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Who Was John the Baptist?

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The New Testament places a very high estimate on John the Baptist and his ministry.

John was the greatest figure yet produced under the old covenant, according to Matthew 11:11.

Jesus said of him in Luke 7:28, “I tell you, among those born of women there is no one greater than John.”

And Hebrews 11:39 tells us he epitomized all the Old Testament saints who stood at the threshold of the new order without entering in.

His great importance lies in the fact that he bridged the old era and the new and was the link between the two.

Let’s take a closer look at his life, as well as his relationship to Jesus.

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Birth and childhood

The records of the birth of John make his role very clear: he was to prepare a people for the Lord’s coming, and for that end would be filled with the Holy Spirit.

John was born into a pious Jewish home, grounded in the messianic promises of the Scriptures and looking for the hope of Israel. The parents were delighted with the baby John because he represented the rebirth of prophecy and the fulfillment of the eschatological hope.

The parents of John recognized from the outset the relative greatness of Jesus over John. And because Mary was related to Elizabeth, Jesus had not only a tie with the house of David through Joseph (possibly through Mary too—see more about the genealogy of Jesus), but also with the line of Aaron through both Zechariah and Elizabeth.

All the data suggests that both John and his followers welcomed the advent of Christ and readily gave way to his leadership.

John’s ministry

Jesus held the ministry of John to be of the highest importance, because John was a part of the messianic complex of events that form the grand object of prophecy.

He was called to be the great eschatological pioneer, the forerunner of the Messiah himself. Although he exercised his ministry just before Jesus did, and belonged to the time of promise, yet in another sense he belonged also to the time of fulfillment.

Jesus strongly endorsed John’s ministry, indicating the close solidarity he felt with John’s calling. Although Jesus stated, “he who is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than [John],” he did not intend to depreciate the greatness of John, but rather to exalt the superb opportunities open to one who will partake of the messianic promises in Christ himself.

The beginning of John’s ministry

John entered dramatically onto the stage of history probably in A.D. 28. Clothed in a cloak of camel’s hair and eating locusts and wild honey, he proclaimed to all who would hear the need for repentance and rectitude of life. He was located in southern Transjordan, not far from Judea, in the uninhabited country bordering on Perea, the realm of Herod Antipas.

Everything about him recalled the prophet Elijah—his mantle, his living in the wilderness, his message—and people flocked to hear him. His food and clothing indicated his rejection of official Israel of the time and his conviction of a prophetic calling.

Like the Essene community, John withdrew from society; but unlike them he sought to reform it by his preaching.

Where John lived and baptized

The wilderness represented more than a solitary place to John. It was the place to which Elijah had fled, and the place where God led his people to the Promised Land.

The wilderness was also a place where the Lord revealed himself, and where some believed the Messiah would appear. The setting only added to the excitement that John’s ministry stimulated among the expectant people of Judea.

He did not go to the desert to hide from people. In fact he attracted large crowds, according to Luke 3:10. The fourth gospel reveals that John’s ministry extended into Samaritan territory. Aenon near Salim where John baptized people was probably near ancient Shechem (modern Nablus).

Later, when Jesus spoke of entering into the labors of others in John 4:38, he was no doubt referring to the work of John. Both men were contemptuous of the “sons of Abraham” who rested so complacently upon their inherited election.

John the Baptist and first century Jewish sects

It is not easy to fit John into the pattern of Jewish sects and parties current at the time.

Some have speculated that John may have been part of the Essene community. The community was situated not far from John’s home or from the place where he began to minister.

By the time of his ministry, however, John clearly had broken any connection he might have had with them. Although it is true that similarities exist between John and the community, differences also exist, and the theory is entirely speculative.

John and Qumran practiced baptism, both saw their ministry in terms of the “voice” of prophecy: “A voice of one calling: ‘In the wilderness prepare the way for the Lord; make straight in the desert a highway for our God.’” Both were ascetic, but the resemblance is superficial.

On the other hand, the Qumran sect was a closed system in retreat from the world, and would have frowned upon John’s efforts to convert sinners. Additionally, Qumran still waited for the Messiah to come, but John knew he was already here.

Others have wondered if John became a priest. It would seem somewhat closer to reality to think that John made an attempt at following the profession of his father. He would have been under a solemn obligation to do so as a son. It also seems likely John would have been too disgusted by the political machinations and corruption he encountered in the priesthood that he concluded Israel deserved the divine wrath—whereupon he separated himself from official religion and called upon the Israelites to form a righteous remnant.

The Jewish historian Josephus gives an interesting account of John the Baptist in his Antiquities (18.5.2):

But some of the Jews believed that Herod’s army was destroyed by God, God punishing him very justly for John called the Baptist, whom Herod had put to death. For John was a pious man, and he was bidding the Jews who practiced virtue and exercised righteousness toward each other and piety toward God, to come together for baptism. For thus, it seemed to him, would baptismal ablution be acceptable, if it were not used to beg off from sins committed, but for the purification of the body when the soul had previously been cleansed by righteous conduct. And when everybody turned to John—for they were profoundly stirred by what he said—Herod feared that John’s so extensive influence over the people might lead to an uprising (for the people seemed likely to do everything he might counsel). He thought it much better, under the circumstances, to get John out of the way in advance, before any insurrection might develop, than for himself to get into trouble and be sorry not to have acted, once an insurrection had begun. So because of Herod’s suspicion, John was sent as a prisoner to Machaerus, the fortress already mentioned, and there put to death. But the Jews believed that the destruction which overtook the army came as a punishment for Herod, God wishing to do him harm.

