Prior to the coming of Jesus, John the baptizer had accrued quite the following in the land of Judea. His message of repentance may not have been a gentle one, but it certainly did garner the attention of the Jews in the region. Eventually, John had a herd of disciples that followed him around and listened to his teaching.
However, when Jesus arrived, John made a proclamation that Jesus was “the Lamb of God who takes away sins.” With this proclamation, the masses turned from John and began to follow Jesus. When we get to the end of John 3, there were relatively few disciples still following John the baptizer. Perhaps this departure of his followers is what prompted the questions from the Jews to John and his disciples regarding Jesus.
Scripture doesn’t give us explicit detail as to what their argument was trying to prove, just that they seemed to see that John was losing disciples to Jesus. In the mindset of the day, this was a horrible thing. If you were a Rabbi, or teacher, your value as a teacher was in the number of followers you had and the influence you exercised over them. As a teacher, you also wanted to retain as many disciples as possible, because you had discovered the truth and the students could only get that truth if they stayed with you. It must have seemed counter-intuitive for John to have ushered his disciples away to Jesus.
But this was not a dilemma for John. He was incredibly comfortable with this plan. He had never been teaching so that he could accrue a large crowd. He did not view his ministry as permanent and long-lasting. He saw himself as one who was simply “sent before” Christ. He did not have the full message, he was simply a herald announcing the coming of the King who carried the true message. When his followers left him to follow Jesus, they were not departing from his teaching, they were following it to the letter. It was John that had encouraged them to follow Jesus.
John believed what he taught. Jesus was truly greater than he was. Jesus deserved to be worshipped and revered. The people should follow Jesus instead of him. The most succinct way that John could express it was “He must increase, but I must decrease.” While this was antithetical to the way most Rabbis taught, it was the most consistent thing John could do. The Jews seeking recognition and the approval of others could not see the value in John’s message and methods.
But John understood the greatest truth, “He that believeth on the Son hath everlasting life: and he that believeth not the Son shall not see life; but the wrath of God abideth on him.” John’s life wasn’t about being approved by men. His life goal was to be approved by God. He wasn’t aiming for the praise of an audience in this short life; he was seeking the joy that comes with eternal life. He knew that “a man can receive nothing, except it be given him from heaven.” So he spent his life seeking to please the God who had blessed him with the immense privilege of delivering the message of the coming Messiah.
Food for Thought: What did John the Baptist teach about Jesus? How was his attitude inconsistent with the attitudes of many Rabbis of his day?