Homily on the Holy Prophet, Forerunner and Baptist John
An Excerpt from Of Whom the World was not Worthy
by Protopresbyter James Thornton
end our series of discussions on the Patriarchs and Prophets with the
Holy Prophet, Forerunner, and Baptist  John, a towering figure
who bridges the Old and New Testaments and who reveals, more precisely
than his forebears, the object, the aim, the goal, the purpose of the
preceding two-thousand history of the Hebrew people: namely, the advent
of the Messiah, the God-man, the Savior, Jesus Christ. That was
so since, as Saint Nicholas of Ochrid and Zica writes, Saint John “especially
differs from all of the other prophets in that he had the privilege
of being able, with his hand, to show the world Him about Whom he prophesied.” 
discover the miraculous origin of Saint John the Forerunner, we read
the following account in the opening pages of the Holy Gospel according
to Saint Luke: “There was in the days of Herod, the king of Judaea,
a certain priest named Zacharias, of the course of Abia: and his wife
was of the daughters of Aaron, and her name was Elisabeth. And they
were both righteous before God, walking in all the commandments and
ordinances of the Lord blameless. And they had no child, because that
Elisabeth was barren, and they both were now well stricken in years.
And it came to pass, that while he executed the priest's office before
God in the order of his course, according to the custom of the priest's
office, his lot was to burn incense when he went into the temple of
the Lord. And the whole multitude of the people were praying without
at the time of incense. And there appeared unto him an angel of
the Lord 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 unto him, Fear not, Zacharias: for thy prayer is heard; and
thy wife Elisabeth shall bear thee a son, and thou shalt call his name
John. And thou shalt have joy and gladness; and many shall rejoice at
his birth.” 
Angel further promised that the soon-to-be-born son would be filled
with the Holy Spirit “even from his mother’s womb,” 
and that he would “go before him in the spirit and power of Elias,
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.” 
Saint Zacharias, stunned by the appearance of a Holy Angel and by the
news that his wife would bear a son despite her advanced age, was somewhat
incredulous. He answered with the words, “Whereby shall I know
this? for I am an old man, and my wife well stricken in years.” 
In other words, what you say seems impossible for a man and wife so
old. The Holy Angel responded, “I am Gabriel, that stand in
the presence of God; and am sent to speak unto thee, and to shew thee
these glad tidings. And, behold, thou shalt be dumb, and not able
to speak, until the day that these things shall be performed, because
thou believest not my words, which shall be fulfilled in their season.” 
Zacharias, staggered by his vision, came out of the inner Temple.
Just as the Holy Angel Gabriel had said, the Saint could not speak.
And, sometime later, his wife, Saint Elisabeth, who was a cousin of
the Most Holy Theotokos, conceived. Nine months later,
the promised son was born. Her friends and kinsfolk rejoiced at
God’s mercy, at the miracle that had allowed a woman well along in
years to bear a child. When, eight days after his birth, the infant
was to be circumcised, neighbors gathered together for the occasion.
It was assumed by all that he would be given the name Zacharias, after
his father, however Saint Elisabeth announced that he would be called
Luke’s Gospel relates, “And they said unto her, There is none of
thy kindred that is called by this name. And they made signs to his
father, how he would have him called. And he asked for a writing table,
and wrote, saying, His name is John. And they marvelled all. And his
mouth was opened immediately, and his tongue loosed, and he spake, and
praised God.”  Saint Zacharias sang a hymn of thanksgiving
to God, saying about his new son, “And thou, child, shalt be called
the prophet of the Highest: for thou shalt go before the face of the
Lord to prepare his ways; To give knowledge of salvation unto his people
by the remission of their sins, through the tender mercy of our God;
whereby the dayspring from on high hath visited us, to give light to
them that sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet
into the way of peace.”  The Gospel tells us that
“… the child grew, and waxed strong in spirit, and was in the deserts
till the day of his shewing unto Israel.” 
next read of the Saint, at the beginning of his prophetic ministry,
that “the word of God came unto John the son of Zacharias in the wilderness.
And he came into all the country about Jordan, preaching the baptism
of repentance for the remission of sins.”  Saint Nicholas
of Žiča writes that Saint John “was of such moral purity that, in
truth, he could be called an angel.  It is evident
that from the time Saint John was of sufficient age to understand he
chose the path of purification from all evil, which path leads to spiritual
enlightenment of the things of God. Saint Matthew refers to his
asceticism, noting that he “had his raiment of camel's hair, and a
leathern girdle about his loins; and his meat was shoots and wild honey,” 
which reminds us of those rugged and God-loving men of later ages, the
Desert Fathers. Thereby purified, his mission was to prepare the
Judæan people for the message that would be brought forth by Christ
Jesus, who was soon to begin His own public ministry.
John’s preaching gained a significant following. Great throngs
of people journeyed to wilderness around the Jordan River to hear his
words and to undergo his Baptism. The Saint spoke bluntly, as
the Holy Prophets are wont to do, calling his listeners a “generation
of vipers,”  and warning them of God’s wrath and the
need to repent, that is, to turn completely away from sin: “Repent
ye: for the kingdom of heaven is at hand,”  was his relentless
admonition. The people, much moved and impressed, suggested that
perhaps Saint John was the Messiah, but the Saint rebuffed them, saying,
“I indeed baptize you with water; but one mightier than I cometh,
the latchet of whose shoes I am not worthy to unloose: he shall baptize
you with the Holy Ghost and with fire.” 
us turn for a moment to the subject of the Baptism of Saint John.
