The Decline of the Ministry of John the Baptist:
Maintaining a Christ-centered Focus in the Midst of Setbacks
Preached at Grace Baptist Church, Hartsville, Tennessee on October 5, 2008
Good morning, and welcome to Grace Baptist church. We are continuing our study of the Gospel of John. Today we will be considering John 3:22-36, at the end of which we will have finished the third chapter.
This passage reminds me of something that happened when I was a high school student. I had the privilege traveling to Lynchburg, Virginia and attending a conference for youth and youth leaders. The conference included some sessions where you had to choose between one speaker and another. One of the speakers was Jack Wyrtzen. Jack was a very dynamic, gifted, and persuasive speaker. I had heard him speak before, and I knew I would enjoy hearing him speak again. However, I was more interested in the topic that was being addressed by a different speaker. So I chose the topic I wanted rather than the speaker I wanted. It was a big mistake. There was a very noticeable difference between Wyrtzen’s large crowd and the ten or fifteen people who went to hear this other speaker. That would have been okay except that for the next five or ten minutes I had to listen to this offended speaker moan and complain that his topic was just as important as Wyrtzen’s topic, and that more of the people who went to hear Wyrtzen should be in this very room hearing him. Now, this speaker might have been a great man, but the only thing I remembered about him was his pride, his resentment, and his jealousy. And today, as I consider the passage before us, I note that John the Baptist also lost his crowds to someone else, yet he responded very differently.
There was a time when John the Baptist’s ministry attracted large crowds. However, in this passage the ministry of Jesus begins to thrive, while the ministry of John the Baptist begins to decline. John’s response to the decline of his own ministry has important lessons for us. It reveals two things. It reveals John’s attitude regarding his own honor, and it reveals his attitude regarding the honor of Jesus. John’s response is both exemplary and useful. It is exemplary because of the humility John maintained in the midst of his decline, and it is useful because it teaches us how to avoid falling into sins of bitterness, jealousy, and pride when we experience a decline in our own affairs. Thus, we have our title, “The Decline of the Ministry of John the Baptist,” and we have our subtitle, “Maintaining a Christ-centered Focus in the Midst of Setbacks.” This morning I hope to show through John the Baptist that by living a Christ-centered life we can avoid giving in to the temptations that occur when we, ourselves, experience setbacks. How can we avoid pride, bitterness, and jealousy when we are ignored, slighted, put down, and overlooked? That is what John the Baptist will teach us this morning.
So if you will, please turn to our text, John 3:22-36:
After these things Jesus and His disciples came into the land of Judea, and there He was spending time with them and baptizing. John also was baptizing in Aenon near Salim, because there was much water there; and people were coming and were being baptized— for John had not yet been thrown into prison. Therefore there arose a discussion on the part of John's disciples with a Jew about purification. And they came to John and said to him, "Rabbi, He who was with you beyond the Jordan, to whom you have testified, behold, He is baptizing and all are coming to Him."
John answered and said, "A man can receive nothing unless it has been given him from heaven. You yourselves are my witnesses that I said, 'I am not the Christ ,' but, 'I have been sent ahead of Him.' He who has the bride is the bridegroom; but the friend of the bridegroom, who stands and hears him, rejoices greatly because of the bridegroom's voice. So this joy of mine has been made full. He must increase, but I must decrease. He who comes from above is above all, he who is of the earth is from the earth and speaks of the earth. He who comes from heaven is above all. What He has seen and heard, of that He testifies; and no one receives His testimony. He who has received His testimony has set his seal to this, that God is true. For He whom God has sent speaks the words of God; for He gives the Spirit without measure. The Father loves the Son and has given all things into His hand. He who believes in the Son has eternal life; but he who does not obey the Son will not see life, but the wrath of God abides on him.”
II. The Preparation of John the Baptist for Success.
You may recall that on March 2, 2008 I delivered another sermon on John the Baptist in which the focus was John the Baptist as the preeminent human witness of Jesus. God had taken extraordinary measures to make it more likely that John would be heard and believed when he talked about Jesus. What had God done?
First, the Old Testament had predicted the coming of John the Baptist. For example, in Isaiah 40:3 he is “The voice of him that crieth in the wilderness, prepare ye the way of the LORD, make straight in the desert a highway for our God (KJV).”
Second, there was the public nature of his father Zacharias’ vision. One year it was his turn to be the priest who would enter the Holy of Holies and burn incense before the Lord. While there, the angel Gabriel appeared to him and told him he was going to have a son, and when Zacharias did not believe, the angel took away his voice. Then, when Zacharias came out of the temple making signs with his hands and unable to speak, the crowd realized that he had seen a vision.
