Rev. Koole is pastor of Grandville Protestant Reformed Church in Grandville, Michigan. The Meditation is the text of the presynodical sermon preached by Rev. Koole on June 13, 2005.
He that hath the bride is the bridegroom: but the friend of the bridegroom, which standeth and heareth him, rejoiceth greatly because of the bridegroom’s voice: this my joy therefore is fulfilled. He must increase, but I must decrease.
This declaration and confession of John the Baptist confronts each of us with a most significant question—what do you live for? For what do you live as a professing Christian? …as an officebearer? What is the governing emphasis and concern of your life?
How do we look at ourselves in relationship to Christ and to each other? Is our attitude like that of John the Baptist as expressed here in this passage and text?
What do we live for? Honor? Recognition? And if recognition is denied us, at least the amount we think we deserve, are we angry? Wounded? Bitter! Why should I continue to extend myself if this is all the thanks I get? Does anyone know all the things I do for others as a believer, as a member of the church, as an officebearer? They do not appreciate me half enough!
Beloved brothers, to our chagrin and shame, is it too often more about ‘me,’ and the recognition I get or the lack thereof, than I would care to admit? If the honor and recognition goes to others, does it rankle and disturb? Others before self? How can that be!
Or do we consider this as honor enough—I have been counted worthy to be of service to my Lord. To serve Him in any capacity at all is more honor than I deserve. That the Lord should consider taking in marriage the hand of the church wherein I am a member, and that I should be invited to His wedding ceremony and reception at all and have the right to stand with the guests of honor, be it at the door in the last available seat, is more honor than I deserve.
As for recognition by men, what difference does that make! That the Lord has made room for me, knows me by name, counts me as a personal friend, and commends my labors, however feeble and imperfect—is not that all the honor that one needs?
In the end, so it was with John the Baptist, even “when the cheering stopped,” as the phrase puts it. Surely this self-effacing spirit should be every believer’s motto in whatever capacity he serves in the church. In the end, brothers, surely it is not so much what we live for, but whom we live for!
For self? Then we are going to be empty, fruitless, and unhappy.
But for Him? Then we will be energetic, and useful, and find joy in our labor as well.
A Remarkable Confession
The man who spoke these words was John the Baptist. Up until Jesus of Nazareth appeared on the scene, John was the greatest prophet of his day. And if the Scriptures are to believed (and we can see no reason why they should not be), he was the greatest prophet of Old Testament times. No less authority than Christ Jesus declared concerning John, “Among them that are born of women, there hath not risen a greater than John….”
He certainly was the culmination of the Old Testament prophets. The title Scripture itself gives him is “the second Elijah.” What Old Testament prophet has greater name recognition than he?
John’s ministry, though brief, was brilliant—like a comet blazing across the sky for a short season, and then gone. He was the talk of the day. Even his detractors came to hear him in order to see for themselves what the hullaballoo was all about. He attracted the crowds. A man who not only created a stir, but gained a band of loyal followers as well, a band of disciples who were devoted to him, who viewed him as the very voice of God. John himself was the fulfillment of prophecy. How much more important can a man be in God’s kingdom!
And then came this Jesus of Nazareth. And things were never quite the same again. John was eclipsed by one greater and more gifted than himself.
What’s more, everyone agreed it was so, and said so publicly. A painful business, would you not agree?
John the Baptist, with gracious words, had introduced this Jesus to the nation—”Behold the Lamb of God who taketh away the sin of the world.” He had spoken of this one as being preferred before him, whose shoe latchet he was not worthy to loose. It was as gracious an introduction as any stranger could hope to receive. And the upshot was that this same Jesus in short order ended up front and center. John the Baptist was yesterday’s news.
The crowds thinned out considerably. And even those who came to see what John was still up to were more enamored with this Jesus of Nazareth. Did you hear the latest about this Nazarene? Now there is a man who can hold you spell bound. There is a man who can put those arrogant leaders of ours in their place. And He even performs miracles of healing. We saw it with our own eyes!
Jesus’ name and claims and popularity were on the rise. John’s status was diminishing as a result.
John’s disciples did not take it very well. They were angry, jealous, and disturbed. This is plain from verse 26. They refer to Jesus as the one to whom John had had the courtesy to bare witness and to introduce to the nation. And how has He repaid you, Rabbi? By stealing your crowds. (“…all men come unto him”) and even stealing what is your trademark, (“…the same baptizeth!”). It just isn’t right!
