In 1957, Jack Arnold adapted a novel into a sci-fi movie that was titled: “The Incredible Shrinking Man”. The film went on to gain awards in 1958, and was considered by some to be a minor classic in its field. The story was a tale of a businessman who vacationed with his family off the California coast and encountered a strange radioactive cloud that left a sparkled coating on the man’s skin. About six months later, the man began to notice he was visibly shrinking. Doctors studied the man and determined the cloud, and a later exposure to an insecticide caused his body to begin to shrink. As he grew smaller, he became famous for his malady, but sunk deeper into a depression. Now very small, he was eventually trapped and attacked in a famous and chilling scene, by his former family pet, a common house cat. Thought to have been killed, he actually escaped into his basement and was forced to navigate its terrors at an ever smaller and smaller size. Much of the time in the basement is spent battling a voracious spider, trying to stem off his own hunger, and facing a lasting fear that he would eventually shrink down to oblivion. Eventually, he escaped the basement, but continued to shrink. He eventually came to terms with his fate and concluded he still “mattered in the universe” because, as he put it, “To God there is no zero.” Comforted he faced his future without fear.
Getting smaller is a very real fear to many people – but not in the way the movie was depicting it. They are not afraid of radioactive clouds causing them to be reduced in size – but they do not want to shrink in the eyes of men and women around them. Many are hungry to have, and keep, an impact. They hunger for significance, and fight to remain relevant. As we age, many of us learn enough about ourselves to recognize our own self-protection and our reactions to feeling marginalized.
The truth is this: I must choose to become less significant in myself to have God work through me powerfully. If I contrive and strive to be relevant, my memory will be swept away in short order. This isn’t a new idea…
In Yorkshire, England, during the early 1800s, two sons were born to a family named Taylor. The older one set out to make a name for himself by entering Parliament and gaining public prestige. But the younger son chose to give his life to Christ. He later recalled, “Well do I remember, as in unreserved consecration I put myself, my life, my friends, my all, upon the altar. I felt I was in the presence of God, entering into covenant with the Almighty.” With that commitment, Hudson Taylor turned his face toward China and obscurity. As a result, he is known and honored on every continent as a faithful missionary and the founder of the China Inland Mission (now known as Overseas Missionary Fellowship). For the other son, however, there is no lasting monument. When you look in the encyclopedia to see what the other son has done, you find these words, “the brother of Hudson Taylor.” “…he that doeth the will of God abideth for ever” (1 John 2:17). (A-Z Sermon Illustrator).
What was clear to Hudson Taylor, must become clear to every believer if they are to be powerfully used for God’s positive purpose…
Principle: Godly people learn to shrink, allowing the words and work of the Master to displace their own self-importance.
I can think of no one who overtly exemplified this truth in the Bible (about shrinking to self) better than the “cousin” of Jesus – John the Baptizer. Before we dig into that truth, let’s refresh our memory with a few Biblical details about John:
• First, we know that his birth was announced by the angel Gabriel to Zacharias his father, as we have studied in a previous lesson.
• Second, the Gospels make clear that he prepared the way for Jesus’ ministry (Mark 1:2-8; John 1:23) and was, in that way, the promised “Elijah type” from Malachi 4:5 “See, I will send the prophet Elijah to you before that great and dreadful day of the Lord comes. 6 He will turn the hearts of the parents to their children, and the hearts of the children to their parents; or else I will come and strike the land with total destruction.”.
• Third, he was an unusual man who grew up in the desert wilderness (Luke 1:80). Matthew 3:4 records a certain eccentricity of John: “Now John himself had a garment of camel’s hair and a leather belt around his waist; and his food was locusts and wild honey.”
• Fourth, John preached a preparatory message of repentance, baptizing people in the Jordan river (Mark 1:4,5). Along with that, John baptized Jesus at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry (though John expressed unworthiness to do so – Matthew 3:13-17).
• Fifth, John wasn’t self-effacing, he was humble. John was a man of conviction and was not swayed by popular opinion and openly rebuked the “religiously correct” (of the parties of the Pharisees and Sadducees) telling them that works (fruit) not just words show that they have a repentant heart (Matthew 3:6-10).
• Sixth, Jesus held John in very high regard and said concerning John (see Luke 7:28) “I say to you, among those born of women there is no one greater than John; yet he who is least in the kingdom of God is greater than he.”
