“He must increase, but I must decrease”- John 3:30
“I am the greatest!” That’s what Muhammed Ali proclaimed over and over again in February of 1964 leading up to his pivotal bout with then champion Sonny Liston. This was no small prediction. Liston was “The Big Bear,” a ferocious and huge man. He had been arrested and did prison time for armed robbery. He had beaten the skilled Floyd Patterson two years before. He was a tough and intimidating figure. Liston had a way of looking at his opponents that reduced most of them to weak kneed jelly. Liston was a seven to one favorite going into the fight. Ali was still a young man seen as petulant and boisterous by most.
The sixties were a time of racial tension. Bigotry was more blatant than in our day. There was a good number of fight fans who were looking forward to seeing this young fast talking lyrical “loud mouth” “uppity” black man cut down to size by Liston. Two black men were fighting. At least one would lose. To these people Ali was a villain.
To others Ali was a heroic symbol. His poetic way of denigrating his opponents was the genesis of prefight trash talk. He was a master of verbal fencing. He unsettled his opponents and drew blood with his words. But he was also a symbol of racial equality. And he would become a symbol of defiance to what many at that time felt was a government perpetrating an unjust and unnecessary war. He was a focal point of the peace movement. Ali resisted being drafted in the army by claiming he was a conscientious objector. He was convicted of draft evasion. While he didn’t serve any prison time he was stripped of his champion’s belt. In 1970 after three years of appeals he was deemed as fulfilling the requirements of a conscientious objector by the Supreme Court and allowed to resume his fighting career.
Ali ended his fame producing “I am the greatest” speech by adding, “He’ll fall in eight to prove I’m great. If he keeps talkin’ jive, I’m going to cut it to five.” Ali was known for floating like a butterfly and stinging like a bee. Ali beat the odds and won that fight decisively. Liston was no match for the young fast as lightening and surprisingly powerful taunter. Ali was champion. He backed up his talk. He was as he would often say thereafter, “the greatest of all time!”
Ali was a controversial figure. Once known as Cassius Clay he announced shortly after his fight with Liston that he had converted to Islam changing his name to Muhammed Ali. He became a supporter of the Nation of Islam group that much of white America felt was anti-American. Ali claimed the, “followers of Allah are the sweetest people in the world. They don’t carry knives. They don’t tote weapons.” He said this to justify his conscientious objection to the Vietnam war. That seems a bit contradictory since 9/11 and all the violence perpetrated by adherents to Islam.
When Ali reentered the ring he became one of the best if not the best professional boxers of all time. He fought epic battles against Joe Frazier and George Foreman. As a young man I enjoyed watching Ali and his prefight and in fight verbal jabbing. I appreciated what he stood for in terms of racial equality and resistance to the war. He was a very popular figure in his day. He was a three time champion. Some might argue, but I believe he really was the “greatest,” as a boxer.
But there were chinks in the armor of “the greatest.” Ali was a man who lived an immoral lifestyle. History reveals him to be a walking contradiction in many ways. He converted to Islam from Christianity. It’s doubtful he was ever a Christian but he still represents one who left light for darkness. And in light of eternity a man with Ali’s history walks under condemnation. “He who believes in Him [i.e. Jesus] is not condemned; but he who does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God” (John 3:18). Those are Jesus’ words. There’s more to “greatness” than the world leads us to believe.
I’m not picking a fight by mentioning the “great” Ali. I’m just mentioning this popular societal figure who was “great” by the world’s standards so that we can see that there is more to greatness. The Bible tells us very clearly what we must do to be truly great. Jesus said to be the greatest you had to humble yourself like a child (Mat. 18:4). He said service was the essential of greatness (Mat. 23:11). Jesus said the greatest was the “last of all and servant of all” (Mark 9:33-35). We don’t see Jesus proclaiming, “I am the greatest!” Even though Jesus had a jab from Jehovah and an omnipotent punch we don’t see Him saying to His opponents, “You’re going down in eight so you‘ll know I’m great!” The disciples may have leaned toward Ali in how to attain greatness. But Jesus enlightened them toward true eternal greatness.
There’s one man Jesus pointed to as being great. That man was John the Baptist. Of him Jesus said, “Assuredly, I say to you, among those born of women there has not risen one greater than John the Baptist;” (Mat. 11:11a). “Assuredly” means without a doubt. If you want to know what Jesus’ brand of true greatness looks like in a person, look at John the Baptist.
