JOHN THE BAPTIST PRESENTS THE
MESSIAH TO ISRAEL
JESUS TO BE INTRODUCED TO HIS PEOPLE BY THE PRECURSOR THE PRECURSOR SALUTES HIM SOLEMNLY AS THE EXPIATORY VICTIM AND AS THE SON OF GOD - HIS CERTAINTY THAT HE IS NOT MISTAKEN MAKE WAY FOR THE MESSIAHKING. (St. John i, 2934.)
MEANWHILE the great mission of the Baptist had not yet been fulfilled. After having prepared Israel for religious renovation and having recognized in person the Messiah Who was to accomplish it, his final glory was to consist in introducing this Messiah to His people1 by a solemn declaration.
Since the day on which He had been baptized, Jesus, dwelling in the desert, had never appeared in public. John always cherished in his heart the imperishable memory and the lively image of Him Whom he had seen in the waters of the Jordan glorious in the light of heaven. Reflection, ripening in the depths of his soul the sudden impressions received at the moment of the Divine manifestation, had made only the more conclusive for him the sign by which Jehovah ended the ancient alliance and inaugurated the new.
For His part, Jesus was not unaware that He was to be presented to His people by the Precursor. Not wishing to penetrate into the fold without the assistance of the Baptist, the official porter of Israelitism, nor Himself to proclaim Himself the envoy of God, He turned, as He came from the desert and before commencing His public life, toward him whose testimony He awaited. The natural way for Him to go back into Galilee was, doubtless, through Bethabara, where John was baptizing.2 But He came there with a special intention, for the Gospel says that John saw Jesus not as a chance passerby like the others, but as one who came to him as to the consecrator of His priesthood.
At the same instant, the son of Zachary felt his soul seized by the Spirit Who long before had inspired the prophets. In his eyes and in the clearest light, the Messiah's character was sketched. While popular prejudice looked for a terrible warrior, a world conqueror, a king whose magnificence would overshadow the memory of David and of Solomon, he saw in the Desired of all nations only an expiatory victim, taking upon His own shoulders the iniquity of all in order to annul it. Then, putting aside the dangerous exclusivism that confined to Israel the circle of Messianic influence, he saluted in Jesus the Savior, not only of Israel, but of the entire world: "Behold the Lamb of God, behold Him who taketh away the sins of the world!" The Lamb is the symbol of perfect docility: he endures without complaint the evil treatment which the wicked heap upon him, and, in the words of the prophet,3 he is dumb even when they lead him to the slaughter. However, this is not John's whole thought. According to him, Jesus in His mild submission resembles not only every lamb, but He is the personal and typical realization of the Lamb of God,4 that is, the Lamb which, offered in sacrifice, is to become the expiatory victim for the sins of others. This Lamb thus immolated was no other than that very one which, in the days of bondage in Egypt, had distinguished Israel from the idolatrous nations, and constituted the fundamental basis of the ancient alliance. The paschal lamb was, indeed, a victim of expiation: for it had been instituted to preserve the firstborn of Israel from the sword of the exterminating angel. When Divine justice discovered the mark of the blood of the immolated lamb on a doorpost, it passed on, respecting the life redeemed by the victim.5 This blood, therefore, had reconciled with God and had protected against His wrath all who took refuge behind it. Its expiatory worth was so well recognized that the Israelite believed that each year he was purified from his sins by the immolation of the lamb at Paschal time. This, indeed, was the first and most necessary of sacrifices; and that the Precursor should salute Jesus as the great reality Whose figure was the Paschal victim is the less surprising, since after him the Apostles did not fail to repeat it in their writings. St. Paul, in particular,6 declares that Jesus Christ was the Pasch immolated for the whole world.
It cannot be denied, however, that there was a natural relation between the Messiah and the other victims prescribed by Moses for the purification of the people. More particularly, perhaps, is it permitted to establish a mystical relation between the Savior of men and the Lamb of one year which fell morning and evening beneath the sacrificial knife, as the necessary daily expiation for Israel.7 But, for John the Baptist, it is evident that all these sacrifices, with their distinctive characters, were summed up in the most ancient, the most popular, the most important of all, that of the Paschal lamb. Isaias himself was thinking of this same lamb, the symbol or sacrament of the reconciliation between Israel and Jehovah, when he sketched the portrait of the just man in suffering.