• Seventh, John was not a superhero – but an ordinary man. In a more “human” story concerning him, at a moment of apparent doubt during his imprisonment, John sent his followers to ask Jesus if He was the “One” (anointed) or if there was another (Luke 7:18-20). Herod put John in prison because he spoke against the Tetrarch’s stealing of his brother Philip’s wife and other wrong things he had done (Luke 3:19-20). Herod later reluctantly had John beheaded in order to keep a promise he made to his stepdaughter (Matthew 14:1-10).
That set the stage for our study, but we need to spend a few moments looking at what the Gospels record about John’s understanding of “shrinking to self”… First, let’s establish that John DID understand the concept, and then let’s look at what details the Gospel writers offer us to recognize how John got there in his life. That will help us make the journey ourselves…
After Jesus was baptized, and after He began to have a significant following, we read of an incident in John’s Gospel that highlighted John’s character and his desire to shrink in size behind the Savior:
John 3:22 “After these things Jesus and His disciples came into the land of Judea, and there He was spending time with them and baptizing. 23 John also was baptizing in Aenon near Salim, because there was much water there; and [people] were coming and were being baptized—24 for John had not yet been thrown into prison. 25 Therefore there arose a discussion on the part of John’s disciples with a Jew about purification. 26 And they came to John and said to him, “Rabbi, He who was with you beyond the Jordan, to whom you have testified, behold, He is baptizing and all are coming to Him.” 27 John answered and said, “A man can receive nothing unless it has been given him from heaven. 28 “You yourselves are my witnesses that I said, I am not the Christ,’ but, ‘I have been sent ahead of Him.’ 29 “He who has the bride is the bridegroom; but the friend of the bridegroom, who stands and hears him, rejoices greatly because of the bridegroom’s voice. So this joy of mine has been made full. 30 “He must increase, but I must decrease. 31 “He who comes from above is above all, he who is of the earth is from the earth and speaks of the earth. He who comes from heaven is above all. 32 “What He has seen and heard, of that He testifies; and no one receives His testimony. 33 “He who has received His testimony has set his seal to [this], that God is true. 34 “For He whom God has sent speaks the words of God; for He gives the Spirit without measure. 35 “The Father loves the Son and has given all things into His hand. 36 “He who believes in the Son has eternal life; but he who does not obey the Son will not see life, but the wrath of God abides on him.”
Seven Character Traits of a Godly Man
The simple record of the encounter at Aenon near Salim offered a window into John’s maturity of heart. Look briefly at the passage what contains John’s response to questions, and you will see seven character traits that model a godly man who is ready to shrink before the Lord’s greatness and exalt his Savior above himself.
First, there is GODLY CONFIDENCE (3:27): John stood before his own disciples and answered one who attempted at divisiveness through encouraging envy. “Jesus is gaining more popularity than you, sir!” the man said. John didn’t blink. He wasn’t upset about being upstaged by another preacher. He soothed the envious hearts of his own disciples with these words – “You get what God gives you!” Out of context, these words could be used for one who was simply hiding laziness, but that wasn’t the case! John acknowledged that he served a Sovereign God, and he (like all who follow Him) needed to be content in God’s hands. Godly men and women lose their self-confidence and gain a “God confidence”! Self-confidence thrives on human affirmation. God confidence thrives on Heaven’s smile revealed by the Spirit within. John was courageously confident about what God had in store for him. I cannot help but smile at Zig Ziglar’s comment: “Confidence is going after Moby Dick in a rowboat and taking the tartar sauce with you.”
Have you ever watched Olympic sports on TV? Put yourself into that picture. Imagine you are competing and you have done your absolute best, but you have one more time to perform in the competition. Just as you prepare your muscles and your mind, your trainer breaks in with a message: “You have already scored enough points for the gold. No one can catch you. Now go out and do this one for fun!” After thousands of hours of training, hundreds of hours of turning down the foods you most want to eat, conditioning, practicing, disciplining…you will go out on the floor with an excitement. You aren’t EARNING the medal, you are ENJOYING the sport. You’re DONE competing against others, now you are just working on your craft to hone yourself to do it better. That is a picture of godly confidence.
Second, there is a SENSE OF PURPOSE (3:28). John made the point that he was not unclear within or in his speaking about who he was and why he spoke. He recognized his purpose and place in life. He was the center – not the quarterback. He would have the ball first, but he would have it only for a moment before it was in the hands of the One Who would determine the rest of the play. He was not to be the center of anyone’s universe. Only a mature godly man or woman really grasps this. Though we all have a deep longing to be the center of someone’s universe – our place as believers is help others put the Lord at the center – not a relationship with US. Godly men and women answer the question, “Father, what have you made me to be?”