John the Baptist’s birth was announced by the angel Gabriel (Luke 1:11-20). He was born to a woman who had previously been barren. His parents were both “well advanced in years” (Luke 1:5-10). But a unique birth was not what made him great. John was the cousin of Jesus (Luke 1:36). But being a relative of Jesus was not what made him great. John leaped for joy in his mother’s womb when she came near Mary who was pregnant with Jesus (Luke 1:39-45). John likely lived out a Nazirite vow from birth (Luke 1:15; compare with Num. 6). But all of this is only a very small part of John’s greatness.
God brought John to the wilderness to begin building greatness in him. John “was in the deserts till the day of his manifestation to Israel” (Luke 1:80). He lived on locusts and wild honey (Matthew 3:4). No doubt this time in the desert was a time when God made John’s call and election sure. The desert is a place of solitude where one can hear from the Lord without distraction, disturbance or interruption. It was in the wilderness where the LORD brought John deeper.
“John” means the LORD is a gracious giver. The angel Gabriel instructed John’s parents to specifically name their son “John” (Luke 1:13, 60, and 63). In the wilderness, where God could minister one on one with John, the meaning of his name must have been a topic of conversation. The meaning of his mission from God flowed from that. God often maneuvers us into a place where He can have our undivided attention. He will even use predicaments and life problems to get through to us. If we’re going to be great we need to spend time alone with God.
When John came out of the desert he came baptizing. Baptism is a symbolic rite meant to demonstrate dying to self and sin and rising to new life with God. Baptism involved repentance or turning from sin to God (Mat. 3:7-9). John, whose name pointed to God as a gracious Giver, came calling people to God and using baptism as a means of his ministry. So prolific was his ministry that he became known as “John the Baptist.” Pointing out God’s grace is part of being great. Calling people to God through repentance is an attribute of greatness.
John the Baptist was called and elected by God to introduce Jesus as “the LORD” (John 1:19-28). Jesus is not just a prophet or good man. Jesus is “the LORD.” John was a powerful preacher. He was empowered by God. People flocked to hear him. His preaching resulted in people confessing their sins in repentance and being baptized (Mat. 3:2-6). He demonstrated an anointing from God so that even though he was straightforward in calling people out for their sins, (e.g. “brood of vipers!”) they still came to him. He was not disrespectful to men. But he wasn’t a respecter of men either. John simply and clearly and decisively spoke the truth of God (Mat. 3:7-10). Speaking God’s message and introducing people to Jesus is a great part of true greatness.
John’s mission was foretold more than 700 years in advance through the prophet Isaiah (cf. Isaiah 40:3-5). He was the “voice of one crying in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the LORD” (Mat. 3:3). Part of his mission was that Jesus would come to John to be baptized (Mat. 3:13-16). John at first wanted to submit to Jesus’ baptism. He was humbled by his calling before Jesus. Who was he to baptize the Lamb of God who came to take away the sin of the world? But he was also humble enough to fulfill that calling and baptize Jesus “to fulfill all righteousness.” Humble obedience is another important part of true greatness.
John became very popular. His popularity caused some confusion about who he was. Some thought he might be the promised Messiah. John nipped that thought in the bud. He clearly and emphatically denied being Messiah (Luke 3:1-3). Instead John pointed people to Jesus. He announced Jesus with the words, “Behold! The Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1:29). John knew and proclaimed Jesus’ baptism was greater than his. “He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire” (Mat. 3:11; cf. also John 1:29-34).
John knew his place. He humbled himself and was humbled in the presence of Jesus. He knew he wasn’t worthy to tie Jesus’ sandal straps (John 1:26-27). Jesus was the One, the only One, who could take away the sin of the world (John 1:29). There was never any equivocation with John the Baptist. He lived a life of full surrender to the LORD. He easily stepped aside and pointed people to Jesus. His life motto was, “He must increase, but I must decrease” (John 3:30). True greatness is humble. Greatness is in proportion to one’s surrender to God. The more you surrender to God the greater you will be. If you want to be great then, “He must increase, but I must decrease.”
John the Baptist was great because he focused on, submitted to, and promoted the greatness of Jesus. John was great because he echoed the message of Jesus. “He who believes in the Son has everlasting life; and he who does not believe the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God abides on him.” (John 3:36). The bottom line is it’s all about Jesus. If you believe in Jesus you have everlasting life. If you don’t believe in Jesus “the wrath of God abides on you.” It’s not a matter of people believing on John. It’s a matter of people believing on Jesus. That is the message of true greatness!