Third, there was the public knowledge that Zacharias and his wife Elizabeth were very old and had no children. Worse, they had no hope of having children, for people did not give birth when they were that old. So when Elizabeth became pregnant people noticed.
Fourth, there was the public restoration of Zacharias’ voice. When the baby was born, Elizabeth wanted to name him John. Since no one in their family had been named John, the people went to Zacharias for a second opinion. Although he still could not speak, he wrote on a tablet “His name is John.” This clear break with normal practice astonished the people, but they were astonished even more when Zacharias’ voice was immediately restored, and he began to prophesy.
A reverential awe came over the people, as we read in Luke 1:65-66, “Fear came on all those living around them; and all these matters were being talked about in all the hill country of Judea. All who heard them kept them in mind, saying, "What then will this child turn out to be?" For the hand of the Lord was certainly with him.” So, as you can see, before John even preached his first sermon, God had already given him advance publicity that had placed him firmly in the people’s minds.
But that is not all. Not only did God give John some of the best publicity ever given to anyone, He also took extraordinary steps to equip John for ministry.
First, in a dispensation during which the Holy Spirit did not indwell every believer, in contrast, John the Baptist was already being influenced by the Holy Spirit even before his birth, as we find in Luke 1:44 where Elizabeth says to Mary, "For behold, when the sound of your greeting reached my ears, the baby leaped in my womb for joy.”
Second, God blessed John with a power for ministry that was not common to ordinary people, even as Zacharias had prophesied over John in Luke 1:17 saying, “It is he who will go as a forerunner before Him in the spirit and power of Elijah, TO TURN THE HEARTS OF THE FATHERS BACK TO THE CHILDREN, and the disobedient to the attitude of the righteous, so as to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.” So John did not have to depend on just his oratory skills. He had God-given power, here described as the spirit and power of Elijah, to make his words penetrate the hearts of the people.
III. The Realization of the Decline.
With this kind of preparation, it is no surprise that when John emerged from the desert and began to preach, crowds began to seek his counsel. Rich people, poor people, soldiers, tax collectors – they were all coming to John the Baptist. But at some point things began to change. When did this happen?
Let’s take a closer look at our text. In John 3:22 we read, “After these things Jesus and His disciples came into the land of Judea, and there He was spending time with them and baptizing.”
In the prior verses Jesus had cleansed the temple and had talked to Nicodemus. The phrase “after these things,” indicates a break and an unspecified amount of time between the end of the conversation with Nicodemus and the events beginning in this passage. Also note the phrase “was spending time.” This was probably a period of several months, during which Jesus was teaching his disciples, preaching to the crowds, and overseeing his disciples as they baptized. That Jesus himself did not directly baptize anyone is clarified in John 4:2.
Already, we see competition beginning to arise. Suddenly John the Baptist and his disciples are not the only ones baptizing people. Now, competition is more keenly felt when the competitor is close at hand. How close were Jesus and John to each other? Where was John baptizing?
In John 3:23 we read that “John also was baptizing in Aenon near Salim, because there was much water there; and people were coming and were being baptized.” Scholars are not sure where this place was. It could have been near Shechem in the hill country, or it could have been near Beth Shean in the Jordan River Valley. Either way, both were in Samaria. Jesus, on the other hand, was restricting himself to suburban Judea. Nevertheless, in John 4:1-3, when Jesus heard that his crowds were being compared to the crowds of John the Baptist, Jesus left and went to Galilee. But at this point in the story, Jesus has not yet left, and John’s disciples are beginning to notice their declining numbers.
We have noted the place of this event. He should also note how this event fits in with the other events in Jesus’ ministry. John gives us a clue. In John 3:24 we find the obvious fact stated: that since John was baptizing, he had not yet been thrown into prison. Now, why is this verse important?
Here is why. John’s gospel is the only one that describes the public ministry of Jesus that took place between the time of Jesus’ temptation and the time of the imprisonment of John the Baptist. On the other hand, Matthew, Mark, and Luke all begin their discussions of Jesus’ public ministry after John’s imprisonment. John the disciple was, no doubt, aware of the other gospels, and he added this line so that we would not be confused.
