Who was John the Baptist?
John the Baptist is one of the most important figures in the four gospels. His narrative is interwoven with the narrative of Jesus Christ through portions of the Gospels, such as John 1. John the Baptist personally interacts with Christ, even baptizing him, which was a critical moment and event in his life. What is known about John comes largely from the New Testament, with the Gospel of Matthew and the Gospel of Luke providing the most information. The Gospel of John deals chiefly with the witness after the baptism. Outside the New Testament, in his single notice (Ant., XVIII, v, 2), Josephus makes an interesting reference to the cause of John's imprisonment.
John's early life is noteworthy. John was of priestly descent. His mother, Elisabeth, was of the daughters of Aaron, while his father, Zacharias, was a priest of the course of Abija, and did service in the temple at Jerusalem. It is said of them that "they were both righteous before God, walking in all the commandments and ordinances of the Lord blameless" (Luke 1:6). This priestly ancestry is in interesting contrast with his prophetic mission.
Early LifeWe infer from Luke's account that John was born about six months before the birth of Jesus. Of the place we know only that it was a city of the hill country of Judah. Our definite information concerning his youth is summed up in the angelic prophecy, "Many shall rejoice at his birth. For he shall be great in the sight of the Lord, and he shall drink no wine nor strong drink; and he shall be filled with the Holy Spirit, even from his mother's womb" (Luke 1:14-16), and in Luke's brief statement, "And the child grew, and waxed strong in spirit, and was in the deserts till the day of his showing unto Israel" (Luke 1:80). The character and spiritual insight of the parents shown in the incidents recorded are ample evidence that his training was a fitting preparation for his great mission.
His MinistryThe scene of the Baptist's ministry was partly in the wilderness of Southern Judea and partly in the Jordan valley. Two locations are mentioned, Bethany or Bethabara (John 1:28), and Aenon near Salim (John 3:23). Neither of these places can be positively identified. We may infer from John 3:2 that he also spent some time in Peraea beyond the Jordan.
The unusual array of dates with which Luke marks the beginning of John's ministry (Luke 3:1,2) reveals his sense of the importance of the event as at once the beginning of his prophetic work and of the new dispensation. His first public appearance is assigned to the 15th year of Tiberius, probably 26 or 27 AD, for the first Passover attended by Jesus can hardly have been later than 27 AD (John 2:20).
John's dress and habits were strikingly suggestive of Elijah, the old prophet of national judgment. His desert habits have led some to connect him with that strange company of Jews known as the Essenes. There is, however, little foundation for such a connection other than his ascetic habits and the fact that the chief settlement of this sect was near the home of his youth. It was natural that he should continue the manner of his youthful life in the desert, and it is not improbable that he intentionally copied his great prophetic model. It was fitting that the one who called men to repentance and the beginning of a self-denying life should show renunciation and self-denial in his own life. But there is no evidence in his teaching that he required such asceticism of those who accepted his baptism.
The fundamental note in the message of John was the announcement of the near approach of the Messianic age. But while he announced himself as the herald voice preparing the way of the Lord, and because of this the expectant multitudes crowded to hear his word, his view of the nature of the kingdom was probably quite at variance with that of his hearers. Instead of the expected day of deliverance from the foreign oppressor, it was to be a day of judgment for Israel. It meant good for the penitent, but destruction for the ungodly. "He will gather his wheat into the garner, but the chaff he will burn up with .... fire" (Matthew 3:12). "The axe also lieth at the root of the trees: every tree therefore that bringeth not forth good fruit is hewn down, and cast into the fire" (Luke 3:9).
Yet this idea was perhaps not entirely unfamiliar. That the delay in the Messiah's coming was due to the sinfulness of the people and their lack of repentance, was a commonplace in the message of their teachers (Edersheim, Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah, I, 169). The call to repentance was then a natural message of preparation for such a time of judgment. But to John repentance was a very real and radical thing. It meant a complete change of heart and life. "Bring forth .... fruits worthy of repentance" (Luke 3:8). What these fruits were he made clear in his answers to the inquiring multitudes and the publicans and soldiers (Luke 3:10-14). It is noticeable that there is no reference to the usual ceremonies of the law or to a change of occupation. Do good; be honest; refrain from extortion; be content with wages.
John used such violence in addressing the Pharisees and Sadducees doubtless to startle them from their self-complacency. How hopelessly they were blinded by their sense of security as the children of Abraham, and by their confidence in the merits of the law, is attested by the fact that these parties resisted the teachings of both John and Jesus to the very end. With what vigor and fearlessness the Baptist pressed his demand for righteousness is shown by his stern reproof of the sin of Herod and Herodias, which led to his imprisonment and finally to his death.
BaptismThe symbolic rite of baptism was such an essential part of the work of John that it not only gave him his distinctive title of "the Baptist" (ho baptistes), but also caused his message to be styled "preaching the baptism of repentance." That a special virtue was ascribed to this rite, and that it was regarded as a necessary part of the preparation for the coming of the Messiah, are shown by its important place in John's preaching, and by the eagerness with which it was sought by the multitudes. Its significance may best be understood by giving attention to its historical antecedents, for while John gave the rite new significance, it certainly appealed to ideas already familiar to the Jews.
The divers washings required by the law (Leviticus 11-15) have, without doubt, arcligious import. This is shown by the requirement of sacrifices in connection with the cleansing, especially the sin offering (Leviticus 14:8,9,19,20; compare Mark 1:44; Luke 2:22). The designation of John's baptism by the word baptizein, which by New Testament times was used of ceremonial purification, also indicates some historical connection (compare Sirach 34:25).