Saint John’s Baptism was a symbolic, or ritual, act of purification,
signifying that the person immersed in the waters of the Jordan had
chosen to repent and had committed himself to turn around his life towards
God and away from sin. Thus, Saint Paul refers to Saint John’s
Baptism as the “baptism of repentance.”  It was not
the same as the Holy Mystery [i.e., Sacrament] of Orthodox Christian
Baptism, which, in addition to cleansing the person being Baptized of
all sin, mysteriologically infuses the Grace of God into that person,
making him a member of the Church, an adopted child of the Almighty,
and an heir to the Kingdom of Heaven. So it was that in the earliest
days of the Church, those who had been Baptized by Saint John were required
nevertheless to receive the Holy Mystery of Christian Baptism. 
the very beginning of His public ministry, Christ Himself underwent
Saint John’s Baptism, though He was sinless. He condescended to do
so as an act of humility and as an example to the people of His concurrence
with the preaching of Saint John. When Christ approached Saint
John to be Baptized, the Holy Forerunner first exclaimed, “Behold
the Lamb of God, which taketh away the sin of the world.” 
Holy Scripture explains that Saint John was at first reluctant to Baptize
Christ saying that “I have need to be baptized of thee, and comest
thou to me?”  His exclamation upon seeing Christ,
and his words of hesitation at the notion that he should Baptize Christ,
tell us that the Saint, enlightened by his life of purity, knew exactly
with Whom he was speaking. Yet, Christ Jesus insisted, and the
Saint complied. Holy Scripture describes the event as follows:
“Jesus, when he was baptized, went up straightway out of the water:
and, lo, the heavens were opened unto him, and he saw the Spirit of
God descending like a dove, and lighting upon him: and lo a voice from
heaven, saying, This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.” 
John was as outspoken as the Holy Prophets of earlier centuries, since
his mission was one of obedience to God to preach God’s word, whatever
the cost. Consequently, he was not the least hesitant to speak
against Herod Antipas, the Roman-appointed Tetrarch (ruler or governor)
of Galilee, when Herod took as his wife Herodias, the former wife of
his half-brother, Philip (whom she had divorced), and the daughter of
another of Herod’s half-brothers, Aristobulus. Such a union
was plainly incestuous, according to Mosaic law. Since Herod was
nominally of the Judæan religion, his marriage to Herodias caused tremendous
scandal, and so the Saint commenced preaching against this marriage
publicly. Herod was enraged, and ordered the Saint seized.
He would have liked to have had Saint John executed at once, but, aware
of the Saint’s popularity among the people, imprisoned him instead.
The Tetrarch then made an unwise, indeed a reckless, oath.
Matthew records: “But when Herod's birthday was kept, the daughter
of Herodias danced before them, and pleased Herod. Whereupon he promised
with an oath to give her whatsoever she would ask. And she, being before
instructed of her mother, said, Give me here John Baptist's head in
a charger [a platter]. And the king was sorry: nevertheless for the
oath's sake, and them which sat with him at meat, he commanded it to
be given her. And he sent, and beheaded John in the prison.” 
So it was that the vengeful, vicious, and scheming Herodias brought
an end to the life of the last of the Holy Prophets.
John the Theologian writes of the Holy Forerunner in these words: “There
was a man sent from God, whose name was John. The same came for
a witness, to bear witness of the Light, that all men through him might
believe. He was not that Light, but was sent to bear witness of that
bore witness to the Light that is Christ, the first and unique witness
of that Light. He was followed by countless witnesses, who witnessed
for Christ by their words and deeds, many giving their lives for Christ’s
sake (the word “martyr” in Greek, [“mártys” means
all of us, are called upon to be witnesses to the Light. That
is why we are Christians. To call oneself a Christian but to fail
to witness for Christ is an exercise is futility, a waste of time, since
the Church was not founded for purposes of entertainment, or to preserve
certain ethnic cultures, or for any other secular purpose whatever.
It was founded to teach each of us a particular way of life, a life
in Christ, to teach it to each of us and to guide us in living it.
Anything less than that is sheer emptiness, without spiritual content
or meaning. Therefore, my beloved Children in Christ, be mindful
of what it truly means to be a Christian, a follower of Christ.
Learn from the Holy Scriptures and from other spiritual works what Christ
asked of you when He brought you into His Church, what He asks of you
now, and what His Way of Life requires. Then, assiduously follow
that prescription for everlasting happiness with Him.
- That is, the “Baptizer,” one who Baptizes (from the Greek “Baptistes”).
- Prologue, Vol 1, p. 34. Saint Nikolai Velimirović, The Prologue of Ohrid: Lives of Saints, Hymns, Reflections and Homilies for Every Day of the Year, trans. Fr. T.Timothy Tepsić, ed. Fr. Janko Trbović, the Saint Herman of Alaska Serbian Orthodox Monastery, and the St. Paisius Serbian Orthodox Monastery, Vol. I, January to June (Alhambra, CA: Serbian Orthodox Diocese of Western America, 2002), p. 28.
- St. Luke 1:5-14.
- Ibid., 1:15.
- Ibid., 1:17.
- Ibid., 1:18.
- Ibid., 1:19-20.
- Ibid., 1:61-64.
- Ibid., 1:76-79.
- Ibid., 1:80.
- Ibid., 3:2-3.
- Saint Nikolai Velimirović, The Prologue of Ohrid , Vol 1, p. 28.
- St. Matthew 3:4.
- St. Luke 3:7.
- St. Matthew 3:2.
- St. Luke 3:16.
- Acts 19:4.
- See Acts 19:5.
- St. John 1:29.
- St. Matthew 3:14.
- Ibid., 3:16-17.
- Ibid., 14:6-10.
- St. John 1:6-8.
From Of Whom the World was not Worthy: Sermons on the Lives and Works of the Patriarchs and Prophets of the Old Testament, by Protopresbyter James Thornton (Etna: CA, Center for Traditionalist Orthodox Studies, 2010), pp. 185-191. Posted on November 12, 2010.