Third, there were expressions of JOY (3:29): John moved the discussion about Jesus to a “betrothal” and a “wedding” – times of great JOY! John learned the secret of taking JOY in being what God created him to be. He didn’t “settle” for his lot in life, he REVELED in the joy of his God-given identity as a “close friend of the groom”. No one in the bridal party should distract people from the couple – it is their day! Godly men and women seek to take the joy of the journey on each step with them – the resolute assurance that God has not lost interest in them, nor lost the ability to care for them.
Singer MICHAEL CARD told the story of a man named Joseph who came to Christ out of a Muslim background. One day walking a hot, dusty African road, the man met someone who shared Christ with him. He accepted Jesus as his Savior beside that road and the power of the Holy Spirit overwhelmed him with such joy that the first thing he desired was return and tell his whole village. He walked about, door to door, telling of the cross and the forgiveness for sin. He expected the faces of his neighbors to light up as they encountered this wonderful truth. Much to his amazement they became violent, seized him and held him to the ground while the women beat him with strands of barbed wire. He was dragged and left to die alone in the bush. After a time, he was again conscious and made it to a water hole where he spent days recovering and hiding. He was confused and finally decided that he must have left something out or not told the story correctly. After rehearsing the message he returned. Stood in the circle of huts and began to proclaim Jesus. Again grabbed by men and beaten by women, reopening the wounds that had just begun to heal. He was again dragged while unconscious and left to die. Days later he awoke and determined to go back. This time he was attacked before he even opened his mouth. Before he passed out the last thing he saw was that the women who were beating him had begun to weep. This time he awoke in his own bed, the ones who had beaten him were now trying to save his life. The villagers were challenged by their own hatred, and many came to know Jesus Christ. The man did not come to them to condemn them for not believing, but was compelled to come because he was released from his own sin, and he couldn’t contain that!
Fourth, John had CLARITY (3:30) one can only have when they see the truth. He recognized Who the Savior was, and without hesitation he said: “He must increase and I must decrease!” The was the crystal clear sound of a voice that has embraced TRUTH. John not only knew who he wasn’t – he knew Who the main character WAS in the story. Godly men and women recognize that even what we call “our lives” are not our own. The story is not about US; it is not about God’s Son!
A person who calls himself frank and candid can very easily find himself becoming tactless and cruel. A person who prides himself on being tactful can find eventually that he has become evasive and deceitful. A person with firm convictions can become pigheaded. A person who is inclined to be temperate and judicious can sometimes turn into someone with weak convictions and banked fires of resolution . . . Loyalty can lead to fanaticism. Caution can become timidity. Freedom can become license. Confidence can become arrogance. Humility can become servility. All these are ways in which strength can become weakness. Dore Schary, Bits & Pieces, December 9, 1993, pp. 3-4… It is only by connecting our lives to the foundational truth – seeing clearly what God says, that we can take our weaknesses and allow them to become our strength!
This is not small affair. The failure of our nation will come as we disconnect ourselves from the truth that government does not bestow rights – God does. He made us, and we made government. As that truth falls from our classrooms, it falls from our children’s hearts. They will be ready for tyranny – and they will even invite it as an expedient answer to some supposed emergency. Connection to God’s Word offers protection from God’s enemy.
Fifth, there was a simple, noticeable and humble SUBMISSION (3:31): John answered his disciples’ complaints with a straightforward claim that Jesus is Lord from Heaven, and worthy of all submission. No man or woman can ever truly be considered Godly that does not understand submission to the Creator. It doesn’t mean we will live every moment with our spiritual knees bowed, but it means that is our GOAL – to serve on earth as God’s servants do in Heaven. Angels don’t add God to their schedule – He IS their schedule. They don’t wonder if they have a better way to pull off life – they KNOW they do not. I tell you the truth: Self-willed and stubborn Christians are doing more to damage the Gospel than atheists ever will.
Sixth, he possessed keen DISCERNMENT (3:32-34): John claimed that Jesus spoke that which He knew first hand, that is was the absolute truth of the Word of God and that it was infused with the limitless power of the Spirit of God. He trusted what Jesus taught, and he had the discernment to see it as truth and label it as such. Godliness presupposes the ability to discern truth from nonsense. No godly man or woman will truly walk as they ought without discernment that acts as a screen to filter out the false and allow the truth to permeate.