John understood that his baptism was a preparation for the Messianic baptism anticipated by the prophets, who saw that for a true cleansing the nation must wait until God should open in Israel a fountain for cleansing (Zechariah 13:1), and should sprinkle His people with clean water and give them a new heart and a new spirit (Ezekiel 36:25,26; Jeremiah 33:8). His baptism was at once a preparation and a promise of the spiritual cleansing which the Messiah would bestow. "I indeed baptize you with water unto repentance: but he that cometh after me .... shall baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire" (Matthew 3:11 margin).
According to the teaching of later Judaism, a stranger who desired to be adopted into the family of Israel was required, along with circumcision, to receive the rite of baptism as a means of cleansing from the ceremonial uncleanness attributed to him as a Gentile. While it is not possible to prove the priority of this practice of proselyte baptism to the baptism of John, there can be no doubt of the fact, for it is inconceivable, in view of Jewish prejudice, that it would be borrowed from John or after this time. While it seems clear that in the use of the rite of baptism John was influenced by the Jewish customs of ceremonial washings and proselyte baptism, his baptism differed very essentially from these. The Levitical washings restored an unclean person to his former condition, but baptism was a preparation for a new condition.
On the other hand, proselyte baptism was administered only to Gentiles, while John required baptism of all Jews. At the same time his baptism was very different from Christian baptism, as he himself declared (Luke 3:16). His was a baptism of water only; a preparation for the baptism "in the Spirit" which was to follow. It is also to be observed that it was a rite complete in itself, and that it was offered to the nation as a preparation for a specific event, the advent of the Messiah. We may say, then, that as a "baptism of repentance" it meant a renunciation of the past life; as a cleansing it symbolized the forgiveness of sins (Mark 1:4), and as preparation it implied a promise of loyalty to the kingdom of the Messiah. We have no reason to believe that Jesus experienced any sense of sin or felt any need of repentance or forgiveness; but as a Divinely appointed preparation for the Messianic kingdom His submission to it was appropriate.
Baptism of JesusWhile the multitudes flocked to the Jordan, Jesus came also to be baptized with the rest. "John would have hindered him, saying, I have need to be baptized of thee, and comest thou to me? But Jesus answering said unto him, Suffer it now: for thus it becometh us to fulfill all righteousness" (Matthew 3:13-15). Wherein was this act a fulfillment of righteousness? We cannot believe that Jesus felt any need of repentance or change of life. May we not regard it rather as an identification of Himself with His people in the formal consecration of His life to the work of the kingdom?
Imprisonment and DeathNeither the exact time of John's imprisonment nor the period of time between his imprisonment and his death can be determined. On the occasion of the unnamed feast of John 5:1, Jesus refers to John's witness as already past. At least, then, his arrest, if not his death, must have taken place prior to that incident, i.e. before the second Passover of Jesus' ministry. According to the Gospel accounts, John was imprisoned because of his reproof of Herod's marriage with Herodias, the wife of his brother Philip (Luke 3:19,20; compare Matthew 14:3,1; Mark 6:17,18). Josephus says (Ant., XVIII, v, 2) that Herod was influenced to put John to death by the "fear lest his great influence over the people might put it in his power or inclination to raise a rebellion. Accordingly, he was sent a prisoner, out of Herod's suspicious temper, to Macherus, and was there put to death." This account of Josephus does not necessarily conflict with the tragic story of the Gospels. If Herod desired to punish or destroy him for the reasons assigned by the evangelists, he would doubtless wish to offer as the public reason some political charge, and the one named by Josephus would be near at hand.
John and JesusJohn assumed from the first the role of a herald preparing the way for the approaching Messianic age. He clearly regarded his work as Divinely appointed (John 1:33), but was well aware of his subordinate relation to the Messiah (Mark 1:7) and of the temporary character of his mission (John 3:30). The Baptist's work was twofold. In his preaching he warned the nation of the true character of the new kingdom as a reign of righteousness, and by his call to repentance and baptism he prepared at least a few hearts for a sympathetic response to the call and teaching of Jesus. He also formally announced and bore frequent personal testimony to Jesus as the Messiah.
There is no necessary discrepancy between the synoptic account and that of the Fourth Gospel in reference to the progress of John's knowledge of the Messianic character of Jesus. According to Matthew 3:14, John is represented as declining at first to baptize Jesus because he was conscious of His superiority, while in John 1:29-34 he is represented as claiming not to have known Jesus until He was manifested by the heavenly sign. The latter may mean only that He was not known to him definitely as the Messiah until the promised sign was given.
The message which John sent to Jesus from prison seems strange to some in view of the signal testimonies which he had previously borne to His character. This need not indicate that he had lost faith in the Messiahship of Jesus, but rather a perplexity at the course of events. The inquiry may have been in the interest of the faith of his disciples or his own relief from misgivings due to Jesus' delay in assuming the expected Messianic authority. John evidently held the prophetic view of a temporal Messianic kingdom, and some readjustment of view was necessary.
Jesus Estimate of JohnJesus was no less frank in His appreciation of John. If praise may be measured by the worth of the one by whose lips it is spoken, then no man ever received such praise as he who was called by Jesus a shining light (John 5:35), more than a prophet (Matthew 11:9), and of whom He said, "Among them that are born of women there hath not arisen a greater than John the Baptist" (Matthew 11:11). If, on the other hand, He rated him as less than the least in the kingdom of heaven, this was a limitation of circumstances, not of worth. Jesus paid high tribute to the Divine character and worth of John's baptism; first, by submitting to it Himself as a step in the fulfillment of all righteousness; later, by repeated utterance, especially in associating it with the birth of the Spirit as a necessary condition of inheriting eternal life (John 3:5); and, finally, in adopting baptism as a symbol of Christian discipleship. Source
The following article is excerpted from the International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, which is in the public domain.
Russell Benjamin Miller
International Standard Bible Encyclopedia