“He must increase, but I must decrease.” What is this? He must be exalted, but I must be humbled. How is Jesus to increase? How is God to increase? The perfect does not increase. God neither increases nor decreases. For if He increases, He is not perfect; if He decreases, he is not God. And how can Jesus increase, being God? If to man’s estate, since He deigned to be man and was a child; and, though the Word of God, lay an infant in a manger; and, though His mother’s Creator, yet sucked the milk of infancy of her: then Jesus having grown in age of the flesh, that perhaps is the reason why it is said, “He must increase, but I must decrease.”
But why in this? As regards the flesh, John and Jesus were of the same age, there being six months between them: they had grown up together; and if our Lord Jesus Christ had willed to be here longer before His death, and that John should be here with Him, then, as they had grown up together, so would they have grown old together:
In what way, then, “He must increase but I must decrease”? Above all, our Lord Jesus Christ being now thirty years old, does a man who is already thirty years old still grow? From that same age, men begin to go downward, and to decline to graver age, thence to old age. Again, even had they both been lads, he would not have said. “He must increase,” but, We must increase together. But now each is thirty years of age. The interval of six months makes no difference in age; the difference is discovered by reading rather than by the look of the persons.
What means, then, “He must increase, but I must decrease”? This is a great mystery! Before the Lord Jesus came, men were glorying of themselves; He came a man, to lessen man’s glory, and to increase the glory of God. Now He came without sin, and found all men in sin. If thus He came to put away sin, God may freely give, man may confess. For man’s confession is man’s lowliness: God’s pity is God’s loftiness. Therefore, since He came to forgive man his sins, let man acknowledge his own lowliness and let God show His pity.
“He must increase, but I must decrease:” that is, He must give, but I must receive; He must be glorified, but I must confess. Let man know his own condition, and confess to God; and hear the apostle as he says to a proud, elated man, bent on extolling himself: “What have you that you didst not receive? And if you didst receive it, why dost you glory as if you didst not receive it?” Then let man understand that he has received; and when he would call that his own which is not his, let him decrease: for it is good for him that God be glorified in him. Let him decrease in himself, that he may be increased in God. These testimonies and this truth, Christ and John signified by their deaths. For John was lessened by the Head: Christ was exalted on the cross; so that even there it appeared what this is, “He must increase, but I must decrease.”
Again, Christ was born when the days were just beginning to lengthen; John was born when they began to shorten. Thus their very creation and deaths testify to the words of John, when he says, “He must increase, but I must decrease.” May the glory of God then increase in us, and our own glory decrease, that even ours may increase in God! For this is what the apostle says, this is what Holy Scripture says: “He that glories, let him glory in the Lord.” You will glory in yourself? You will grow; but grow worse in your evil. For whoever grows worse is justly decreased. Let God, then, who is ever perfect, grow, and grow in you. For the more you understand God, and apprehend Him, He seems to be growing in you; but in Himself He grows not, being ever perfect. You didst understand a little yesterday; you understand more today, will understand much more tomorrow: the very light of God increases in you: as if thus God increases, who remains ever perfect. It is as if one’s eyes were being cured of former blindness, and he began to see a little glimmer of light, and the next day he saw more, and the third day still more: to him the light would seem to grow; yet the light is perfect, whether he see it or not. Thus it is also with the inner man: he makes progress indeed in God, and God seems to be increasing in him; yet man himself is decreasing, that he may fall from his own glory, and rise into the glory of God.
St. Augustine, Commentary on the Gospel According to St. John, NPNF s. 1, v. 7, pp. 188-190.