Previous article in this series: June 2013, p. 404.
John the Baptist understood and believed that transition was a “must.” Christ “must” increase, and he “must” decrease. What does that mean?
First, the transition from John the Baptist to Jesus was necessary because that was the will of God. It was the will of God that once the forerunner’s work was completed, then Christ would fulfill His earthly ministry. God’s purpose was not for John to continue His ministry side-by-side with Jesus for three-and-a-half years. It was the will of God that John’s work come to an end after only a few months of being a contemporary with Jesus in His ministry, and then that the attention of the people be turned towards Christ. Eventually, of course, that increase would reach its climax in the redemptive work of Christ in His death, resurrection, and ascension into heaven. According to the determinate counsel and foreknowledge of God, the increase of Christ was necessary for God’s glory and the establishment of His covenant. The counsel of God required that John be replaced by Christ.
Second, the transition was necessary because of who Christ is in His church. John the Baptist compared Jesus to a bridegroom and compared himself to just a friend of the bridegroom. In the marriage ceremony and feast, the main attraction is not the friend of the bride and groom. The main attraction is the bridegroom and the bride. Similarly, Christ is the Bridegroom of the church. All our attention must be drawn to Him. After all, why should it not be so? He is the Lord of glory and God with us, Immanuel. His glory demands our attention. Therefore, John the Baptist was humbly content to be left alone and to have Christ increase visibly in His preeminence. Moreover, John was content to be merely one who gave to Christ his rapt attention of faith and adoration.
Third, the transition was necessary for the fulfillment of the gathering of the church of Christ. If John the Baptist did not get out of the way, but joined forces with his jealous disciples to recapture his former popularity, John would have been interfering with the redemptive work of the Lord. If that had happened, John would have become a good candidate for a rebuke of the Lord to get out of the way. John was called to prepare the way of the Lord, not stand in it and be a roadblock to the Lord. Rather than disobey his calling, John wanted the Lord’s will to be done for His covenant and kingdom, and, in effect, he wanted to be phased out.
These reasons apply to transition in the church today, especially now in foreign mission work.
Transition from the missionary to local officebearers is the will of God. Not only is this what God commands the church to do in missions according to His Word, but in the gathering of His church by His Word and Spirit, this is what He sovereignly determines for the salvation of His church. Christ wills and accomplishes the administration of the means of grace for the gathering and the preservation of His sheep in the earth. That is the way in which the King of the church works His salvation in the earth. When this transition takes place in the church institute, not only do we believe that this follows the commands of Scripture, but we also see it as the amazing fulfillment of God’s promise and good pleasure in His church.
Transition is necessary because Christ is King and Bridegroom of His church. Missionaries, local preachers, elders, and deacons may not become the main attraction in a church or ever think that they might be. They are only servants to the Bridegroom, and their work is to direct the eyes and attention of the people of God to the Bridegroom. Their goal is to have Christ increase in the hearts, life, and work of the church. When the churches see the change from one officebearer to another, they see clear reminders that the Chief Officebearer of the church never changes. He is Christ: the same yesterday, today, and forever. Thereby Christ does increase in the confession, the preaching, the life, and the consciousness of His saints.
Finally, transition is necessary for the gathering of Christ’s eternally chosen church by and under the means of grace. Of course, transition must be handled wisely. The apostle Paul in several places, such as I Timothy, warns the church against hasty and rash transition, because that recklessness is a threat to her salvation. However, on the other hand, we may not be slow of heart with regards to transition, because that also is a threat to the well-being of the church, locally or on the mission field, in her maintenance of the marks of a true church in obedience to Christ. Proper and timely transition is necessary in the service of Christ for the gathering and preservation of His eternally chosen church. Therefore, for the good of the church, the church in her local work or mission work must aim for and be prepared for transition.
Not only is transition a reality and a necessity, but it is also something that we should view as an encouraging blessing.
Admittedly, calling transition blessed is one thing, but then believing that it is actually blessed through the experience of a transition is quite another thing. Through transition, there is always present our old nature, which objects to the truth of Christ’s increase in His church. We do not want to be overlooked, passed by, set aside, outvoted, forgotten, replaced, kept in the shadows, and put out to retirement and obscurity. We want to be noticed, patted on the back, chosen, acknowledged, remembered, and in the limelight or at least on its visible fringes. There can be a sinful reluctance to give up a God-given place and authority in the church because of a distrust towards Christ that He can actually use others to continue His work in His church militant and institute. By nature, we are proud. Do we not often want Christ to decrease and self to increase in the attention of others in the church, home, school, workplace, and other situations?
No doubt, that struggle against pride was common to God’s faithful servants in the past. A missionary is not immune to such temptations to be like those jealous and upset disciples of John the Baptist, who were alarmed that their master was being replaced by Jesus of Nazareth. That illustrates the fact that we are really no different from them. It is a human impossibility to respond to this phenomenon in the Lord’s work of the gathering of His church with the confession: “Christ must increase, I must decrease.”
The servants of the Lord, whether in missions or in the local church, need the grace and the self-effacing Spirit of Jesus Christ for deliverance from the sin of selfishness and vainglory unto the life of humility and modesty. By the Holy Spirit and His grace, they will rejoice that the Lord increases in His glory and preeminence in the good fruits of His work, especially in the gathering of His church. They will be submissive when the Lord shows them it is His time for transition, time for a replacement, time for another reminder that He remains the Chief Shepherd and Bishop of our souls, and time for His increase in His church.
That Christ must increase in His church is the underlying principle in the fact, the necessity, and the blessedness of transition in His church.
So may it be that Christ increases in His church, and never man. May He continue to increase in His true and faithful churches until His final and glorious appearing.