Little is told us about John the Baptist’s childhood and early life. Luke concludes his first chapter with the verse: “And the child grew and became strong in spirit; and he lived in the wilderness until he appeared publicly to Israel.” (Luke 1:80) We don’t really meet John again until thirty years later when Jesus is about to start His own public ministry.

The wilderness life (perhaps caused when his elderly parents died?) shaped John’s life. Long before bush-tucker trials were the rage in ‘I’m A Celebrity’, John lived on locusts and wild honey and dressed in clothes made of camel hair with a leather belt around his waist (Matt 3:4). He seems quite a wild, untamed figure, preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins and giving the stark message: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” (Matt 3:2) He has learned many lessons in the wilderness:

(1) What is really important in life
John is no sycophant. He tells it as it is, called the Pharisees and Sadducees ‘a brood of vipers’ and urging them to ‘produce fruit in keeping with repentance’ (Matt 3:7-8). His plain speaking will get him into trouble later on with Herod, but he knows the value of the spiritual over the material and what is really important in life. Do we?

(2) What his purpose in life was
John’s gospel tells us “There was a man sent from God whose name was John. He came as a witness to testify concerning that light, so that through him all might believe. He himself was not the light; he came only as a witness to the light.” (John 1:6-8) John knew that his purpose was to be the forerunner for the Mesisah and he was content with that role. When his disciples noticed Jesus, he told them “But after me comes one who is more powerful than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry. He will baptise you with the Holy Spirit and fire.” (Matt 3:11) He pointed to Jesus as the Bridegroom and himself as the best man (John 3:27-30). He pointed to Jesus as the ‘Lamb of God’ (John 1:36). His role was to point to Jesus. He didn’t covet another ministry but had learnt what godliness with contentment looked like.

(3) Jesus must have the supremacy
John’s security in his identity in God and his purpose in life means he can point people to Jesus without feeling threatened or insecure. Possibly the greatest lesson John can teach us is that “He must become greater; I must become less.” (John 3:30). We must all learn to point people to Jesus and give Him all the glory:
‘You are the First
You go before
You are the last
Lord. You’re the encore.
Your name’s in lights for all to see
The starry hosts declare Your glory.’ (Chris Tomlin, ‘Glory In The Highest’)

John shows us that playing ‘second fiddle’ is not demeaning, but is an important role. Wes King wrote a song called ‘Second String’ in which he said
“I know what it feels like to be second string
I know what it feels like to just sit on the bench
And watch your friends play, and wonder why you’re even on the team
I know second string.” (Wes King, ‘Second String’)

So often, we feel that ‘second string’ or ‘second fiddle’ is unimportant, but John shows us that what matters is Jesus having the supremacy (see Col 1:15-18).

(4) Obedience must come before understanding
John the Baptist is probably most famous for baptising Jesus. When Jesus came to John to be baptised, John is incredulous: I’m the one who needs to be baptised, not you!” (Matt 3:14, The Message) He understood that his baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins could not apply to Jesus, who had never sinned, and who would, in fact, become our sinless sacrifice. But Jesus urged him to baptise him ‘to fulfil all righteousness’ and John obeyed, even though it probably didn’t make a lot of sense to him. As Anselm said, ‘we believe in order that we may understand’, not the other way around. As Samuel told Saul, ‘to obey is better than sacrifice’ (1 Sam 15:22).

Just as John obeyed Jesus at this point in his ministry, even though he may not have understood the deeper significance of this act of baptism, so we too have to learn to believe in order to understand rather than always seeking to understand. As Michael Card says
‘So surrender the hunger to say you must know
Have the courage to say ‘I believe’.
For the power of paradox opens your eyes
And blinds those who say they can see.’ (Michael Card, ‘God’s Own Fool’)