John 3:22-36 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)
Jesus and John the Baptist
22 After this Jesus and his disciples went into the Judean countryside, and he spent some time there with them and baptized. 23 John also was baptizing at Aenon near Salim because water was abundant there; and people kept coming and were being baptized 24 —John, of course, had not yet been thrown into prison.
25 Now a discussion about purification arose between John’s disciples and a Jew.[a] 26 They came to John and said to him, “Rabbi, the one who was with you across the Jordan, to whom you testified, here he is baptizing, and all are going to him.” 27 John answered, “No one can receive anything except what has been given from heaven. 28 You yourselves are my witnesses that I said, ‘I am not the Messiah,[b] but I have been sent ahead of him.’ 29 He who has the bride is the bridegroom. The friend of the bridegroom, who stands and hears him, rejoices greatly at the bridegroom’s voice. For this reason my joy has been fulfilled. 30 He must increase, but I must decrease.”[c]
I had a great conversation this weekend with a friend about significance. We were talking about the Gallup Strengthsfinder theme of Significance and how it relates to being a leader.
This is a challenging theme for many that discover through Gallup’s process that it defines an aspect of their personhood. Many have a knee-jerk reaction of horror when they find out they may crave significance as one of the ways they interact with others.
The funny thing is, we all crave significance.
Every. Single. One. Of. Us.
But this is one of those unspoken social rules of life like…We don’t talk about politics in polite company.
Wait, everyone does that now.
CAN’T WE JUST REINSTATE JUST THIS ONE UNSPOKEN SOCIAL RULE? PLEASE? PLEASE!
Well, we still don’t talk about how much we give at church. Like ever. And, we never-ever-ever swipe to the right if someone hands us their phone to look at a photo. You all know you look to find the closest exit the second anyone even whispers the sentence, “I’m having a moving party.” We move so fast we don’t even hear the “but there will be pizza” desperately shouted at the backs of the throngs of people climbing over each other toward the door. And if you know what is good for you you never ask someone if they are pregnant.
Likewise, we never admit we secretly crave to be noticed, to be found as a significant person.
But, this is hard-wired into us, isn’t it? We were meant to be seen. After all, we are image-bearers, aren’t we?
And here we have this interesting paradox of John the Baptist saying, “He must increase but I must decrease” in verse 30. I say it’s a paradox because just a few short verses earlier, we find John baptizing, seemingly close by to Jesus (is that why the waters were abundant?), the people who kept coming to him. The text says John still had disciples and still had people who saw him as an authority. John was significant. And yet John says he must decrease.
There is a Grand Canyon-sized chasm between living significance as a question and living significance as a reality.
We don’t get the sense here that John was living significance as a question, do we? He wasn’t going to his followers with grand leadership strategies, fiery oratory, or fantastic displays of leadership acumen all disguising a central inward question he was wrestling with of, “Am I significant?”
That’s what we tend to do. We are haunted by the question of existence. And we think if we could just be seen in such-and-such a way, we’d matter, we’d exist. We think if we could just catch a glimpse of ourselves reflected in other peoples’ eyes we’d be significant.
But John has had that question answered probably long before this scene. He says, “I’m the friend of the bridegroom. I can hear His voice even if you can’t. He’s invited me into His inner circle. He calls me His friend. My very soul was designed to have this confirmation that I matter and I know that I know that I do now. He sees me. I rejoice at the sound of His voice.”
John knows he matters. John knows he exists. There’s no reason for him to strive to be seen or be heard because he’s been seen and heard by Jesus.
John isn’t going to his followers unconsciously asking, “Do you see me? Do I matter to you?”
John goes to His followers consciously aware of his role, his existence and his importance in the grand scheme of things. This is a stunning example of effective leadership in this short passage.
When John says he must decrease, there isn’t as much of a concern there that we often struggle with of trying hard not to be seen as seeking importance lest we be found conceited. He wasn’t saying he must decrease as some form of false humility while all the while striving to be noticed, like most of us do. He wasn’t living some unspoken social rule.
He was saying he must decrease because he longed for others to look past and through him to see Jesus.
John knew the people asking him these questions were significant too.
Photo by Marcus Winter.