Josephus presents John as a humanistic philosopher advocating virtue, but suppresses the messianic overtones to his ministry, just as one would expect from Josephus writing for Roman and Greek readers. Josephus merely supplements what is known already from the Gospels.

His account brings out the political side to John’s ministry as Herod saw it, whereas the Gospels emphasize the moral and religious side.

Undoubtedly Herod feared the political consequences of John’s popularity. His moral charges only added fuel to the flames. The testimony of Josephus reminds us that the memory of John lasted a long time after his death.

Learn more in the online course:
Four Portraits, One Jesus

John the Baptist’s message

John was a preacher who stood in the tradition of the prophets, and he proclaimed the message God laid upon his heart.

All of his preaching is filled with Old Testament imagery, content, and vividness. There is the winnowing fan, the threshing floor, the ax at the root of the trees, the brood of vipers, and a baptism with the Spirit. Prophecy was reborn in John’s message, and people flocked to hear him. His message included ethical instruction, prophetic denunciation, and eschatological teaching.

The novel aspect about his ministry was the urgency with which he announced the relevance of his theme. The kingdom of God had drawn nigh (Matthew 3:2). The messianic claim is implicit in this announcement.

John’s prediction of a mightier one to come after him is repeated no less than seven times in one form or other in the New Testament (Matthew 3:11; Mark 1:7; Luke 3:16; John 1:25, 27, 30; Acts 13:25). He was content to be the voice of one crying in the wilderness (John 1:23). He pointed not to himself but to the One who would bear away sins and baptize with the Spirit (John 1:29, 33).

The good news was accompanied with severe denunciations of the status quo in Israel. Physical descent from Abraham did not guarantee the favor of God. Spiritual kinship with God must be evidenced in daily life. Even as a Gentile needed to be baptized, and the Jews needed to be baptized to become a part of God’s purified remnant of the latter days (Matthew 3:10; 21:31).

The imminence of judgment in John’s preaching is plain. The work of judgment would belong to the ministry of the Messiah, whose purpose it was to destroy the wicked and purge the remnant of sin.

John followed his prophetic warnings about wrath with the appeal for repentance. His demands were significant, and his ethical instructions were radical.

When the multitude asked him what they ought to do to show their willingness to change, John gave some very harsh, practical steps to take:

  • They ought to share their possessions with those who had none (Luke 3:11).
  • The tax collectors ought to keep their demands within just limits (Luke 3:13) — a severe requirement because the job was not a pleasant one, and this policy could guarantee only the most meager earnings.
  • The soldiers he asked to be content with their rations and to avoid all extortion and violence in the carrying out of their duties. He did not imply it was sinful to be a soldier. Forbidding pillaging of the local population could be a significant restriction at a time when the soldiers were extremely hard up and in need of money or food.

Why did John baptize?

The rite that John performed on penitent sinners was the outstanding feature of his whole ministry; yet he was by no means its originator.

Its distinctiveness lay in the meaning John put into the act. Basically this had two facets: a messianic or eschatological orientation, and personal renewal in the life of the person baptized. John saw himself as a figure of the end times sent in accord with divine prophecy to set in motion the complex of events in which the Messiah would be revealed to Israel and the world.

John’s water baptism was a sign of a greater baptism of the Holy Spirit that the Messiah would administer.

At the same time, John was conscious of the unworthiness of Israel to receive her messianic King. He was no universalist—God would deal with his people, not some other—yet John rejected the notion that simply being a Jew was enough to insure divine favor. Repentance and reform of life were prerequisites to entering the Messiah’s kingdom.

Baptism was the first evidence of the sincere desire to alter one’s way of behavior.

In whose name was John baptizing?

From what source did John derive inspiration for his practice and theology of baptism?

The most natural place to look for an antecedent is the Old Testament itself. In Leviticus 15, bathing in water is prescribed to cope with uncleanness. All forms of Jewish baptism sprang from such a source. The believer ought to have “clean hands and a pure heart,” an inner purging with hyssop as well as outward ablutions (Pss. 24:4; 51:7). Ultimately, all baptism looks forward to the opening of a fountain that can cleanse from sin and uncleanness (Zech. 13:1).

The Qumran sect carried on baptismal activities very near the place where John began his, which is often pointed out as the source of John’s rite and theology. The Qumran community practiced a kind of washing ritual for repentance.

The practices at Qumran go a long way in providing a possible source for John’s baptism. The coincidence is striking, and a positive relationship may indeed have existed between them.

