Many of us have probably heard the words of John the Baptist before in referring to Jesus, “He must increase, I must decrease” (John 3:30). Or, as some translations may put it, “He must become greater, I must become less.” In fact, many Christians would acknowledge that this is what it means to be a Christian; for us to be humble so that Jesus looks great. However, many of the same people who know and believe these words of John miss the key variable in the equation of making Jesus look great Namely, our joy.
Consider the verse right before John says these words: “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, I must decrease” (John 3:29-30). In other words, John’s joy is completed, fulfilled, and satisfied when Jesus comes and draws attention away from John and to himself. That’s not how the normal world works. This is completely counter-cultural.
In the way of the world, recognition and popularity are how you get ahead in life. The bigger following you have, the more praise you will get, which in turn gets you an even larger following, and so on. It’s a seemingly endless cycle of becoming more and more popular and making a bigger name for yourself. And we’re told that this is the way! This is the American Dream! This is what it means to be happy! But Jesus turns this worldly wisdom on its head and points the complete other direction, saying, “No. If you want to be happy, you empty yourself as much as possible, pursue as little fame and recognition for yourself as you can, and use all of your efforts to point to me so that I get the glory, and then you will be happy.”
Think about how John responded when asks by the religious leaders of the time if he was the promised Messiah: “I am not the Christ…I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord,’ as the prophet Isaiah said” (John 1:20, 23). He also said, “I baptize with water, but among you stands one you do not know, even he who comes after me, the strap of whose sandal I am not worthy to untie,” (v.26-27) and when he saw Jesus, he said, “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world! This is he of whom I said, ‘After me comes a man who ranks before me, because he was before me.’ I myself did not know him, but for this purpose I came baptizing with water, that he might be revealed to Israel (1:29-31). This is clearly a man who wanted no honor and attention for himself; a man who knew his place and purpose in the Kingdom of God, which was to “make straight the way of the Lord,” to prepare the way for Jesus to come.
And yet he does this with joy! He doesn’t take the backseat to Jesus begrudgingly or reluctantly, as I fear so many Christians do today. When Jesus appears and begins his ministry, when the “bridegroom’s voice” goes out, John gets more joy from that than he did before Jesus came. He is perfectly content to say, “Don’t look to me. I only serve as a pointer to the One who truly deserves all of the glory and honor. I’m just here to make him look great.” So the simple question I want to ask of all of the Christians out there is this: Does pointing others to Jesus bring you joy? Does it make you happy? Or is it something that you just do because you know it’s the right thing, but your heart isn’t in the right place and you really wish you were the one at the center?
You may be asking now, “Why is my joy in this matter so important? Why are you focusing on it so much? Can’t I just live my Christian life and do and believe the right things and God will still be okay with that?” I love the example of why joy is necessary to the Christian that John Piper gives in his book, Desiring God, which has been incredibly instrumental in my life in how I view my relationship with God.
Consider the analogy of a wedding anniversary. Mine is on December 21. Suppose on this day I bring home a dozen long-stemmed roses for Noël [his wife]. When she meets me at the door, I hold out the roses, and she says, “O Johnny, they’re beautiful; thank you” and gives me a big hug. Then suppose I hold up my hand and say matter-of-factly, “Don’t mention it; it’s my duty.
What happens? Is not the exercise of duty a noble thing? Do not we honor those we dutifully serve? Not much. Not if there’s no heart in it. Dutiful roses are a contradiction in terms. If I am not moved by a spontaneous affection for her as a person, the roses do not honor her. In fact, they belittle her. They are a very thin covering for the fact that she does not have the worth or beauty in my eyes to kindle affection. All I can muster is a calculated expression of marital duty.John Piper, Desiring God, p.93
Translating this to a Christians’ relationship with God, God is not honored, and is in fact, belittled even when the Christian does the right things, but has a cold heart toward him when doing them. You see, we may be able to fool others into thinking that we are right with God and living a good Christian life. But we cannot fool God; he knows our hearts. He knows when we would rather be the center of attention than him. So the question remains: will you be one who points to Jesus with joy? Or will you be one who thinks that they deserve more honor and glory than the One who takes those who are spiritually dead and breathes new life in them (John 5:25), and who has the words of eternal life (John 6:68).
You cannot make Jesus look great if you yourself do not view him as so; if you view yourself as greater than him. But take heart: there is great joy in losing yourself in Christ, you need only to recognize his worth and beauty and let it transform your life. He must increase, you must decrease.