22 Then Jesus and his disciples left Jerusalem and went into the Judean countryside. Jesus spent some time with them there, baptizing people.
23 At this time John the Baptist was baptizing at Aenon, near Salim, because there was plenty of water there; and people kept coming to him for baptism. 24 (This was before John was thrown into prison.) 25 A debate broke out between John’s disciples and a certain Jew over ceremonial cleansing. 26 So John’s disciples came to him and said, “Rabbi, the man you met on the other side of the Jordan River, the one you identified as the Messiah, is also baptizing people. And everybody is going to him instead of coming to us.”
27 John replied, “No one can receive anything unless God gives it from heaven. 28 You yourselves know how plainly I told you, ‘I am not the Messiah. I am only here to prepare the way for him.’ 29 It is the bridegroom who marries the bride, and the best man is simply glad to stand with him and hear his vows. Therefore, I am filled with joy at his success. 30 He must become greater and greater, and I must become less and less.
31 “He has come from above and is greater than anyone else. We are of the earth, and we speak of earthly things, but he has come from heaven and is greater than anyone else. 32 He testifies about what he has seen and heard, but how few trust what he tells them! 33 Anyone who accepts his testimony can affirm that God is true. 34 For he is sent by God. He speaks God’s words, for God gives him the Spirit without limit. 35 The Father loves his Son and has put everything into his hands. 36 And anyone who trusts God’s Son has eternal life. Anyone who doesn’t obey the Son will never experience eternal life but remains under God’s angry judgment.”
John the Baptist. Here was a guy full of the Spirit of God. Jesus called him the greatest of all the prophets (which is saying a lot when you think about Elijah, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, etc., that’s a very select group to be the top of). He knew his ministry was from God. He knew he was right where he was supposed to be, doing exactly what he was meant to do (you know, that elusive spot so many of us chase for most of our lives). And yet, he saw his numbers and influence declining. More and more people were going over to Jesus. The other three Gospels make it seem as if John just stopped after Jesus came on the scene, but here we see there was some overlap. John and Jesus were baptizing almost side-by-side for a while. The pretext of the discussion is not clear. John the evangelist does not make clear why a ceremonial washing debate between John’s disciples and some random person should lead them to ask John about Jesus. It may have been that whatever the pretext, this issue of John’s decline was the concern closest to their hearts.
Pay close attention to what John says here. He describes himself as the best man, not the groom, and expresses gladness and joy at seeing the beginning of the Messiah’s ministry, acknowledging that his own decline is a necessary part of this process. He says that Jesus has come from heaven to explain heavenly things. This repeats what Jesus said to Nicodemus earlier in this chapter. John the writer wants to embed this picture in our minds: the Son of God come down to explain the kingdom and bring it into being. But even though Jesus comes from heaven and “God gives him the Spirit without limit,” John still points out how few people actually trust what Jesus was saying, despite the fact that Jesus was fully operating in God’s Spirit with no limit. No internal limit anyway. The ears of would-be listeners impose their own limits. John wasn’t concerned about competing with Jesus because Jesus was not the opposition. The closed ears and hardened hearts of the people were the only opposition.
Churches have a hard time taking John’s approach here, but it is no less true than it ever was. We should cheer each other’s successes, support each other’s endeavors, and be willing to decrease if that is what God has for us in a given season. We don’t measure success the way the world does – or at least we shouldn’t. One light doesn’t compete with another light. Each light only competes with darkness. When we shine our lights together, the darkness flees.
New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible. New Living Translation copyright© 1996, 2004, 2007 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale HousePublishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.