Coptic Orthodox Diocese of the Southern United States

St. John the Baptist the Teacher

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As we celebrate the end of a Coptic Year and the beginning of a new one, the Church prepares us for the second coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. Her message to us is to watch and get ready "Take heed, watch and pray; for you do not know when the time is" (Mark 13:33). It is interesting to note that the beginning of the New Coptic Year coincides with the martyrdom of St. John the Baptist whose message to the people was "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand!" (Mt 3:1-2).

St. John the Baptist, thought of as a man of the wilderness clothed in camels hair, is really a prophet, a teacher and a critic of worldly society calling for a change in the religious life.

In the New Testament St. John the Baptist is called a teacher "Then tax collectors also came to be baptized, and said to him, 'Teacher, what shall we do?'"(Lk 3:12). In Aramaic and Hebrew, he was called a "rabbi" (Jn 3:26).

St. John's main teaching was about the way of God and righteousness. He is said to have come "in the way of righteousness" (Mt 21:32). To walk about the way of God and righteousness meant complete obedience to all aspects of the Law, both in one's heart and actions. He proclaimed a message of crucial significance to his people. The importance of the message was introduced in the Holy Gospels by the words "preached", "cried" and "witnessed". St John the Baptist was well heard. "All the country of Judea and all the people of Jerusalem went out to him" (Mk 1:5).

The Message of St. John the Baptist

- A Message of Repentance
St. John the Baptist came preaching in the wilderness, "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand!" (Mt 3:1-2). In Hebrew, the word "repentance" has as its root the verb "turn"; the same was true of Aramaic with "turn" meaning "repent". By giving repentance a significant place in his exhortation, St. John falls in line with Israel's prophets since at least the days of Hosea. Repentance was clearly understood in Hebrew thinking as the act by which men turned from sin and unrighteousness to God and to the performance of His will. In doing so, the prophets had taught, Israel could obtain forgiveness. For God would surely pardon the iniquity of the repentant and cast his sins into the depths of the sea (Micah 7:18-20).

According to St. John the Baptist, repentance was clearly not something that simply blossomed in a heart full of emotion and good intentions. It had to be proven. The turning around was a turning back to God in obedience and trust. To obey God meant following the Law and doing His will to do good. Through this, God would grant remission of sins, so that final judgment and condemnation would be averted from the righteous (Isa 55:7; Jonah 3:9-10; Ezek 33:13-16).

It is commonly said that the prayer of a repentant sinner enjoys priority in coming to God's attention over all other petitions addressed to the Almighty. For that reason, too, our Lord Jesus Christ has declared that "there would be more joy in heaven over one repentant sinner than over ninety-nine righteous persons needing no repentance" (Lk 15:7). To be worthy of repentance, the acts of human piety named by St. John, therefore, need be of the same exemplary character and value in God's sight as repentance itself.

St. John's teaching reflects a particular perspective on true righteousness. It reinforces the letter of the Law, prescribing a code of behaving that is consistent with the spirit of the Law and with the nature of God. That people should obey the law is implicit. The reasons people should do so are quite simple: the axe has been "laid to the root of the trees" (Mt 3:10; Lk 3:9) and judgment is near. In view of his eschatological urgency, people are to repent of their sinful ways and embrace a life of righteousness in obedience to God. This is more than a prophetic announcement from St. John. The threat of future judgment is known to many groups.

Repent, for the kingdom of God is at hand St. Johns message concerns the reign or rule of God as Sovereign over His creation. But it is also the place where God rules in the lives of His redeemed people. He expects His subjects to live as members of His kingdom. It is a kingdom of which Christ is the sovereign, a kingdom of heaven not of this world, a spiritual kingdom. Its origin is from heaven, and its tendency is to heaven. The coming of the Messiah King meant that God would judge the earth and bless His people. The final judgment will occur at the second coming of our Lord Jesus. But even now He judges because His presence forces individuals to choose to submit or not to submit to His rule over their lives.

- Confession of sins
St. John the Baptist taught that people should confess their sins to indicate publicly their repentance. Strictly speaking, recognition and confession of sins to God is part of the personal process of repentance. Josephus, the Jewish historian, states that St. John asked people to "come together" or "assemble" for baptism, which seems to indicate that he waited for a mass of people to gather. St. Luke describes Jesus' prayer as taking place "When all the people had been baptized" (Lk 3:21). The crowds came out to St. John at the Jordan to be baptized, and part of this process involved a person indicating to God, to St. John and also to some of the assembled crowd that he or she was truly repentant by confessing past sins.

St. John's baptism is a baptism of repentance because by his symbolic submission to the judgment of God, the individual has declared himself a sinner deserving punishment at God's hand, while at the same time affirming the sovereignty of God over him.

People were baptized by St. John, confessing their sins, so that they might be prepared to receive the Messiah. Such preparation was usually incoming to faith. Confession of sin was a sign of repentance essential to baptism. St. John's baptism, however was for remission of sins only, purifying people for the coming of the Messiah and helping to deliver them from the wrath to come. It did not confer regeneration nor adoption as a child of God as does Christian Baptism.

