In way of introduction I want to start things off this morning by making a bit of a confession. If you know me at all you won’t be surprised to hear that I am a deeply competitive person! I know an Adams being competitive - crazy, right? You would have never guessed!
Seriously though, whether it’s some type of a hereditary disorder, part of my overt masculine identity, a psychological compensation that developed since I was small as a child, or simply a bizarre quark to my already terrible personality - I’m really competitive and hate loosing!
As your pastor I confess that I am fully aware this is not a good thing. I’m so competitive I quit playing golf for a decade the very moment my two younger brothers started hitting the ball farther than I could. This competitive nature is so extreme that as a youth pastor I had to stop playing dodge ball with middle schoolers or volley ball with the high school youth group.
This competitive compulsion within me is so extreme, as a t-ball coach, my family has to give me an hour to decompress after a loss before talking to me. To this day my wife is reluctant to be my partner in spades. For the record she cheats at Skip-Bo so that street goes both ways. I’m very aware this part of my personality is far from being Christ-like!
Truth be told (and I’m not proud to admit this) but my competitiveness carries over even to church life. Yes, I can say the “Lord adds to the church,” but if I’m honest He’s not doing this fast enough for my liking. Don’t misunderstand what I’m saying… It’s not that I’m discontent in anyway with the amazing work God is presently doing, it’s just that my competitive nature wants Calvary316 to be the biggest church in our community. I know it’s wrong.
Once again, I’m telling you all of this to be openly transparent that I have problems. As I’m sure you also know the struggle between my sinful flesh and the Holy Spirit living within is real. I don’t like this competitive proclivity. I know it’s not healthy. I’m painfully aware this is an area in my life Jesus is wanting to transform and work out of me. I have a long way to go.
I mention this often, but my approach to our Bible studies is rather simple. As I go through a text it’s my prayer the text goes through me. I believe God must teach me a truth I turn around and share with you. It’s powerful that way. Every Sunday it’s my desire to expound on the Living Word of God from the context the Word’s first come alive to me!
This morning we’re going to take more time examining a section of John 3 than the text warrants. But I want you to know the reason for this boils down to the simple reality God has really worked me over about the sin of allowing a competitive spirit to enter my ministry.
I do believe there is a lot we can all glean, but you need to know my context before we start. It’s my prayer God speaks to you in such a real and tangible way that He’s spoken to me.
John 3:22, “After these things Jesus and His disciples came into the land of Judea, and there He remained with them and baptized.”
After the feast of Passover had come to a close and it was time to leave Jerusalem (which included Jesus’ cleansing of the Temple, teaching the people, performing “signs” or miracles, and this profoundly fascinating conversation with Nicodemus), “Jesus and His disciples (Peter, Andrew, John, James, Nathanael, Philip) come into the land of Judea.” As we’ll soon see it’s likely they camped out in an area on the banks of the Jordan known as “Aenon.”
While “in the land of Judea” John records that “Jesus remained with them.” In the Greek the word we have translated as “remained” literally means “to rub between.” The idea John is articulating is that Jesus spent this time rubbing shoulders with “His disciples.”
I absolutely love this! Jesus, who’s already been introduced to us as “the Word became flesh, the Son of God” came to earth not only to save sinful man, but to rub shoulders with him! Understand, Jesus was open and relatable. He wasn’t detached. Jesus cared about people. He entered the human condition and experienced human connections. Jesus took the time to develop meaningful relationships with the very people He came to save!
Aside from sharing this quality time with these men, John also tells us that Jesus “baptized.” In a recap of this time in Judea in John 4:2 our author adds an important detail. He writes that “Jesus Himself did not baptize, but His disciples.” It would seem during this season of ministry Jesus was preaching a similar message as John the Baptizer concerning the repentance of sin and was facilitating the baptisms “His disciples” actually carried forth.
John 3:23-26, “Now John also was baptizing in Aenon near Salim, because there was much water there. And they came and were baptized. For John had not yet been thrown into prison. Then there arose a dispute between some of John’s disciples and the Jews about purification. And they came to John and said to him, ‘Rabbi, He who was with you beyond the Jordan, to whom you have testified - behold, He is baptizing, and all are coming to Him!’”
Because this particular section of the Jordan River “near Salim” had an ample supply of water as well as space, the scene sets both John the Baptizer and Jesus (along with their disciples) ministering on the exact same block and to the same multitude of people.
What’s interesting about the way John presents the subtext to the scene is that it appears during this season “in Aenon” John’s ministry was experiencing some unexpected set backs.
First, we’re told “there arose a dispute (literally a debate) between some of John’s disciples and the Jews about purification.” In context “the Jews” were likely the religious establishment that had come from Jerusalem and this topic of “purification” probably centered upon the very idea of baptism being an effective and appropriate response to repentance.
