The Mystery of the Forerunner

st_john_the_baptist_iconThere 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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13 responses to “The Mystery of the Forerunner”

  1. Andrew T. Avatar
    Andrew T.

    Another important thing to be said about St John the Forerunner is how much his way of living had in common with the lived martyrdom of desert ascetics centuries later. Protestants may superficially believe monks are not being “a light unto the world” and are sinning by not taking wives (even though Paul said that is ideal) but there is always the example of John the Baptizer’s lived (and literal) martyrdom.

  2. Richard Avatar

    Verily I say unto you, Among them that are born of women there hath not risen a greater than John the Baptist: notwithstanding he that is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.

    Fr. Stephen, your blog is my first exposure to Orthodoxy. Could you expand on “he that is least…is greater…”?

  3. Greg Davis Avatar
    Greg Davis

    I can’t recall where I heard or read this but it shed new light for me on the role of St. John as well as the Lord’s ministry in general.

    We might say that, after the Cross and Resurrection themselves, the Lord’s greatest act was to release the righteous souls trapped in Hades. And just as St. John the Forerunner on earth preached the coming of the Lord, so he preached in Hades after his martyrdom of the Lord’s imminent coming there. So he was the Forerunner both on earth and in Hades. I do not know of any Orthodox source that explains the nature of the “ministries” of St. John and the Lord in Hades, but I received the impression that, as on earth, souls were free to accept or reject the Gospel of Salvation.

    Perhaps Fr. Stephen can speak to this.

  4. Byron Avatar

    Many thanks for this, Father!

  5. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    “He that is least…in the Kingdom” At that point, St. John stands as the last prophet before the coming of the Kingdom. He now stands in the Kingdom.

  6. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Ultimately, the Church would not restrict it to just “righteous” souls. But all souls free to accept or reject. And this should not be seen as a pure “once in time” kind of thing. It stands outside of time.

  7. Margaret Avatar

    Thank you for this post, Fr. Stephen! I always appreciate the meditation on John as friend of the Bridegroom as I believe our culture has lost lot of the meaning of that pure joy of one friend for another. I also appreciate your reflection on the eve of the 29th of August. My father-in-law turns 92 on August 29th. He is a good Southern Baptist and while his body weakens, his mind stays strong. For me my father-in-law is linked with John the Forerunner through his birthday and his marriage which is the date of the Nativity of John. My father-in-law is no where near Orthodox Christian practice but he has not said an unkind thing about our being Orthodox. He is apprehensive and a little fearful of death, but not overly so. Again, thank you for these words herein this blog! Glory to God for All Things!

  8. Françoise Avatar

    Reading posts/comments/thoughts like this make me realize how much our lives are dictated by the Spirit and not by just us purely on a physical plane.

    It’s hard to explain in words…but when I stop to consider prophecies, prophets, revelations, dreams…I feel this sense that, in reality, despite everything…the true meaning of who we are essentially – our lives and purposes – is on a spiritual level. It’s like looking at an ocean but instead of seeing the water you feel the essence of the water.

    Like I said – it’s just something I know. Somehow I know there is someone greater than me who sees me and uses my life as an agent to fulfill His will in my life.

  9. […] The Mystery of the Forerunner  In the Orthodox Church, today is the Feast of The Beheading of Saint John the Baptist.  Father Stephen Freeman gives some insight into the importance of the Forerunner. […]

  10. Grateful Reader Avatar
    Grateful Reader

    Father Stephen, thank you so much for your posts – they feed and encourage me in my spiritual journey.

  11. James McKeown Avatar

    Fr. Stephen,
    Thank you for expanding the role of John the Baptist in our Orthodox tradition. As you say: “the gospel of John raises the Friend of the Bridegroom to a mystical level.” This is the profound reason why our Protestant brothers and sisters seem to digress. Not accepting the power of the Baptists life and gospel of repentance and the mystical aspects of our faith.
    Too often we Christians shy away from the shedding of blood either by beheading or the Cross.

  12. Lina Avatar

    Out of curiosity, what was the procession like mentioned in these lines?

    “for thou hast seen Christ the King come forth from the tomb like a bridegroom in procession.”

  13. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Sort of a triumphal procession as he is led from his parent’s home to the wedding (the bride comes from her home). It’s such a strange mixture of images (the hymn) that is sung in Holy Week. The tomb is also bridal chamber because the Pascha that occurs there is also the consummation of all things, union with His bride, the Church, etc.

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