Because of the great use John the Baptist performed Jesus called him ‘the greatest man ever born of woman’.
Let us look at the correspondences in John the Baptist. John represents the Word as to the the Lord, and all the particulars of his actions and appearance can be understood by the use he was providing to restore humanities connection to heaven and the Word.
When we look into the spiritual/historical purpose of John the Baptist a deep sense of God’s wisdom emerges. When pressed by the priests John identifies himself as the fulfillment of Isaiah 40:3: “The voice of one crying in the wilderness: Prepare the way of the Lord; Make straight in the desert a highway for our God”. On an earthly level the last sentence is a reference to the roads that were built by the Romans through the rough terrain so that kings could travel in their royal chariots. These roads eventually made it possible for everyone to access new lands and connect new people and places. This is the metaphor for the purpose of John. John was the trailblazer of the way out of darkness. He was the means of transition between the old dying church, and the new Church to come.
John’s whole life seems to have been one of great focus, preparing for the brief, but profound period before Jesus began his public ministry; and he carried out his mission with great intensity. He became well known and was much talked about, long lines of people came to hear him and be baptized by him. He Baptized the people with water, and proclaimed the coming of the Messiah; and he called people to repentance. He was like an Olympic athlete that trains for decades for a great race that takes a short time to run – the was the original ‘spiritual athlete’.
John’s job was no less than to re-establish the means of conjunction between heaven and earth. This had to be done for it is a universal principle that the internal (heaven) must have a foundation (earth) upon which to rest, and the connection between them is accomplished by correspondences. The use of the Jews for correspondence had come to an end. They no longer served their purpose as the representative people, and without a church on earth that acknowledged the Lord there is no means for humanity to receive heavenly wisdom. The last sentences of the Old Testament in Malachi are:
“Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the coming of the great and dreadful day of the Lord. And he shall turn the heart of the fathers to the children, and the heart of the children to their fathers, lest I come and smite the earth with a curse”. (Malachi 4: 5,6).
To curse the earth does not mean that God chooses to do this but that the people had so separated themselves from God that they were at the end, they were about to be destroyed forever by evil because of their own choices. The same thing is said in many prophets when they say phrases like, ‘the destruction to come’, the ‘day of wrath, and vengence’. It would have been over for humanity, but God sent ‘Elijah the prophet before the coming of the great and dreadful day’. By Elijah here is meant John the Baptist as the Lord himself explains in the gospels. The reason He calls John Elijah is that they both represent the Word as to the Lord. Turning the heart of the fathers and children refers to the renewal of the church that John’s actions will bring about. On these points Swedenborg quotes the prophet Zeph:
“In that day there shall be the noise of a cry, that the great day of Jehovah is near, that that is a day of wrath, a day of trouble and distress, a day of wasteness and desolation, that in the day of Jehovah’s wrath the whole land shall be devoured, and that He will make a consummation with all them that dwell in the land (Zeph. 1:7-18)”.
This means that the Jewish nation and humanity was about to be destroyed if God did not intervene. John, his actions, his preaching, his baptism, served the purpose of establishing the new means of conjunction with heaven. Because he was the agent of this change even the things he wore and ate had essential meanings by correspondences. Correspondences have to be acted out in reality, in the physical world, and John established baptism with water as the new means of correspondence. His was the external baptism that prepared the people to later receive the internal baptism of Jesus. The baptisms performed by John and the men and women that willingly received it made it possible for angels (under the guidance of the Lord) to be present with, and protect those willing to receive it. Heaven and earth are distinct from each other, but they must always be connected. As said above, earth is the foundation of heaven; and for both to exist they must be in union, which is done by correspondences.
It is perhaps astounding to hear that heaven needed people to participate in correspondences in order for the angels to have access to protecting the people from the eminent darkness. The way correspondences work between heaven and earth could be compared to an electrical current in a wire that must have a grounded node to connect to; John and his actions along with those who responded to him established the earthly node. Or it could be compared to a river that had gone dry with only water holes left in the river bed. With no water between the holes the fish could no longer move from one hole to another. John’s actions began to reconnected the holes with water. The people baptized by John were the primary beginning of the new Christian church, they were the people able to hear and receive Christ’s message.