C. The confrontation.
Having established the place and the time, we continue with John 3:25, where we find the beginning of trouble: “There arose a discussion on the part of John's disciples with a Jew about purification.” Whether this was a group of Jews, as indicated by the King James, or a single Jew, as indicated by most other translations, is not clear. Nor do we know what aspect of purification was being discussed. What is more important here is not how the discussion started but where it led. I don’t know whether this Jew thought that Jesus’ disciples did a better job of baptizing than John’s disciples. But I do know that sometime during the discussion John’s disciples learned that the crowds that used to gravitate around John were now flocking to Jesus. In verse 26 we read, “And they came to John and said to him, "Rabbi, He who was with you beyond the Jordan, to whom you have testified, behold, He is baptizing and all are coming to Him."
IV. John’s Response.
A. What John did not do.
At this point, it is important that we notice what John did not do. First, he did not try to recover the people who were no longer following him and were following Jesus instead. He did not update his baptism methods in order to attract larger crowds. To the contrary, he was quite content that Jesus’ crowds were growing.
Second, he did not try to draw attention to himself the way the speaker had done at the youth conference I mentioned. He could have. He could have said, yes Jesus had a miraculous birth, but so did I. Yes, Jesus is filled with the Holy Spirit, but so am I. Yes, Jesus is teaching people to repent, but so do I. He deserves a following, but not everyone. Some of those people who are following Jesus should be following me. But John did not say anything like that?
Third, he did not get mad and quit. Think about what John could have said: “Is this the thanks I get – eating locusts and wild honey, risking getting stung by bees just to have breakfast, wearing clothes made out of camel hair – camel hair tunics, camel hair robes, camel hair loin cloths – (have you ever tried to wear a camel hair loin cloth? It’s not Fruit of the Loom, I can tell you that.) – all this just to tell a bunch of stubborn, hardheaded people how to avoid the wrath to come. It’s not worth it; I quit.” But John did not do that. How did he respond?
B. He noted the source of his gifts.
Verse 27 gives part of his response: “John answered and said, "A man can receive nothing unless it has been given him from heaven.”
John acknowledged the divine source of all abilities, both natural and spiritual.
Are you great at playing football, soccer, or basketball. Where did those abilities come from? Look up. You say, “Yes, but I had to practice to be a great soccer player.” True, but the opportunity to practice, the encouragement to practice, the privilege of being instructed during practice, and the natural ability to benefit from practice – these are all gifts from God.
Are you especially gifted with the ability to make good decisions quickly? Do you seem to have more common sense than the average person? And as a result, have you advanced through the levels of management? Where did that ability come from? Look up.
Are you one of those people who seem to be able to fix anything? Do you have a natural sense for how electronic devices work? Where did that ability come from? Look up. God is the ultimate source of all natural abilities and the opportunities to perfect them.
Do you sometimes find that your abilities are ignored or slighted? Perhaps in the past you saw yourself as the logical choice to fill the management position of a retiring co-worker. Everyone was expecting you to take over. But instead, the company brought in a neophyte from another department, and you found yourself in the curious position of having to train your own boss. This kind of thing happens a lot. You could respond by getting angry, and you might be justified in your anger. But don’t go that route. Instead, look up. Remember, you would not even have these overlooked abilities if God had not given them to you.
There have been times in my own life when I have felt slighted and overlooked with respect to career advancement. On those occasions two verses have helped me. One is Proverbs 75:6-7, “For promotion cometh neither from the east, nor from the west, nor from the south. But God is the judge: he putteth down one, and setteth up another.” (KJV)
Another verse that has helped me is Proverbs 16:9, “A man's heart deviseth his way: but the LORD directeth his steps.” (KJV) You know what, God is directing our steps. Sometimes He humbles us. Sometimes He exalts us. If we are prideful about our abilities, we are setting ourselves up to be hurt by other people when they don’t appreciate us. However, if we remind ourselves that our abilities come from God, we are better able to trust God to exalt us or to humble us according to his righteous will.
Similarly, the abilities we have in the spiritual realm are gifts from God. Parenting, for example, is both a natural ability and a spiritual ability. Many parents can raise children, but only by the help of God can you raise Godly children. Many parents can raise up children who go on to become decent, hardworking parents themselves. But only by the help of God can you raise children who learn to love God with all their heart, soul, mind, and strength. So if you have a great bunch of kids, rejoice, but don’t be proud. You might have raised them right, but it was God who was making sure that those you raised right turned out right.
Likewise, those who serve as pastors and teachers need both natural abilities and spiritual abilities. A pastor can give a thousand reasons for repenting, but only the Holy Spirit can bring a person to repentance. A pastor can spend hours perfecting a sermon, but only the Holy Spirit can make a sermon reach a person’s heart.
