The Mystery of the Forerunner

There is a unanimous witness in the Christian gospels concerning the place of St. John the Baptist. In the Orthodox world he is generally referred to as the Forerunner. All of the gospels agree that he plays a key role in the coming of the Messiah. It is a role that is largely ignored by most of the Christian world.

The gospels make reference to two Scriptures when they mention St. John. The first is from Malachi 3:

Behold, I send My messenger,
And he will prepare the way before Me.

The second is from Isaiah 40:

 The voice of one crying in the wilderness:
“Prepare the way of the Lord;
Make straight in the desert
A highway for our God.
Every valley shall be exalted
And every mountain and hill brought low;
The crooked places shall be made straight
And the rough places smooth;
The glory of the Lord shall be revealed,
And all flesh shall see it together;
For the mouth of the Lord has spoken.”

Both Scriptures make reference to the fact of the Forerunner. Before the coming of the Christ, God will send a messenger to prepare the way. John is the messenger. It is here that most Christians leave St. John. He is a voice and a messenger – as such he simply becomes part of the furniture in the drama of Christ’s coming.

But why is there a messenger? How does John prepare the way? What is the mystery of the Forerunner?

For me, the question is important. Nothing in the story of our salvation is merely incidental. John does not appear because of the prophecy – the prophecy is spoken because John is coming. The Christian gospel, when rightly understood, has a “seamless” quality. It fits together. What is the seamless role of the Forerunner?

The first aspect of his role in Christ’s coming is its simple historical fact. Though the gospel gives John a minor role within the drama, historically his place was very important. John was clearly more important than Christ at the beginning of Christ’s ministry. John had the general approval of the nation of Israel. Even King Herod who arrested John and ordered his death is said to have “feared” him:

knowing that he was a just and holy man, and he protected him. And when he heard him, he did many things, and heard him gladly (Mark 6:20).

It is to Herod’s shame that he lacked the character to protect John from the wicked demands of Herodias and Salome. Herod’s greatest fear of Christ was that Jesus was somehow John the Baptist come back from the dead (Matt. 14:2).

In Luke’s gospel, Christ is linked with John even before their birth. They are cousins. John, filled with the Holy Spirit in the womb, leaps with joy at the sound of Mary’s voice. His role as Forerunner has already begun.

It is John himself who offers an insight into the mystery of his role. In the fourth gospel, St. John describes himself as the Friend of the Bridegroom.

‘I am not the Christ,’ but, ‘I have been sent before Him.’ He who has the bride is the bridegroom; but the friend of the bridegroom, who stands and hears him, rejoices greatly because of the bridegroom’s voice. Therefore this joy of mine is fulfilled (Jn. 3:28-29).

In the other three gospels, Christ speaks of his disciples as “friends of the bridegroom,” and makes a contrast between their joyful lack of fasting and the strict fasting of the Baptist’s followers. But the gospel of John raises the image of the Friend of the Bridegroom to a mystical level.

The Forerunner’s theological action in the gospels is to preside at the mystical Pascha, the union of heaven and earth: Christ’s Baptism in the Jordan. The full force of this event is lost on many Christians. At best, it is seen as an action in which Christ is revealed as Messiah. It’s place in Orthodox liturgical life is in the company of Christmas and Pascha. The three feasts have a common shape and common iconography. Christmas and Theophany (Christ’s Baptism) are revealed as “little Paschas.”

The Baptism of Christ is the death and resurrection of Christ, in a mystical form. It is the meaning given to Christian Baptism. In Orthodox liturgical language, Christ’s enters the waters of the Jordan and “crushes the heads of the dragons who lurked there.” The image of the dragons, drawn from Psalm 74 (73), reveal the waters of Jordan to be a foreshadowing of Hades. Christ’s death is an entrance into Hades and the crushing of the devil and his minions. It is the union of Christ with those who had been held in bondage, and, through that union, their resurrection from the dead. This is the mystical marriage, the union of God with His creation.

The identification of the Forerunner as the Friend of the Bridegroom also points to the Baptism as a mystical marriage. It is the role of the Bridegroom’s friend to witness the marriage. It is also necessary for someone to perform the Baptism itself. John hesitates before such a role and protests that he is unworthy. But Christ, the true Bridegroom, counters, “It is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness” (Matt. 3:15).

The imagery of Christ as Bridegroom has many echoes within the Old Testament. God as the husband of Israel is the primary image within Hosea; the Song of Songs is incomprehensible without it; Psalm 45 (44) is a rich commentary on the topic. In Orthodoxy, the Bridegroom is a beloved title for Christ. It is a primary theme in the Holy Week as the Church moves towards the spiritual climax of Pascha. Everything begins to be described in wedding imagery.

Come from the vision, O ye women, bearers of glad tidings, and say to Sion: receive from us the glad tidings of the Resurrection of Christ; adorn thyself, exult, and rejoice, O Jerusalem, for thou hast seen Christ the King come forth from the tomb like a bridegroom in procession.

