Described powerfully by the Evangelists Matthew, Mark and Luke of the New Testament, the sacred baptism of Jesus Christ was performed by one of the greatest figures in history: the Honorable, Glorious Prophet, Forerunner and Baptist, John. As a great prophet, this humble preacher would tell the world about the imminent arrival of the Son of God on earth – and in this way, he would serve as a crucially important bridge between the ancient world of the Old Testament and the thrilling, revolutionary world of the New.
John the Baptist was a shaper of prophecies throughout much of his life. But he was also much more than that. As a kinsman and friend of Jesus, he was a loyal and affectionate acquaintance of Jesus – a brotherly figure so beloved that he would eventually be granted the privilege of baptizing the Son of God. A devout and righteous man, John would ultimately pay the price for speaking out against the corrupt religious practices of his day, and would be killed for it by a political tyrant who thought nothing of committing murder on a whim.
At first glance, you might think there were several different Johns at work in the world of the First Century A.D. There was John of the Desert – the ascetic prophet who wandered endlessly through the barren wastes and lived on wild seeds and honey, while meditating endlessly on his role as the Forerunner of the Holy Redeemer. There was also John the Preacher, a passionate Evangelizer who railed against the corruption of the priestly order of his day, and against the idolatry he saw on every hand.
Those were certainly important roles in this Holy Prophet’s amazingly blessed and action-filled life. But the John who looms largest in the annals of the Holy Church is surely John the Baptizer, the servant of God who used his sacred right hand to pour water on the head of Jesus, and in this way brought the authority of sacramental ritual to the moment in which the world first began to acknowledge the shocking reality of God on Earth. With the descent of the Holy Spirit appearing in the form of a dove, and with the loving voice of God the Father echoing from on high, the Baptism of Jesus would end in the Holy Epiphany – the triumphant manifestation of the Three Persons in the Sacred Trinity.
Described by the Evangelist Mark in a powerful passage from his Book of the New Testament, the Baptism by John and the Epiphany of Christ Jesus form an unforgettable mental image:
It came to pass in those days that Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee, and was baptized by John in the Jordan. And immediately, coming up from the water, He saw the heavens parting and the Spirit descending upon Him like a dove. Then a voice came from heaven, “You are My beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.” (Mark 1: 9-11)
From the very beginning of his life, John the Baptist seemed destined to play a unique role in the arrival of the Savior on earth. Sometimes described as an “angel” himself in Holy Scripture, his birth was predicted by no less a presence than the Archangel Gabriel – who appeared before the Prophet’s father – the Priest of the Jerusalem Temple, Zechariah – to announce that he and his wife, Righteous Elizabeth, would be blessed with a son who would become the Holy Forerunner of the Lord.
This momentous announcement by the Archangel was recounted by St. Luke as follows:
Then an angel of the Lord appeared to him, standing on the right side of the altar of incense. And when Zacharias saw him, he was troubled, and fear fell upon him.
But the angel said to him, “Do not be afraid, Zacharias, for your prayer is heard; and your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you shall call his name John. And you will have joy and gladness, and many will rejoice at his birth. For he will be great in the sight of the Lord, and shall drink neither wine nor strong drink. He will also be filled with the Holy Spirit, even from his mother’s womb. And he will turn many of the children of Israel to the Lord their God. He will also go before Him in the spirit and power of Elijah, ‘to turn the hearts of the fathers to the children,’ and the disobedient to the wisdom of the just, to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.” (Luke: 1: 11-17)
Born about six months before Christ Jesus – and related to him on his maternal side, since his mother Elizabeth was also the elder cousin of the Blessed Theotokos – John the Baptist was filled with the Holy Spirit, and while still a youth had begun to prophesy among friends and family about the great events that were soon to change the world of Palestine and beyond. To prepare himself for the great destiny that lay ahead, this pious and humble-hearted man of faith would spend many days fasting and praying in the barren fastnesses of the Judean desert, while enriching his soul for the trials that it would soon have to face.
Finally, when he reached the age of 30, the hour of the Holy Prophet’s service arrived. Leaving the desert sands behind, he returned to the cities and towns of Palestine in order to urge repentance on one and all, while also warning his listeners to prepare for the great day that was rushing toward them: the day of Deliverance and Hope on which the Only-Begotten Son of God would at last make His appearance.
