John the Baptist lived an ascetic life. He deprived himself of earthly indulgences, fixated on one insanely important thing. His mission, crystal clear, was to make way for the coming of the Messiah, and did he ever. How many did he baptize? Hundreds? Thousands?
Finally, the moment he had been waiting for arrived. He sees Jesus, the Messiah, in the flesh, walking toward HIM! His stomach must have dropped. I can't imagine the mixture of jubilation and humility. He must have been shaking with chaotic emotion. Perhaps he thought, "I've baptized all these people, and now I'm going to be baptized by the Messiah!"
No, the moment was even greater. His sharpened commitment to his calling and God's Kingdom was rewarded with with a priceless honor. He was not going to to be baptized BY the Messiah. He was being chosen to baptize the Messiah! He had plenty of practice, but this was different. Everyone said he was crazy, a lunatic. They said he had lost his mind, was an outcast. Why didn't he just go with he flow? Why didn't he just act like other religious leaders? Why did he have to draw this awkward attention to himself? The man everyone chastised for being unique and undistracted by temporal things was about to be memorialized in the greatest collection of books ever written. Take that, culture.
It was an amazing moment, but John's statement in John 3:30...wow.
His joy was made complete, he must now decrease.
I'm admittedly reading into the human condition from a carnal perspective, but seriously? Decrease? He already lived the ascetic life of a wild man. Sensing his purpose was fulfilled, his initial emotion was joy. Joy. JOY! It was the pinnacle! The top of the mountain! Not only did he see the Messiah, he baptized Him! What a day!
I wonder how he felt later that night. Still joyful? Or unexpectedly empty?
Many pastors will tell you their most vulnerable moments are when they are spiritually exhausted having poured themselves out. It comes after they preach a message on Sunday where the altars were filled. It comes after an effective outreach even where hundreds were fed. I've heard some pastors even say those post-ministry moments usher in unfamiliar waves of depression. John gave everything to the coming Messiah and the reward wasn't exaltation. It was seemingly a demotion. He must decrease. He already had nothing, now he REALLY had nothing. No purpose, no calling, no home, no material gains, nothing.
Then came the doubt. Was he really the Messiah?
After Jesus had finished instructing his twelve disciples, he went on from there to teach and preach in the towns of Galilee. When John, who was in prison, heard about the deeds of the Messiah, he sent his disciples to ask him, “Are you the one who is to come, or should we expect someone else?
Jesus replied, “Go back and report to John what you hear and see: The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is proclaimed to the poor. Blessed is anyone who does not stumble on account of me.” - Matthew 11:1-6
John went from absolute certainty to soul wrenching doubt. He baptized who he believed to be the Messiah and now wondered, "Did I give up everything for nothing? I'm in jail and Jesus is out dining with sinners. I'm going to lose my head while my "Savior" is being lauded by thousands?! When is He going to "save" me?!
I love this historical moment because it speaks so honestly to the human condition. There are moments I'm full of faith, proclaiming His goodness. An hour later I find myself struggling with fear and doubt.
The enemy works this way. He sneaks around our vulnerabilities and speaks to our flesh. He seeds ambiguity, apprehension, and distrust. What was once certain is now veiled in uneasy unpredictability. How do we overcome this? HIS PRESENCE. It's in His presence we find fullness of joy (Psalm 16:11). It's in His presence we find rest (Exodus 33:14). It's in His presence we find refuge (Psalm 73:28). In His presence we find thanksgiving (Psalm 140:13). Courage is found in His presence (Joshua 1:9). Mercy is found in His presence (Hebrews 4:16).
Sometimes, like John, we need reminded we are not traversing from nothing to nothing. We are moving from grace to grace.
Jesus replied, “Go back and report to John what you hear and see: The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is proclaimed to the poor. Blessed is anyone who does not stumble on account of me.”
As John’s disciples were leaving, Jesus began to speak to the crowd about John: “What did you go out into the wilderness to see? A reed swayed by the wind? If not, what did you go out to see? A man dressed in fine clothes? No, those who wear fine clothes are in kings’ palaces. Then what did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet. This is the one about whom it is written:
“‘I will send my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way before you.
Truly I tell you, among those born of women there has not risen anyone greater than John the Baptist; yet whoever is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.
I imagine Jesus saying, "Don't worry John. It wasn't for nothing. Don't doubt just because you're going through tough times. I'm going to go through some tough times of my own. Stay encouraged. Don't stumble because I'm not doing what you think I should do, or what you thought I would do. I'm just getting started."
In The Gospel of Matthew: A Commentary on the Greek Text, John Nolland notes, "John is not affirmed for his personal qualities and achievements, but for his role in the unfolding of the purposes of God. It is his to prepare for and announce at its threshold the visit which will fulfil Mal. 3:1. Mt. 11:11b is a comment on how the situation at the time of Jesus’ speaking differs from all preceding time, including even the privileged time of John’s role. Or, to be more precise, more than time is involved since what is at stake is the presence of the one heralded (v. 10) and the things that are happening in his presence (vv. 5–6).
So go ahead. Decrease, and keep decreasing so that He may increase. He won't leave you behind.