Muhammad Ali claimed to be the greatest. He was wrong. Jesus gave that honour to John the Baptist, describing him as the greatest man ever born of a woman - so that seems to include everyone! Yet the line for which the greatest man who had ever lived became famous was not "I am the greatest". Rather, it was "He must increase and I must decrease." He knew that his title of "Best Man" was to be short lived, for the Bridegroom was arriving and John happily deferred to Jesus.

Right there we see John's true greatness: stepping aside so people can see Jesus. When he talked about the need for him to decrease, he probably had little idea how quickly the rising star of the Son of God would take centre stage and how fast he himself would fall.

There was another man calling himself "Great" when the angel told John's father Zechariah that the miracle son who would be born to him would be great (Lk 1:15). Luke dates this event as being in the days of Herod the Great (v.5). The Herod who tried to preserve his position by killing off baby pretenders to his throne. The Herod who wanted nobody to increase to eclipse his greatness. By the time John began his ministry, Herod the Great was deceased. His son was now in the spotlight, acting as if he was the greatest. So when John courageously confronted Herod the Great Jnr. about his adulterous relationship with his brother-in-law's wife Herodias the Odious, he must have known that he was effectively putting his head on the chopping block.

In many ways, John's life mirrored that of Samson - he was all that Samson was supposed to be but was not. John's death has allusions to Samson. Herodias was to John what Delilah was to Samson. And just as Samson lost his hair, so did John - and a lot more beside. Shorn of all his power in one tragic cut. But where Samson gave in to Delilah, John stood up to Herodias; where Samson had been seduced by Delilah, John was martyred by Herodias. Was this defeat in the way that Jezebel had brought Elijah to his knees? No! This was God's dramatic climax to the end of an era.

John had been so great, so successful, that he was not needed any more, and he died a martyred hero. He had said be must decrease. He decreased. Deceased. He was willing to lay down his life to be be set aside. Not just stepping down from #1 greatness to take a #2 role alongside Jesus. But dead. That was true greatness.

When we speak of us decreasing and Him increasing, we usually think of it in small incremental terms. Not so for John. For John it meant putting his life on the line, willing to put his head on the plate. He gives a different slant to what it means to step up to the plate. He was willing to put everything on the line for the one whom he knew to be the Greatest.

Jesus said we need to take up our cross if we are to follow him. John did that as he went ahead of him. Willing to decrease; really decrease. John was great because he stepped up to the plate.