for the future as heirs of the kingdom of God. And this is what brings us great joy!
Christ Himself understood this joy – that is why He was able to endure the cross and the shame. As Hebrews 12:2 says, “…who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame…”
Making Christ Central – He is Supremely Valuable
So how do we find real joy – and I mean real happy, thrilled, hair-raising all-satisfying joy – in Christ the way that John is describing here? I would argue that in order for us to find real joy, life-transforming joy in Christ, we must learn to value Christ above all other things. John understood the real value of Christ, and so he eagerly looked for Him and was thrilled that he could “decrease.”
The thinking goes something like this according to Christ, “The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which a man found and covered up. Then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field” (Matthew 13:44).
For John, everything he had, his entire life was wrapped up in this ministry and now it was leaving him, and what was his response? He was thrilled! Why? Because he had already sold everything, he didn’t want or need followers, he wanted and needed Christ. Christ was the object of supreme value to him. He had found his treasure.[ii]
The Preeminence of Jesus
In light of the Baptist’s statement, we are right to examine what the apostle says about this man he wants to see “increase.” There’s a reason these verses immediately follow the Baptist’s statement.
The Apostle wants us to know that what flowed from John’s mouth was a result of his evaluation of Jesus – his soul comprehended that this teacher was no mere man – He was the supreme ruler of the universe.
John’s words were regulated by his soul’s comprehension of the majesty and authority of Jesus.
We must not miss this. Jesus is the one and only absolute authority in heaven and on earth. His ministry is one of singular supremacy – He reigns over all.
If you are a sinner, lost without Christ, this is a terrifying truth. If you are a Christian, held closely to the bosom of Christ, this is a magnificent truth, it is a beautiful truth – for He is your sovereign. Indeed He is sovereign over all even if those who don’t recognize His reign.
As Abraham Kuyper once famously said, “Oh, no single piece of our mental world is to be hermetically sealed off from the rest, and there is not a square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is Sovereign over all, does not cry: ‘Mine!’”
Here are 5 ways in which John comprehended the supremacy of Christ…
3:31 He who comes from above is above all. He who is of the earth belongs to the earth and speaks in an earthly way. He who comes from heaven is above all.
First: Christ had a Heavenly Origin[iii]
His claim to be divine is at the core of His supremacy. Jesus’ words have a force behind them that ordinary men’s words do not have.
Saying Jesus is “from heaven” and contrasting his origin with those who are from the earth is simply another way of proclaiming His deity. This man is – by His nature – is above all.
This really gets at the nucleus of our religion and why we worship, praise, and trust Jesus. We believe that Jesus was not a normal man.[iv] John’s disciples had not yet come to this realization. John is not simply commending them to a better teacher, he’s not just being humble, he’s saying that he MUST decrease – what else can one do before the King of kings?
3:32 He bears witness to what he has seen and heard, yet no one receives his testimony.
Second: Christ Knew the Truth First Hand
Being divine, and having come from heaven, He would have heard the Father’s words first hand. Being both God and man, He understood the will of God for mankind perfectly. He was able to testify to God’s words with perfect accuracy because He was in the presence of God, but also because He was/is God!
Imaging Christ “hearing” testimony of the Father in the midst of a holy Trinitarian conversation in heaven is hard to picture mentally. Our finite minds cannot exactly know how they communicate with one another. These are the kinds of things that men cannot know; they are mysteries far too deep for us to plum.
But being the great Teacher/Rabbi, Jesus spoke in ways that we can comprehend the major concept up to a point where our mental acuity runs out of road.
It was not because of the depth of the truths that men did not receive His testimony, however. Despite His gracious condescension and amazing communication ability, many still did not accept what He had to say and this was because of their sin:
And this is the judgment: the light has come into the world, and people loved the darkness rather than the light because their works were evil. (John 3:19)
3:33 Whoever receives his testimony sets his seal to this, that God is true.
