John the Baptist’s statement that “He must increase, but I must decrease” (John 3:30, ESV) is simple but remarkable, and it is one of the most imitable statements ever made. In the narrative we find that disciples of John expressed concern to him that many were following Jesus and being baptized by Him (John 3:26). Because John’s ministry was as a forerunner to the Messiah, John’s ministry had begun much earlier, and many were following John. So it was concerning to some that Jesus was preaching the same message and baptizing and that some were bypassing John altogether and going straight to Jesus.
John responded by reminding his followers that one has nothing unless it has been granted from heaven (John 3:27), implying that Jesus had obtained His following rightly and that it was a heavenly blessing. John also was implying that, if his own ministry was granted from heaven, its conclusion could also likewise be determined by God’s plan. In making these statements, John showed tremendous humility and understanding of God’s design. He also reminded his disciples that he had never claimed to be the Christ but that he was simply announcing the arrival of the Christ (John 3:28). John added that his being in such proximity to the Christ gave him great joy (John 3:29), so he was not disturbed in the least by the growth of Jesus’ following. It was by design, and John was rejoicing about that.
In this context, John made his definitive statement that “He [Jesus] must increase, but I must decrease” (John 3:30, NKJV), or, as the NIV has it, “He must become greater; I must become less.” With this statement John acknowledges that it was by design that Jesus should become more prominent and that John’s own ministry should begin to decrease. Malachi 3:1 had prophesied a forerunner to the Messiah, and John was that forerunner, according to Jesus (Matthew 11:10). It is natural that the forerunner—the one who goes before—or the messenger of the Messiah would step out of the way once Jesus began to fulfill His own ministry. That is exactly what John was doing, and he gently helped his own disciples understand that.
So often, it is easy for us to want to hold onto our own positions or roles. We expend a great deal of effort trying to protect those roles and keep them for ourselves. John shows us by his example that there is a much better way. John shows us how to graciously step aside to allow others to fulfill their roles. Even more importantly, when John says, “He must increase, but I must decrease,” he is modeling for us how to exalt God and humble ourselves before God. This is obviously an important characteristic in God’s sight. God opposes the proud but gives grace to those who are humble (James 4:6). When we get out of the way and let God accomplish what He intends, then much is accomplished. On the other hand, when we step in and try to help God along, we may find ourselves actually working against what God desires to do. Recall how, after Jesus prophesied how He would die (Matthew 16:21), Peter took Jesus aside and rebuked Him, denying that Jesus would die as He prophesied (Matthew 16:22). Peter then heard the dreaded words, “Get behind me, Satan!” (Matthew 16:23), because Peter was pursuing his own interests rather than God’s interests.
Unlike Peter in that situation, John understood that Jesus must increase and that John must decrease. Because John had the proper esteem for Christ, he could humble himself and step out of the way. This is an incredible lesson and example of humility for us.