“He Must Increase”

Baptism of the Lord

TEXT: Matthew 3:13-17

Then Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan to be baptized by him. —Matthew 3:13

Before Jesus officially began his public ministry, he had to take a couple of very important steps. The first was to be baptized.

Sometimes that troubles people. Why should Jesus have to be baptized?

The idea certainly bothered John the Baptist.

Matthew tells us that when Jesus came to be baptized, “John would have prevented him, saying, ‘I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?’” (Matthew 3:14).

We can understand John’s consternation. The Gospel of Luke tells us that John preached “a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins” (Luke 3:3).

Since Jesus was without sin—and therefore had nothing of which to repent—what purpose would his baptism serve? Why should someone who never sinned undergo a baptism for the forgiveness of sins? John knew of Jesus’ spotless character, and so at first he opposed Jesus’ request.

So why did Jesus ask John to baptize Him? Before suggesting an answer, perhaps it would help to recall something of John’s background and importance.

The Gospel of Luke tells us that Jesus and John were cousins. By his early thirties, John had emerged as a major national figure.

It’s worth noting that Josephus, the renowned Jewish historian, wrote more about John than he did about Jesus. Why? Because since the death of the prophet Malachi—a period of some 400 years—Israel had not heard from a genuine prophet of God … until John.

John shook a nation with his bold words and unusual actions, drawing huge crowds eager to hear him preach his uncompromising message of repentance and faith in the Messiah.

John came at a strategic time in human history, when the old covenant was about to roll into a new one, and when all the law and sacrifices were to be fulfilled in the life and ministry of one man—a man like no other who had ever walked the earth.

That man was Jesus of Nazareth. Yet at this point, John’s fame was much greater.

John, however, clearly knew his role. He was to pave the way and point people to Jesus, and he humbly accepted his role.

His motto in life was, “He must increase, but I must decrease” (John 3:30). He was content to speak as a herald of the coming King.

When John clearly understood Jesus to be the Messiah, he directed even his own disciples to start following him. Once he did that, he was ready to fade into obscurity. His role was to point people to Jesus and then step aside.

For all these reasons, Jesus proclaimed John to be the greatest prophet who ever lived. “I tell you,” Jesus said, “among those born of women no one is greater than John” (Luke 7:28).

None greater? How can that be? We know of no miracles that John performed. Unlike Moses, he never turned the Nile into blood. Unlike Elijah, he never called fire down from heaven. He never stopped the rain or raised a single person from the dead. He left behind no written record, like Isaiah did, and Jeremiah did.

So why would Jesus call him the greatest of prophets? Only one reason: his nearness and connection to Jesus. As God’s appointed herald of the Messiah, John had no equal among the prophets.

How many of us think of greatness in terms like these? Too many of us wonder how God can enrich our lives, make us feel better about ourselves, or help us achieve success in business. We ask what God can do for us to make us greater and better.

John had a very different attitude. He constantly asked himself, “What can I do to prepare people for the coming of the Messiah? How can I direct them to him? How can I decrease and he increase?”

John’s godly character and unique mission help explain why Jesus came to his cousin to be baptized.

For a long time, John had been preparing the people to receive the coming Messiah; at the baptism of Jesus, he would publicly identify him as God’s Anointed One.

Jesus also was baptized because he had come into the world to identify with the human race. So it was that he who was without sin submitted to a baptism designed for sinners. “Let it be so now,” he told John, “for it is proper for us in this way to fulfil all righteousness” (Matthew 3:15).

When the day finally came for Jesus to make his very public stand, John welcomed him into the waters of the Jordan River.

As Jesus prayed, “the heaven was opened, and the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven, ‘You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.’” (Luke 3:21-22).

In this way, John found true greatness before God and with all humanity—and his life stands as an example to us.

May we adopt John’s philosophy of life as well! May Christ increase, and may we decrease. If we really lived like that, who knows how it would affect others for their good?

May the Word of God burn in our hearts as we, too, prepare the way for the Lord.

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