December 2008 - Vol. 25

Reform Your Lives

The Message of John the Baptist: 
Forerunner of the Redeemer

by Jeanne Kun

John made it clear that preparation for the coming of the Messiah demanded conversion of heart and transformation. He exhorted his listeners, "Give some evidence that you mean to reform" (Luke 3:8). It was not enough to stop sinning. The real fruits of repentance must be apparent in the way one lived.

At the crossroads of salvation history
John the Baptist is one the central figures whom we meet over and over again in the Scripture texts chosen for use in the Advent liturgy. He stands at the threshold between the Old and New Testaments, a bridge linking the two. In John we see the culmination of centuries of prophecy, anticipation, and preparation.

The Baptist appeared out of the desert in the spirit and power of Elijah (see Kings 1:8; Matthew 3:4; Luke 1:17).  Elijah had prefigured John as a prophetic figure consumed with zeal for the glory of the Lord. As Jesus himself asserted, “‘Elijah is indeed coming, and he will restore everything. I assure you, though, that Elijah has already come, but they did not recognize him and they did as they pleased with him. The Son of Man will suffer at their hands in the same way’. The disciples then realized that he had been speaking to them about John the Baptizer” (Matthew 17:11-13).

Not only was John foreshadowed in Elijah, but his coming and his role had been foretold by Isaiah and Malachi. John filled Isaiah's prophetic description as he came proclaiming a call to repentance: “I send my messenger before you to prepare your way; a herald's voice in the desert, crying, ‘Make ready the way of the Lord, clear him a straight path’” (Mark 1:2-3; see Isaiah 40:3). Malachi had summoned Israel to repentance in the days after the exile and rebuilding of the temple and announced a coming day of judgment, the “day of the Lord”, which was to be preceded by a special emissary of God: “Lo, I am sending my messenger to prepare the way before me” (Malachi 3:1).

This verse from Malachi was directly applied to John by Jesus as he told the crowds about John: “It is about this man that Scripture says, ‘I send my messenger ahead of you, to prepare the way before you’” (Matthew11:10). Jesus continued, verifying that John's testimony was indeed from God: “I solemnly assure you, history has not known a man born of woman greater than John the Baptizer. Yet the least born into the kingdom of God is greater than he. From John the Baptizer’s time until now the kingdom of God has suffered violence, and the violent have taken it by force. All the prophets as well as the law spoke prophetically until John. If you are prepared to accept it, he is Elijah, the one who was certain to come” (Matthew 11:11-14).

John broke the prophetic silence that had followed Malachi for several hundred years. His message was remarkably like that of the great Old Testament prophets who had so often chided Israel for her sins and tried to waken her to true repentance. But his message went even further: John proclaimed that the good news of the kingdom of God was now at hand and exhorted his hearers to prepare for it by purifying their hearts.

Jesus told those who questioned him about John: “What did you go out to the wasteland to see – a reed swaying in the wind?...Someone luxuriously dressed? Remember, those who dress luxuriously are to be found in royal palaces.  Why then did you go out – to see a prophet? A prophet indeed and something more!” (Matthew 11:7-9). Dressed in camel’s hair and girded with a leather belt, eating locusts and wild honey, John was no courtier. The hardships of the desert disciplined and strengthened him for his mission.

Messenger of the Messiah King
In ancient times messengers ran ahead of a king as he journeyed on the road, announcing his coming and encouraging the people to prepare themselves and their towns to receive the royal visitor. Messengers did not take this role upon themselves, but were appointed to it. So too was John an envoy, a herald chosen and called by God to announce the imminent coming of his Son and the reign of God breaking forth among his people (see Luke 3:1-14). After centuries of waiting, imagine Israel's heightened sense of expectancy!  People flocked to the desert to see John and hear what he was preaching. Because John attracted great crowds – Pharisees and Sadducees and common people – his influence was widespread. We have an account from the first-century Jewish historian Josephus: “All the people thronged around him and hung on his every word.  Herod was afraid that he would use his hold on men to incite them to rebel. In his eyes they appeared ready to do anything if John but spoke the word.”

John made it clear that preparation for the coming of the Messiah demanded conversion of heart and transformation.  He exhorted his listeners, “Give some evidence that you mean to reform” (Luke 3:8). It was not enough to stop sinning. The real fruits of repentance must be apparent in the way one lived.