John the Baptist realized that whatever natural and spiritual abilities he had were gifts from God. That is why in John 3:27 he was able to say, “A man can receive nothing unless it has been given him from heaven.”
C. He focused on Jesus rather than himself.
Then in verse 28 John goes on to tell his disciples, “You yourselves are my witnesses that I said, 'I am not the Christ ,' but, 'I have been sent ahead of Him.'”
It was clear to John that his ministry was to serve Christ, not to be Christ. All of us need to remember this in counseling or mentoring situations. As parents, teachers, and friends, sometimes people come to us for advice and encouragement. It is a great delight to be able to encourage another person. But it is an even greater delight to show a person how to find encouragement in Christ himself. It is very important that we learn to do this. Here is a story that illustrates why this is so important.
Several years ago a lady lost her teenage son. He died at home due to an accident. As she mourned the loss of her son, her sister came alongside her, encouraged her, and in many ways became the life-saver who led her through the almost unbearable grief that followed this tragedy. She referred to her sister as her rock.
Then, later, this sister died. The lady who had lost her son had now lost her rock, as well. She had learned to rely upon a surrogate rock, but not on the rock. She had not learned to say, “On Christ the solid rock I stand.” Instead, she had built her foundation upon a Godly relative whom she would outlive. Often in our lives we are sent ahead of Christ, just as John was sent ahead of Jesus. But when this happens, we are not to try to be Christ for others. No, we are to point others to Christ. Yes, we should embrace them, cry with them, and encourage them, but ultimately, we must point them to Christ.
This idea continues in verses 29 and 30, where we read, “He who has the bride is the bridegroom; but the friend of the bridegroom, who stands and hears him, rejoices greatly because of the bridegroom's voice. So this joy of mine has been made full. He must increase, but I must decrease.”
In ancient Jewish weddings it was the friend of the bridegroom who escorted the newly married bride and groom to the bridal chamber. In the same way, it is our duty to escort believers, especially those who are mourning, to the bridal chamber of Christ, that they might find in Him the only comfort that truly satisfies the soul.
V. John’s Christ-centered Focus.
When John the Baptist was able to respond graciously to the decline of his own ministry, he was able to do this for two reasons:
1. He clearly understood that his natural and spiritual abilities came from God.
2. He was committed to pointing people to Christ, not himself.
But there is a third reason why John was able to respond well to the decline of his ministry. He had a clear understanding of the superiority of the glory of Jesus compared to the glory of people. He especially notes six things about Jesus that make Jesus more glorious than everyone else:
1. Jesus came down from heaven.
2. Jesus had first-hand knowledge of the truth.
3. Jesus and the Father were always in agreement.
4. Jesus was indwelt by the Holy Spirit without measure.
5. Jesus had been given all authority.
6. Jesus’ range of authority included eternal life.
First, Jesus came down from heaven. When we point people to Jesus, we point them to the greatest source of wisdom in the universe. In John 3:31 we read, “He who comes from above is above all, he who is of the earth is from the earth and speaks of the earth. He who comes from heaven is above all.”
Jesus is above all in origin, and Jesus is above all in wisdom and knowledge. Regarding origin, for all of us, we can trace back in time to a point in time when none of us existed. When the nineteenth century gave way to the twentieth century none of us were alive. But Jesus has always existed. That is why He was able to say, “Before Abraham was I am.” Eternally begotten of the Father, He has always existed in the triune relationship of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
Even the quality of the teachings of Jesus reflects His eternal existence. He is that Word by whom the Father created all things. In contrast, we know only what we have been taught. I can speak of heavenly things, but I have to do it through earthly metaphors and analogies. When I think of heaven I think of lush green foliage, gentle breezes, and blue skies. Yet, as we read in 1 Corinthians 2:9, “Eye hath not seen, nor ear heard, neither have entered into the heart of man, the things which God hath prepared for them that love him.” (KJV) Things I know only by analogy Jesus knows firsthand. Only Jesus can reveal the things of heaven.
Second, Jesus had first-hand knowledge of the truth. In John 3:32 we read, "What He has seen and heard, of that He testifies; and no one receives His testimony.” Many years ago Lewis and Clark explored unknown regions of North America. When they returned the man who was president of the United States, Thomas Jefferson, could not wait to hear from them. He was anxious to hear what they had seen and experienced. Yet, when it came to things that Jesus had seen and experienced, Jefferson cut out certain sections of his Bible. He was willing to trust Lewis and Clark, but he was not willing to trust the inspired record of the revelation of Jesus Christ. If we reject the Bible, the only authoritative record of the words of Jesus, then we reject Christ Himself. But this is exactly what many have done. So it is that we read that “no man receiveth his testimony.”
