Monday, August 13, 2012

The Heart of a Humble Servant (John 3:22-30)

In the foreword to R. C. Sproul’s latest book, contemporary theologian Michael Horton outlines four disturbing trends in today’s church that need reforming. He notes that “we are all too confident in our own words” rather than in God’s Word. Secondly, he observes that “we are all too confident in our own methods for success.” Third, Horton says, “we are all too confident in our own good works.” And fourthly, he says, “we are all too enamored of our own glory.”[1] As I look at Horton’s painfully accurate assessment of modern church life, I can’t help noticing the stark contrast that exists between the modern church and the life of John the Baptist. If we distill Horton’s critiques down to one essential element, it would seem that we are far too impressed with ourselves today. What we seem to lack most of all is that quality that was so apparent in the life and ministry of John the Baptist: genuine HUMILITY. Nowhere is that quality of John more vividly detailed for us than in this passage.
Verses 22-26 serve as background information. They set the stage for the heart of the text, which is found in verses 27-30. Jesus and His disciples have moved out from Jerusalem into the rural areas of Judea, where Jesus was “spending time with” His disciples, “and baptizing.” John 4:2 clarifies that Jesus was not the one doing the baptizing, but His disciples were. Now, John and his disciples were still carrying out his ministry of preaching and baptism, nearby in another area. Now, verse 25 says that a Jew, we don’t know anything about him other than that he was Jewish, had stirred up a discussion with John the Baptist’s disciples about the Jewish customs of purification. We don’t know anything about that discussion, but it is obvious that in the course of it, this unnamed Jew must have mentioned that Jesus and His disciples were nearby, and that they were baptizing a lot of people. As a result of this discussion, the disciples of John the Baptist came to him and said, “Rabbi, He who was with you beyond the Jordan, to whom you have testified, behold He is baptizing, and all are coming to Him.”

What do we make of that report? Some have understood this to be something of a praise report, as if they are saying, “Hey John! Great news! You know Jesus, that guy you called the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world? Well, He is now baptizing, and praise the Lord, everyone is going to Him now!” That is probably an overly optimistic reading of the text. It seems that they are actually complaining (maybe better to call it whining) to John about this situation. Note the very impersonal way they refer to Jesus – “He who was with you beyond the Jordan.” They seem to imply that “He who was with you,” is now in some way “not with you,” or even “working against you.” And notice how they exaggerate the report: “He is baptizing, and all are coming to Him.” In fact, He was not baptizing, but His disciples were; and all were not going out to Him, for verse 23 plainly says that John still had many people coming to Him.

What’s going on here? It is evidently a case of spiritual jealousy. Spiritual jealousy is a very ugly thing. It is focused on competition; it creates artificial rivalries; and it always exaggerates the situation and ultimately takes focus off of the Lord Jesus and places it on men. John’s disciples had this kind of spiritual envy. I wish we could say that they were the last to experience it, but it’s still a problem today, and it creates conflict within churches and between churches. It is seen anytime there are factions in a church body that draws lines between “us” and “them.” Sometimes you see it when a person who at one time held a lot of responsibility in a church begins to be overshadowed by another, or a once prominent ministry begins to take a backseat to something that is new and different. It is seen whenever the people of one church begin to speak ill of another because they are seeing greater results. Rather than rejoicing that people are coming to the Lord, there are criticisms launched.

But the corrective for it is found in the response of John the Baptist to his disciples. In his response, he demonstrates the heart of a humble servant. And that is the kind of heart that is necessary if we are going to move forward in the service of the Lord and the advance of His Kingdom. So what are the characteristics found in the heart of a humble servant? Let’s find them in the text.

