The relationship between John the Baptist and Jesus goes much deeper than mere blood. They were cousins, but we only hear of them interacting in the womb, at Jesus’ baptism, and then shortly before John’s beheading. We can assume that, as cousins, they spent time together growing up and then later, as young men, probably passionately debated scriptures, with Jesus (the younger by a few months) likely besting his older cousin at every turn. At Jesus’ baptism at the River Jordan, John is obviously in awe of his younger cousin and openly considers himself to be so low as to not even to be worthy to put Jesus’ sandals on his feet. When John tells Jesus that he should be the one getting baptized, Jesus gently chides him to go ahead with the baptism in order to fulfill scripture. We catch there a glimpse of the younger cousin again schooling his older cousin.
Jesus calls John the greatest of those born of women, but then also calls him lowest in the kingdom (that is, born of the Spirit). What did Jesus mean by that? It almost sounds like an insult, just as John sending his disciples to Jesus to ask if he were actually “the one” sounds like an insult. Did the cousins have a falling-out that is not recorded in scripture?
We see, in John, a type of Law-based pre-Christianity that is still deeply embedded in the Christian mindset today. When asked “what should we do”, John advises people to repent, to share their belongings with those who have none, not to cheat anyone, and not to falsely accuse. He and his disciples were also well-known for praying and fasting, and John himself had turned his back completely on the comforts of this world, choosing instead to live in the wild and to clothe himself with the skins of animals and eat insects.
Jesus, on the other hand, when asked “what should we do”, tells people to repent and to love their enemies and pray for people who abuse them. There is no mention of sharing possessions or not cheating anyone. Jesus, while not owning any property, still chose to live in worldly housing and to eat lavishly, when invited. He was also known for having a drink or two on occasion. Prayer, for Jesus, was a simple, almost child-like impromptu request to God to provide for needs and to keep his promises. As for fasting, Jesus said the time for fasting would come, but it wasn’t while he was with his disciples. In other words, fasting, like prayer, was needs-related, not stuck in a rigid schedule.
John’s “to do” list centered solely on the physical, whereas Jesus’ “to do” list centered on the spiritual. In this, Jesus, the younger cousin, had moved beyond John, the elder cousin. John represented the age of the Law, while Jesus represented the age of Mercy and of God’s Holy Spirit. Jesus openly told his followers that the Spirit (God) is what gives life and that the flesh (the Law) cannot. This is also the stage where Jesus starts to lose many of his followers because they can’t understand (that is, they don’t want to understand) his message. They are expecting the Messiah to come as a mighty warrior to physically and politically free Israel from the Romans and all their enemies and to establish a strong geopolitical kingdom, but Jesus was telling them that God’s kingdom is within you and that you can’t see it with your eyes. This is not what many of his former followers wanted to hear.
This is also what many of his alleged followers today do not want to hear because they are still expecting Jesus to come back and establish a worldly kingdom, even though Jesus very clearly stated that his kingdom is not of this world, and that if he was performing miracles by God’s Holy Spirit, then the kingdom of God had already come. Jesus’ kingdom is NOW and his reign is NOW and his followers are already lording over his enemies by the power of God’s Spirit, but this is being done on the spiritual level, not geopolitically. Many people who call themselves Christians are stuck in the pre-Christian stage exemplified by John the Baptist, focusing on giving to charities, feeding the poor, seeking worldly justice (not cheating anyone, not falsely accusing anyone, etc.), and praying and fasting according to a pre-set schedule. These things in and of themselves are not bad or wrong; they’re just not what Jesus came to teach us or what his death and resurrection enable us to be: they’re not on the “to do” list of Jesus’ followers. They are, however, on the “to do” list of John the Baptist’s followers. They are mired in the age of the Law.
So you have to ask yourself right here and right now – are you low like John the Baptist or high like Jesus? Do you consider that “being a Christian” means to give to charities and feed the poor and pray on a pre-set schedule, or does being a Christian to you mean to keep the Commandments, love your enemies, and to pray and fast as the need arises (not on a schedule)? Do you fight against the persecution of Christians wherever it occurs in the world, demanding that it cease and that reparations be made, or like Peter and the apostles, do you rejoice that those people are considered worthy to suffer for the Name?
You don’t have to tell me whether you think you’re low like John the Baptist or high like Jesus – that’s between you and God. But if you do find yourself more prone to following John the Baptist’s “to do” list than Jesus’ list, you need to take a moment (or as many as you need) to make a decision about who it is you want to follow from this point onward. I heartily recommend following Jesus, as only his way leads to life, but the choice is yours.
Let me put it another way — Do you want to live a life that is centered on being seen doing “Christian things”, or do you want to live your life actually being a Christian – not standing in the marketplace with others praying out loud for all to see, but retreating to your closet and praying in private, just between you and God? Most if not all so-called Christian churches today are still following John the Baptist and teaching people John’s “to do” list. If you belong to a church that is focused on John’s list rather than Jesus’, I would advise that you leave that place.
Again – the choice is yours, but you know in your heart which choice is the right one: Choose to follow Jesus; always and forever, choose to follow Jesus, even if you walk the path alone.