“George Hunter contends that the first characteristic of a secular person in the modern world is that he or she is ignorant of basic Christianity. It has been said of the Baby Busters, those born between 1963 and 1977 and the first generation to grow up in a postmodern context, that they lack even the memory of a hope-giving gospel. Today many people outside of the church struggle with the concept of Christ’s deity. They think he was a good man, perhaps even a prophet, but not God in human form. Further, seventy-two percent of Americans now deny the existence of absolute truth, and few have confidence in the historical accuracy or ethical authority of the Bible. Two-thirds of the population does not know what John 3:16 refers to, and less than four out of every ten Americans have any idea what the term gospel means. Ten percent believe that the name of Noah’s wife was Joan of Arc.” – James White, Rethinking the Church, p. 41
I am honestly concerned about how many people are “churched” but not “Bibled”.
They manage to join programs, listen to sermons, attend conferences and yet don’t seem to be growing in their grasp of the Word of God – which is usually the STATED purpose of most of those settings. Without grasping God’s Word with discernment, they will be swept into the ever-adapting popular forms of “tolerance morality” which is really cloaked self-will and immorality. Because people call evil good does not make it so – and believers must know the difference. Discernment was never a luxury – but now it will determine survival in a world setting that is increasing in flagrant and egregious sin.
Finally, John had CONTEXT because he had UNDERSTANDING (3:35-36) of the broader picture of life and afterlife. His frame of decision making wasn’t only about EARTH, but about the reality of HEAVEN and what GOD WAS DOING. He was not so ego bound that all he could perceive was how everything affected him – life held a bigger picture before him. In this larger window view, what God was calling him to do made real sense. John understood that God was from the beginning a God of relationship. He loved, and because of that, it was easy for God the Father to offer authority to the Son. If the Father could do that, so could John! He loved Jesus, so surrendering crowds and accolades to Him was not a sacrifice he couldn’t accept!
That understanding is where the great truth was revealed from John’s lips. Because John saw that the Father in Heaven loved the Son, and trusted the Son completely – John could follow suit and give up any position, title, fame or importance to Jesus. God – out of love – gave the Son authority, how could John give less than his passing fame? He knew that Jesus’ coming wasn’t just a political stunt or an earthly religious control play.
I cannot find the statement, but in my memory it should be ascribed to John Piper. Years ago I heard it, and it stuck with me (I am adapting as memory serves)…
“What other religion do you know that shares the love of God by that very powerful and majestic being coming to die for a rebel? What other personality claimed openly to be God and died for that claim, yet have millions that follow Him? Buddha never made such a claim. He didn’t say he came from God, nor that he was God. Mohammed never made the claim that he was God in human skin – only that he was a prophet that died and remains in the tomb like all other men. In every other religion the word of God is a verbal revelation, a book or a set of moral codes. Only in Christianity does God become flesh. Only in our Savior does He subject Himself to wicked men to win their hearts.” (adapted from unknown author).
John recognized the sacrifice of God, and he made his own sacrifice to God…
On March 5, 1994, Deputy Sheriff Lloyd Prescott was teaching a class for police officers in the Salt Lake City Library. During a break he stepped into the hallway, and as he did he saw a gunman forcing 18 hostages into a nearby room. Prescott, who was dressed in street clothes, fell in line with the group and became the nineteenth hostage. The gunman had not noticed him, and Prescott followed them into the room, and shut the door. The gunman announced the order in which hostages would be executed, and then it was that Prescott identified himself as a police officer. A fight ensued, and Prescott, in self-defense, shot the gunman. All of the hostages were released unharmed. The officer placed himself at great risk, but he was not thinking of himself, he was thinking about the danger the hostages were in. (sermon central illustrations).
Why would the Officer Prescott do that? The answer is simple: He thought of another first. He shrunk, and they grew. So did John, and it wasn’t philanthropy, it was surrender to Jesus.
Godly people learn to shrink, allowing the words and work of the Master to displace their own self-importance.
If you ever get the opportunity to go to Florence in Italy – do it. Near the Ponte Vecchio is a church called Santa Felicita. One piece of artwork in that church was painted by Antonio Ciseri in 1863 called “The Martyrdom of the Seven Maccabees”. It recalled a story from 2 Maccabees 7, when about 160 years before Jesus, a tyrant general tried to make seven sons of one woman eat pork. One after another the boys were horribly killed in front of their mother, yet she did not tell them to capitulate – because she taught them to observe the Law of Moses. Faced with the loss of all of her sons, she would not relent – nor would they… What kind of person stands up to pressure like that? The kind that is convinced that following God is more important than physical life itself. “Too radical!” you say? It may seem so. Yet, if we are not willing to stand for God’s word, but try to tolerate and compromise our way through – we will have loved this life and lost our opportunity to show Jesus to others when it really counted.