How to Win by Losing
by Pastor George Van Alstine
The man we know as John the Baptist was Jesus’ second cousin. His father was a priest and his mother was a priest’s daughter, and John was brought up to honor the highest spiritual aspirations of the Jewish religion. As a very young man he left home to lead a life of prayer and meditation in a desert region, and it was there that he encountered a very committed monastic group who helped shape his views of God’s Kingdom. When he finally came out of the desert, it was with a message about God’s impending judgment and the need for personal repentance and renewal.
John was a bit older than Jesus, had higher familial credentials, and had that unique desert training—all of which initially launched him as a more striking and influential public figure than Jesus. In fact, John’s evangelistic ministry earned the notice of the historian Josephus, all the way from Rome; by contrast, Josephus didn’t even mention Jesus in his writings. John was the star; Jesus was in his shadow.
But things changed. It all began when Jesus came to John to be baptized on the shore of the Jordan River. John immediately realized that his whole purpose was to introduce his younger cousin to the world, to “prepare the way” for him, as Isaiah had prophesied. He told the crowd that Jesus “ranks ahead of me” and “I am not worthy to untie his sandals” (John 1:27, 30). A few days later, he announced the inevitable, that “he must increase, but I must decrease” (John 3:30). Indeed, from that time on, John’s ministry went on a downhill slide. Yes, John the Baptist lost a lot because of Jesus:
JOHN LOST HIS FOLLOWING. We don’t know how many hard-core disciples John had, nor do we have estimates of the crowds he was able to draw, but it’s clear from all four New Testament Gospels, as well as from other writing from the time and soon after, that John enjoyed considerable fame and popularity before Jesus came along. But John himself started the hemorrhaging of his own band of disciples when he told two of them, “Look, here is the Lamb of God!” (John1:36) One of these was Andrew, who immediately found his brother Peter, and they became the beginning of Jesus’ own inner circle of twelve disciples. After that, John watched from the sidelines, while Jesus drew larger and larger crowds, with 5,000 or more pushing in to hear his words during the high holiday season.
JOHN LOST HIS FREEDOM. John’s moral consistency had led him publicly to call out King Herod for marrying Herodias, who had deserted her marriage to his brother Philip in a blatant act of adultery. Royals tend to hold long grudges, and John’s waning popularity gave Herod the opportunity to arrest him and put him into a notorious prison. He kept John in custody the rest of his life, though we can’t be sure how long that was. Herod was afraid to do away with him because he was intimidated by his spiritual qualities. From time to time he had John brought to the court because “he liked to listen to him” (Mark 6:20). This rising religious star had been reduced to being occasional entertainment for a petty potentate.
JOHN LOST HIS HEAD. We probably all know the final chapter of the John the Baptist story. At King Herod’s birthday party, everyone had a bit too much to drink, and things got out of control. Salome, the daughter of Herodias, did a sensuous dance in front of her step-father (traditionally known as “the dance of the seven veils”), and he promised her anything she wanted. After consulting with her mother, she asked for John the Baptist’s head on a platter. Herod, a man of honor, gave her what she asked, and that was the end of John.
What a loser!
And yet, Jesus had nothing but good to say about John. He called him a “shining light” (John 5:35) and “more than a prophet” (Matthew 11:9). On one occasion, he told a crowd, “Among those born of women, no one has arisen greater than John the Baptist” (Matthew 11:11).
I think the thing that impresses me most about John, as he is presented in the Gospels, is that he never complained about his slow-but-sure reduction in rank. He recognized his supporting role in God’s drama of salvation, and he totally embraced it.
What a winner!