Second, we’re also told that during this season John’s popularity was becoming dwarfed by Jesus’! Though John had been the man drawing huge crowds and ministering to large multitudes, aside from being challenged over “purification,” he was now loosing his audience to Jesus. Alarmed by these developments John’s disciples come to him and declare, “Rabbi, Jesus is baptizing and all are coming to Him!” I think John probably smiled!
Look at his reaction to the news “all were coming to Jesus”… John 3:27-30, “John answered and said, ‘A man can receive nothing unless it has been given to him from heaven. You yourselves bear me witness, that I said, ‘I am not the Christ,’ but, ‘I have been sent before Him.’ 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. Therefore this joy of mine is fulfilled. He must increase, but I must decrease.’”
Though it was true Jesus was now drawing larger crowds than John the Baptizer, this new dynamic doesn’t seem to bother John in the slightest. While his disciples fell prey to a competitive spirit, not so with John. In order to expand the perspective of his worried disciples John lists five simple reasons why this dynamic wasn’t bothersome to him.
First, John wasn’t bothered by this dynamic because he knew all ministry was a gift from God. Look again at verse 27, John says, “A man can receive nothing unless it has been given to him from heaven.” John rightly understood something so many forget when it comes to ministry… He wasn’t owed anything!
John clearly recognized his ministry of preparing the way for Jesus “had been given to him!” John’s declining influence wasn’t an affront to his pride or sense of self worth, because he knew he hadn’t earned his ministry nor did he deserve it. It wasn’t something he’d built from the ground up and therefore owned. John hadn’t created the opportunity for himself.
Instead, in an act of grace, God chose to include John in His work! The opportunity he’d enjoyed was something he’d been “given from heaven” and “received!” As such John knew he had no claim or right to argue if God decided to change the ministry itself. It wasn’t his to begin with! Since God owned the work, God could do with it whatever He wanted.
I have discovered that when you loose sight of the reality the ministry opportunity right in front of you is a gift from God it’s so easy to then get distracted and even discouraged by the opportunities God hasn’t given you or worse yet those He’s given to someone else.
The simple fact remains that competitiveness quickly arises when we warp the origins and ownership of the ministry we’ve been given!
Please know whether you serve by ushering, come to church early to make coffee or greet visitors, serve in the nursery, teach the kids or work with the youth, sing on the worship team, volunteer in the media booth, open the service with a welcome, pray with people during worship, or preach the sermon - it’s a ministry opportunity God has “given” to you!
Always remember… Because God’s work isn’t dependent on your involvement, if not for His amazing grace you wouldn’t be included at all! You’re only involved in the work because He invited you to participate. Friend, seeing the opportunities God has given you with such a perspective should spawn a profound appreciation for them. They were given!
When I loose sight of the fact this opportunity before me to teach God’s Word at Calvary316 every Sunday morning is a gift I’ve not earned nor deserve, but one I’ve been afford by God’s grace alone… It’s then so easy for me to leave here after the service discouraged by the crowd that wasn’t in attendance and envious of the one at that other church. It’s easy for me to despise what I’ve been given when I begin to think I deserve something more.
John the Baptizer had no problem with a diminishing ministry and was able to refuse the trap of a competitive outlook because he didn’t have a false sense of entitlement. John knew God didn’t own him a thing, so what right did he have to make demands or be disappointed. Never forget whatever opportunity is in front of you is a gift given by God’s grace!
Second, John wasn’t bothered by this dynamic because he was sure in his calling. Look again at verse 28, John says to his disciples, “You yourselves bear me witness, that I said, ‘I am not the Christ,’ but, ‘I have been sent before Him.’”
In John’s situation, in the presence of Jesus’ growing popularity and his waining notoriety, he wasn’t alarmed or discouraged by what was happening because he knew Jesus was “the Christ” and he wasn’t! John knew God had called him to be the forerunner. Competition was silly. He knew his place and was 100% content with it. He was fulfilling his heavenly call!
Please know there are few things more freeing than being absolutely content with who you are and at peace with who you aren’t! It’s absolutely liberating to know who God has called you to be and then filter what you do through that particular calling.
Christian, in my experience there is nothing more frustrating than finding yourself in a ministry dynamic where you’re trying to be someone you aren’t or trying to fulfill a calling God never gave you! Honestly, it’s not only unsustainable, but incredibly taxing.
Let me give you a few practical examples… I have a dear friend who was struggling as a worship leader because he felt his true calling was to be a Senior Pastor. Because he was trying to be what he wasn’t, my friend eventually spent two years ineffective and completely miserable until he finally set out on his own to fulfill what God had called him to be.