They saw Jesus as a rival, one who should be put in His place. Let us start our own church and go our independent way.
From every human perspective one can understand their reaction.
Promoting this Jesus at one’s own expense? Why should that be! Promoting Jesus and preaching to enhance one’s own reputation, that makes some sense. In fact in our own day, that makes dollars and cents, big dollars—when the hew and cry is all about personality, and charisma, and the ability to fill auditoriums. It is all about megachurches. And megachurches revolve about men’s personalities and pulpiteering. What kind of names and numbers a man attracts is the measure of success.
The temptation is not unknown to anyone of us as preachers—preaching for praise, and perhaps as opportunity to display one’s own pulpit abilities. It is not unknown.
But promoting Jesus without regard for self in the eyes of men, maybe even that Jesus who offends so many, whose name thins out the crowds, that takes grace. But that is what true discipleship is all about.
The response of John the Baptist is remarkable. John’s remarkable confession, as much as the truth that he preached concerning this Jesus, gives evidence of why John is to be numbered with the chief of the prophets. You see this remarkable willingness to step aside and to let another receive all the honor and attention. And then to make it his joy.
You may say, but this was Jesus, and of course one steps aside for Him! It is one thing to say that from a distance of 2000 years. But this Jesus was John’s contemporary. They were about the same age, laboring in the same area. Jesus was also born of a woman, as John knew. And now to hear everyone speak well of Him, and scarcely a word about self. And to be happy about that? And even to tell the last of your loyal followers, “Follow Him.”
I must admit I am thankful it fell to John to have to be so gracious at that time, and not to me. I am not so sure that I could have been so large. Would you have been?
“He must increase, but I must decrease.”
To be sure, these words set before us the theme of the gospel ministry. But certainly they also have a broader application that can be applied to every believer’s life.
The believer says, “Christ’s name be glorified, be it at my expense.” It means He must increase in one’s preoccupations and life; and you and I must decrease in our own estimation and preoccupations and life. My life is not to be about my own will, wisdom, and interests, but about His will and interests. It involves a willingness to live for others at the expenditure of self and that in such a way that others who know me come to know Him better.
It means that you will submit to whatever happens to you, even a disease that may incapacitate you. Still you say, “Even this I will use as an occasion to witness of what He has done for me, and use even such losses as opportunity to speak well of Him.”
For every believer the calling is “Let Him increase, and I will decrease for His sake, I and all my pride!”
But especially these words have reference to the gospel ministry and to every officebearer.
Brothers, in whose name are you interested? In whose glory and promotion?
“He must increase.” In simplest terms this means that He must grow, His name, His reputation; and I must diminish and not be seeking men’s praise.
That Christ must increase does not mean that we think somehow to add glory to Christ’s and enable Him to become greater. It is rather difficult, you know, to add glory to the One in whom already all the fullness of the Godhead dwells bodily!
What John has in mind is Christ’s stature in the minds and estimation of men, and of believers’ in particular.
This does not mean necessarily that the evidence of faithful labor will always mean a growth in Christ’s popularity. His popularity as the true Christ may diminish at certain times and in certain areas, as in opposition to truth and faithful preaching. It certainly has at present in the apostatizing church and will continue to do so in wicked society as the end draws nigh. But when it comes to Christ’s church and people, Christ’s stature and importance must grow in their conscious life and faith. Increasingly believers stand in awe of who He is and what He has accomplished, and they desire to live out of Him and unto Him. Increasingly He and His cause are the focus of their lives in response to the preaching. He dominates their thoughts. That is the goal of and fruit of true preaching. Is it so with you?
At the same time, John had to decrease. For a time his ministry received all the attention, and his name and even odd appearance were on everyone’s lips. He was a Nazarite in part, after all, to draw attention to himself. That attention became the occasion to draw crowds and to confront many with this Jesus’ being the promised Messiah. That crowd-drawing time was past. Now he must step aside.
John’s point was, do not be looking to me for all the answers anymore. Be looking to this Jesus for such. He alone is able to give you the fuller knowledge of Jehovah God. Follow Him. And when my ‘pews’ are empty, and all that everyone thinks about is this Christ Jesus, my ministry will be complete.
John says, “It must be.” John is not here simply telling his disciples that it is best that they bow to the inevitable (though certainly this is part of what John had in mind). It has all been foreordained by God. This One is going to prevail in the end no matter what, and those who oppose Him will suffer defeat. You oppose Him, you will find yourselves opposing God. This is the One of whom the Scriptures speak. Submit yourselves to Him.