The Church sees beyond the Jordan to an even greater role for the Forerunner. John, beheaded by Herod, enters into Hades and continues there his mission of preparation for Christ. There, in Hades, the man whom Christ describes as “the greatest born among women,” carries on his work of self-emptying. John says of Christ, “He must increase, but I must decrease.” Just as Christ’s self-emptying carries him into the emptiness of death that he might fill it with Himself, so John enters first into the same emptiness, that he might proclaim the coming Fullness.

He is the Friend of the Bridegroom. How could he not have been present to witness such a victory by his Friend?

August 29 is the feast of the Beheading of St. John. Glory to God!





About Fr. Stephen Freeman

Fr. Stephen is a retired Archpriest of the Orthodox Church in America, Pastor Emeritus of St. Anne Orthodox Church in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. He is also author of Everywhere Present: Christianity in a One-Storey Universe, and Face to Face: Knowing God Beyond Our Shame, as well as the Glory to God podcast series on Ancient Faith Radio.



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35 responses to “The Mystery of the Forerunner”

  1. dinoship Avatar

    Thank you Father for the insight. It reminded me also of how “He must increase, but I must decrease” is often used in Orthodox life as a mystical description of our gradual putting off of the ‘old man’ and putting on of the ‘New Man’.

  2. dinoship Avatar

    I think it would be very helpful if the old URL could be made to automatically redirect to this new one Father.
    I very much like this new look, very much indeed!

  3. fatherstephen Avatar

    First to comment on the new site! How did you find it? I don’t make the URL redirect until this evening.

  4. Peyton Avatar

    Dinoship probably found it the same way I did – through your E-mail this morning!
    Yes indeedy, nice look.

  5. fatherstephen Avatar

    Ah, the email is generated by WordPress – I didn’t realize. There have been over 100 views in the last hour or so – without it having “gone public.” The URL will be switched this evening, and there will be a “launch” through its facebook page. Mostly, I’ll be glad to get away from the “nuts and bolts” of the blog and simply back to writing and commenting. I’m not a good nuts and bolts guy in this stuff. Very tedious.

  6. dinoship Avatar

    Yes, I found got here trying to reply to the e-mail I received through wordpress.

  7. Margaret Avatar

    Thanks so much for this post, Fr. Stephen! And thank you for this beautiful and useful blog format! I did not receive an e-mail, but just checked the old blogsite and here is the new!!! Great way to start the day! May God continue to bless all you do!!!

  8. Karen Avatar

    Yay! It’s up! Looks good, Father.

    I love that image of the Forerunner preceding Christ into Hades and fulfilling his mission there as well. What joy!

  9. Fr Aidan Kimel Avatar
    Fr Aidan Kimel

    Fr Stephen, what is the Eastern tradition on the sinlessness (or sinfulness) of the Forerunner?

    In his book *The Friend of the Bridegroom*, Sergius Bulgakov asserts the personal sinlessness of John the Baptist and compares him to the Theotokos, “who is free of all personal sin and even of any sinful inclination. And in the view of the Church, which venerates his saintliness from the moment of his conception, the Forerunner too is free of personal sin.” (p. 20).

    Is Bulgakov faithfully representing the Eastern Church when he speaks of the sinlessness of John the Baptist?

  10. Nick D Avatar
    Nick D

    Count me as one who dislikes change in general and this change specifically. The older website was welcoming, with divine images immediately evident, and lots of interesting links on the side. This one is a sterile list. I’m sure Fr. Stephen’s content will continue to be wonderful, illuminating, and learned, but the packaging has been diminished.

  11. James, the Brother Avatar
    James, the Brother

    Father Stephen,

    I found it where I usually go,that being another blog that lists many blogs/sites that I like to frequent.

  12. Nick D Avatar
    Nick D

    Oops…forgive me, I spoke too soon. Apparently I was looking at a sterile interim presentation of the website, which upon refreshing has re-set itself to look much like the previous one. I withdraw and apologize for my earlier cranky comment.

    But I still don’t like change much.

  13. fatherstephen Avatar

    Thanks, Nick.
    I don’t like change either – which is why the site has largely been unchanged for 6 years. But the needs of its ministry have really necessitated the update. The things you value, I hope will remain intact. Orthodoxy really should include a visual impact. Two dimensions is much weaker than a living liturgy – but it lifts us beyond words alone. Thanks for the thoughts!

  14. fatherstephen Avatar

    Fr. Aidan,
    I read that in Bulgakov as well – but have never seen mention of it elsewhere. I’m sometimes very aware of the Catholic context (France) in which he did a lot of writing – where such a thought might seem more germane. However, the sanctity of St. John from within the womb would possibly support such a contention. I’ve not it elsewhere though.

  15. Susan Cushman Avatar

    Congratulations on the new site. (I got here from your FB post.) I like the buttons across the top where readers can easily find various topics. Masthead is good, although I think the image might be a little dark. I realize you can’t lighten it up too much and still use white for the words. One thing that I think could be improved: the quotations (I like the boxes) are a little hard to read. Maybe a darker font? Of course the content continues to be excellent.