I. A humble servant recognizes God as sovereign over all things (v27)

Last Tuesday morning, we were facing a dilemma. After investing countless hours and a lot of money into National Night Out, I woke up and checked the weather. Seventy to eighty percent chance of severe thunderstorms, and the greatest chances were during the very hours our event was planned! The radar map showed it coming right at us. Carolyn called me at 10:00 and we debated what to do. We decided to wait until 1:00 to decide. That was an excruciating three hours! I checked the weather every ten minutes: no change. I was growing frustrated, anxious, and even angry. I talked to the Lord, and I have to confess, I had some pretty raw feelings in my heart, maybe even some spiritual jealousy. I was praying, “Lord, why? Why today? Why not rain out some other church’s event in some other town, and just leave us alone today? This is going to make our church look bad if we can’t deliver on this!” But the Lord began to impress upon my lack of confidence in His sovereignty. Could God make it not rain if He wished? Certainly. So what if He did not stop the rain? Could it be that He might have a purpose in raining us out? Maybe Greensboro needed the rain more than Greensboro needed National Night Out. Maybe there was some unforeseeable disaster that was going to occur, and raining the event out was God’s way of sparing us from it. Maybe there was another church in another town that was going to be blessed with great weather to pull off a great event to reach their community, and we needed to take the rain instead of them. I literally preached and prayed myself into a renewed commitment to God’s sovereignty. At 1:00, the chance of storms was only slightly improved, and I asked Carolyn, “What do you want to do?” She said, “Let’s do it,” and I said, “OK.” Not only did it not rain, I actually got sunburned out there! And it was a great night. The weather was great! The turnout was great! The response was great! But over all of that, God was great! He brought the weather, He brought the people, He brought the volunteers, and He brought the results. He is sovereign over it all.

See, when John’s disciples came complaining (I’m going to call it whining) about the success of another baptizer across town, John didn’t go along with it. He said, “A man can receive nothing unless it has been given him from heaven.” John recognized that he would have never had a ministry at all unless God had granted it to him. He would have never seen the results that he saw unless God had granted it to him. And Jesus and His disciples would not be having the success they were having if God were not directing that as well. So, in John’s mind, if God was pleased to turn the tide of favor to Jesus now instead of John, it was OK with him. John didn’t give up. He kept doing what God had called him to do, but he was content in knowing that his season of ministry was drawing to a close, and he was being overshadowed by Jesus, because God was orchestrating it all according to His sovereignty. He could be thankful for all that he had received, and he could give thanks for what Jesus was doing now, because he recognized that neither of them would have any success, any effect, or any results, or any ministry at all, unless it was granted from heaven by a sovereign God.

What about you? When you see that your labors are not as effective as someone else’s, or that you are serving unnoticed while someone else gets all the attention and praise, or that the appreciation you once had has all but vanished and someone else now is at the center of attention, how does it make you feel? Someone else’s Sunday School class has grown larger than yours. Someone else was chosen to lead the committee. Someone else was nominated for deacon instead of you. You don’t get asked to do the things you used to do. Or, you do something with all your heart and soul, and it bombs; while someone else does a half-effort at something and it’s a glowing success. What goes through your mind? Some of you drive past large churches with full parking lots every Sunday on your way here. I get caught in traffic letting out from Westover Church every Sunday on my way home. I can’t turn left into my street because of the flood of cars leaving that church! Meanwhile we are at 25% capacity here in our sanctuary. Do you have moments like that? What are you thinking? “Oh, if only we would do this and that,” or maybe, “That church must be short-selling the Gospel in the name of entertainment.” You look back on bygone days when this building was full and membership was multiplied many times over the present number, and you seek to lay blame or find fault, and even become spiritually jealous of another church, another leader, or another time.

Let’s learn from John. A man can receive nothing unless it has been given him from heaven. Were there great days in the past here? Thanks be to God, who granted it. Are the doors still open today? Thanks be to God, who grants it. Is another church across town busting at the seems? Thanks be to God, who is bringing people to Himself through their ministry. Did you at one time have a place of seemingly more significance than you do today? Thanks be to God who made it happen. Has another been raised up in your place? Thanks be to God for His hand upon their life. The heart of a humble servant recognizes that God is sovereign over these things, and rather than falling into spiritual jealousy, he or she can give praise and thanks to God is at work to bring glory to Himself through all of it.

II. The heart of a humble servant understands the boundaries of his own calling (v28)

When we look at our stresses in life, we recognize that a good many of them come from unrealistic expectations. We expect more of someone than he or she can actually deliver. That leads to disappointment and frustration. It happens in marriage, in business, among friends, and even within churches. Because of the fallen nature of humanity, unrealistic expectations are a reality we have to learn to live with. But the really foolish thing for anyone to do in the face of unrealistic expectations is to try to meet them. We have to know the limitations of our abilities, and we have to understand the boundaries of our own calling.  