Third: Christ’s Testimony Always Agreed with God
What John is saying here is that once we agree (“set our seal to” the fact) that God is the very essence of truth, we necessarily have a basis for putting our trust in the testimony of His Son.
If we agree that God is the very embodiment and essence of truth, and we believe that Jesus is His Son, then we should believe everything Jesus says.
In His High Priestly Prayer, Jesus says…
And this is eternal life, that they know you the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent. (John 17:3)
The inverse reality is that if you do not receive the testimony of Jesus, you are by implication calling God a liar:
Whoever believes in the Son of God has the testimony in himself. Whoever does not believe God has made him a liar, because he has not believed in the testimony that God has borne concerning his Son. (1 John 5:10)
Therefore you either believe His message, or you believe He is a liar. There is no middle ground.
3:34 For he whom God has sent utters the words of God, for he gives the Spirit without measure.
Fourth: Christ Experienced the Power of the Holy Spirit Without Limit
As James Boice points out, some have erroneously thought this passage means that God gives the Spirit to believers without measure, but that is obviously not the case as our own experience bears witness. A few quick reasons of explanation should suffice:
- It is also preposterous to think that mere humans without the nature of divinity (as Christ had) could possible contain the fullness of the Spirit.
- If we did have the Spirit without limit, we would see miracle after miracle.
- Lastly, it’s our experience that in our sinfulness we often live lives not characterized as Spirit-filled. We do not tap into the power of the Spirit nearly as much as one would expect who had the full and unlimited power of the Spirit “without measure.”
This is therefore referring to our Lord, who was divine and given an unlimited power of the Spirit during His time on earth.
John is specifically relating the “words” of Jesus to His having the Spirit without measure. Not only is this the divine God-man, He is full of the Holy Spirit – to such a degree that every word He spoke was not only verifiable in their veracity, but because they passed over His lips were actually the very definition of truth. His words were true, had the power to heal bodies, cast out demons, calm storms, create food ex-nihilo, and forgive the sins of man.
In the greatly “increasing” ministry of Christ, every word spoken was drenched in the righteous truth of the Spirit.
3:35-36 The Father loves the Son and has given all things into his hand.  Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life; whoever does not obey the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God remains on him.
Fifth: Christ received all Authority from the Father
If Jesus is divine, as we have reasoned from above, then it means that everything He has to say is something we need to be paying attention to. He has all authority.
By way of analogy, when I was a child I think its safe to say that I tested the bounds of authority! One way in which I did this was that from time to time I would ask my one parent for permission to do something, and if they said “no”, I would promptly go and ask the other parent for permission in the hopes of winning the old “divide and conquer” game!
Now, unfortunately what normally happened was that when the parents conferenced with each other my plot would be discovered, and I would be punished. My parents formed a united front. Anything my mom said my dad agreed upon and vise versa. They had the same mind, and there was no disunity between them. I came to learn this quickly!
So it is with the authority of Christ – and so it ought to be with us by way of extension. That is to say that because we are co-regents with Christ, have the mind of Christ, and have the Spirit of Christ, we act on authority not intrinsically inhering within our natural state. Rather our authority is from Jesus. We preach, teach, serve, and love others by the authority and power of Jesus.
John Piper says, “These are breathtaking words. God sent Jesus. Jesus speaks the very words of God. God gives him the Spirit immeasurably—and always has. The Father loves him. The Father has given all things into his hand. So Jesus is the God-sent, God-loved, God-speaking, Spirit-permeated, all-authoritative ruler of all things.”
Finally, in verse 36 we’re informed of the stakes – and they are high…John tells us that whoever believes these things about Christ will reap eternal life.
The word “remains” indicates that the de-facto state of affairs for humanity is to be under the sentence of God’s wrath. Only until that wrath is mediated are we safe.
Do not make the mistake of elevating any other man or ministry above the supreme Son of God. You have no other means by which you can pacify God’s wrath. John is saying that the Son has such authority that only belief in Him and His word will save you from everlasting condemnation.
