Summary: what makes a ministry "successful?"
He Must Increase and I Must Decrease: An Exposition of john 3:22-36
Everyone wants to be popular. We also have a desire to have our egos stroked. We gauge our importance by how many followers we have on social media. We all want our posts to be liked. This is also important for those engaged in the ministry. Is our effectiveness based upon the number of members in the church we pastor? Are we successful if we sell many copies of our song? Are we a failure if members leave our church or our sales of books and music diminish? These are serious questions we have to answer. We can be thankful that Scripture addresses this question for us in the example of John the Baptist. Let us now examine John 3:22-36 to see what a successful ministry looks like in the sight of God.
Exposition of the Text
Verse 22 begins with the words “after these things.” What are the things to whom the Apostle John is referring? This passage follows immediately after Jesus’ dialog with Nicodemus. If one were to make this connection, then we see both passages emphasize that Jesus came down “from above.” There is also a contrast between heavenly and earthly things. There is also the theme of belief or rejection of Jesus’ person and testimony. So there are logical links between the two passages.
However, many scholars think that John may have placed the cleansing of the Temple in Chapter 2 early in the Gospel to bookend the first sign of Jesus which was the wedding in Cana of Galilee where Jesus turned the water into wine. John says that this was the first sign. The last sign is the resurrection of Jesus Christ where He will raise the Temple of His body after three days. The Gospels as a whole exhibit bot temporal as well as logical arrangement. There is a tendency to arrange the events chronologically, but there are times when passages are arranged logically because the one explains the other. For example, John tells us that Mary of Bethany anointed Jesus for burial on the evening before Palm Sunday. He also mentions Judas by name as being the one offended by the waste of money. This is John’s way of relating the anointing of Jesus with Judas’ betrayal. The arrangement here is chronological. However, Matthew places the anointing of Jesus later in the week and puts it next to Judas going to the High Priest to betray him. This connection is made logically. The anointing was earlier in the week and the beginning of the betrayal happened later in the week. Both gospels agree that the anointing of Jesus for burial was the cause for Judas’ betrayal, which is the main point. Placing the cause and effect together is a logical arrangement.
So if John placed the cleansing of the Temple where it occurs for logical emphasis, this would mean that there was only one cleansing of the Temple at the end of His ministry. I don’t want to say with any degree of certainty that this is the case, but there is good reason to think there was only one cleansing. One must also ask then if the conversation with Nicodemus also occurred during Passion Week as well. As “after these things” is a temporal marker, it seems to me that the Apostle John is referring back to some other event rather than the conversation with Nicodemus. The previous referent would seem to be the wedding in Cana at the beginning of Chapter 2, or it might even go back to the first chapter and the testimony of John in which He testifies of the primacy of Jesus over himself. As John the Baptist refers to this when He says: “You certainly do remember when I said.” This seems to best fit the use of “after these things.” Logically. The passage follows the discourse with Nicodemus, temporally it follows the marriage in Cana.
Verse 22 continues by saying that Jesus went into Judaea and was baptizing converts. John later goes on to explain that it was Jesus’ disciples who were doing the baptizing and not Jesus personally. John the Baptist and his disciples were also baptizing in Aenon near Salim because there was much water there. This has led to much controversy in the church over the mode of baptism. If one sprinkles, there isn’t need for much water. This is certainly a good point and worth discussing; however, there is something more important to be said about this passage than how we should baptize. The point we need to zero in on is that Jesus and John the Baptist were both baptizing at different locations. Logically speaking, once John introduces the bridegroom with “Behold the Lamb of God which taketh away the sin of the world,” one would think that John the Baptist’s role was essentially done. Tow of John the Baptist’s disciples got the message and left him to follow Jesus. But not all of John’s disciples followed Jesus. Many remained with John the Baptist even after John was cast into prison. Later on, he sends some of these disciples to Jesus to ask if he had gotten things right.