When John the Baptist appeared at the Jordan river, proclaiming that the kingdom of God was at hand (cf. Mt. 3:1-12; Mk. 1:2-8; Lk. 3:2-18) the Jews flocked to hear him. The expectation of the Promised Redeemer, the Messias, was strong at this time, and here was a Prophet announcing his proximate arrival and calling on the people to repent of their sins in order to be prepared to receive him. To stir their souls to a desire for moral purification John baptized his followers. It was not the sacrament of baptism instituted later by Christ, and had no value except in as far as it was accompanied by true interior sorrow for sin; its value in other words was dependent on the interior act of contrition. The Temple authorities in Jerusalem hearing of the multitudes who were flocking to John became interested, and perhaps alarmed, and they sent a delegation of Priests and Levites down to the Jordan to interrogate the Baptist.
St. John the Baptist, Elias and God’s Kingdom
Who art thou: John understood their question to mean “Art thou the Christ?” and he answered “I am not the Christ.”
the Christ: Means the Anointed, and is the Greek translation of Messias, the Hebrew name for the promised Redeemer. According to the prophecies the Redeemer was to be King, Priest, and Prophet, and as each of these officials was publicly anointed with oil before taking up office, so the Redeemer was given the name the Anointed.
Art thou Elias?: It was a common opinion among the Jews at this time that the Prophet Elias would come back to earth to announce the arrival of the Messias and to anoint him publicly as Messias (cf. Mt. 17:11-12). Our Lord Himself told the Apostles that the Baptist had fulfilled this role of Elias.
Art thou the prophet?: Besides Elias the Jews expected also Enoch or Jeremias as a precursor of the Messias and when John denied that he was either the Messias or Elias or the precursor prophet, they very naturally asked him who he was and what right had he to call all those people to penance and “baptize” them.
I am the voice of one crying in the desert: With deep humility the Baptist states that he is simply the unnamed and unknown messenger sent by God to prepare the people for the coming of the Lord as the prophet Isaias had foretold. He then quotes the text of Isaias (40) in which the Prophet describes the arrival of the Messias as that of an oriental monarch. When an eastern potentate was about to visit a neighboring monarch, heralds were sent out to call workers to smooth the desert paths and prepare a straight path on which the royal visitor could walk. John was fulfilling this prophecy; he was calling on the people to prepare their hearts for the arrival of their Lord. His baptism, he truly states, is simply a washing of the body with plain water to symbolize the washing of the soul from sin by true contrition. Then he goes on to tell them: “in the midst of you there has stood” (the Greek tense signifies there stood and still stands) “one whom you
do not know.” By these words John shows his insight into the minds of the Pharisees. Christ was the promised Messías, but the Pharisees would not accept him because they were looking not for a spiritual Redeemer but for one who would free them from the yoke of the Romans and set up Palestine as a great temporal power once more. “He came unto his own and his own received him not” (Jn. 1:11).
He it is who is to come after me: John then goes on to proclaim the dignity of Christ. “I preceded him in time but he is away above me in dignity because he was before me” (cf. verse 30). John was senior to Christ as man (6 months older), but here the Baptist indicates a previous existence of Christ namely in His divine nature. Then truly but humbly John states he is not worthy to perform the most menial task, even loosing the strap of His sandal, for Christ. Yet he was the one chosen by God to be Christ’s Precursor! The Evangelist then tells us where all these things took place at Bethany, beyond the Jordan, where John was Baptizing.
A Continuation on Enoch, Elias, Jesus and John the Baptist
Amen I say to you, there hath not risen among them that are born of women a greater than John the Baptist: yet he that is the lesser in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he. Matt. 11:11 Remember, Heaven was closed to man at this time.
As you will see, what Jesus is explaining to the Apostles is that He and John were the two witnesses which the Jews were waiting for in His time and place.(1) Jesus represents Enoch, the bridegroom and John was the other witness (Elias) who represents the people. They were the two scapegoats taking place of this ritual. By the way this is one reason the Confiteor is said twice at the beginning of the Mass. Once for the religious, the other for the Laity.
Jesus also made it very clear with the rich man who was in hell and the poor man who was in Abraham’s bosom. The rich man pleaded to Our Lord to let him return to warn his brothers of this terrible fire. Our Lord made it very clear that no one can go from one place in the other world back to this place on earth. The exception could only be for the General, Testimonial Judgment week.
On the theory of the return of Elias and Enoch is explained in, Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma page 486-487 or to John.1 21; Mt. 16, 14 Luke 1:17 Mt.11:14, Mt. 17, 12; MK. 9, 13