“After this Jesus and his disciples went into the Judean countryside, and he remained there with them and was baptizing. John also was baptizing at Aenon near Salim, because water was plentiful there, and people were coming and being baptized (for John had not yet been put in prison). 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.” 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. He must increase, but I must decrease.” (John 3:22-30).
Envy is the silent companion for many ministers and pastors when they get together with their fellow ministers and pastors. Aside from the usual conversations about families, sports and health there is the inevitable discussion about so-called “success” in the ministry. Comparisons are made, fairly or unfairly, to super successful ministries (i.e. those running large numbers) that many pastors wish they could experience, but who would never say such things out loud. When leaving a conference, meeting or breakfast, one wonders how many leave thinking “if only.”
This tendency to envy others, or other ministries, is not restricted to just pastors either. There are those who gladly trumpet their “mega-church” and insistently or relentlessly pursue others to join the church where things are really happening. It is hard to compete and to justify attending a small rural church of 25 when just a few miles up the road is a city church running close to 2,500 with programs for every age group and ministries for every want and need.
One could come away from all of this with the sense that there are just some ministries and churches the Lord blesses and others that He does not. It’s just the way it is. There are the haves and the have nots.
In today’s text from the Gospel of John, there arose some discussion about how Jesus was attracting more people and followers than John the Baptist. Some of John’s disciples were notably concerned about what he thought about this. After all, John had come along the Judean scene well before Jesus. It would only be natural for him to become jealous or envious of Jesus’ rising popularity, at the expense of his own.
However, John was amazingly wise and prudent in his response. He said, ““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. He must increase, but I must decrease.”
John made four observations about his ministry. It would be well for us to keep these in mind regarding what we do for the Lord and how we evaluate the “success” of our own ministry, or any other church.
First, John understood that any ministry is sovereignly given by God. It is a trust. It is a stewardship. It is eventually the Lord’s prerogative to entrust some people with greater responsibilities than others. It is ultimately His call. This therefore means that a church of 2,500 is not necessarily any more blessed by God than say a church of 25. The most important thing to note is whether both are preaching and teaching biblical truth and the people are faithful (I Corinthians 4:1-2).
Second, the focus and attention of any church and ministry must be placed upon the Lord and not upon anyone else. No ministry and no church is the sole property of any one human being. When the focus shifts to the human leader, rather than to God and the Gospel of Jesus Christ, then a cult-like atmosphere has begun to take hold. John repeatedly stated that he was not the Christ. He understood who he was and who Jesus is.
Third, anyone who serves the Lord is compared to a best man at the wedding. This is how John viewed himself. He was not the groom. Therefore, the attention was not upon him but rather upon the one who was getting married. Jesus is the bridegroom and the church is the bride. It would be wise for all us to remember that it is not about how much notoriety we receive, or for that matter the church we attend, but rather how much praise Jesus receives.
Fourth, Jesus Christ is to be increasingly seen in our personal lives along with the corporate congregation to which we belong. John succinctly explain it this way: “He must increase and I must decrease.” If our pastors and churches would be more focused on Jesus’ increasing notoriety, and not their own, a whole lot of conflicts within the church would end and the only conflicts the church would encounter would be from the outside fallen world.
The Apostle Paul explained it this way in I Corinthians 3:1-5: “But I, brothers, could not address you as spiritual people, but as people of the flesh, as infants in Christ. I fed you with milk, not solid food, for you were not ready for it. And even now you are not yet ready, for you are still of the flesh. For while there is jealousy and strife among you, are you not of the flesh and behaving only in a human way? For when one says, “I follow Paul,” and another, “I follow Apollos,” are you not being merely human? What then is Apollos? What is Paul? Servants through whom you believed, as the Lord assigned to each. I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth. So neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth.”
John the Baptist understood his place. So too did the Apostle Paul. It would be wise for us as well.
Therefore, next time you want to praise your own church and pastor, and criticize another, it would be wise to remember a similar discussion that occurred some 2,000 years ago in the Judean wilderness. Some things never change.
Soli deo Gloria!