  16. dinoship Avatar

    Fr. Aidan,
    I have encountered that idea myself two or three times on the Holy Mountain. I remeber it was spoken of by the late Abbot Ephraim (the Younger) of Philotheou. It is a notion that the St. John the Baptist, as well as St John the Theologian actually (!) were sinless. Concerning the Mother of God of course it is far more common to encounter (rightly) the firm belief that she was (as St Silouan ascerts) completely and utterly free of all sin, even in thought.

  17. fatherstephen Avatar

    Thanks for the comments – exactly the kind of feedback that is useful right now. After staring at things for a few weeks the ability to see becomes greatly compromised!

  18. fatherstephen Avatar

    Fr. Aidan and Dinoship,
    Apparently the Orthodox mind is far more sanguine about sinlessness than anything we know of in the West. These (the Forerunner and the Theologian) are by no means dogmatic matters, but, as Dinoship notes, not unknown. Bulgakov was not being creative (though he is certainly that at times).

  19. Jim Avatar

    The site looks beautiful. Worth the wait! But, I’m so glad to ‘see’ you back and posting.

  20. Fr Aidan Kimel Avatar
    Fr Aidan Kimel

    When I read *The Friend of the Bridegroom*, I had the impression that Bulgakov certainly believed that he was speaking within the Tradition of Orthodoxy when he spoke of the sinlessness of St John. And as you note, Fr Stephen, Bulgakov’s location in Paris and his ongoing dialogue and debate with Catholics–and especially his firm rejection of the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin–may have influenced him somewhat. Not only does Orthodoxy affirm the personal sinlessness of the Theotokos, with no appeal to an immaculate conception, declares Bulgakov, but it also affirms the personal sinlessness of the Forerunner! So go figure that one out, all you Catholics.

    As far as I can tell, few Western theologians and saints have spoken of the sinlessness of St John the Baptist, but they have affirmed the sinlessness (and assumption!) of St Joseph. One doesn’t hear much about this from Catholics nowadays.

  21. Victor Avatar

    I enjoyed reading this post. Thank you Fr. Stephen!

    I’d like to add, if I might, that the role of St. John the Baptist is also one of family unification, a sorely needed help in our time. This is both foreseen later in Malachi
    (Chapter 4 verse 5 “See, I will send the prophet Elijah to you before that great and dreadful day of the Lord comes. 6 He will turn the hearts of the parents to their children, and the hearts of the children to their parents; or else I will come and strike the land with total destruction.” )
    and reiterated in Luke 1:17 in the words of the angel who appears to Zechariah foretelling the Forerunner’s birth:
    “17 And he will go on before the Lord, in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the parents to their children and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous—to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.”

  22. drewster2000 Avatar

    Fr. Stephen,

    I noticed that for past posts, some have comments closed, some open, and some not saying closed but also not having “Leave a Comment”. I was wondering how much of this was by design and how much needing some ironing out.

  23. Fr. Thomas Avatar
    Fr. Thomas

    “Nothing in the story of our salvation is merely incidental. John does not appear because of the prophecy – the prophecy is spoken because John is coming. The Christian gospel, when rightly understood, has a “seamless” quality. It fits together.”

    Thanks for the reaffirmation that what we in the “west” relegate to being “icing on the cake” and therefore not necessary but preparatory to our salvation are in fact essential. I find the tendency to reduce salvation to an individual decision and not realize that the decision which is obviously necessary is part of a huge set of components that are essential for salvation.

  24. fatherstephen Avatar

    Some ironing out, no doubt.

  25. fatherstephen Avatar

    Can you point out a few examples of where they are off? I can’t locate them from my dashboard, apparently.

  26. Karen Avatar

    I like the alternate color for your comments, Father, but I think maybe you need something a little lighter and more contrasting with the font color for your name at the top–maybe a beige or yellow tone, rather than mid-grey?

  27. fatherstephen Avatar

    I agree. I guess the designer was going for something in “hesychastic.” I’ll see what can be done.

  28. dinoship Avatar

    I cannot wipe the smirk produced by that comment from my face… I would vote for a “stylite blue” for your name – the same as on the last ‘Leave a Reply to “fatherstephen”‘

  29. handmaid leah Avatar

    Fr Stephen! Wonderful upgrade to your blog and another edifying posting to ponder…
    All the best,

  30. Andrew Avatar

    Very schmick indeed Father, well done.

  31. Karen Avatar


  32. SteveL Avatar

    I enjoyed this post immensely.

  33. drewster2000 Avatar

    Fr. Stephen,

    As with another commenter above, once I refreshed the differences went away. Now it appears that all posts older than “The Mystery of the ForeRunner” are closed, and I assume that was intentional.

    It is nice to be able to comment on posts when a person joins late and is catching up on the past dialogue, but I can certainly understand the human limitations on the number of conversations one person can stay current with.

    By the way, so far I like that new look. I do favor your picture in front of that old monastery or church, but I suppose some change is necessary now and then. (grin)

  34. fatherstephen Avatar

    I’m trying to lift the closed comments from those earlier posts. They were turned off before the transfer, but need to be turned back on now. I’ll get it cleared today if possible.

  35. PJ Avatar

    Why don’t the categories bring up any posts?

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