John’s disciples seem to have had some unrealistic expectations of him. At one time, and for a short time, John was the most popular religious figure in Israel. His disciples seem to have expected him to remain in that position forever. Like a politician’s publicity team, they are reporting to him that he is losing ground in the polls, and he better do something if he hopes to stay in the race. In response to the complaining and whining of his disciples, John reminds them of what he had told them before. “You yourselves are my witnesses that I said, ‘I am not the Christ,’ but ‘I have been sent ahead of Him.’” In other words, “My calling from God was to prepare the way for someone else to come after me. I have done that, and He has come. My task is nearing completion.” John knew that his calling was an important one, but that it was merely preparatory for the greater calling of One coming after him. His job was not to be the Christ. He was not to be the Savior of the World. He was to point out the Lamb of God, not to become the Lamb of God. And he was not going to begin a competition with the Christ. He had done what God put him here to do. Now it was time for Christ to do what the Father sent Him to do. There was no bitterness or envy in John’s heart. He had a calling to pursue, and he had pursued it to the best of his ability. Christ had a different calling – a different purpose – and John was content to know the dividing lines between their respective callings.

Compare John the Baptist with Saul, the first king of Israel. When Saul’s reign as king began drawing to an end, God called out David to replace him on the throne and soon David’s popularity began to overshadow Saul’s. Do you remember how Saul reacted to that? He became violent, delusional, and consumed with a passion to protect and preserve his own position. He sought to destroy David. But John was not like this. John had the confidence of knowing that he had done what God had called him to do. He could do no more than that. And the fact that Christ was now doing something bigger and better than him was something he could take joy and comfort in. He could not do what Christ had come to do. John could only do what God had called him to do. And he did it well. He knew the boundaries of his own calling.

You see, when we do not understand the boundaries of our calling, we tend to make critical comparisons of ourselves with others. We feel threatened by them. We complain that they are not doing what we want them to do, or the way we want them to do it. We feel passionate about something, and we think they should be just as passionate about it. But when we understand the boundaries of our calling, we can rejoice in doing what God has called us to do, and rejoice all the more when others do what God has called them to do. None of us can be Jesus. But all of us together, doing what each one has been called to do, can be the Body of Christ in the world.

Jack and I were commenting on this during VBS. No one can cook the food, register the kids, lead the games, do the crafts, teach the lesson, drive the van, and lead the worship. But the ones who can cook cook, and the ones who can teach teach, and the ones who can drive drive, and the ones who can do crafts do crafts, and so on and so on, and at the end of the week, VBS happened. And it was the Body of Christ at work. But in order for that to happen, we have to recognize our calling, be faithful in the work of our calling, and cease comparing ourselves to others who have different callings. Then we see the heart of humble servanthood.

III. The heart of a humble servant rejoices in his own relationship with Jesus (v29)

What brings you ultimate joy in life? It is a question I ask myself often as a sort of spiritual diagnostic. I love preaching. In fact, more than that, I love preparing sermons. I love to lock myself away with my Bible and my books and hammer out an exposition of God’s Word. It is hard work, but it is a joyous work. But sometimes, I can get things out of whack in my life, and that becomes the most joyous thing for me. And when that becomes the thing that brings me the most joy in life, it becomes dangerous. I can never derive more joy from what I am attempting to do for Jesus than I derive from the gracious privilege of being with Jesus. 

John didn’t allow that temptation to overtake him. There were many things that could bring him joy. He knew the joy of having a group of disciples clinging to his every word and following him everywhere he went. He knew the joy of baptizing multitudes of people who desired to surrender their lives to God. He knew the joy of popularity and power. He knew the joy of being the spokesman for God. But none of these things were his greatest joy. If you were to take all of these things away from him, and in fact all of these things were about to be stripped from him, you would not touch his greatest joy. So what was his greatest joy? Look at verse 29.

John says, “He who has the bride is the bridegroom, but the friend of the bridegroom, who stands and hears him, rejoices greatly because of the bridegroom’s voice.” John is saying here, “I’m not the bridegroom, Jesus is.” He has come to gather His people together from every nation and form His church, which He will take to Himself as a bride in a covenant relationship. And John says, “My joy is not that of the bridegroom. I’m not the one getting married! My joy comes from knowing the bridegroom, being His friend, and standing with Him, and hearing His voice speak!” He says, “So this joy of mine has been made full!” His joy was not in his ministry, his success, his popularity, or his power! His ultimate joy was in the fact that he had a personal relationship with Jesus.

When Jesus sent His disciples out to preach, they came back rejoicing about the spiritual power they had experienced. “Even the demons are subject to us in Your name!” they said. But Jesus said, “Do not rejoice in this, that the spirits are subject to you, but rejoice that your names are recorded in heaven” (Luke 10:17-20). Jesus is reminding them that the greatest joy of all is found in knowing Him! And He is warning them against ever allowing any other joy to surpass that one.