There are, however, important differences between John’s understanding of baptism and the Qumran understanding of baptism:

  1. John’s baptism was a once-and-for-all, final act of repentance, not to be repeated. There is no indication that the first baptism at Qumran was thought of as an initiatory rite.
  2. The whole tenor of John’s preaching was more urgent and eschatological than theirs.
  3. His message was offered to the whole nation, not to exclusive members of the sect. If he did borrow some of the ideas of Qumran, he altered them before use.
  4. More likely John saw his rite in terms of prophetic symbolism. The word of the Lord could be performed as well as preached. Adapting the practice of Jewish lustration to his purposes gave John the ideal instrument for putting his message before men.

His baptism was a plenary cleansing from all sin and uncleanness, an eschatological act that united the penitent with the remnant Israel of the latter days

The relationship between John the Baptist and Jesus

The earliest part of Jesus’ public ministry was spent in the circle of John the Baptist.

The fourth gospel makes this fact apparent. Theirs was one joint ministry. It is not simply that their work overlapped or that they worked in the same area, but rather that they shared a common outlook and concern.

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There are numerous points of overlap between John and Jesus. After his baptism, Jesus retired to the wilderness for fasting and prayer. Soon afterward, Jesus surrounded himself with a band of disciples and practiced baptism in Judea. While in association with John, however, Jesus remained in the background, concealing his identity from all but a few. Both Jesus and John claimed authority from heaven for themselves and for one another (Matthew 21:23–27). Soon after John was arrested and imprisoned in the fortress of Machaerus, Jesus began an open ministry in Galilee (Mark 1:14). John was able even in prison to keep in touch with the activities of Jesus through his followers (Matthew 11:2).

How did Jesus regard John?

A question arises as to the identity of John. When John was approached by the party from Jerusalem, and asked if he was the Christ or Elijah, he replied with an emphatic “no.” But when Jesus ventured to reveal his evaluation of John, he affirmed unmistakably that John was Elijah.

Which is it? Is it possible that Jesus regarded him as Elijah, whereas John did not?

The answer must lie in the sense of the question posed to John.

Figuratively he was Elijah, and he carried out the functions of the forerunner, but he did not want to accept the Jewish interpretation of this figure. He preferred to designate himself simply as the “voice” (John 1:23), because this title was not loaded with traditional misinterpretations.

The death of John the Baptist

The account of John’s death is the only major story in the Gospel of Mark that is not about Jesus.

It is clear from both the Gospel of Mark and Josephus that Herod Antipas regarded John as a prime instigator in the messianic ferment that gripped Judea.

John constituted a political threat to Herod’s reign, and when John also criticized the morals of Herodias, his bride, Herod locked John in prison.

John’s death had an effect on Jesus himself. When he first heard of the arrest, he withdrew into Galilee, sensing danger to himself. Later, when he learned of John’s execution, he went into a lonely place, doubtless to contemplate the dreadful meaning of this for his own future.

Learn more in the online course:
Four Portraits, One Jesus

Who were John the Baptist’s followers?

John and Jesus both gathered a band of disciples, and some of John’s disciples came to Jesus and joined his group. In a short ministry of six months, John had gained great popularity. According to Mark 1:5, “The whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem went out to him.”

Loyalty to John’s memory was still strong several years later when Jesus played upon it to avoid answering a loaded question:

Jesus entered the temple courts, and, while he was teaching, the chief priests and the elders of the people came to him. “By what authority are you doing these things?” they asked. “And who gave you this authority?”

Jesus replied, “I will also ask you one question. If you answer me, I will tell you by what authority I am doing these things. John’s baptism—where did it come from? Was it from heaven, or of human origin?”

They discussed it among themselves and said, “If we say, ‘From heaven,’ he will ask, ‘Then why didn’t you believe him?’ But if we say, ‘Of human origin’—we are afraid of the people, for they all hold that John was a prophet.”

So they answered Jesus, “We don’t know.”

Then he said, “Neither will I tell you by what authority I am doing these things.

Long after the death of Jesus, Priscilla and Aquila met a Jew named Apollos who was a disciple of John the Baptist and came from Alexandria, and soon after Paul encountered a band of twelve of John’s disciples at Ephesus.

This indicates that John’s followers were fairly numerous and widespread long after his death. The two messianic communities were hardly in competition, because as soon as John’s disciples heard the gospel of Christ, they gladly accepted the message.

Years later, Josephus could still write that many people in his day held to the theory that Herod suffered defeat because of his treatment of John, and this proves how deep a loyalty and impression John created in the minds of his contemporaries.

Even today there exists a sect called the Mandeans that claims to perpetuate the movement begun by John the Baptist.

Without doubt, John the Baptist was a profound influence upon the people of his day and upon the birth and growth of the church. His prophetic passion and burning zeal set the stage for the emergence of Jesus Christ.


Coming soon: Gary Burge’s online course on the Gospel of John. Take a look at the FREE preview:

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This post is adapted from Clark H. Pinnock’s article on John the Baptist in the Zondervan Encyclopedia of the Bible and Gary Burge’s online course on the book of John.

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