3:1-6. In those days came John the Baptist, preaching in the wilderness of Judea, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” For this is he who was spoken of by the prophet Isaiah when he said, “The voice of one crying in the wilderness: Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.” Now John wore a garment of camel’s hair, and a leather belt around his waist; and his food was locusts and wild honey. Then went out to him Jerusalem and all Judea and all the region about the Jordan, and they were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.

Fast forward thirty or so years, and now we witness the manifestation of John the Baptist, whom thanks to Saint Luke we know to be the relative of Christ, only a few months older than he is, son of Zechariah and Elizabeth. His appearance on the scene is both mysterious and also intruiguing. To readers of today, separated by two-thousand years of history, he appears to be an odd figure, esoteric, perhaps a bit “weird,” but this is in large part simply because we do not grasp the significance of his mannerisms, his way of life, and his preaching. To the Jews of his day, however, all the details of his life and ministry were radiantly apparent. Why else would “Jerusalem, all of Judea, and all the region about the Jordan” go out to him to hear him preach and receive his baptism of repentance? Clearly they saw in him someone worth listening to, and his ministry evoked in them deep resonances that summoned forth a response.

What are these resonances? Simply put, they can all be summarized in the one phrase: new exodus. We have already spoken of this earlier, and we see it unfolding its inner meaning more explicitly here. This theme of a new exodus explains so much of John’s way of being. Far beyond the narrow view that the Jews of the first century A.D. were expecting a merely political or military messiah who would free them from Roman domination and give them soveriegnty as a nation, we can affirm that the expectations of the people of Israel around the time of Jesus were rich and manifold. After years of waiting and hoping, of suffering the mysterious centuries of exile and purification since the collapse of the Davidic dynasty—all the while reflecting upon the promises that God made to David and to his descendants Moses and Abraham, promises renewed and deepened through the prophets, such as Isaiah—the people of Israel were ardent in expectation of the immanent coming of the Messiah. And their expectations were multifaceted, Yes, there were some, perhaps many, who expected a political, military liberation (such as the Zealots). But there were others whose expectation was much more in line with the prophetic tradition that awaited a renewal, indeed a definitive fulfillment, of God’s great acts of old: a new exodus from a deeper Egypt, the gift of a new promised land with a new and universal Jerusalem, the restoration and universalization of the kingdom of David, worldwide peace and harmony under the reign of the Messiah-King, etc.

In particular, there are clear indications, from extra-biblical accounts, that the longing for a new exodus, for a reliving and deepening of the events of the first exodus, was ripe during the first century.* John the Baptist stands right here at this place, not as the Messiah, but as his forerunner, as the one preparing his way. For, let us recall, Israel was saved in the exodus from Egyptian bondage by the miraculous signs that God worked in the midst of Egypt, culminating in the sacrifice of the Passover lambs, whose blood was sprinkled on the doorpost of Israelite families and whose flesh was feasted upon in the night, and their flight across the Red Sea, which parted to make way for them on dry land, while drowning the Egyptian force which pursued them. Then, free from Egypt, they walked through forty years of purification in the desert of Sinai, at the center of which was the marriage-covenant that God made with his people, and the ten commandments that he gave to them. In the desert he miraculously fed them with bread from heaven, the bread of angels (see Ps 78:25; 105:40), and with flesh in the evening, and with water pouring from the rock (see Ex 15 and 16). Finally, with the birth of a new generation, the exodus reaches its fulfillment whenever Joshua, the successor of Moses, leads Israel across the Jordan River—dried up by the presence of the priests who bear the ark of the covenant into its midst—and into the promised land (see Josh 3).

In the light of these marvelous events, events that more than any others defined Israel’s identity as God’s chosen people, as his first-born son—events that were explicitly remembered and re-lived each year in the Paschal liturgy—in the light of this we understand John the Baptist much more clearly. He preaches in the desert (eremo) and calls Israel to return to the desert, as they had come forth from the desert so many centuries ago. And he leads them to the Jordan, there to pass through the waters of a new exodus; this time, however, the exodus is not a departure from an earthly Egypt, from bondage to a worldly ruler, but to “the principalities and powers of this present darkness” (Eph 6:12). In other words, this exodus is a departure from sin and slavery to the forces of evil. Thus John the Baptist prepares hearts for the coming of Jesus Christ by marking out the way of the true exodus: the exodus of repentance and newness of life that prepares for the gratuitous gift of the kingdom of heaven. “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” The preaching of Christ will be the same, only unfolded much more deeply and finding fulfillment in himself, in the One who is the kingdom-in-person (autobasileia).

The people understood John’s message and witness, and responded vigorously. The time was now, when Israel was again under foreign occupation, and ruled by a king who was not of the bloodline of David (as we saw, not even a Jew), and yet hoping for a liberation deeper than the ups and downs of history; the temple was rebuilt, which had for so long lain in ruins, and sacrifices were being offered, though the ark of the covenant was lost; the vision explained by the prophet Daniel of the statue of various metals, indicating the kingdoms that would come and pass before the coming of the true King, whose everlasting kingdom would fill the earth, this vision of Daniel pointed to now (see Dan 2). Now was the time, now was the kingdom, that would see the “stone” that would become a mountain to fill the whole earth. Thus the time of the first centuries B.C. and A.D. saw many, many false prophets of various kinds, claiming to be the Messiah. So too it saw a fervor of expectation, as we witness, for example, in the community that gave birth to the Dead Sea Scrolls, discovered in the mid twentieth century, unveiling so much of the spiritual climate of the time of Christ. This radical Jewish community, probably the Essenes, lived in the desert a kind of monastic life, applying to themselves explicitly the very verses that John the Baptist utilized to explain his own mission: “Prepare in the desert a path for our God” (Is 40:3; Mt 3:3). They awaited the Messiah and prepared the way for him; perhaps John even lived among them and was indebted to them for his own human and spiritual growth and formation.

But let us set all of this to one side, allowing it enriching our view and yet turning back to the witness of Scripture itself, in its radiant beauty and transparency. What does John’s presence evoke for the people of his time, and thus also, in our own acquaintance with Scripture, for us? He is: 1) the beginning of God’s fulfillment of the prophecies spoken through Isaiah, the harbinger of the definitive Messiah; 2) a new Elijah figure, as promised in the book of Malachi; 3) the guide of human hearts in “preparing the way” for God’s true salvation, and thus an educator in what it means to be open to the gift of redeeming love. We will look more deeply at these three aspects in the coming reflection.