I know pastors who completely neglect their congregations because they’ve actually been called to be a missionary. In my own life I have to confess that for 10 years, while I absolutely loved being a youth pastor, I was probably the world’s worst Assistant Pastor because that wasn’t my calling or particular gifting. I was a square peg forcing myself into a round hole.
John found himself at peace because he knew who he was, knew who he wasn’t, and was therefore able to embrace his unique calling. He couldn’t compete with Jesus’ ministry because Jesus’ calling was radically different than his own. John resisted the urge to be who he wasn’t, because he was confident in who God had called him to be.
I know I speak out against the seeker-friendly church a lot, but there are times I think to myself, “We’re not going to be able to compete with them if we don’t tweak this or change that.” Yet, the truth is that I have to be who God made me to be, fulfill the calling God has given, and trust the end result to Him. I can’t be seeker-friendly because I’m not friendly.
Christian, if you hate babies but are a geek for coffee, please don’t serve in the nursery and instead volunteer for the hospitality center. If you don’t like interacting with people and prefer a screen, don’t even try to be a greeter and instead work with the team in the media center. Like John, know who you are, don’t try to be someone you’re not, and embrace your calling.
Third, John wasn’t bothered by this dynamic because he never lost sight of his fundamental role. Look again at verse 29, John makes a profound point to his disciples using an apt illustration, “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.”
Don’t miss this point - it’s subtle, but significant… John exhibited great caution in how he reacted to this shifting dynamic and he was able to resist the absolute folly in competition because he kept the larger picture in mind.
John was keenly aware of everyone’s role. He saw Jesus as the “bridegroom” and the Hebrew people (the object of His love) being His “bride!” In this work God had initiated John knew Jesus possessed a special relationship with Israel he had no business interfering with.
To his disciples John describes himself and therefore his fundamental role as being “the friend of the bridegroom.” John knew it was not his role to be the center of attention. He was honored to simply be a friend “who stands and hears” the “bridegroom” speak to His “bride.” As such it would have been inappropriate for John to be involved any more than he was. Jesus was to be the focal point and John only existed to play a supporting role.
Let me first speak to this point as a pastor before I apply this idea more universally. Nothing is more dangerous in the life of a pastor than when he forgets he’s simply “the friend of the bridegroom.” Beyond the reality a pastor doesn’t own the ministry because it’s a gift given by God, Jesus is presented as the groom with the church being His bride!
Sadly, pastors find themselves in grave trouble when they end up having an affair with the church. Instead of the focus of that man’s attention being centered on his own family, the church consumes his time, energy, love and passion. Not only does his cheating leave a wife at home feeling neglected, but his kids end up hating the church as she’s the mistress.
I could go off on this point, but this is really the reason so many pastor’s kids end up rejecting church as soon as their given the opportunity. They hate the church because it took their dad away from the home and became a source of pain for their mother. As a PK I am so thankful my dad never cheated on my mom with Calvary Chapel Stone Mountain.
The other danger behind such a dynamic is that this “other women” he’s having an affair with just so happens to be married herself! Not only is this pastor neglecting his own bride, but he’s hitting on “the Bride of Christ!” And like any husband Jesus doesn’t react well to this!
As the pastor of Calvary316 I must always remember this church is not mine, but I must also never forget I’m married to Jessica - not the church. Jesus is the groom who possess a special relationship with her! Like John, I’m just a “friend of the bridegroom” entrusted with an important, but limited role. Heaven forbid Jesus ever catches me flirting around with His wife!
But there is also a much more universal principle here that applies to all of us… Christian, never forget you also have God-given roles you’ve been charged to fill. For example, if you are a husband, your role is to love your wife as Christ loves the church. Your role is not to be Jesus in her life, but to reflect Jesus in the way that you love her.
If you are a parent, your role as a mom or dad in the life of your child is to illustrate for them the person of God. Your job is not to be God in their life, but to demonstrate either His feminine tenderness or His masculine strength. Your child is to learn about God’s love and His amazing grace through the interactions they have with you! This is your role.
As Christians there should never be a competitiveness among us because we all share the same responsibility. Our role on this earth is to be “salt and light!” Our role until we’re ultimately called home is to be a witness, servants of the King, an ambassador of heaven. We aren’t called to be Jesus, but to reflect His Light into the darkness.
Never forget how we all end up being evaluated in the end… Jesus says, “Well done good and faithful servant.” Since the ministry is not ours the results are not credited to us either. We will all be judged on our faithfulness, not our accomplishments.
John was fine with a diminishing ministry all things considered because it was appropriate for the Groom and His bride to be the center of attention. He knew he was a bystander and as long as Jesus was the focal point he was content with the role he was given.
