by Bruce Mills
I taught on John 3:22-36 in my class today, and as I studied this passage in preparation to teach it, I noted an important principle to which all ministers of the Gospel today should pass close attention. It has to do with how one should deal with the envy and jealousy that can so easily arise in a minister’s heart over the success of someone else’s ministry, and what the focus of every minister’s heart should be in order to honor the Lord in his ministry.
The passage is dealing with the transition from John the Baptist’s ministry to Jesus’ ministry. It is a very important overlap. John the Baptist was initially the guy who was drawing the big crowds, but Jesus began His ministry and little by little, the people start moving over to Jesus. It took a period of about six months, but over that time, John’s crowds thinned out, and Jesus’ crowds grew. But that was a great blessing to John, because that was the whole point of his ministry; to get them over there to where Jesus was.
John is a fabulous example of humble faithfulness for us. He wasn’t fretting over how things were going, saying, “Oh, my ministry is crumbling. The crowds are getting smaller. I need to figure out some method of enticing them back. Maybe we ought to give away an iPhone to whoever brings the most people or put a Starbucks in the lobby.” No, he wasn’t into gimmicks. He was a man of humble faithfulness.
So many pastors measure the success of their ministry on how many bodies they have coming each week. And there is a terrible tendency in the American church culture to assume that a big crowd means you must be doing something right. But you see, the success of a ministry is not measured by the number of people who it attracts, but rather the success of a ministry is measured by the spiritual impact in the lives of those who are there.
And so by that standard John’s ministry was totally successful because his crowds were diminishing and going to Jesus, and that’s exactly what he wanted them to do. He wasn’t trying to get a crowd, he was trying to get rid of a crowd. And John is a tremendous example of humility. There he was, simply ministering and pointing people to Christ, and the people were leaving and he was just carrying on.
In John 3:27, when John said, “A man can receive nothing unless it has been given him from heaven,” what he was saying was, “If I’ve been successful, it was because God made me successful. If my ministry is over, then God is the One who is turning it off. If people are leaving my ministry and going to Jesus, it’s because God is sending them there. I don’t need to stand back and be jealous of what God is doing. No one ever received anything except that which God gave to him. So you can’t make me jealous of that.” What incredible character this man had!
This principle applies to every one of us. God’s sovereign authority grants the extent of one’s ministry. That’s the way it is. Paul put it this way in 1 Cor. 4:7--“For who regards you as superior? What do you have that you did not receive? And if you did receive it, why do you boast as if you had not received it?” Everything you have is God’s gift to you. In 1 Cor. 15:10 Paul says, “…by the grace of God I am what I am…” It’s all a gift. If you have a successful ministry, it’s the grace of God. Whether it is teaching a class of adults or a class of second graders, or preaching to a church filled with hundreds or thousands, it’s all of the grace of God. God is the One who sovereignly determines the size and the success of a ministry.
Notice how John illustrates this in John 3:28. He says, “You yourselves are my witnesses that I said, ‘I am not the Christ,’ but, ‘I have been sent ahead of Him.’” In other words, “Listen, I’ve been telling you all along that I am not the Christ and that you need to go see Jesus. He’s the Lamb of God. So why are you trying to stir up jealousy in my heart? I’ve been telling you all along He’s the one.”
Do you know how to tell the character of any great minister? Not by how many people follow the minister, but how many people follow Jesus Christ because of his ministry. Any time you run into a ministry where people are constantly attached to the minister, be careful of that ministry, because something is wrong. Any God-blessed, God-given ministry makes disciples of Jesus Christ, not disciples of some man. And John’s ministry was a joyous ministry because he had sent a whole nation to Jesus Christ. Once they got to Him, they had a lot of problems, but John had done his job.
John was a wonderful example for all true ministers of God that they should not seek after personal fame and should not worry about how big the crowd is that is following them. Instead they should just keep pointing the people to Jesus Christ, because He is what it is all about. Pastors and leaders who fret over the size of their church and what they can do to attract and keep a crowd have missed the point that their mission is only to faithfully teach the Word and point people to Jesus Christ. If they do that, God will bless that ministry.
I don’t mean that a pastor or teacher shouldn’t strive to improve and to be an excellent expositor and teacher of the Word, because he should. And I’m not saying that church leaders shouldn’t give consideration to how to improve the various ministries in their church so that they become known for their excellence. But when a minister chooses business marketing and corporate growth techniques to build his church instead of faithfully following the Word of God and teaching the sheep God has given him responsibility to shepherd, he has turned the church into a business rather than a ministry. More pastors need to be like John the Baptist and see themselves only as caretakers who introduce people to Jesus Christ and help them grow deeper in their understanding of Him and His Word, and stop worrying about how big the crowd is that shows up on Sunday. God will take care of those things if the church leaders are godly men who are obedient to the Word.