In John 3:29, John the Baptist calls himself “the friend of the Bridegroom.” Jesus said no man born of woman was greater than John the Baptist (Luke 7:28). John fulfilled the high calling of becoming a human friend of God, something the Lord wanted from the time God had created humans. The Patriarch Abraham is one of the few people identified as a friend of God (James 2:23). And in Exodus 33:11 Moses is said to have spoken with God “face to face, as a man speaks with his friend.” God’s friends were few and far between.
Jesus identified Lazarus, who He raised from the dead, as “our friend” (John 11:11). After Judas had left the company of disciples at the Last Supper, the Lord Jesus called His disciples “my friends” (John 15:13-15). Christ also does call Judas “friend” immediately after Judas kisses him in the garden – at the moment the crowd came to arrest Him (Matthew 26:49-50). As Jesus knew, not all God’s friends really are (John 6:64, 13:11). John the Forerunner being the friend of Christ the Bridegroom is incredibly special in the history of salvation. Fr Sergius Bulgakov writes:
“What then is the significance of the Forerunner, whose coming into the world is closely linked with the coming of the Messiah Himself and the Incarnation? The coming of the Forerunner is associated with the ‘fullness of time‘ (Gal 4:4; cf Eph 1:10), which must be fulfilled before the Son of God, the Son of man, can come into the world. This fullness – which is the fullness of the whole of the Old Testament holiness, and in general that of the holiness that is attainable by man – consisted not only in the appearance of the Most Pure Virgin who was worthy of being the Mother of God but also in the appearance of a man worthy of meeting the Lord as a friend, of becoming the friend of the Bridegroom. Becoming man signified for God not only being born of the Virgin, becoming incarnate, but also being received by the human race in the person of the Forerunner. Once born, the Lord was not to remain solitary among men. Not even His Most Pure Mother could free Him from solitude, for in Her divine maternity She was one with Him as it were and for this reason could not have entered into a relationship of otherness to Him, could not have become His friend (a ‘third person’, as we tend to say). Such an ‘other’ in relation to the Savior, capable of meeting and receiving Him before and on the part of all humankind, and worthy of being called the friend of the Bridegroom, should naturally be the greatest of those born of women. For there is no higher calling and no higher dignity for a man that to be the friend of the Bridegroom. The Lord wishes to find in man a friend who would be a god according to grace, a creaturely image and likeness of God. But since the fall, when man stopped being God’s friend and became a child of wrath (see Eph 2:3), his return to God’s friendship, his reconciliation with God, has become the express task of the divine economy of our salvation. And just as the long history of the Old Testament Church was the condition of the blossoming of the Edenic lily of the Mother of God on the trunk of this tree, so the fullness of the Old Testament holiness was the condition for the blossoming alongside Her of the Forerunner of the Lord, ‘like a fragrant bud, like a sweet-smelling cypress’ (Canon of the Forerunner, 9th ode, 2nd tr.).” (THE FRIEND OF THE BRIDEGROOM, pp 8-9)
John the Forerunner was able to consider himself the friend to the incarnate Son of God. He is the human whom God has desired to find … a friend. As God’s friend, like Abraham and Moses, before him, John tries to show people the way to also be God’s friends.
“John saw his mission to call the people out into the wilderness of purification and renewal, out to the Jordan across which they had entered the land that God had promised them in the first place, to renew their Covenant with Him. In the course of their daily lives, in an era of increasing economic tensions and apprehensions about the future, they had lost sight of the only way they could survive: a return to the observance of the Covenant that God had made with their forefathers at Sinai. And they would seal their renewed commitment to the laws and traditions of Israel with a single act of immersion … a one-time public acknowledgment of a new, life-long commitment, administered in the flowing waters of the Jordan by John ‘the Baptizer’ himself. . . . To ‘the multitudes’ John reportedly instructed, ‘He who has two coats, let him share with him who has none; and he who has food, let him do likewise.’ . . . John the Baptist was offering crowds of people who lived under the shadow of Rome and under the burden of Herodian control and taxation a new way to end the pain and uncertainty that plagued their daily lives. John’s baptism was not a panacea but a symbol of something much more important: a personal pledge to return to the way of life that God had decreed for the People of Israel. In fact Flavius Josephus knew only of John’s practical teachings, not his apocalyptic visions, reporting … that John was a good man who ‘had exhorted the Jews to lead righteous lives, to practice justice towards their fellows and piety towards God.’ And Josephus understood that John required a commitment from the people to whom he offered baptism, that ‘they must not employ it to gain pardon for whatever sins they committed, but as consecration of the body, implying the soul was already thoroughly cleansed by right behavior.’ That right behavior was a commitment to participate in a national revival of righteousness and renewal of the Covenant of Israel. And that, of course, meant a forthright and practical rejection of the new kind of world that Herod Antipas was trying to build.” (R. Horsley & N. Silberman, THE MESSAGE AND THE KINGDOM, pp 33-34)