Jesus replied by telling the messengers, “Go back to John, and tell him what you have seen, the miracles of healing and other miracles, and say, ‘Blessed is he who does not lose faith in me.’”
He then told the crowds: “John is a prophet and more than a prophet. He is the one spoken of in Malachi 3:1, the messenger who comes to prepare the way of the Lord. No man born of woman is greater than John, but the least in the kingdom of God is greater than John” (paraphrase of Matt. 11:2–11).
This passage has commonly been understood to mean that John represents the climax of the long tradition of Jewish prophets looking forward to the promised deliverance, but that the deliverance itself is something even greater. John is the climax of the law. He lives in the wilderness and leads a life with no frills where food and clothing are concerned. He has renounced the joys of family life and dedicated himself completely to his mission of preaching, of calling people to an observance of the law, and to ordinary standards of virtue. In terms of natural goodness, no one is better than John. But he represents law, not grace. Among those born of women, among the once-born, he has no superior. But anyone who has been born anew in the kingdom of God has something better than what John symbolizes. (Note that saying that John symbolizes something short of the kingdom is not to say that John is himself excluded from the kingdom.)
Traditionally and accurately, the birth of Jesus is celebrated on December 25. The birth of John is celebrated six months earlier, on June 24. The appearance of Gabriel to Mary, assumed to have occurred nine months before the birth of Jesus, is celebrated on March 25 and is called the Annunciation. The appearance of Gabriel to Zechariah in the temple is celebrated by the Eastern Orthodox on September 23. John is the last voice of the old covenant, the end of the age of law. Jesus is the first voice of the new covenant, the beginning of the age of grace. Accordingly, John is born to an elderly, barren woman, born when it is really too late for her to be having a child, while Jesus is born to a young virgin, born when it is really too early for her to be having a child. John is announced (and conceived) at the autumnal equinox, when the leaves are dying and falling from the trees in the northern hemisphere. Jesus is announced (and conceived) at the vernal equinox, when the green buds are bursting forth on the trees and there are signs of new life everywhere in the northern hemisphere. John is born when the days are longest in our region, and from his birth on they grow steadily shorter. Jesus is born when the days are shortest in our region, and from his birth on they grow steadily longer.
According to this timeline, Jesus is born during the Festival of Dedication, also called the Festival of Lights. In John’s gospel, he writes that, later, Jesus was “at Jerusalem [for] the feast of the dedication, and it was winter. And Jesus walked in the temple in Solomon’s porch” (John 10:22–23, KJV-BRG). How fitting for the “Light of the world” to make attendance in the winter during the Festival of Lights, which is still observed today among Jews as Hanukkah, the twenty-fifth day of Kislev (our November/December timeframe). How fitting that the Savior was born during the Festival of Lights thirty-three years earlier in the winter, accompanied by the light of a star and introduced by John as light: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. The same was in the beginning with God. All things were made by him; and without him was not any thing made that was made. In him was life; and the life was the light of men” (John 1:1–4, KJV-BRG). How fitting that the firstborn of creation (“Let there be light,” [Gen. 1:3, KJV-BRG]) enters creation at the Festival of Lights. John the Baptist concludes and speaks truly when he says of Jesus, “He must increase, but I must decrease” (John 3:30, KJV-BRG).