The Forerunner of a New Life

On the 7th of June the Orthodox Church celebrates the Nativity of John the Baptist. Who was the one named as the greatest prophet of the Old Testament and the last righteous person of ancient Israel? Famous Bible expert Andrei Desnitsky is telling us his story.

At the turn of the Testaments

This is what Jesus told about him: “Truly I tell you, among those born of women there has not risen anyone greater than John the Baptist; yet whoever is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.” (Matthew, 11:11) Such wonderful words! It appears that all the Old Testament prophets relinquish this man, who seemingly has not made anything special – he just called people for repentance and showed them Jesus… He did not move out people from slavery, as Moses did, neither did he pronounce aureate dictions as Isaiah. So why did he become “the greatest” and in what sense we should understand it?

The Orthodox Church also accepts this meaning and devotes to John the Baptist quite a few feasts and fast days. The Muslims worship him under the name of prophet Yahya;  a special role was given to him in theologies of different religious teaching – like the gnostics and manichee. And even the famous celebration of Ivan Kupala (celebrated not only in Russia) is nothing but the Nativity of John the Baptist in the Church calendar. Obviously in that case an ancient pagan tradition got mixed up with the date of Christian feast. Many commonalities, cities, provinces and corporations like Canadian Quebec, Knights of Malta and the whole state of Malta worshiped and worship John the Baptist as their patron saint.

What is more, we read in the Gospel that during his life many people came to him, he had many spiritual pupils, and even religious leaders of Judaism sent their messengers to him to ask who does he think he is. What was the reason of being so popular?

He was the first one whom we met in the New Testament with a detailed story about his Conception and Nativity from Apostle Luke the Evangelist. His parents priest Zachariah and Elisabeth were childless for a long time (like for example parents of the Old Testament prophet Samuel). Zachariah came to know about the upcoming birth of his son from Archangel Gabriel. In fact, in this story we see a lot of details which remind us about the Old Testament, but each of them is taking us to the new Revelation. We can see the union of both Testaments in the meeting of Jesus and John when both of them were still in their Mother’s womb.

Young Mary who also came to know from Archangel Gabriel about her Son’s Nativity rushed to her old relative Elisabeth, who was already on the 6th month of pregnancy. When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the baby leaped in her womb. As St. Luke wrote, “When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the baby leaped in her womb” (1:41). Who can think that it was just a coincidence? Elisabeth saw it as joyful greeting. The Evangelist mentioned that it was the work of Holy Spirit.

The main thing in the New Testament was the service of Christ, but St. John was the one who had to prepare people to this service. And it was solved like that even before their birth. That is why John was named as a Forerunner, what means “predecessor”.

The Preacher of the new senses

St. Luke states exact date of the beginning of his preaching: “15th year of the government of Kaiser Tivery” what means 28 or 29 year AD. John himself lived in the desert, wore coarse clothes made from camel hair and ate locust and wild honey – literally everything  what you can find in a desert. This is the strictest example of asceticism you can find in the Bible. An the same time, this is the mark of unlimited trust to God: a person does not care about subsistence knowing that God will provide him with everything he really needs.

Being an ascetic and flaming preacher, he never demands asceticism from others, but only their faith to God. Once the warriors came to him to ask what they should do (that time Palestine was occupied by the Roman Empire, so for the most of the Jewish people those warriors were like collaborators). Probably they expected that he would call them to refuse their collaboration with Rome immediately, and he would tell them to escape in the desert, to fast and to pray for all days long. But St. John told, "Extort no one, nor accuse falsely, and be content with your wages." (Luke 3:14). That is how he justify soldiery for Christians forever.

It is not possible to say that St. John the Baptist was kind to everybody. Spiritual leaders of Judaism who pretended to own the only truth were judged most of all, and as we see many times in the Gospel this idea closed their eyes for the real Truth.  According to Apostle Matthew, he told them: "Brood of vipers, who warned you to flee from the coming wrath?” (Matthew 3:7)

However, St. Luke said that those words were addressed to the people who came to him. He intended not to abuse them, but turn them to confession. St. John the Baptist explained the seriousness of the sin and the desire of it, as well as the condition in which a sinner appeared before God. And then he told that the Kingdom of God is coming and preached “the baptism of repentance for the remission of sins”. Of course, that was not the baptism we have today in our Christian Churches. Nobody knew about the Cross still – there was just a ritual of ablution they performed according to the Old Testament law after abomination (for example, after touching a dead body).

John the Baptist added a new sense to that ritual. It became not just a repeating ritual, but a symbol of true change of the whole way of thoughts and actions forever. That is why ablution was not just a rescue of an old fear, but the beginning of a true new life before God. Besides that, St. John taught people that they are responsible to God not by one, but as a whole: they had to share with the poor if they had more than they really needed. That was not something like inventory of property with the following confiscation and dispensation. John the Baptist just showed the people how they should live if they are really looking for Salvation. Nevertheless, everyone has to make his own choice.

The prototype of the crucifix

It is natural that people came to such a special preacher, who had managed to explain the essence of the Old Testament just in several words. He told them that he is not the Messiah they had been waiting for a long time. He refused even to call himself a prophet. Why? In fact, his ministry was quite prophetical, and even Christ said that St. John could be considered Elijah, who had to appear before the coming of Messiah, according to the Jewish belief.

To say “I am a prophet” would mean to pay tribute to himself. It was odd to St. John, for he was a “voice in the desert”, and what the Lord told the people thorough him was the only important thing for him. From the very beginning, he told about the One who would come after him, but was even before him. When Christ came to St. John, we refused to baptize Him at first: who is he to perform the ritual on Messiah? Perhaps, that great humility of St. John became the reason why (for the first time in the entire Gospel!) Christ did nothing by himself in that case, but trusted everything to St. John. And then He called John the greatest person “among the born of women”.

We all know how the life of St. John the Baptist ended. He convicted the king for his illegal marriage to the sister of his own brother. St. John was imprisoned for that. The king respected him a lot and did not dare to harm him. Unfortunately, the insidious intrigue of the queen, her young daughter’s dance at the feast and the king’s hasty promise to fulfill any wish of the dancer made the king order to behead St. John the Baptist, as if it was against his own will. Is this episode not similar to the episode of Christ’s crucifix, ordered reluctantly by Pilate? The world full of evil find a lot of ways and causes to reject the people who convict it.

The feat of humility and sacrifice is the main example given by St. John the Baptist, the son of Zachary, the greatest person of the Old testament and the first one in the New Testament.

Translated from: https://azbyka.ru/days/p-ioann-krestitel-predshestvennik-novoj-zhizni