You see, when your joy is in anything other than knowing Jesus, then you are always at risk of losing your joy. Is your joy found in being in charge? What will happen when you are no longer in charge? Someone else will be in charge and you will be bitter and envious. Is your joy found in your work? What will become of you when you can no longer do it? You will look with critical disdain on someone else who does it after you, or different than you, or better than you. You see, every single thing in this world that promises to bring you joy will disappoint you, because you will break it, you will lose it, or you will grow tired of it, or it will be taken away from you. And in your disappointment, you will be driven to bitterness, anger, envy, jealousy, and a host of other destructive emotions. But when your greatest and most ultimate joy is found in knowing Jesus, then you will be able to say with John the Baptist, “So this joy of mine has been made full!” That is a relationship that will never be severed, a joy that can never be lost or stolen from you, and that will last for all eternity. The heart of a humble servant takes an honest assessment of himself and realizes, “I am a sinner. I deserve nothing but hell. But Christ has lavished grace on me by bearing my sin, and conquering death for me, and He has called me into this friendship with Him!” There is no greater joy that anyone could know.   

IV. The heart of a humble servant lives to see Christ exalted (v30).

Have you ever looked up into the sky on a clear day and seen the moon in the middle of the afternoon. At times it is visible, a faint white sphere (or portion of a sphere), kind of like a light bulb that is just waiting to be turned on. Most of us are aware that the light we see in the moon at night is not produced by the moon, but is the reflection of the light of the sun. So, why is it that the moon, so brilliant with its silver, yellow, even sometimes orange hues at night, seems so colorless and pale in the daytime? There’s just as much light reflecting off it in the daytime as at night, so why does it look so different to us? The difference is because the sun has risen so high in the sky that its light dominates the atmosphere, essentially outshining every other light in the sky.

John says in verse 30, “He must increase, but I must decrease.” John is saying in a sense, “I came onto the scene when it was dark in the world. Any light you saw in me was only a reflection of the greater light of Christ who was to come after me. But now He has come. It is the breaking of a new day! A greater light shines brighter and higher! And because you see Him now, you barely notice me at all. He outshines me, and this is the way it must be. He must increase, but I must decrease.” John is not threatened or upset in anyway that Christ is moving into the spotlight. It is what he lives for!

But you see that word must there. It has to happen like this. He must increase. It is imperative that Christ increase! But in order for Christ to increase, you must decrease! I must decrease! Life cannot be about me, and my position, and my power and my authority, and my title, and my influence, and my popularity, and my reputation. I must decrease. You must decrease. We decrease so that He will increase! The more I focus on Him, the less I focus on me. The more I live for Him, the less I live for me. But you have to understand, this goes against every ounce of our human nature. We are sinfully corrupted to think that life is all about ourselves. So this kind of decreasing so that Christ will increase is not going to happen by accident. There has to be a daily dying to self – even a moment by moment surrender – I must decrease. You must decrease. Why? So that Christ may increase. When you cultivate the habit of that in your heart, you begin to live for a singular purpose, and it is the most eternally glorious purpose of all. You begin to live for no other reason than to see Christ exalted. If Christ can be exalted in you through success, then bring the success and glorify Him in it. But perhaps Christ being exalted will require your defeat. If so, then glorify Him in the defeat. If Christ can be exalted through your life, then live every moment of it to exalt Him and show the world what a glorious treasure you have in Him. But what if Christ’s increase requires your death rather than your life? If you live to see Him exalted, then death cannot threaten you, for you know that it will not be in vain but it will be used to demonstrate the all-surpassing greatness of the Lord Jesus in a way that your life never could. He must increase! But I must decrease. That is the heart of a humble servant.

Do you want to see change in the world? Do you want to see change in the nation? Do you want to see change in your workplace and in your community? Do you want to see change in your church – a genuine outpouring of revival in which God moves mightily by His Spirit through His people? Then there must be a change in the heart of every individual Christian. We must allow God to cultivate within us a heart of humble servanthood. You won’t find a better example than John the Baptist. The heart of a humble servant recognizes that God is sovereign. The heart of a humble servant understands the boundaries of his or her own calling. The heart of a humble servant finds ultimate joy in knowing Christ, and lives for the singular purpose of seeing Him exalted. May He start that work in me and in you, and may it begin even in this very moment.

[1] Excerpts adapted from Horton’s foreword in R. C. Sproul, Are We Together (Lake Mary, Fla: Reformation Trust, 2012). This excerpt accessed online at, August 8, 2012. 

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