After this Jesus and his disciples went into Judea, where he spent some time with them and was baptizing. John was baptizing at Aenon near Salem because there was a lot of water there, and people were coming to him and being baptized. (John hadn’t yet been thrown into prison.)
A debate started between John’s disciples and a certain Jew about cleansing rituals. They came to John and said, “Rabbi, look! The man who was with you across the Jordan, the one about whom you testified, is baptizing and everyone is flocking to him.”
John replied, “No one can receive anything unless it is given from heaven. You yourselves can testify that I said that I’m not the Christ but that I’m the one sent before him. The groom is the one who is getting married. The friend of the groom stands close by and, when he hears him, is overjoyed at the groom’s voice. Therefore, my joy is now complete. He must increase and I must decrease. The one who comes from above is above all things. The one who is from the earth belongs to the earth and speaks as one from the earth. The one who comes from heaven is above all things. He testifies to what he has seen and heard, but no one accepts his testimony. Whoever accepts his testimony confirms that God is true. The one whom God sent speaks God’s words because God gives the Spirit generously. The Father loves the Son and gives everything into his hands. Whoever believes in the Son has [aiónios, age-long] life. Whoever doesn’t believe in the Son won’t see life, but the angry judgment of God remains on them.”
One of the most famous sentences ever recorded is found in this passage - “He must increase and I must decrease.” What is John getting at? Is he just talking about his service of baptism? Or is there something deeper going on?
Certainly, the response is to the question about Jesus baptizing people (we find out later that it wasn’t Jesus doing the baptizing but his disciples). But John expounds on his response. Like Jesus, he digs deeper into his meaning.
To use a theatre metaphor, John is speaking about his role in this act of the play. He had a major part to play - announcing the arrival of G_d’s Messiah (Christ, anointed one). And once that person emerged, he would no longer be needed. His work was coming to a close.
But he doesn’t stop there. He then goes on to a deeper understanding about life in the current age and the life in the coming age - the age of the Messiah. He sees that, not only was his role coming to an end, but his part was the end of that act of the play. The whole act was coming to an end and a new act was forming, right in front of their eyes. They were witnessing, not just the age of the Messiah, but the age of G_d’s Realm coming into the next act. The curtain would be coming down soon and people needed to decide if they were going to either stay in the current act or audition for roles in the next act.
And the curtain certainly fell. Roughly forty years later, the Romans came in a wiped “biblical Judaism” off the map. There would be no going back.
Now, taking all of that for a poetic image for our time, for our scenes in the play, how does that pan out?
It means that, like we’ve seen already in John’s telling of the Jesus story, there is life as we know it now and there is the life of G_d’s Realm now. People who follow the way of Jesus (whether they realize it or not) are odd creatures. In fact, they are part of the New Creation in the midst of the Old Creation. Like Jesus, they’re actors in both ages. However, their roles in the Old Creation must continually decrease. They must continually strive to become more and more like Jesus of the New Creation until they get to the point where they can join others in saying, “I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. And the life that I now live in my body, I live by faith, indeed, by the faithfulness of God’s Son, who loved me and gave himself for me.”
In the Love of the Three in One,
Br. Jack+, LC