John the Baptist

Anthony Zimmerman
March 1, 2004
Reproduced with Permission

In those days came John the Baptist, preaching in the wilderness of Judea, "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand." For this is he who was spoken of by the prophet Isaiah when he said, "The voice of one crying in the wilderness: Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight" (Mt 3:1-2).

Note that Mark and Luke provide us with background information about who John the Baptist is, whereas Matthew has not a word about this. Matthew writes for the Jews, first of all, who still have John's powerful message ringing in their ears, whereas Mark and Luke have a wider audience in mind, most of whom had not heard the Baptist's preaching.

John's flagship message is: "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand." John was fulfilling his God-given mission, as his father Zachary had foretold: "And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High; for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways, to give knowledge of salvation to his people in the forgiveness of their sins" (Luke 1:76-77). And even before that the angel had revealed that mission to Zachary concerning his future son: "And he will turn many of the sons of Israel to the Lord their God, and he will 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 for the Lord a people prepared" (Luke 1:16-17). God had given John a supremely important mission, namely to open the way for Christ's preaching. Christ would praise John for doing his work well: "Truly, I say to you, among those born of women there has risen no one greater than John the Baptist" (Mt 11:11). We meet here a man of great personality.

What is this kingdom of heaven? It is none other than the grace and peace that Our Lord Jesus Christ builds up in the hearts of the Jews first of all, and then in members of the entire human race who are willing to receive Him. It is the reign of God in our hearts. We are His Kingdom. There is no need to look elsewhere for it.

Out of respect for the Jews, Matthew usually speaks about the "kingdom of heaven" rather than about the "kingdom of God." The Jews used various circumlocutions out of respect for God's holiness, to avoid pronouncing the holy name of God directly. So Matthew uses the term kingdom of heaven thirty-one times in his Gospel, but four times he also dares to use the term: kingdom of God.

John's message is that the people should now turn away from lives of sin, and turn over a new leaf, so that they can become part of this new kingdom of heaven. He does not mince words, but tells it like it is: the confession and rejection of sins is the way to open the heart for the coming of the kingdom of heaven:

For this is he who was spoken of by the prophet Isaiah when he said, "The voice of one crying in the wilderness: Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight." Now John wore a garment of camel's hair, and a leather girdle around his waist; and his food was locusts and wild honey. Then went out to him Jerusalem and all Judea and all the region about the Jordan, and they were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins (Mt 3:3-6).

John preached first by his manner of life, so that his words would gain credibility. Camel's hair must be a garment that is itchy, a penance that he took upon himself, as other prophets had done before him. His living quarters and diet bespoke penance. His example brought people to confess their sins while being ritually washed in the river. People would not likely have come to listen to John the Baptist had he worn stylish clothes and lived on steak and raisin cakes.

Bishops who are clothed with a Roman collar and wear a cross identify themselves as messengers of God, like John the Baptist, to whom the people can listen with confidence. The 405,000 Catholic priests in today's world pose as a formidable army that, by the example of celibacy, speaks with credibility about the kingdom of God. Christ lives visibly and mystically in them in response to His own High Priestly Prayer at the Last Supper

I do not pray that thou shouldst take them out of the world, but that thou shouldst keep them from the evil one. They are not of the world, even as I am not of the world. Sanctify them in the truth; thy word is truth. As thou didst send me into the world, so I have sent them into the world. And for their sake I consecrate myself, that they also may be consecrated in truth (John 17:15-19).

Like towering church spires, the dedicated clergy and religious point the way to heaven to all the world. Like the peal of church bells, they facilitate the march of the millions up the steep and narrow way to heaven with the melodious music of their words and example. Sadly, some of the priests and religious betray their calling, but by and large, the clergy and religious are the engine that pulls the pilgrim freight train up the hill.

Now back to John the Baptist: to the common sinners John had this down-to-earth message:

"He who has two coats, let him share with him who has none; and he who has food, let him do likewise." Tax collectors also came to be baptized, and said to him, "Teacher, what shall we do?" And he said to them, "Collect no more than is appointed you." Soldiers also asked him, "And we, what shall we do?" And he said to them, "Rob no one by violence or by false accusation, and be content with your wages." As the people were in expectation, and all men questioned in their hearts concerning John, whether perhaps he were the Christ (Luke 3:11-15).

That's the kind of message that pastors can preach from the pulpit today also. When John saw the Pharisees, and worse still, the Sadducees in the crowd, that's when he began to thunder:

"You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit that befits repentance, and do not presume to say to yourselves, `We have Abraham as our father'; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. Even now the axe is laid to the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire (Mt 3:7-10).

The Pharisees were notorious for practicing a religion of outer rituals - cleansing pots and pans - and so pretending to be good by doing these works rather than becoming good at heart. This John could not stomach. "Brood of vipers" he called them, not a flattering term. Christ would excoriate them also, calling them hypocrites: "But woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! because you shut the kingdom of heaven against men; for you neither enter yourselves, nor allow those who would enter to go in" (Mt 23:13). Eventually quite a large number of the Pharisees did repent, and enter the Church, but even there they tended to be the "holier than thou" type: "But some believers who belonged to the party of the Pharisees rose up, and said, "It is necessary to circumcise them, and to charge them to keep the law of Moses" (Acts 15:5).

For John, the Sadducees were also a brood of vipers, the elite, the men of religious and political power, who made fun of belief in the resurrection of the body. They would be among the chief priests who would incite the mob to crucify Jesus. But again we see that at least some of the priests were converted, perhaps with the help of John's preaching: "And the word of God increased; and the number of the disciples multiplied greatly in Jerusalem, and a great many of the priests were obedient to the faith (Acts 6:7).

And what would John say to us today? Are we hybrid Pharisees too, who love to show our religion outwardly rather than worshiping the Father in secret? Are we sometimes proud skeptics like the Sadducees, belittling the teachings of the Church and "going my way"? Do we swallow birth control pills before going to Mass and receiving Holy Communion, so to parade outer holiness and hide inner rot like the Pharisees? Let us examine our consciences in the presence of John the Baptist, who spelt out exactly the names of the sins the people were committing. He cajoled them to confess and to be baptized in the River Jordan. When they rose from the waters, they were now more teachable to the words of Christ who was soon to appear on the scene.

But John knew His place in relation to Christ. He must step aside to allow Christ Himself to convert hearts from within: "I baptize you with water for repentance, but he who is coming after me is mightier than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry; he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and gather his wheat into the granary, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire" Mt 3:11-12). St. John Chrysostom also observes that John the Baptist worked no miracles, whereas Christ did so, and so attracted the crowds to Himself: "Therefore also John did no miracle at all; that by this means also might give over the multitude to Jesus, His miracles drawing them unto Him" (Homily 14 on Matthew, #2). When Christ eventually appeared at the Jordan, John had in good measure prepared the Israelites for His coming.