Along with performing baptism John called the people to repent, or change their hearts, by which the people began to understand and believe that Christ was the Messiah and to have more caring hearts for others. Those that heard his message, repented, and allowed themselves to be baptized where initiated into the new church, that is, into the community of love and charity. To acknowledge who Jesus was in heart spiritually brings people into his presence and protection, whereas before they were separated by the darkness. This was joyous good news – for they were emerging from a dark nightmare. On this critical time Swedenborg writes:
“The baptism performed by John represented the cleansing of the external man; but baptism as practiced among Christians at the present time represents the cleansing of the internal man. That is why we read that John baptized with water, but the Lord baptizes with the Holy Spirit and with fire. So too John’s baptism is called a baptism of repentance. The Jews who were baptized were nothing but external men, and the external man cannot become internal without faith in Christ. It may be seen in the Acts of the Apostles (19:3-6) that those who received John’s baptism became internal men, when they accepted faith in Christ and were then baptized in the name of Jesus”. (AC 690).
In the first quote above ‘wilderness’ represents the bereft spiritual state of mankind, and John is the voice crying out to the people to reach them with new light. Since John represents the Lord as to the Divine Word his actions and the items of his wild physical appearance can be understood as a description of the way the earth connects to heaven. Crying out in the wilderness is the action of a great prophet passionately exposing the danger the people are in. John laments the state of his people toward the Word and the divine, and he appealed to the hearts of people. He did his job with fierce determination; he called the leaders ‘vipers’, and he taught the people to open their hearts to Him who was coming. These actions corresponds to the actions of angels in heaven when they perceive the tragedy of a dying church.
“To cry with a loud voice to Him who sat on the cloud symbolizes a supplication by angels in heaven to the Lord, because they lacked anything corresponding to them on earth. For the church on earth is to the angelic heaven like the foundation on which a house rests, or like the feet on which a person stands and which he uses to walk. When the church on earth has been destroyed, therefore, the angels lament and supplicate the Lord. Their supplication is that He may bring the church to an end and raise up a new one”. (Apocalypse Revealed 645).
John intensely enacted this supplication on earth. He kindled this passion and awareness in those who he taught. and preached to. The Bible further describes John the Baptist:
“And the same John had his raiment of camel’s hair, and a leathern girdle about his loins; and his meat was locusts and wild honey. Then went out to him Jerusalem, and all Judea, and all the region round about Jordan, And were baptized of him in Jordan, confessing their sins. But when he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees come to his baptism, he said unto them, O generation of vipers, who hath warned you to flee from the wrath to come?” (Mat 3: 4-7).
In general the clothing of a prophet corresponds to the external or literal sense of the Word. By food is signified spiritual nourishment from the principles of the Word. In heaven these meanings of clothing and food are realities. Because these things are heavenly truths, by correspondence, they appear in the Word. The clothes on a person in heaven exist from the love and character in the soul of that person. The food they take corresponds to knowledge and truth that nourishes their use and love. Swedenborg writes that John’s “girdle denotes a bond which gathers up and holds together interior things; that ‘leather’ denotes what is external; and thus ‘a leathern girdle’ denotes an external bond”. That John’s belt represents the bond between external and internal things, or heaven and earth, is a most profound reflection of his use, since he was re-establishing the connection between earthly life and heavenly wisdom.
Because of this great use he performed Jesus called John ‘the greatest man ever born of woman’.
Because John represented the Word as to the Lord, when Jesus Himself came on the scene (who is the living Word), John said of himself that he was “not Elias, nor the prophet,” and that he was “not worthy to loose the latchet of the Lord’s shoe”, and that ‘He must increase and I must decrease”. This is because when the real thing shows up the external expression fades away, just as a shadow goes away when the sun comes out.