You may have heard military leaders talk about “proportional response” – it is a phrase that carries a somewhat subjective sense of justice, but the idea is that when attacked or provoked by an enemy, the response ought to be “proportional” to that attack. That is the moral guidance Generals in the Army or Air Force use with political leader to make judgments about the appropriateness of their counterattacks during a war.
However, human relationships with God are marked by disproportionality. God has lavished upon us what we cannot – even if we wished – repay with good behavior.
The most appropriate response in light of His work in our lives is to decrease. For John, the greater the fame of Jesus, the greater his own joy. John’s example is that of a man whose identity in life is intrinsically tied to the greatness of Jesus.
What is Jesus’ by right is John’s (and ours) by association.
John shows us how foolish it is to compare oneself or hold one’s self up in competition to Jesus. This man is above all! And to drive home the point, he gives us little glimpses into who this Bridegroom is.
- If you object, then understand this – this Jesus is the One who holds all things in his hand. This isn’t another teacher. This is the one who holds eternal a life in his hands (vs 36). Bristling under the weighty thought of surrender to His Lordship invites a realization of wrath. Rejecting Jesus is rejecting life; embracing Jesus is to invite eternal life and joy. There are no other scenarios in which joy can be truly realized.
- If you are a Christian, that means you are part of “the bride of Christ.” The bride’s joy is unalterably connected with the bridegroom, who is Christ. The more we diminish as we magnify His name, the more joy and satisfaction we will have.
I believe we can find true joy in life now and in the hereafter as we decrease, and He increases. We have a supreme Lord who is worthy of our obedient devotion. He is preeminent in ALL things. He is the creator of all things. He is the sustainer of all things, and He chooses whom He will save by His own power, for His own pleasure, and unto His own glory.
Praise God that we are united to such a benevolent Bridegroom!
Let us close in a prayer of adoration for who He is…
[i] Piper says that there are parallels between this and what John writes in Rev. 21:9 which says in the latter part of the verse (an angel speaking to John), “‘Come, I will show you the Bride, the wife of the Lamb.’” The church will experience the purification work of the perfect Lamb. Piper also cites Ephesians 5:25-27 which says, “Husbands, love your wives, as Christ 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.”
[ii] There are some really practical applications here. You may have found Jesus but may not be recognizing the fact that He is the only thing that truly valuable to you. Oh sure, intellectually you understand that because it’s in the Bible that Jesus is good, and because He saved you and you’re a Christian and so on. But is your life designed and structured around the fact that Jesus is THE most valuable thing in your life. Have you sold off everything that gets between you and Christ? Have do done everything to grasp that pearl of great price? Or are you still reaching for the world’s brass ring? When we internalize this truth and apply His supreme value to every aspect of our lives, we realize very quickly that we are idolatrous people. We have lost our first love (Rev. 2:4).
Christ’s value in our lives is brought home to us by the remembrance of His suffering and of His victory over the grave. I hope that we let these truths change us so that when we encounter people fleeing us, and life’s pleasantries falling away, we can still say with John, “this joy of mine is now complete!”
[iii] It was John MacArthur’s own notes that convinced me that these final verses in chapter three scream loudly of the preeminence of Christ. Therefore I used Dr. MacArthur’s subheadings with my own exposition under each one.
[iv] Only an “ego-maniac” would make the claims Jesus did. And surely He would be, if He did not have the right to claim the things He did about Himself. This is something that every non-believer must be confronted with, and it’s the same question that Jesus put to Peter “who do you say I am?” Your response to that question will reveal whether or not you will spend eternal life with Christ or not. Similar claims led C.S. Lewis to famously say:
A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic–on the level with a man who says he is a poached egg–or he would be the devil of hell. You must take your choice. Either this was, and is, the Son of God, or else a madman or something worse. You can shut him up for a fool or you can fall at his feet and call him Lord and God. But let us not come with any patronizing nonsense about his being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us.”[iv]