Often described as a “bright morning star,” this lone figure rose up in majestic eloquence on the banks of the Jordan – where he would spend many years instructing an ever-increasing band of followers on the urgent importance of accepting the Messiah into their lives.
When he finally died, even as Christ Jesus was beginning to change the world, his body would be buried in the Samaritan city of Sebaste. But the story of John’s influence on the world around him was far from over. Soon the Evangelist Luke, while seeking converts for Christ Jesus throughout the world of Palestine, arrived in the region and requested the body of the Prophet. His request was met only partially . . . but in the end, the great Evangelizer departed with a priceless relic: the right hand that had administered baptism to Jesus.
Luke took it with him to his native city of Antioch, in what is now Turkey, and when that metropolis was later overrun by the Turks, a courageous deacon by the name of Job was able to transport the holy relic to Chalcedon . . . from where it eventually made its way to the capital of the entire Byzantine world, thriving Constantinople.
Within a few years, the uncanny power of the Baptizer’s hand would inspire a dozen different legendary miracles. One of them occurred during a period when a mighty dragon ruled the outskirts of the great city, where he was worshipped as a god by the terrified residents. Once a year, this pagan monster demanded a human sacrifice – the daughter of a prominent Christian, who would be forced to watch while the beast came roaring and hissing out of his cave and then devoured the shuddering victim in a ghastly scene of bloody violence.
On this occasion, however, a wily father had decided against submitting to the gorgon. While praying fervently to God – along with the Holy Forerunner – for deliverance – the grieving parent suddenly decided on a desperate strategy. As he bowed his head in pious prayer, he used his teeth to detach a finger . . . and then, at the moment when the snarling fire-breather emerged from the cave to demand his unholy meal, this brave resister flung the finger straight into the maw of the dragon!
Amazed, the residents of the city who had expected to see yet another innocent life ended were suddenly watching the dragon topple to earth in the midst of his own agonized death throes! So moved was the immense crowd of witnesses – as they watched father and daughter engage in a joyful embrace – that they proclaimed a new faith in Christ and went on to build a new church, named for the Holy Prophet, John the Baptist, on the very spot where the relic had saved the innocent from her impending death.
The story of John the Baptist’s brutal martyrdom has been told countless times over the ages, but its drama and suspense never fade. Arrested by the Roman Governor of Palestine, Herod Antipas, for challenging his illegal and adulterous marriage to the wife (Herodias) of his own brother (Herod Philip), the Holy Prophet was languishing in a jail cell near the palace, while the tyrant and his corrupt court feasted through the night.
Although few at the court knew it, the ruler’s angry consort had been scheming against the Prophet she hated for some time. How dare he condemn her approaching marriage to mighty Herod! Watching carefully, the enraged Herodias saw her chance when the murderous Herod, impressed by a graceful bit of dancing on the part of the beautiful Salome, foolishly asked her to “make a wish.”
Prompted by the conniving Herodias, Salome didn’t hesitate to name her prize: She wanted the head of John the Baptist brought to her on a silver platter. Within a few moments, her evil wish was granted, and the holy man had breathed his last.
Only six months after baptizing the Redeemer Christ Jesus in the River Jordan, John the Holy Prophet was dead. His life provides a thrilling example of how Providence often chooses the least among us to become the most significant actors in the Holy Drama of His Infinite Will. The ordinary son of a Temple Priest in Palestine, John the Baptist was chosen through the mysterious will of Almighty God to become the gateway through which would walk the Blessed Savior of Mankind.
Through John the Baptist, God kept His covenant with Abraham – the covenant that promised the arrival one day of a savior who would redeem the entire human race. For that reason, we celebrate John’s life as the sign of God’s infinite love for all of us!
Apolytikion in the Second Tone
The memory of the just is celebrated with hymns of praise, but the Lord's testimony is sufficient for thee, O Forerunner; for thou hast proved to be truly even more venerable than the Prophets, since thou wast granted to baptize in the running waters Him Whom they proclaimed. Wherefore having contested for the truth, thou didst rejoice to announce the good tidings even to those in Hades: that God hath appeared in the flesh, taking away the sin of the world and granting us great mercy.
Kontakion in the Sixth Tone
Terrified at Thy bodily presence, Jordan turned back in fear; and having fulfilled his prophetic ministry, John drew back in trembling. The orders of Angels were amazed to see Thee in the streams baptized in the flesh, and all those in darkness were illumined and praised Thee, Who hadst appeared and hadst enlightened all things.