What Does it Mean ‘He Must Become Greater and I Must Become Less’?

John the Baptist understood that Jesus had to increase — His glory had to become known and acclaimed — while John had to decrease — his glory had to fade into obscurity. If we humble ourselves in the sight of the Lord, He will finally exalt us.

Dave Jenkins
Two men on pedestals, one higher

After an extended theological comment on Jesus’ meeting with Nicodemus (John 3:16-21), John the Evangelist returns to narrating the story of the ministry of Christ.

He tells us that Jesus and His disciples went out into the Judean wilderness, and they were baptizing people (v. 22; although 4:2 indicates that only Jesus’ disciples baptized people).

The Ministry of John the Baptist

In the course of this work, they ended up not far from John the Baptist, who was “baptizing at Aenon near Salim” (vv. 23–24). This was in the general region that the Jews called Samaria, which was part of the Roman province of Judea.

Jesus and the disciples were moving north toward Samaria, where they would meet the Samaritan woman at the well (John 4).

John 3:22-30 tells us more about John the Baptist than about Jesus’ ministry at that point in time. We see in John 3:25 that a debate regarding Jewish rites of purification arose between some of John’s disciples and a Jew outside their group.

Since first-century Jews commonly debated issues related to purification, it is not strange that such a discussion occurred.

Interestingly, somehow this debate prompted John the Baptist’s disciples to complain that the ministry of Jesus and His disciples was receiving acclaim: All were “going to him” (v. 26).

These followers of John evidently saw Jesus and His followers as rivals and were disturbed by their success.

Yet, John the Baptist did not share this view. He understood that the work of Jesus was supposed to surpass his own. In John 3:27-29, we see John emphasizing his appointed role. As important as it was, his God-given vocation was to bear witness to One greater than he.

He could not have had this vital calling unless God had given it to him, but his ministry existed to put the focus on another.

Just as the friend of the bridegroom rejoices when the groom gets married and does not seek to be the center of attention at the wedding, so John rejoiced as Christ’s ministry increased.

The Marks of Selflessness and Christlikeness

The characteristic of being selfless is one of the most important traits any Christian can have. It’s so significant that Jesus said it is the second most important of all God’s commandments: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Mark 12:31; Galatians 5:14).

Jesus wasn’t creating a new law here; He was merely agreeing with and expounding on an Old Testament law (Leviticus 19:18). James calls this the “royal” law to emphasize God’s supreme value (James 2:8).

Jesus had much to say about selflessness during His earthly ministry. In the Sermon on the Mount, He goes beyond what some may think of as selflessness — helping a friend, ministering to a spouse, caring for an ill child, etc.

Jesus extends selflessness far beyond normal expectations — we are to love our enemies, even, and pray for our persecutors (Matthew 5:44). Jesus taught that it’s easy to love a friend or a spouse — even unbelievers do that (Matthew 5:47).

The Christian is expected to love the unlovable because this is how we become more like God, who gives blessings to everyone (Matthew 5:45). It’s difficult to lay aside hurt feelings and wounded hearts, but that’s part of being selfless.

As in so many areas, Jesus is the ultimate example of selflessness. In coming into this world, “he made himself nothing” and took upon Himself “the very nature of a servant” (Philippians 2:7). Now, as followers of Christ, we are to “have the same mindset” (Philippians 2:5).

Jesus came not for His benefit but for ours. He came to minister to us and died for us: “Even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45).

Humanly speaking, Jesus gave up His will for God’s will (Luke 22:42) — and this is another salient point: Selflessness involves more than putting other people first; it is putting God first. As John, the Baptist said concerning Jesus, “He must become greater; I must become less” (John 3:30). More of the Lord; less of us.

Selflessness is illustrated well in Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan, found in Luke 10:29-37. It’s a story about a man from Samaria who encounters a robbery victim. The Samaritan has compassion on this man, who had been stripped, beaten, and left for dead (Luke 10:30).

The Samaritan immediately puts his own plans on hold and tends to the man’s wounds (Luke 10:34). Not only does the Samaritan give selflessly of his time and his sympathy, but he gives selflessly of his assets.

The Samaritan places the wounded man on his own animal, takes the man to an inn, and takes care of him there (Luke 10:34-35). The next day, the Samaritan pays the innkeeper money enough for a few more days at the inn, with a promise to return and pay the balance of whatever was owed (Luke 10:35).

Jesus’ story reveals the Samaritan to be selfless in numerous ways. He put the needs of others ahead of his own and went out of his way to shower benevolence on a battered stranger.

Selflessness runs counter to human nature, which is why being selfless is so much more difficult than being selfish. It’s natural to care about ourselves, and we are encouraged to think selfishly from all sides.

However, the Christian must daily heed the words of the Apostle Paul, “I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me” (Galatians 2:20).

No believer, young or old, can live a selfless life without a constant abiding in the Lord Jesus Christ, for it is only through Him that our attitudes can be changed and molded toward unselfish behaviors.

If Christ indeed lives in our inner man and we keep in step with Him, we should find ourselves identifying with, rather than marveling at, the Good Samaritan.

For further reading:

What Does it Mean to Deny Myself and Take Up My Cross Daily?

What Was the Significance of the Woman at the Well?

How Do We Pray for Those Who Hurt Us?

The Parable of the Good Samaritan’s Deeper Meaning

What Does it Mean to ‘Love Your Enemies’?

What Does Love in Action Look Like?

What Is Authentic Love?

Photo Credit: ©iStock/Getty Images Plus/francescoch

Dave Jenkins is happily married to Sarah Jenkins. He is a writer, editor, and speaker living in beautiful Southern Oregon.

Originally published March 04, 2021.