“He must become greater, I must become less” (John 3:30).
Few accolades compare to the one attached to John the Baptist—“a man who was sent by God” (John 1:6). That’s how we meet him in the fourth Gospel, introduced right after the “Word” and God. This makes him either the second or third character to enter stage-right, depending on how you slice verse 1. Either way, that’s a pretty impressive cast to appear alongside. John is doing well for himself.
He’s doing so well, in fact, that some think he is the Christ (1:19). He keeps denying it (1:19-23, 24-27; 3:28), but the attention probably didn’t feel too bad. “Mistaken for Christ” would look impressive on any resume.
His reputation and ministry are booming. People are “constantly” coming to him to be baptized (3:23). Jesus, himself, calls John a “lamp,” which is as good as it gets in a Gospel all about light (5:35).
But then things fall apart.
By every conceivable standard we use, John’s ministry goes bust. To add insult to injury, his decline coincides neatly with the equal and opposite rise of the new guy.
You know, “that man.”
“…the one who was with you on the other side of the Jordan.”
You remember, that “one you testified about.”
Are you talking about Jesus?
Yea, that’s the guy. “Well, he is baptizing and everyone is going to him” (3:26).
John’s disciples here are so much like us that it’s comical. Even though John has already identified Jesus as “the Lamb of God,” and even made his disciples turn and look at him, rivalry and ego cloud their memory. Can’t even recall the name of the Lamb? Goodness, that’s…unbelievable.
Except that we—especially ministers—know how sinister the ego can be. Try as you might, you don’t get into this ministry gig without a bit of it.
I think Robin Meyers is spot on with his assessment of the ministerial ego. He says:
Audacity comes easily to most preachers. Not because we are a naturally arrogant lot, or have world-saving delusions of grandeur, but because we are asked to perform an audacious act every Sunday—to stand before our congregations and presume to tell strangers the secrets of their own hearts, even when we have yet to admit to all of our own. They listen politely and patiently, even when we don’t know what we are talking about, and a deadly illusion sets in—that we do know what we are talking about. The ego is such a beast. (Meyers, Spiritual Defiance, 1-2)
Or, like the cartoon Pogo said, “We have met the enemy and he is us.”
It’s for this reason that ministers should pay special attention to John’s example here. Because during both his rise and fall he knows exactly what he is supposed to do and refuses to do anything more. He is a witness (1:7) to Christ.
Even when the crowds gather around him, ready to crown him Messiah, he points to Jesus (1:29). He then points out Jesus again, likely anticipating that two of his own disciples would leave him to follow this “Lamb” (1:36-38). And he so frequently preaches about the one who has “surpassed” him, that all his sermons are collectively summarized by that simple refrain (1:15).
He practices resisting the ego by consistently doing the job he is called to do. So, when his ministry is finally eclipsed by Jesus’ his response is no surprise—“He must become greater; I must become less” (3:30).
If practice makes perfect, John has perfected ego-free ministry.
In an era when ministers feel compelled to compare themselves to mega-church pastors with their overflow attendance, beautiful families, healthy paychecks, and private jets, we would be wise to remember John and resist the ego.
More realistically, when we compare ourselves to the minister at the church down the street, where one of our most beloved families moves their membership, we would be wise to remember John and resist the ego.
He must become greater, and we must become less.
Eric and his wife Lindsey have been at Highland Church in Memphis since 2012. You are likely to find them walking the local Greenline with their sons Noble, Foster, and dachshund Tucker. Eric cares deeply about preaching and social justice. He has a BA in Biblical Text and a Master of Divinity from Abilene Christian University. Eric is a board member for HopeWorks, an organization that provides hope and job training to the chronically unemployed and formerly incarcerated in Memphis.