In the massive handwritten, illuminated Bible currently under production for Saint John’s Abbey in Minnesota, there is a beautiful painting by Donald Jackson of Jesus’ baptism.
The largest figure in the scene is actually John the Baptist. He is walking away, however, as if off the page, and is depicted in purplish tones, as if in the shade. Vibrant yellows, oranges, and blues behind him draw the eye toward a distant figure in gold – Jesus leaving the waters of baptism.
I confess that when I was younger, I found John the Baptist rather unappealing. Maybe it was his camel’s hair clothing and diet of locusts, or his “brood of vipers” language.
Or maybe it was his ignominious end: his head on a platter at King Herod’s royal court. I preferred biblical heroes with happier outcomes, like Daniel or Esther or Ruth.
In recent years, however, as I’ve looked more closely at John the Baptist’s life, I find myself intrigued and inspired. He was a leader. His role as forerunner to the Messiah was absolutely essential. But he was so remarkably humble. He not only accepted the position of #2, he embraced it.
For a while, of course, John had been the #1 man. People flocked to hear him. They responded to his message. Yet when Jesus came onto the scene and began to attract the same crowds, John said he was thrilled. He said he was “full of joy.”
How did he manage joy? What kept him from envy?
There are several answers, I think. First, John had a clear sense of his own mission and who had given it to him. “A person can receive only what is given from heaven,” he said (John 3:27). His task of preparing people for the Messiah must have been thoroughly inculcated in him by his parents after the startling circumstances of his birth, as well as through the Spirit present in him. Accomplishing this task did not deplete John; it fulfilled him.
Second, John put humility into practice. People who rushed to see him were expectant: was he the awaited Messiah? If John was tempted to wish to be what he was not, the wish gained no foothold. Immediately and repeatedly he spoke the truth against it. He was simply the way-maker, he said. John refused to be identified even with Elijah, although Jesus made that link later.
Third, John had an intimate relationship with Jesus. They were cousins, peers, both destined for public ministry, which could have been a recipe for competition. But already in the womb, John “leaped for joy” when Jesus, in Mary’s womb, came near. Reports of subsequent encounters also radiate delight and respect.
Matthew’s account of Jesus’ baptism (3:13-17) is revealing. Jesus wanted to be baptized; John resisted. “I need to be baptized by you,” he said. Jesus replied, “Let it be so now….”
Then, we read, “John consented.” Both submitted – Jesus to the baptism of repentance, and John to performing the authoritative act.
Later, when John was in prison and seemed to have doubts about whether he’d gotten things right as far as the Messiah was concerned, Jesus encouraged him with a report of what was happening. The report referenced Isaiah, whose prophecies formed John’s mission as well. Jesus then commended John before the people, bearing witness to John even as John had borne witness to him.
Most of us like being #1. Occasionally we may even find ourselves with some important role, power, or fame. Such times are generally brief. They are often illusion.
But this is real: in God’s kingdom, every one of us is #2. We’re #2 in relation to Christ, of course, but also to one another. (“In humility value others above yourselves” Philippians 2:3.) And John, whose name means gracious, claims it is a position of joy.
How do we find the joy of being #2?
We find it as John did: by anchoring ourselves in God’s purpose for us and doing it when it needs to be done; by opening ourselves to a deep and affectionate relationship with Jesus; and by practicing humility in what we say and do. Envy is defeated through the habits of praising, praying for, and serving our “rivals.”
In the Donald Jackson painting, John’s face is partially turned back but his expression is one of satisfaction rather than regret. His hands are open. He invites to the One behind him, but also, it seems, to his own attitude of “He must become greater; I must become less.”
[John’s disciples] came to John and said to him, “Rabbi, that man who was with you on the other side of the Jordan – the one you testified about – look, he is baptizing, and everyone is going to him.” To this John replied, “A person can receive only what is given from heaven. You yourselves can testify that I said, ‘I am not the Messiah but am sent ahead of him.’ The bride belongs to the bridegroom. The friend who attends the bridegroom waits and listens for him, and is full of joy when he hears the bridegroom’s voice. That joy is mine, and it is now complete. He must become greater; I must become less.”