Four, John wasn’t bothered by this dynamic because his joy was based in the right thing. Look again at verse 29, John says to his disciples, “The friend of the bridegroom, who stands and hears him, rejoices greatly because of the bridegroom’s voice. Therefore this joy of mine is fulfilled.” John’s disciples were discouraged because they were loosing the crowd to Jesus, but it was this very reality that filled John with so much joy. He was ecstatic!
You see John’s joy was not deterred but “fulfilled” because he knew his opportunities were a gift from God, he was content and at peace in his calling, he kept his heavenly role in perspective, and he loved seeing Jesus exalted. One pastor I listen to said this concerning John’s reaction, “John lost his congregation to Jesus and he was happy about it!”
Speaking candidly, I struggle with depression related to the ministry. Most pastors I know do! Truth be told pastoring a church can be an emotional rollercoaster. A packed house and I drive home feeling euphoric. A light crowd and I wonder what I’m doing with my life.
When the tithing is up I feel like we’re finally getting somewhere. When the tithing dips I start working on my resume. There is no high like seeing someone finally make the decision to go all in following Jesus, but watching a person leave the church can feel like a gut-punch!
Once again it’s in these moments that competitive spirit rises up. I starting envying the success of the megachurch across town. I grow jealous of their new building project or the fact their parking lot is so big they need golf carts to get people to the door on time. Discontentment and jealousies quickly give way to animus all of which robs me of my joy.
But that shouldn’t be the case as my joy should be found in Jesus and the job He’s given me to do. This is the danger of competitiveness over such things and why such a perspective is insane… John’s disciples were actually discouraged people were coming to Jesus! What! “Dear Jesus I repent of such a rotten attitude and take joy there are people encountering You in our community in other churches not pastored by this moron!”
Finally, John wasn’t bothered by this dynamic and refused to be competitive because he kept the main thing the main thing. In verse 30 John makes a most incredible statement to his disciples, he says, “Jesus must increase, but I must decrease!”
Though we understand the practical nature of what John is saying in relation to the dynamic on the ground, his statement is theologically revolutionary. John wisely understood these two ideas were completely tethered: Jesus increasing and self decreasing.
You see one cannot happen without the other and vice versa. If Jesus increases self will automatically decrease and if self increases Jesus will then decrease. I walk in the Spirit and the flesh is kept at bay or I flesh out and minimize the role of the Spirit. Because John rightly grasped this spiritual reality he declared, “I must decrease” so that “Jesus must increase.” The word “must” is more than emphatic. It communicated an absolute, essential necessity.
In many ways what John is presenting is so applicational because it’s formulaic… “If Jesus’ _______ increases, self’s ________ decreases.” For example… If Jesus’ authority over your life increases, your authority over your life decreases. If Jesus’ influence in your marriage increases, your influence over your marriage decreases. One determines the other.
As you play around with this formula always keep in mind the fundamental question this verse presents… Does the situation you face need more of Jesus or more of yourself? John recognized that for Jesus to increase in popularity it was essential his popularity decrease. John realized his presence was more of a determent than anything else!
And once again this directly ties into the underlying issue of competition. It’s hard to be competitive with another human being when you realize no human being but Jesus even matters. This is John’s core exhortation to his disciples. Their struggle centered upon a failure to keep the main thing the main thing… Jesus exalted and glorified above all else.
In the presence of a group of disciples struggling with the trappings of competitiveness, John exhorted them to remember that all ministry opportunities are a gift from God. You’re entitled to nothing. He encouraged them to be content and at peace in their calling. He reminded them of their heavenly role. He stressed the importance of seeing Jesus exalted as being the sole basis for joy. And he relayed the need to keep the main thing the main thing.
The truth is that as your pastor and in light of my sin of falling into the trap of possessing the same spirit - what our church needs, what our community need, what my wife needs, what my children need is a whole lot less of Zach and a whole lot more of Jesus. Competitiveness is based in fleshly pride and ego. It centers upon the increase of the unholy trinity of me, myself, and I. The only remedy is that “I must decrease, so that Jesus might increase!”
As we close, if these truths concerning Jesus strike a cord in your heart you’re willing to accept and surrender yourself to, please in the depths of your soul pray…
“Dear Jesus, I know I am a sinner and that I cannot save myself. I believe You are the Son of God who died on the cross to atone for my sins. I place my complete faith in that work as the only basis for my forgiveness, restoration, and righteousness before You. I confess that on the 3rd day You rose from the dead providing me a relationship with You today. Right now, Jesus I choose to repent of my sins and ask that by Your grace You fill me with Your Holy Spirit. Take my broken life and make it whole. Transform who I am from the inside out. Jesus, I confess You as both my God, my personal Lord, and my eternal Savior. Amen.”
No Additional Links.