John attracted not only curious crowds to hear his preaching but disciples whom he taught to pray (Luke 11:1) and to fast (Luke 5:33) and who took his teaching to heart.  In his relationship with his disciples John never lost sight of his mission to point them not to himself but to the one to come. He did not jealously demand their loyalty.  Rather, it would seem that he readied them to follow the Messiah whose way he was preparing. John repeatedly and humbly asserted that he himself was not the Messiah (see John 1:19-20), but directed attention to another, saying, “There is one among you whom you do not recognize - the one who is to come after me – the strap of whose sandal I am not worthy to unfasten...After me a man is to come who ranks ahead of me, because he was before me” (John 1:26-27, 30).

John was true to his mission as a herald. He never claimed more than God assigned to him or attempted to promote himself. He was willing to fulfill his role as forerunner, and step aside at Jesus’ appearance. “The next day John was there again with two of his disciples. As he watched Jesus walk by he said, ‘Look! There is the Lamb of God.’ The two disciples heard what he said, and followed Jesus.  When Jesus turned around and noticed them following him, he asked them, ‘What are you looking for?’ they said to him, ‘Rabbi, where do you stay?’ ‘Come and see,’ he answered. So they went to see where he was lodged, and stayed with him that day... One of the two who had followed him after hearing John was Simon Peter’s brother Andrew. The first thing he did was seek out his brother Simon and tell him, ‘We have found the Messiah’  (John 1:35-41).

In John's disciples we see men who were attuned to the teaching of their master. When John stated that he had recognized in Jesus the one he was waiting for (John 1:29, 32, 34), John’s disciples were disposed to seek out Jesus. John’s humility and genuine readiness to step off center stage is clear in his final witness to Jesus: “No one can lay hold on anything unless it is given him from on high. You yourselves are witnesses to the fact that I said: 'I am not the Messiah; I am sent before him.’ It is the groom who has the bride. The groom’s best man waits there listening for him and is overjoyed to hear his voice. That is my joy, and it is complete. He must increase, while I must decrease” (John 3:27-30).

John was a man free from himself, free from fear of the opinions of  others, free to direct all his energies to the one he came to announce, free for God.

John's relationship with Jesus
Of  John’s relationship with Jesus we know little. We have no idea whether John and Jesus grew up with childhood knowledge of one another, though Luke's Gospel describes them as distant cousins. At least it is clear from John's own testimony that he did not know Jesus to be the one whose coming he was proclaiming until he saw the Holy Spirit rest upon Jesus (John 1:31-33). We can only wonder what thrilling conversations they may have had with each other after that.

How often did John and Jesus meet after Jesus began his public ministry? The Gospels tell us nothing about that, though they record John sending his disciples to Jesus for reassurance (Matthew 11:2-6). And we have already noted that Jesus gave public testimony to John as the greatest born of women. Finally, at the news of John’s death, Jesus went into the hills alone to grieve and to pray (see Matthew 14:13).

In his death John continued to be a forerunner of Jesus. To some degree John understood the sacrificial nature of Christ’s life when he named Jesus the “Lamb of God” (see John 1:29, 36). Jesus identified John’s death with is own when he compared John with Elijah: “I assure you, though, that Elijah has already come, but they did not recognize him and they did as they pleased with him. The Son of Man will suffer at their hands in the same way” (Matthew 17:12).

The Baptist was a Christian martyr before Christ. André Retif wrote: “The liturgy of martyrs says, ‘They loved Christ in life and imitated him in death.’ Should we not say that John loved Christ in life and preceded him in death? Other have followed in the footsteps of Christ, but John, in this respect, preceded Christ, who, we almost dare to say, walked in John's footsteps. It is certainly very hard for a friend of Christ to die without the help of his example and no knowledge of his triumphant resurrection and glorious ascension. John had ever this bitter cup to drink. He drained it before his master; and it almost seems, if it be possible, that he wanted to encourage him in death.”

The titles by which the Church Fathers have addressed John highlight the many dimensions of his life and ministry:  Witness of the Lord, Trumpet of Heaven, Herald of Christ, Voice of the Word, Precursor of Truth, Friend of the Bridegroom, Crown of the Prophets, Forerunner of the Redeemer, Preparer of Salvation, Light of the Martyrs, and Servant of the Word.

John’s message did not die with him. The need for repentance and conversion of heart remains constant among God’s people. John's words have continued to resound in Christians’ ears throughout the centuries. The Advent  liturgy vibrates with the challenge of his cry, “Reform your lives!” May we take John’s call to heart!

