After this, Jesus and his disciples went out into the Judean countryside, where he spent some time with them, and baptized. Now John also was baptizing at Aenon near Salim, because there was plenty of water, and people were constantly coming to be baptized. (This was before John was put in prison.) An argument developed between some of John’s disciples and a certain Jew over the matter of ceremonial washing. They came to John and said to him, “Rabbi, that man who was with you on the other side of the Jordan–the one you testified about–well, he is baptizing, and everyone is going to him.”
To this John replied, “A man can receive only what is given him from heaven. You yourselves can testify that I said, ‘I am not the Christ but am sent ahead of him.’ The bride belongs to the bridegroom. The friend who attends the bridegroom waits and listens for him, and is full of joy when he hears the bridegroom’s voice. That joy is mine, and it is now complete. He must become greater; I must become less.
John 3:22-30 (NIV)
It’s actually a pretty common story in corporate America: The man that you trained for your company ends up getting promoted to a position above you. The woman that you helped with a big project gets a bonus because of it, while you are overlooked. In those kinds of situations it is understandable, maybe even human nature, to feel hurt and resentful.
But on the other end of the spectrum, we have John the baptizer. Clear back in chapter 1 of this gospel John made it very clear to those who came to check him out that he was not the Messiah. He was not Elijah descended from heaven. He was not the foretold prophet. Instead, he identified himself as merely a voice calling out, “In the wilderness prepare the way for the Lord.”
John’s role had been given to his father by the angel Gabriel even before he was born: “Do not be afraid, Zechariah; your prayer has been heard. Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you are to give him the name John. He will be a joy and delight to you, and many will rejoice because of his birth, for he will be great in the sight of the Lord. He is never to take wine or other fermented drink, and he will be filled with the Holy Spirit even from birth. Many of the people of Israel will he bring back to the Lord their God. And he will go on before the Lord, in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the fathers to their children and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous–to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.” (Luke 1:13-17 NIV)
John understood this role from the very beginning, and he fulfilled it, carrying out the command of the Lord to the very letter, never shirking his responsibility, and never seeking glory for himself. In a very real sense, his only concern was that he was faithful in carrying out the job that God had given for him to do. He knew that this job, preparing the way for the Messiah, turning the people’s hearts back to God so that they would be ready when He showed up, was a vital job. But he also knew from the very beginning that he was no more than the opening act. The real star of the show was Jesus, and John’s job was never to make a name for himself; it was just to get things ready for Him.
I love John’s final statement in this passage: “He must become greater; I must become less.” John understood that his part in the show was just about over. He had opened the door for Jesus, and had announced Him as clearly as he could. Now, as Jesus took center stage, it was time for John to fade into the wings. I don’t know if John understood that the time was very near for him to actually depart from earth itself, but even if he did I don’t think that would have caused him a moments grief. He had done his job, and had done it with his whole life. When he arrived at God’s throne in heaven, he would expect to hear, “Well done, good and faithful servant! You have been faithful with a few things; I will put you in charge of many things. Come and share your master’s happiness!” (Matthew 25:21 NIV)
Even though twenty centuries have passed since John the Baptist came out of the wilderness to baptize and prepare people for the coming of Jesus, he is a great role model for us today. Just like him, God actually has a calling for each and every one of His people, a role for each of us to play every day of our lives. These days it is very common to talk about a calling for pastors, but the Bible knows nothing of this distinction between clergy and laity. Instead, it tells us that each person in the body of Christ is expected to be an active part of His body. Each person has a calling that God has placed on his or her life that He expects us to fulfill, whether our assigned role is to be an eye or an ear or a floating rib. And our job is to listen for His call, and then devote all of our energy, our whole lives, to living it out.
Now some people may seem to have callings that are more important, or more attractive, or higher profile than ours; sometimes we may end up working in the background, doing the thankless jobs and without any public recognition for all of the giving of our time and energy. But the recognition and the glamour are not the point of fulfilling God’s calling on our lives. When John said, “The bride belongs to the bridegroom. The friend who attends the bridegroom waits and listens for him, and is full of joy when he hears the bridegroom’s voice. That joy is mine, and it is now complete,” he was telling us that, even though he never got top billing, and even though his job was being rapidly eclipsed by Jesus, serving God by being who we are supposed to be is the greatest joy imaginable.