2008 - Vol. 25
Message of John the Baptist:
of the Redeemer
by Jeanne Kun
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,
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.
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
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.
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
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!
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
was John the Baptist?
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?
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.
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).
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.
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
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
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).
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".
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".