- Bear fruits worthy of repentance
To emphasize the positive aspects of repentance St. John the Baptists says: "Therefore bear fruits worthy of repentance, and do not think to say to yourselves, 'We have Abraham as our father.' For I say to you that God is able to raise up children to Abraham from these stones" (Mt 3:8-9; Lk 3:8). Here he makes two points in connection with repentance. The first is that they should be worthy, and the second that certain considerations of Abrahamic descent should not prevent their appearance.

St. John's words were addressed specifically to those who were coming for baptism and who, having repented, wished to know what fruits (deeds) would be considered worthy of repentance (Lk 3:8-9). In other words, these actions were necessary before St. John's immersion could be effective. Without these examples of "good fruit" no one could expect to be baptized and cleansed. If inner cleansing had not taken place, then neither would outer bodily cleansing. Thus bearing fruit should be a continuous action in the life of the repentant "Every branch in Me that does not bear fruit He takes away; and every branch that bears fruit He prunes, that it may bear more fruit" (Jn 15:2).

St. John's warning "Do not think to say, we have Abraham for our father" involves a criticism of the Jews who relied upon their merits of the patriarch for their salvation instead of acquiring merit for themselves by pious observance. God might well be thought to disown and to replace them with others who would not abuse the doctrine of merit and would not in so doing show disrespect of the divine mercy. But one fact has to be kept in mind that the merit of Abraham derived from having done more in the expression of his piety than God demanded and later set forth in the law. St. John the Baptist stressed in his preaching the need for individual repentance and an exemplary piety analogous to that of Abraham.

"What shall we do then?"

How could one bear good fruit fruit worthy of acceptance in Gods eyes? St. John's way of righteousness was radical and clear: So the people asked him, saying, "What shall we do then?" He answered and said to them, "He who has two tunics, let him give to him who has none; and he who has food, let him do likewise" (Lk 3:10-11).

What he asked people to do to prove repentance would have been considered extraordinary. He asked people who may have had only one spare tunic themselves (people who might themselves be considered poor) to give away this spare tunic to the begging poor, who dressed in rags. Given this directive, those who had more than one tunic would surely have felt the force of the instruction acutely. St. John's statement could be interpreted as asking people to give away at least half of what they had to the begging poor, whether they were tax collectors, soldiers, or anyone else. St. John hardly demanded less than what our Lord Jesus Christ was to ask of the "rich young man" (Mt 19:16-30; Mk 10:17-31; Lk 18:18-30), which was to give away all his possessions to the poor. This indicates that anything above one tunic would be unnecessary, and anything beyond sufficient food was also superfluous for one's needs.

The same question was also asked by those people who wished to repent and follow the Law in professions that society tended to consider reprehensible. There were, accordingly, specific questions from the tax collectors (Lk 3:12-13), addressing St. John as teacher and then from men serving as soldiers (Lk 3:14).

"Then 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 what is appointed for you'" (Lk 3:12-14). St. John's reply did not presume that tax collectors had to cease being tax collectors in order to be righteous. Rather they could be righteous in their job by being fair and collecting no more than what had been allotted to them. Repentance involved restitution of all that they had wrongfully taken from people, plus a fifth or else a donation of the sum to the common good, by, for example building a cistern.

John's advice to tax collectors indicated that he believed it possible to repent, obey the Law, and still remain a tax collector. Implicitly St. John proscribed bribery and extortion, but his words were most simply interpreted as a prohibition against doing anything beyond what was required in one's tax collecting in an effort to make more money. If this kind of money-grubbing, which so often was seen to go with the job, was halted, then tax collectors could be righteous.

This is in parallel with the story of Zacchaeus (Lk 19:1-10) the tax collector who met our Lord repented and undertook to live a life of righteousness, exemplifying the kind of conversion called for by St. John the Baptist.

Likewise the soldiers asked him, saying, 'And what shall we do?' So he said to them, 'Do not intimidate anyone or accuse falsely, and be content with your wages.'" The specific recommendation, given to men serving as soldiers is "Do not intimidate anyone". St. John does not bid them to lay down their arms, and desert the service, but cautions them against the sins that soldiers were commonly guilty of. For this is fruit meet for repentance, to keep ourselves from our iniquity. They must not be injurious to the people over whom they were set. Their business is to keep peace, and prevent men's doing violence to one another. Do not go forward to complain one of another to your superior officers, that you may be revenged on those whom you have pique against, or undermine those above you, and get into their places. Do not oppress any. Be content with your wages. While you have what you agreed for, do not murmur that it is not more. In both cases there was an implied message that one should be content with what money might come one's way without hoping for more. There was a detachment from "mammon".

May our Lord Jesus Christ lead us to true repentance that we may bear the fruit of righteousness and be worthy to hear Him say, "Come, you blessed of My Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world" (Mt 25:34).

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