Jesus, therefore, according to the prophecy of the Precursor, is the victim Who has taken upon His head the burden of iniquity that bears down the world, and Who, in His sacrifice, is to annul it. It would be but little for Him to combat universal malice with His doctrine or His example; He intends to accept by substitution the responsibility of all our crimes, and to pay for us the ransom demanded by Divine justice. Therefore, to bear and to take away at the same time the sins of the world is His mission and, as it were, naturally His work.
But Jesus is not merely an expiatory victim; He is the Son of God. To give complete testimony to Him, John, who has proclaimed Him Redeemer, must not leave His divine nature in obscurity. "This is He," he adds, "of whom I said: `After me there cometh a man Who is preferred before me, because He was before me.'" The general testimony formerly rendered to the Messiah, Whom he did not know, was here applied to Jesus, in person, Whom he points out with his finger; so that his final words are the official recognition of Jesus as the Envoy of Heaven, and the Messiah awaited by Israel. For the Baptist, in fact, the young carpenter of Nazareth is not only an eminent man, anhr, He is a preexisting being and one Who has exercised His activity in the world, while he himself was yet unborn. This conviction, which was that of the advanced Mosaic theology,8 was more particularly inspired in John by the very text of Malachias9 which he manifestly has in mind when he formulates his testimony: "Behold," Jehovah had said, identifying Himself with the Messiah, "I send my Angel and he shall prepare the way, before my face." Now, he who sends his own creature, who is become his messenger, exists before him who is sent. The Messiah was before the Precursor. He was his principle and is the purpose of his existence.
Therefore, in the idea of the Messiah as expounded by John the Baptist nothing is wanting. The Messiah is no longer to be awaited, no longer to be sought. Jesus of Nazareth is He. In declaring this John relies not on human reasoning, but on Divine revelation, immediate and undeniable. He has paid no attention, in fact, to the bonds of relationship that united him with Jesus, nor to the family traditions that told of the supernatural manifestations that occurred around his cousin's cradle: "And I knew Him not," he says to the Jews. For their lives, as we have said elsewhere, had at an early date become completely separated, and for the first time, perhaps, since their most tender infancy, they had just met in the waters of the Jordan.
God had reserved it for Himself to make Jesus known to the Precursor, that the Precursor himself might make Him known to Israel. The promised sign of revelation has been given; John has seen it with his own eyes, and that is why he speaks. What has he seen? We have learned it in the story of the Baptism, and he himself repeats it now: "I saw the Spirit coming down as a dove from heaven, and He remained upon Him." This was exactly the sign agreed upon. "He upon whom thou shalt see the Spirit descending and remaining upon Him, He it is that baptizeth with the Holy Ghost."
Jesus, then, was to administer the Baptism of the Spirit; but is not the infusion of the Holy Ghost the prerogative of God? Had not God reserved for Himself the right to effect this outpouring upon all flesh in the days of the Messiah?10 Let us repeat itJohn then looked upon the Messiah as God, and he is right in his conclusion as to His Divine Sonship: "And I saw," he says, "and I gave testimony that this is the Son of God." After what precedes this, the title of Son of God must be understood here not in the sense in which it is applied at times to the Angels, or to the Judges or Kings of the Old Testament, but in its deepest sense and in its most vivid reality. It expresses all the divine nature of Him Whose preexistence John has already proclaimed, and Whose life and activity he has identified with that of Jehovah Himself.
Thus the Precursor, come to give testimony of the light, has faithfully fulfilled his mission. It is for the people now to do their duty. He will disappear before that sun which he points out on the horizon. The herald has cried out, "Behold the Messiah," and has only to retire from the scene. Make way for the Son of God!
1 St. John i, 31.
2 Bethabara or Bethania, as we have said, was the ford where travelers crossed the Jordan.
3 Isa. liii, 7.
4 The article ó indicates a lamb well known, awaited by Israel, a sacred lamb. On another occasion we shall see the Baptist designate Jesus as simply the Lamb of God. He supposes that it is a qualification reserved exclusively for the Messiah, and commonly understood and accepted.
5 Ex. xii, 23.
6 1 Cor. v, 7.
7 Ex. xxix, 38; Numb. xxviii, 3.
8 Cf. Berthold, in La Christologie Juive, § 23, § 25, etc., and Schoetgen, ii, p. 6, etc.
9 Mal. Iii, 1.
10 10 Joel ii, 28; Isa. xliv, 3.
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