Growing up with someone who is superior than you at something—and then learning to embrace that reality—is very difficult to do.
My older brother was the far superior athlete in our family. He scored double digits; I was usually lucky to hit double digits in minutes played. He regularly made the newspaper for his athletic feats; I made the paper for placing second in the Davie County Soil & Water Conservation essay contest (and even then they misspelled my name). He would win MVP…I would win “Coach’s Award” (which is a glorified award given to the guy who tries hard and, thus, pleases the coach but who isn’t actually all that good).
Now that we’re both washed up 30-somethings with bad knees, aching backs, and little kids, none of this really matters any more. We can look back on it with the much wiser perspective that comes with age. But for any youth in similar situations—and pretty much anyone with a sibling or a cousin will face some sort of situation where rivalry is possible—it can be hard to live in someone’s shadow.
Imagine, then, what it must have been like for John the Baptist to grow up as Jesus‘ cousin, separated by only a few months of age!
Talk About a Shadow
The gospel accounts of John the Baptist and Jesus, particularly in the gospel of Luke, go to great lengths to demonstrate the similarities in their upbringing and ministry calling. John’s mother was the cousin of Jesus’ mother, and the two mothers got together at least once during pregnancy, as pregnant mothers do; thus, it is safe to assume that they would have had at least some interaction as boys (though the Bible doesn’t record it). John was a bit older than Jesus, but otherwise the narratives of their lives are stunning in the parallelism. In fact, in Luke many scholars call this the “diptych” structure of the infancy story, in which the narratives almost form mirror images of each other:
While they were alike in a lot of ways, the text also shows that in nearly every other way, Jesus was superior by far. Imagine growing up with a wünderkid who had been foretold to be the savior of the world. Imagine playing in the backyard with the incarnate Second Person of the Trinity. What on earth would that have been like?
While John is great—so great that Jesus commends him with the highest of praise (Luke 7:28)—Jesus is always portrayed as better. Let’s see some of the ways in which Jesus outshone John:
What a shadow that must have been!
“I must become less, he must become greater”
One might think John would have resented Jesus for surpassing him at every turn. John was a big deal, as established in my last post. He had a huge following. There apparently was a little competition between John’s disciples and Jesus’ disciples (e.g., Matt 9:14).
But notice how John always responds. He never resents Jesus for being better than him. He never tries to grab the limelight, even for just a minute. He never tries to compete or be a bigger deal than his cousin.
In fact, from the very first moment they met—John leapt in the womb when Mary came around (Luke 1:41,44)—John had always rejoiced that Jesus was greater. He saw that Jesus was the true Lamb of God, and that he (John) was barely worthy even to untie his sandal laces (Luke 3:15).
Most importantly, John saw that his ministry consisted of being surpassed by Jesus. In fact, that WAS his ministry. His ministry was not to make himself great, but to make Jesus great. John proclaimed:
“He must become greater; I must become less.” (John 3:30)
John’s goal was to become less so that the greatness of Jesus might be magnified. He strove, in other words, to diminish himself and exalt Christ.
Connecting to the pew
There are two ways to respond when you live in someone’s shadow. You can cheer them on, or you can compete to try to outshine them. John’s ministry of striving to become less is instructive for numerous reasons, of which I’ll mention two:
- For laypeople: Do we see our own life as defined by the goal of making Jesus greater? Or do we tend to focus on how Jesus can make our own lives greater? There are two temptations as a layperson along these lines. First, we can try to surpass one another in ministry. To compete for votes to become an elder or deacon; to harbor ill feelings against someone else who gets chosen to lead a group over you; to resent better singers or musicians; to compare your children’s behavior or accomplishments against, say, the pastors’ kids. These kinds of things can eat a church alive, and they can eat you alive. So let us learn from John the glory of making it our ministry to help others excel at theirs, rather than to win acclaim for ourselves. Second, we face an even greater temptation to, in effect, turn the tables on how Jesus’ ministry works. Yes, he came to deliver us from sin and evil and give us individually access to eternal life. That makes us great in status in the end. But his main goal was to do so in order to glorify his Father in heaven, who in turn was glorifying his Son. The economy of redemption is not, strictly speaking, about you. It is about the redemptive work of God. It involves you (to a great degree, in fact!), but it is greater than you. Seeing our own lives as advancing Jesus’ glory rather than our own comfort / legacy / influence / prestige (or even our own entry pass to the afterlife) transforms everything about the day-to-day. How can this thing I’m suffering make Jesus greater? How can my promotion and raise make Jesus greater (rather than myself)? How can my successful business make Jesus greater? How can my reliance on Christ to repent of this sin pattern help transform the church by making me better able to sharpen and encourage the other men and women around me?
- For pastors and others working in ministry: Do we see ourselves as John the Baptist saw himself, striving to make ourselves less so that our flock will exult in Jesus more? There is a temptation in ministry to try to make “my” own ministry (my preaching, my books, my insights, my influence, my resume) the main focus. Unfortunately this is a huge risk for everyone in ministry, from the obvious megachurch guys to the Gospel Coalition posse to the local campus ministry guy at a small college. We want to be liked, we want to be well thought-of, we want to make an impact. This can lead us to preach our own cleverness rather than Jesus. We can so easily become confused about the line between a growing ministry that points to Jesus and a growing ministry that points to ourselves. Between becoming less and becoming less humble. So we need to examine our own ministries to uncover where we are running the risk of trying to overshadow the very Jesus we preach. For instance, where are we unwilling to delegate? What is our real motive behind the way we use, say, social media? What is the goal of writing that book? Should we pursue this or that speaking engagement if it takes us away from our flock? These are tough questions, of course, but we need to be asking them of ourselves regularly.