HE MUST BECOME GREATER; I MUST BECOME LESS. — JOHN 3:30
It was disarmingly flat, ratty, and worn out like an older saint’s Bible but without any of the purity. How could my friend live with the sponge like this? Now I know it’s a rank sign of middle age that I would have strong, emotional opinions about dish sponges. I own that. And I was shocked that my college best friend, a constantly cleaning stay-at-home mom of four, would be operating with such inferior tools.
But here I was, a guest in her house, and I needed to clean up some things I’d made a mess with. So I scrunched up my face, grabbed the sponge, and got to work.
Immediately, I knew I needed to repent. It is hard to describe really, but this flat, natty sponge was the best tool I have ever used to clean a pile of dishes. There was something about how it felt in the hand, how it held and distributed the soap. I’m laughing at myself, waxing eloquent about a stinking sponge. The point is, I was so dead wrong. I had thought the sponge was insufficient; actually, it was great.
The sponge, of course, was great whether I knew it or not. What changed in that moment was nothing about the tool; what changed was my evaluation of it. It became much greater to me after I interacted with it. Not greater in and of itself, but greater in my eyes. I wished my more handsome sponges at home could be like this one instead.
I won’t be able to name what it was for you, but I’m certain you’ve had some similar experience, where a place, or an object, or a person you had forgotten about or discounted suddenly raised in estimation in your eyes. Something about your interaction made you realize, perhaps shaking your head at yourself, that you had been all wrong, and your view changed completely. It can happen with frivolous things, like me with the sponge. In that case it’s just a good reminder not to judge by appearances or something like that.
But when it happens with something important, it can change the trajectory of our lives.
He Must Become Greater
When John the Baptist spoke our verse about Jesus, it was a very particular moment in salvation history. John’s ministry was public, vibrant, and growing. Jesus, on the other hand, had scarcely begun any ministry at all. But John knew what time it was. Soon, his ministry would appropriately fade away, because pointing to the Messiah would be complete. And Jesus’s ministry would grow, leading to the ultimate greatness: his death on a cross, and resurrection from the grave, which purchased forgiveness, salvation, and eternal life for all who would believe in him. John’s proclamation was right, and true, and came to pass.
We now live on the other side of the resurrection, praise be to God. So what could it mean for us to take “he must become greater” into our own mouths, to print it on our own arms? Unlike John, we don’t mean that Jesus’s earthly ministry is about to blow up (in a good way), because that is safely in the past. As I see it, there are two broad ways we could appropriate these good words of the Baptist in our own time.
First, we can look ahead by faith at the coming again of Jesus that is promised to us. We look around us today and it is clear that not everyone claims Jesus as Savior and King. He is not recognized as great by many in the world around us. So we are called to be about the work of making his name great: proclaiming it, explaining it, exhorting others to taste it and see. We don’t make his name great in that the value comes from us, not at all. But we work so that it is seen for what it is, and work in the promise that one day, “at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (Philippians 2:10–11). When that day comes, our ministry of evangelism will no longer be needed; his true, full greatness will be revealed.
But there is a second way that this needs to be owned by us. And in fact, if we don’t address this second way, we have no hope of truly embracing the first, either. This second way, therefore, is where I want us to double click today.
This second way is this: when we ourselves lose touch with how great Jesus is; when somehow our view of him grows dimmer, then we need him to become greater—not greater in himself, which he already is, but in our eyes, which so easily lose focus. There are so many reasons this can happen, and no internet article can be an exhaustive treatment. But in our Western context, one culprit for losing sight pops up as a likely candidate: it’s when we stop realizing how great Jesus is because we start thinking about how great we want something in our own lives to be.
I Must Become Less
We live, move, and breathe in a society that prioritizes self-optimization in every flavor. Not only this, but self-optimization never occurs in a vacuum, but always in direct, sometimes ferocious comparison and competition with the self-optimization of our neighbors. Our education, our media, our cultural narratives reinforce this vision of the good life from every angle. Whatever we think the good life is, that is what slowly but surely becomes great in our eyes. And in the Western world, the good life invariably revolves around me.
Our desire for the good is something that God himself gave to us, because we were created to long for him, the true Good, and to appreciate his many gifts to us, goods that get their goodness in relation to him as the giver. But because we are fallen, because sin still lives in us, we are ever so prone to grabbing God’s good gifts out of his hands and forgetting him entirely. When we do this, anxiety inevitably follows. Chasing the me-centered good life is a heady cocktail of desires and fears; if I don’t get that, I will feel worthless; I want this, so that I can have joy; if this fails, I’ll never show my face again; once I get that, I’ll finally have rest.
Those this’s and that’s can even be good things, can’t they? But when our self-optimization takes up our whole windshield, we easily lose sight of Jesus, the one who promises us rest, life to the full, forgiveness, peace, and growth.
Today, if you hear his voice, don’t harden your hearts. This is an invitation to remember that Jesus, the great one, still will not break a bruised reed; he still calls out that his yoke is easy, and his burden is light. He has promised to never leave you nor forsake you, and in his death, resurrection, and ascension, he has seated you with him by the Father’s side; he is ever praying for you, sees you, and longs for your holiness and vibrancy. He is greater, and he must become greater in your sight, because only he is the good answer to the questions you are too afraid to ask, the promise that you are almost too shy to look for because your heart so longs for it. He can only become greater if and as we interact with him, especially in community.
We all lose touch with this vision, because we are weak, made of dust, which Jesus knows full well. Today you have an invitation to draw near to him again. Text a friend who loves Jesus, and ask them to pray and encourage you. Bring out a favorite Bible chapter or devotional work instead of scrolling. Pause right now and pray that he would become greater in your sight. No movement towards Jesus is ever wasted; watch and see what he will do.