For this is he of whom it is written: “Behold, I send My messenger before Your face, Who will prepare Your way before You.” (Matthew 11:10)
Jesus repeats what was written earlier in the Bible:
“Behold, I send My messenger, and he will prepare the way before Me. And the Lord, whom you seek, will suddenly come to His temple, even the Messenger of the covenant, in whom you delight. Behold, He is coming,” says the Lord of hosts. (Malachi 3:1)
Somewhere along the line, in the early days of the church, John the Baptist’s role in the history in the church and his relationship with Jesus was scrutinized to its very bones. Perhaps awed by what he actually accomplished and perhaps eager to not only acknowledge his work but to make fast in the budding Christian faith, everything about John was imbued with the highest, most glorious interpretation.
John became an angel. He remained a man, as Jesus remains a man. But in order to actually be what he was, John had to reveal his own dual nature.
One of the most important functions of angels is to be messengers for God. They are the go-betweens between God and man. Throughout the Bible we are taught how angels show up from time-to-time in order to, sometimes at least, punch through God’s message to the receiver of the information.
John is called a messenger early and often. He is also elevated in this world by Jesus when our lord refers to him as the “greatest of those born of women.”
This raised-up man who steps into the job of announcing the coming of Jesus, takes on the very real mantle of God’s messenger to man, the mantle of the angel.
And He will send His angels with a great sound of a trumpet, and they will gather together His elect from the four winds, from one end of heaven to the other. (Matthew 24:31)
And so it was told that one responsibility of angels is to gather the elect. In this reference, people are gathered to endure the last judgment. John blew his horn to gather people together to prepare them for the last judgment. To teach them to repent, to prepare themselves to not only meet Jesus, but to follow him to eternal salvation.
It is the duty of the angels to stand before the throne of God and sing his praises nonstop. And it was John the Baptist who taught the world the ultimate prayer for us to use to praise God.
When Jesus was asked by one of his disciples to teach them to pray as John had taught his disciples, Jesus responded with:
Our Father which art in heaven,
Hallowed be your name.
Your kingdom come,
Your will be done,
On earth as it is in heaven.
Give us this day our daily bread,
And forgive us our debts,
As we also have forgiven our debtors.
And lead us not into temptation,
But deliver us from evil.
On the night of his birth, Jesus receives the angels’ praise. At his baptism, Jesus is greeted by John, singing the praises of both the human and angelic worlds to Jesus.
While I will not go into the idea of angels as co-creators with God extensively here, as this idea of Thomas Aquinas deserves its own dedicated writing, John the Baptist brings to Earth a number of creations that reflect the glory of God.
John, in his extreme asceticism, gave us monasticism. The monastic vows, vows of virginity, poverty, and obedience, are even referred to as the putting on of the angelic habit. His attainment of the perfect passionless state, his freedom from sensuality, reveals his angelic nature, and he provides us with the means to become angelic ourselves.
John’s father was a Levite, and thus a priest. John, as his son, is also a priest. Is he exercising his priesthood when he baptizes Jesus? By standing up and performing this most rite, is John a new form of ordination? John takes the old faith and joins it with Jesus and his work, knitting together the old and the new and forms, as a result, the new church of Christ, Jesus.
Sergius Bulgakov writes enthusiastically about this all in his book, The Friend of the Bridegroom: On the Orthodox Veneration of the Forerunner.
He writes that John “is first among those who are present before Christ, first in the whole creaturely world, angelic and human – not as the material principle, which contains and unites all things in itself, but as the personal principle that wills itself and gives itself, as the first representative of the entire church in prayer before her heavenly High Priest. The Forerunner can be called the Angel of the Church, and in this sense he is “her head” (according to a liturgical hymn), her first representative. He is the Guardian Angel of the whole human race, even now with his prayer preparing the way to Christ for the human race.