These were the words of John the Baptist when some of his disciples reported the early success of Jesus and his disciples in the parallel ministries of Jesus and John. And, in John 3:22-24 we see that their work of preaching and baptizing sometimes was in close proximity to each other.
There seems to have been some resentment on the part of these disciples of John at the success Jesus was experiencing in His work. They said to John, “Rabbi, he that was with thee beyond Jordan, to whom thou hast borne witness, behold the same baptizeth and all men come unto him” (Jn. 3:26). John’s response was “A man can receive nothing except it hath been given him from heaven. Ye yourself bear me witness that I said I am not the Christ but that I am sent before him” (Jn. 3:27). Although these disciples of John knew that John was not the Christ and that John had borne witness that Jesus was, their loyalty to John caused them to resent the multitudes who were flocking to Jesus.
The words of John are words we must all adopt: “He must increase but I must decrease.” The work of John was an essential part of God’s plan for the coming of His Son. But there would be an end of John’s work because Jesus did come on the scene, and proved by His signs and teaching that He was indeed the One of whom the Old Testament prophets with one voice promised God would send, and who John announced. When one reads the gospel of John, his epistles, and the Revelation of Christ he was privileged to unfold, think how his abilities would have been profitable to John and his work. Yet, John directed him to Jesus.
It took strength on John’s part to direct his own disciples to Jesus, to see the swelling numbers of people flock to Jesus while his own crowds grew smaller and feel no resentment. It took a big man to be sent forth without the power to heal the sick and work miracles; to see both those abilities and powers present in Jesus and not feel that he could have done more had he been enabled to work those same signs.
Yet, no record of John’s activities hints that John ever had such feelings. Jesus understood and appreciated the work and disposition of John. He asked the multitudes, “What went ye out in the wilderness to behold? A reed shaken with the wind? But what went ye out to see? A man clothed in soft raiment? Behold, they that wear soft raiment are in kings’ houses. But wherefore went ye out? To see a prophet? Yes, and much more than a prophet. This is he of whom it is written, Behold, I send my messenger before my face who shall prepare thy way before thee. Verily I say to thee, among those who are born of women, there hath not arisen a greater than John the Baptist, yet he that is but little in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he” (Matt. 11:9-11).
Despite these things which were trials and discouragements, John had the singular honor to announce to his nation their Messiah was coming. Preparing material for that Messiah and his work would include many, perhaps most of Jesus’ apostles. Yet, by necessity, if John really did his work as God intended that he should, his disciples would leave him to become disciples of Jesus.
Like John, those of us who are His disciples also must decrease, that Christ may increase. Our personal will and wishes must be sacrificed for Jesus. Like Paul, we must “count all things but loss for the excellencies of the knowledge of Christ” (Phil. 3:8). We must, like Paul, say, “I have been crucified with Christ and it is no longer I that live but Christ that liveth in me” (Gal. 2:20).
To see the increase of His kingdom we must rejoice at the success of others who lead souls to Christ and feel no envy when we do not see the same result. We must rejoice when others seem to have a “silver tongue” in expressing and revealing the gospel of Christ while we often “stumble” over our words and in our efforts. Not all have the same abilities (the parable of the talents teaches us that in Matthew 25), but be that as it may, the promise of Jesus to even the lowliest of His servants is that He will, in that final day, say to all faithful ones (rich or poor, great or small), “Well done, thou good and faithful servant. Thou hast been faithful over a few things: I will set thee over many things. Enter thou into the joy of thy Lord” (Matt. 25:23).
When Jesus said of John “yet he that is but little in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he,” He simply meant that while John’s message of the approaching kingdom electrified the people, and many of those disciples went on to follow Jesus and become part of that “kingdom of heaven” of which John had preached, John himself was denied such a blessing. He was never part of that kingdom because he was martyred before it became a reality.
However great it is to be part of God’s kingdom now, that is nothing to be compared with Christ’s heavenly kingdom — entrance in which no will be denied because He died before it began. That kingdom awaits all the people of God!