But, more than that, John was saying, “I do not want it any other way. This is what I am committed to. He must grow in honor and reputation amongst God’s people. My only purpose is to see that it is so. This must happen, and as long as I have life and breath I will continue to labor to point all to Him, and explain why He alone is worthy of all a man’s faith and trust and praise. I give myself to this.”
Applied to the Business at Hand
To say this is one thing. To mean it is another. To live this way takes grace. It is the great mark of discipleship and of a faithful officebearer.
This spirit arises out of a proper understanding of things, which understanding faithful officebearers have.
The faithful officebearer understands who Christ Jesus is—the great Bridegroom, for whom God made all things.
He understands who the church is—the bride ordained and chosen by God.
And he understands who he himself in his office is—not the Bridegroom for whom the church has been prepared and called, but the friend of the Bridegroom, a friend holding a special place of honor and trust in the Lord’s relationship to His church.
And what does a true friend of a bridegroom do, a groomsman worthy of the name?
He speaks well of the bridegroom—and he does that especially in the ear of the bride. He knows how much the bridegroom loves the bride. He wants the bride to understand just how fortunate and blessed and favored she is to be loved by such a bridegroom. The Lord’s friend reminds the bride of all her fiancé’s virtues and wisdom, and all the happiness that is to be hers. A friend of the bridegroom cannot praise him highly enough.
And so everything we say to the bride, the church, is to be about the Bridegroom, about the excellencies of this Lord Jesus, and must be said in order to quicken her love and attachment to Him. It is to underscore why He is worthy of her wholehearted commitment and submission and life and love.
How does one go about serving this increase of Christ in the heart and mind of the church? In simplest terms, he preaches the doctrines of grace, salvation all of grace, sovereign, full and free. Grace has to do with beauty. And it is in the doctrines and gospel of grace that the beauty of the Bridegroom is on display. Assaults on the truth invariably have been assaults either on Christ’s power or on His faithfulness.
How treacherous beyond words would be a man who claimed to be the bridegroom’s friend and then would begin to suggest that the bride has reason to question the character and faithfulness of the bridegroom. How treacherous beyond words is a man who, claiming to be the friend of Christ Jesus, begins to minimize the superiority and glory and sovereign power and will and wisdom of this Lord, thereby calling into question the very character of the great Bridegroom.
Christ Jesus, the eternal Son of God? The only-begotten of the Father? Not really. A bit of an exaggeration. Not God in the full sense of the word; rather, in many respects he is a lot like Him. The old Arian heresy.
It is still around today. They may not be so bold as to come right out and deny Jesus’ real divinity, but when they preach, all the emphasis is upon the humanity of Christ. Only then can people really identify with Him. Others challenge the record of the virgin birth. We must accommodate a scientific age. And so the Bridegroom of the church is not very God in His power and glory after all.
And Arminianism—lies that call into question His sovereign will and grace, and question the exclusiveness of His love. Conditional covenants, conditional promises, conditional grace and faith. Justification itself these days in Reformed churches is not being preached with a reference to Christ Jesus alone, faith in who He is, and what He has accomplished full and free. Rather it is preached in terms of our faithfulness in life to Him.
In other words it comes down to this, if you are true to Him, He will be true to you. But if you falter and fail Him, He may very well find another, you know. He is not a one-bride man, you know.
The very faithfulness of the Bridegroom in His love and to His vow is questioned. His is a breakable, conditional promise. His faithfulness to His love bond is questioned.
This is the voice of a friend, a truehearted friend? God forbid!
If we are faithful friends of our Lord, brethren, then we will be set for the defense of the doctrines that enhance the character of the Bridegroom, who is faithful to His promise and has a particular, unchangeable love. And we will reject every doctrine that would slight His character and cause His bride to begin to doubt either His power or faithfulness.
Committed to such, we are committed to the increase of His great name.
But together with a commitment to promoting Christ’s name and glory goes a humility with respect to self. And the test of our humility is not simply when this Jesus is preferred before us, but when others are, when fellow officebearers are preferred in some shape or form in the church. Are we willing to decrease even then? Do we rejoice in the gifts and abilities and the use of these others more than in self?
In the life of the church, there can be testing times.
Annual nominations for officebearers—and others’ names appear; mine is passed over. How can that be the will of Christ and best for Christ’s church?
The election by the congregation takes place, and once again others are selected rather than myself. Surely I deserve more consideration than this, more recognition than they!