Just as we do in our language, the Bible uses exaggeration – hyperbole, if you will – to stress a point. Yes, some did believe Jesus, but most people did not.
Third, Jesus and the Father were always in agreement. In John 3:33 we read, “He who has received His testimony has set his seal to this, that God is true.” In the ancient world people would set a seal with a signet ring. They would drip some wax on a document and then press the signet ring into that wax in order to give an authoritative validation. In today’s world people do that through a signature. Sometimes they even do it audibly. In political advertising, the message is often followed by a statement from candidate saying, “I am so-and-so and I approve this message.”
In the spiritual world, the words of Christ carry so much power and authority that when we admit that they are true, we affirm that the Father, Himself, has told the truth.
Fourth, Jesus was indwelt by the Holy Spirit without measure. In John 3:34 we read, “For He whom God has sent speaks the words of God; for He gives the Spirit without measure.” We tend to trust the leadership of a person more if we think that the Holy Spirit is leading and guiding that person. Yet, none of them were led by the Holy Spirit the way Christ was. The influence of the Holy Spirit over an individual is limited by sin, but there was no sin to limit the influence of the Holy Spirit over Christ. People could completely trust in Christ’s leadership.
Fifth, Jesus had been given all authority. In John 3:35 we read, “The Father loves the Son, and has given all things into his hand.” Just as Pharaoh gave Joseph power over all of Egypt, God has given Jesus power over all things. Just as no one took Joseph’s words lightly, people should not take Jesus’ words lightly. A general might command an army, but Jesus commanded the wind, the waves, sickness, and health.
The authority of Jesus even included eternal life. For in John 3:36 we read, “He who believes in the Son has eternal life; but he who does not obey the Son will not see life, but the wrath of God abides on him.”
After a person goes through a period of great emotional trauma they are sometimes encouraged to get on with their life. And throughout history Christians have been subjected to great emotional trauma and abuse. Nevertheless, for the believer, eternal life does not begin at the grave. You do not have to wait until you die. No, those who know Jesus have eternal life right now. To have Jesus is to never die. Your soul, the real you, keeps living. Death merely continues the spiritual life that has already begun in this life.
On the other hand, those who do not have Jesus do not have eternal life now, and they will not have eternal life in the world to come. Instead, even now the wrath of God abides upon them. And they will experience the full force of the wrath of God after they leave this world.
Every day we interact with people who are rejecting Christ. Meanwhile, we work, raise families, build houses, and plan for our old age. Some of our achievements are recognized. Some of our achievements are ignored. And it hurts to see our works slighted.
But how important is that compared to the fact that people around us are dying and going to hell. We might grieve over being overlooked for a promotion. But do we grieve that Christ is overlooked. We might get upset when we learn that people at other businesses that do the same kind of work that we do make more money. But do we get upset that people are rejecting the most important business of all, the business they have with Christ regarding the perils that face their very souls.
John had his priorities right. For a season he had the privilege of being part of a thriving ministry. Then, when the popularity of his ministry declined, he kept his heart regarding what was most important:
1. He recognized that natural abilities and spiritual abilities came from God.
2. He recognized that his job was to point people to Christ, not to point people to himself.
3. He recognized the all surpassing greatness of Christ:
a. That Jesus is from heaven; we are from earth.
b. That Jesus knew the truth first hand; we learn it second hand.
d. That Jesus possessed the Holy Spirit without limit, while in everyone else, the influence of the Spirit was limited by the sinful nature of the person.
e. That Jesus received His authority from the Father, while whatever authority we might have come to have is of earthly origin.
f. That Jesus’ authority extended not only to this life but to the life to come, but we have no control beyond the grave.
What about you? Do you have your priorities right? Is there anything in your life more important than Christ? What about your ministry, your reputation, your business, your profession, your career, your family, your studies, or your hobbies? These are all very important callings, gifts, duties, and investments of your time. But are any of these things more important to you than Jesus Christ, himself?
Let us pray, Heavenly Father, I don’t ask that we be a great church; I don’t ask to be able to deliver great sermons; and I don’t ask that we become great people. I only ask this: that we be consumed and animated by the all surpassing greatness of Christ Himself. Help us to keep our priorities right the way John did. Amen.