This is a guest post by Deacon John, my friend, mentor and co-author of “Anastasis: The Harrowing of Hades”. Saint John is one of his favourite saints, so I couldn’t pass up a chance to get him talking about him!
A Recipe for Greatness
Some people are great and everyone knows it without a doubt. Many others pretend to be great by proclaiming it loudly, yet everyone knows their claims are hollow when their actions betray them. Only one, however, is great because Christ Himself testified about him being the greatest among those born of a woman (Matthew 11:11, Luke 7:28). Even his haters acknowledged with their actions that his head alone was worth more than half of Herod’s kingdom. Saint John the Forerunner, the Baptizer, the friend of the Bridegroom is truly the greatest among those born of a woman.
The Zealous Forerunner
In his very short ministry, lasting only 6 months, he preached with zeal and conviction such that all of Judea came to him (Matthew 3:5, Mark 1:5). He didn’t esteem himself nor his role but declared publicly that he wasn’t worthy to unloose Christ’s laces (Mark 1:7, John 1:27) and that he should decrease and that Christ should increase (John 3:30). Yet, Christ Who ensures that those who put their lives down for Him find it (Matthew 10:39, Matthew 16:25) rewards him with the greatest Divine testimony. Knowing his role, as a forerunner, he announced the coming of the Messiah to His people with uncompromising vigor. He saved no word, no effort, nor rebuke, to prepare the way for the Lord (Matthew 3:3), to escape the coming judgment (Matthew 3:7) since the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand (Matthew 3:2). For that, he paid the ultimate price for his mission, his head.
Yet Christ, Who raised Lazarus from the dead after four days in the tomb, didn’t raise John the Baptist who had just baptized Him! God’s plan for this greatest among all people wasn’t yet finished.
A service beyond death
As if paying with his life for his ministry that he so diligently fulfilled and becoming a martyr wasn’t sufficient honour for him, John’s preaching of the Good News didn’t stop with his beheading. His beheading didn’t only culminate his earthly mission, but also the beginning of a new and glorious ministry. His work immediately resumed but in a different realm. He went to prepare the souls captured by death for the gospel. Separating from his body, his soul went to Hades, the place of all the dead from Adam onward. John declared to those in that pit the coming of the Messiah and preached the good tidings of Salvation that was about to shine on those in the darkness of Sheol. The righteous of old were awaiting the coming of the One Who would conquer the serpent, as God had told Adam.
“So that he might descend to the lower regions and announce [preach] his coming. For everywhere the witness and forerunner of Jesus is John, being born before and dying shortly before the Son of God, so that not only to those of his generation but likewise to those who lived before Christ should liberation from the death be preached, and that he might everywhere prepare a people trained to receive the Lord.”
Origen, In Lucam Homily (Homily on Luke) 4, in PG 12:1811.
Welcomed by the Old Testament Prophets who reposed in hope awaiting God’s Salvation, again the Forerunner, becoming the first Apostle to Hades, declared the coming of the Messiah to those in Hades and witnessed to Him Who will come after him, Who is greater than he is. Again, in another wilderness, the same courageous thundering voice was crying to prepare the way for the Lord. Again, he was calling all to repent and be ready for the Salvation about to be granted to them.
On the banks of the Jordan, John proclaimed the arrival of the Lamb of God Who takes away the sins of the world (John 1:29). In Hades, though, he proclaimed the triumphant Lion coming out of Judah Who prevails (Revelation 5:5). When Christ broke the bars of iron and cut asunder the gates of brass, John announced the best of news to the kingdom of Death. Death is being destroyed by the death of He Who is Immortal.
Though John was beheaded before Christ’s victory on the Cross, he went down to Hades as a Martyr. Shaming Death in its own kingdom by shouting “O Death, where is your sting! O grave, where is your victory!”, John announced that people will joyously accept death in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ who defeats Death – everyone will be more powerful than death through Christ’s death.
Straddling the Old Testament and the New Testament, straddling the Jordan and Hades, John the Baptist is truly the first Apostle, the first Martyr, the first Evangelist and foremost among the just. No one has been said to have praised Christ from before his birth and after his death as John the Baptist.
Intercede on our behalf o valiant and courageous hero in the lofty place prepared for you in the Kingdom of your Friend.