“John answered and said, “A man can receive nothing unless it has been given to him from heaven.” (John 3:27). John was great because he had a proper perspective. He had listened to Jesus who had said God’s light helps a person see the blessings of life were “done in God” (John 3:21). He understood that all he had was from God. It wasn’t his, it was God’s. The Apostle Paul was inspired to write we are bought by God with the price of Jesus. Therefore we don’t have any claim on our lives (1 Cor. 6:19-20). We will save ourselves a lot of grief and pain if we simply live in full surrender to God who has bought us with the precious blood of His only Son Jesus. That is the lesson of true greatness.
John the Baptist was a man of courage. He had faith and courage enough to stand up to Herod concerning Herod’s immoral conduct (Mark 6:17-18). John’s courageous uncompromising stand got him thrown in prison and ultimately beheaded (Mat. 4:12 and 14:1-12). Courage is fear that has said its prayers. John must have been a man of prayer in order to be a man of courage. Prayer and courage are a part of true greatness.
When we look at this great servant of God we see him as a mighty preacher of repentance (Luke 3:2-18). He was fearless in confronting those who could put him to death (Mat. 14:3-4). John the Baptist had a reputation of being “a just and holy man” (Mark 6:20). While John the Baptist was courageous, just and holy, he was even more humble. John “finished his course” faithfully (Acts 13:24-25). John was great because he fulfilled his calling and did the most with what he was given by God.
Yes, John the Baptist was a great man. But did you know there are greater people than him? Yes, Jesus went on to say, “but he who is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he” (Mat. 11:11b). Jesus said, “there has not risen one greater than John the Baptist.” But then He goes on to say “he who is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.” The word “greater” here is translated from the Greek megas which means greater in size, form, rank, volume, intensity of feeling, or in strength. John was and is a “great” man of God. From Genesis to the Gospels of all those mentioned in history; Abraham, Moses, Samuel, Elijah, David, the Patriarchs, kings and the Prophets; of all of these, Jesus says John is the greatest. And yet, “he who is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.”
How could anyone be greater than John the Baptist? Well, those now living in the fullness of the gospel of God’s grace in Christ are greater in understanding because of God’s completed revelation. We are greater because we have the privilege of knowing God’s complete canon of scripture. We have a greater understanding of the gospel and prophetic history. We know of God’s revealed eternal plan of redemption. John was anointed by God to greatly fulfill his ministry. We in Christ have the privilege of Pentecostal empowering of the Holy Spirit to fulfill the Great Commission. But beyond all of this and really to prepare us to experience all of this greatness of God, there is a key we must use to unlock the fullness of God’s true greatness.
Jesus tells us the key to true greatness. To be the truly great according to Jesus you have to be “the least in the kingdom of heaven.” True greatness is the product of leastness. The word “least” (Greek mikros) means small, little, short, least. The littlest, smallest, or least person in the kingdom of heaven (who has access to the completed revelation of God, His plan and empowering to complete the plan) is greater than John the Baptist. But if there is a “least” in the kingdom of heaven it implies there is also a greater in the kingdom of heaven. And to be truly great in God’s heavenly kingdom requires we be least.
True greatness requires we must be least in our estimation of ourselves and great in God’s estimation of us. True greatness requires we must be least in trusting in ourselves and great in trusting God. The key to true greatness is first realizing we are small, little, short, and least; we don’t measure up. But what unlocks true greatness is turning to God in simple childlike faith and trusting in His greatness. True greatness realizes God is the greatest!
John the Baptist began to point us in the right direction when he said, “He must increase, but I must decrease.” That is the key we must insert into the keyhole of the rest of the revelation of God in the New Testament. The journey to true greatness is one of constant personal decreasing and constant increasing of Jesus. To be truly great we must move away from self and close to Jesus. To be truly great we must stop focusing on ourselves and focus on Jesus. To be truly great we must stop drawing attention to ourselves and draw attention to Jesus. To be truly great we must step out of the center of attention and put Jesus in the center of life. To be truly great we must realize Jesus is the greatest, not us. That flies in the face of the world and our flesh. But true greatness doesn’t proclaim, “I am the greatest!” It proclaims “Jesus is the greatest!” Be truly great.