And once in office, decisions have to be made on various matters on everything from building projects to discipline, matters of debate. And it seems his advice consistently carries the day rather than mine. Can we live with that? Or does resentment begin to build?
Men and brethren, in the broader assemblies of the church the same reality applies. With regularity issues of controversy are set before the delegates, and differences of judgment and assess ment are set forth. And that almost certainly will be true of this synod—with what faces us tomorrow already and then the days that follow as well—sensitive issues that are bound to affect many people’s live, as well as church relationships and the witness of Christ Jesus.
The question that faces us is, with what spirit will we proceed? With what spirit will the deliberations, not to say debates, take place? Will it be with a brotherly consideration and with a high regard for each other? Even for those with whose assessment at various points we may disagree, disagreements voiced with a vigor (which vigor is not outlawed in the assemblies of Christ Jesus, but disregard for and contempt for a brother surely is).
And perhaps the vote will not go your way or mine. What then? What spirit will yet prevail towards each other, towards self?
Men and brethren, the debates and discussion will be carried on in a way pleasing to Christ and to the benefit of the church if we have a humility in regards to self and a high esteem for the brother chosen to serve as well—a recognition that he also has the Spirit of Christ and desires what is best for Christ’s name and honor and for the witness and life of Christ’s church.
Let me speak from experience based on nearly three decades of labor in our broader assemblies.
What has struck me and gladdened my heart over the years of serving in our broader assemblies both East and West is the esteem that the Lord’s groomsmen of our denomination have had for each other in our broader assemblies. Assembly after assembly governed not only by a high regard for Christ’s Word, but by a high regard for one another’s integrity and spiritual character as well, never calling into question that integrity and devotion to a common truth and cause, not even when there was vigorous discussion, debate, and difference of views. As a result, there has been a willingness to listen to each other and maybe even change one’s position.
Yes, I may have been surprised that others have not always seen things my way, but never was there question of the other’s integrity and desire to do the Lord’s will, never the suspicion that someone was promoting his own agenda or that a regard for one’s own reputation was getting in the way.
And if that ever was the case, it has been the rarest of instances and a blip on the screen. Thanks be to God!
When there is this kind of regard for each other one can be ‘outvoted,’ as they say, and not be fearful for the future of the church, fearing the decision will not carry the blessing of the Lord.
Where that integrity and sincerity in trying to discern the Lord’s will rules (and not men trying to impose their own willful ways and personal agendas), one can have the confidence that even if the right decision was not made, the Lord will see to it that it does not do permanent damage to His church and that it will be corrected in time.
Men and brethren, may that spirit prevail in the work we have been given to do, that essential humility with regards to self, that high regard for each other, and a thankfulness to the Lord for others who have gifts and abilities and a heart for the Lord and His church. Then one realizes that things do not always have to go one’s own way, for the Lord uses them for a blessing to His church.
Let Him increase; and for His sake I must decrease. Then that others may be preferred before me in this or that matter does not fill me with envy or unhappiness. Just see to it, Lord, that Thy good will is done, and that the church that Thou lovest, and we do too, remains in the way of Thy approval and does not come under Thy displeasure and wrath.
That Which Motivates Christ’s True Friends
The spirit that gives rise to the spirit of a true groomsman is not so difficult to explain. It is a twofold love, a love for the Bridegroom, and a love for His precious bride.
Let Him increase at our expense. Why? Because of what He has done for me. It is a love fired by what He saved me from, what He still forgives me, what He passed through on Golgotha to make you and me His friends. He befriended us when we were more than ready to deny and betray Him.
We stand with Paul and Peter and all the saints who learned not to think more highly of themselves than they ought to think. Imagine, He still counts me as a friend and embraces me when He finds me at His door of mercy again. Shall we not speak well of this Lord!
And there is a love for the church as well. Loving her we point her away from ourselves and towards the Lord Jesus. “Look, I cannot save you. I cannot deliver and defend you. Only He can.”
Like John the Baptist, we baptize with water, but the Bridegroom baptizeth with the Holy Spirit and with fire. His baptism is superior to ours in every way. He is able to cleanse and purge and make whole again. Beloved church, do not look to us. We also need cleansing. Look to Him, and put your hand in His, and let Him lead you home.
Brethren, in the days ahead, may the words and spirit of the Baptist govern our deliberations and decisions. Let our prayer be, not our name promoted and enhanced, but Thine and Thine alone. Then all can be well with our souls and with the churches we love. Amen.