The Joy of Living in Jesus’s Shadow

Many of us wake up wanting to be someone we’re not.

We’re bombarded with opportunities to be a better me. Diets and workouts for weight loss. Websites and books for better dating. Apps for better productivity. Degrees and conferences and workshops to get a better job and more pay. Do-it-yourself videos for home improvement. There’s no wonder we live with a constant restlessness that there’s more to do, more to have, and more to become.

It’s like we’re watching our own biopic on Netflix and terrified we’ll get bored.

Many of us spend much of our lives aspiring to be more than what we are. More money, more exercise, more job satisfaction, more followers on social media, more children. And that means we’re often left looking for someone else as the goal or standard — the person with more than us. We want to be them. We may not say it that way, or even consciously think about it that way. But we’ll spend our time and energy striving to become that better, more respected, more loved me.

And that desire in us can make it hard to watch others, even other Christians, continue to succeed or acquire more than us.

The Famous Friend of Jesus

At least one man in history worthy of his own movie settled happily into the background of another story. John was born at the most pivotal point in history, and was chosen to pave the way for the most important person in history.

There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came as a witness, to bear witness about the light, that all might believe through him. He was not the light, but came to bear witness about the light. (John 1:6–8)

These verses come right on the heels of one world-changing sentence (“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God,” John 1:1) and right before another (“And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us,” John 1:14). John, the Gospel writer, interrupts his account of the infinite, almighty God coming to earth to become human like any other human to introduce a guy like any other guy, John the Baptist. Put your name in for John’s in verses 6–8 and then read John 1:1–14. Jarring, right?

Why would John, the writer, do that?

I Must Decrease

He introduced John the Baptist because he might just be the second most important human to ever live. Jesus himself said, “Truly, I say to you, among those born of women there has arisen no one greater than John the Baptist” (Matthew 11:11). Not Moses. Not David. Not Peter. John was the fulfillment of the ancient prophecy (seven hundred years before),

A voice cries: “In the wilderness prepare the way of the LORD; make straight in the desert a highway for our God. . . . And the glory of the LORD shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together, for the mouth of the LORD has spoken.” (Isaiah 40:3–5)

Matthew writes, “John the Baptist came preaching in the wilderness of Judea, . . . ‘For this is he who was spoken of by the prophet Isaiah when he said, “The voice of one crying in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord; make his paths straight’”’” (Matthew 3:1–3, see also John 1:23).

John came to fulfill hundreds of years of waiting and watching. He came as the chosen one to prepare and present the coming of the Messiah, the promised Savior of the world. There hasn’t been anyone else like him before him or after him. In the greatest story ever told, he was perhaps the greatest character not named Jesus Christ.

Trading Fame for Fidelity

Standing center stage at the highest moment in history, privileged with unprecedented anointing and authority, John launched his personal campaign with these seven words, “He must increase, but I must decrease” (John 3:30). Jesus must be put forward and followed, and I must fade further into the background, into Jesus’s shadow.

The people acknowledged John’s amazing gifts and his crowds of followers, and they wanted to promote him and his platform (John 1:19–22; 3:26). John rejected all their acclaim and advances. “I am not the Christ, but I have been sent before him” (John 3:28). John came alive as the nobody next to Jesus. Even before he was born, he loved who he was not (Luke 1:41), because his life was God’s and not his own. His life was about Christ, not himself.

Once Jesus came on the scene, John received a lesser role before going to prison (Matthew 11:2), and then dying a seemingly meaningless death at a party (Matthew 14:10). John the Baptist wasn’t chasing the award for best supporting actor in a Gospel. If he was found with Jesus, as part of God’s plan to save the world, he was happy to be forgotten, happy to live and serve and even die in the shadows. He joyfully accepted a role with less worldly comfort, acclaim, and success in order to highlight how truly great Jesus was.

All from Grace, All for Christ

What we learn from John the Baptist is that the greatest glories in this life are not in receiving attention or fame, but in funneling it all to Jesus. The biggest, longest lasting statement John could make to the world was not in the number of his followers, but in how he responded when his followers fled to Jesus (John 3:25–29).

The key for the Christian life is to rejoice in whatever ministry we’ve been given. We never deserved to be a part of this story in the first place, and it’s the greatest story ever told. Any part we play is all from grace (1 Corinthians 15:10), and it is all for Jesus (Galatians 6:14).

John saw what God was doing in the world, even if he wasn’t at the center of it, and he loved it. The same calling is now on all of us, to rejoice in what God is doing in the world, whatever our individual role is — for better or worse, richer or poorer, in sickness or in health, until death brings us to God.

In the Shadow of a Savior

Our relationship to Jesus, surrendering our own fame and our own interests, also transforms our relationships with those around us who have more. It frees us to joyfully accept who God has made and called us to be. And it frees us to love and celebrate how he’s gifted, called, and placed other believers in our lives.

This kind of humility and joy isn’t the end of all ambition in the Christian life. The same Paul who says it’s all of grace and all for Christ also says, “I worked harder than any of them” (1 Corinthians 15:10). True humility is the end of all ambition not aimed at the fame of Christ, and all ambition that cannot gladly celebrate the success and flourishing of others, especially other Christians — the friend with more followers, the neighbor with the better yard, the colleague with the better title, the pastor with the bigger church, the mom with more kids.

John the Baptist knew the joy and freedom of being found in God’s hands and Jesus’s shadow. We must learn how to trust in God and love who we’re not, even when someone else is living our better story now.