[Jeanne Kun is a noted author and a senior womens' leader in the Word of Life Community, Ann Arbor, Michigan, USA. This article was originally published in God’s Word Today, December 1991. Adapted and reprinted with permission of the author.]

St. John the Baptist in prison by Michael O'Brien

Who was John the Baptist?

Who was this man who stood at the crossroads of salvation history, embodying the prophets of the past and pointing ahead to the coming of the Christ? Who was this one, greatest of those born in the kingdom of God?

John was the son of Zechariah and Elizabeth, a couple who were highly commended as "just in the eyes of God, blamelessly following all the commandments and ordinances of the Lord" (Luke 1:6). Zechariah was of the priestly class of Abijah and his wife a descendant of Aaron. To be a priest and married to a priest's daughter was considered a double distinction. It was said of a worthy woman, "She deserves to be married to a priest".  But this couple was childless; Elizabeth was sterile, and both she and her husband were advanced in years.

In Jewish society childlessness was a particular sorrow as it ruled the couple out as potential parents or ancestors of the expected Messiah. Barrenness was considered a shame and reproach, or even, at times, a punishment for sin. However, Zechariah's and Elizabeth's disappointment did not estrange them from God. Zechariah continually made his plea to God for a child and finally God answered in an extraordinary way (see Luke 1:13-17).

Indeed, the birth of a child to a previously childless woman was considered an indication of great blessing, as in the cases of Isaac (Genesis 11:30; 18:9-15; 21:1-8), Joseph (Genesis 30:1-2, 22-24), Samson (Judges 13:2-5, 24), and Samuel  (1 Samuel 1). God mercifully and compassionately intervened in these couples' lives. By giving them children he had brought into existence essential agents for carrying out his plan of salvation. John was just such a child.

We are familiar with Gabriel's declaration to Zechariah as he offered sacrifice in the temple, and Zechariah's response of incredulity (see Luke 1:8-22). Afterward Elizabeth conceived and recognized this as the Lord acting on her behalf (Luke 1:24-25). Even while John was in his mother's womb, he began his lifelong mission of preparing the way for the coming of the Lord. When Mary, pregnant with the child Jesus, visited Elizabeth, John leapt for joy in the womb in recognition of the presence of the redeemer. As St. Ephrem wrote, "A virgin is pregnant with God and a barren woman is pregnant with a virgin [John]; the son of sterility leaps at the pregnancy of virginity".

When John was born and named and Zechariah recovered his speech, all wondered what these events meant: "What will this child be?...Was not the hand of the Lord upon him?"  (see Luke 1:66).  Zechariah's canticle of praise, uttered in the Holy Spirit at the wonderful birth of his son, vibrates with awe and expectation as Israel stands on the verge of seeing God's promises fulfilled (Luke 1:67-79).

Life in the desert
We have no factual records of John's childhood years. We can only suppose that he was raised in the traditions of contemporary Judaism. We do know, however, of Gabriel's directives to Zechariah that the child should never drink wine or strong drink (see Luke 1:15), and this underlines that John was set apart for the Lord. In Jewish practice, a nazirite (like Samson, a liberator of Israel) was a man who vowed to abstain from wine and strong drink – for a period of time, at least – and to leave his hair uncut. It is not known whether John actually was a nazirite, but his consecration to God is clear. The New Testament is succinct in describing the years between John's birth and the beginning of his public ministry: "The child grew up and matured in spirit. He lived in the desert until the day when he made his public appearance in Israel" (Luke 1:80).

The desert has much significance throughout the Old and New Testaments. It was a place of meeting with God; the Lord led Moses and the Israelites through the desert and cared for them there and spoke directly to them, revealing himself to them.  The desert was also a place of testing and trial, where Jesus encountered temptation and was prepared for ministry (Luke 4:1-13). Like the one he came to proclaim, John spent time in the desert being formed in communion with God to fulfill his role as the forerunner and herald of the Messiah. The desert calls to mind repentance, austerity, and penance; detachment from the material world and ambitions; prayer and fasting.  John's focus was on God alone. As St. Jerome wrote: "John lived in the desert, and his eyes, searching for Christ, refused to see anything but him".

In the desert John's ear was attuned to the voice of God, and he was ever alert to the prompting of the Spirit who had told him that one was to follow him, whose sandals John would not be worthy to carry (Matt. 3:11).  During this time in the desert John's longing to finally see the one he was to proclaim must had grown in maturity and vitality.   He, the friend of the bridegroom (see John 3:29), eagerly awaited the moment when he could cry out, "Behold, the bridegroom comes".


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