John the Baptist is born into a family of priests (Luke 1:5-13). John’s mother is the cousin of Mary, the mother of Jesus (vv. 34-36). John’s birth is miraculous, for his mother was barren (v. 7). The births of both John and Jesus are foretold by an angel (vv. 11 & 26). John leaps for joy in the womb of Elizabeth when she comes near to Christ in the womb of Mary (v. 41). John is Spirit-filled from his birth (Luke 1:15) and grows strong in the Spirit (v. 80). Both Jesus and John will live short, strenuous lives. Both are despised by the religious leaders and carried to their graves by a small group of followers.
Over four hundred years have passed since Israel has heard the voice of a true prophet. Isaiah prophesies concerning John’s mission as the forerunner who will announce the Messiah (40:3). The last verses of Malachi concern the arrival of John the Baptist (4:5-6). When John begins his ministry, he closes the door of the Old Testament and opens the door to the New Testament.
John the Baptist is a self-disciplined man that grows strong through self-denial, not self-indulgence. He drinks no intoxicants and denies himself even the simple pleasures of life (Luke 1:15). John is not destined to dress in soft clothing and live in a palace (Matt. 11:8). Personal comfort is not part of his agenda. He does not allow carnal appetites to control him. His home may have been a desert cave near the ruins of Sodom and Gomorrah. It is in solitude that John receives revelations entrusted only to those determined to know the innermost secrets of Gods heart
John’s Connection with Elijah
The Old Testament closes with a contrast between John the Baptist and Elijah (Mal. 4:5). To Elijah, God is the One who answers with fire (I Kings 18:24). John preaches Christ is the one who baptizes with the Holy Spirit and fire (Luke 3:16). Before John is born, the angel announces he will minister in the power of Elijah (1:17). Jesus Himself contrasts John’s dynamic ministry with that of Elijah (Matt. 11:14). Both John and Elijah are tough, self-sacrificial men. Both men are reared near Gilgal. Both herald the arrival of the Messiah and promote reform. Both experience moments of deep depression and despair (I Kgs. 19:14 & Luke 7:19). Both exist on meager diets: the ravens bring food to Elijah and John eats locusts and honey (I Kgs. 17:4 & Mark 1:6). Both men deal with violent women: Jezebel is determined to kill Elijah and Herodias vents her hatred on John (I Kgs. 19:1-2 & Mark 6:24-27). The life of both John and Elijah prove that a preacher’s doctrine is linked inseparably with his character.
John’s Preaching and Theology
As God’s messenger (Matt. 11:10), John is the first person with whom Jesus makes contact as He begins His ministry. Both John and Jesus love truth and Jesus says John speaks the truth (John 5:33). John the Apostle wrote that everything John the Baptist taught concerning Jesus is absolutely true (10:41).
Because John’s preaching centers on the Messiah, the religious rulers cannot classify this peculiar species of preacher. John is not a desert hermit. Although he is a powerful preacher of righteousness, he performs no miracles (John 10:41). John warns the established order will be held accountable for their sins (Matt. 3:10). “Every tree that does not bring forth good fruit will be cut down and cast into the fire” (Luke 3:9). God will burn that which is useless with unquenchable fire (v. 12). To John, the Sadducees are a brood of snakes (v. 7). The Messiah will baptize you with the Holy Ghost (v. 16). Be content with your wages, do not be violent, take no more than is due to you and accuse no man falsely (vv. 13-14). John chastises the spiritual bigots by informing them that God is able to turn rocks into worshippers (v. 8).
John knows of Jesus pre-existence (John 1:30) and that Jesus is the Lamb of God (John 1:30 & 36). He understands Jesus is God’s Son, for the Father speaks from heaven when Jesus is in the Jordan River (Matt. 3:17). John also is aware of the Holy Spirit, for He descends in the form of dove at Jesus’ baptism.
John’s self-estimation validates his true character. When followers of John complain about Jesus, John uses the situation to point them to Christ (John 3:26-36). He knows his mission is to help others understand Jesus’ mission. John identifies himself simply as a voice, warning people to prepare for Christ’s arrival (Matt. 3:3). John’s foundational characteristic is humility. He does not desire the chief seat in the synagogue (Mark 12:39). Unlike Peter and James, he expresses no interest in sitting on Jesus’ right and left hand in His kingdom (Mark 10:37). He does not seek worldly recognition or academic titles (Matt. 23:7).
John has a correct estimate of himself. His character is big because his self-estimate is small. John continually seeks to get the focus off himself and to get others to focus on Jesus. “I must decrease and He must increase” (John 3:30). “He is mightier than I am” (Matt. 3:11). “I have told you already that I am not the Christ” (John 3:28). “I am just the friend of the Groom” (John 3:29). “I am unworthy to untie His shoes” (Mark 1:7). John sees himself as only a voice, heralding Messiah’s arrival (John 3:28). John teaches us that one’s love for Christ can only increase as self-love decreases. Indeed, one’s appreciation of Jesus increases in direct proportion to one’s self depreciation.
Jesus testifies that John is a holy man, rebuking the Pharisees who say John has a devil (John 7:33). John is a man of prayer. Jesus’ disciples ask Him to teach them to pray “as John taught his disciples” (Luke 11:1). Jesus knows John cannot be shaken like a reed in the wind. He is aware he will not bend and bow to the teachings of the Pharisees, but rather stand strong against them (Matt. 11:7-12). John is uncompromising, consistent, steadfast, and is not intimidated by hypocrisy and sin.
John is regarded by Jesus as much more than a mere prophet, for he is the one who announces the arrival of Christ (Matt. 11:9). The people are willing to listen to John for awhile, but when he calls for repentance, most reject his message (Matt. 21:32). It is dangerous to toy with repentance, as a moth toys with candle flame. John is called to preach to a spiritually apathetic nation, much like America today.
John and the Baptism of Jesus
The Jordan River has great significance throughout the history of Israel. In Jordan’s waters, Naaman’s leprosy is healed (II Kgs. 5:10). Joshua and the Israelites cross over this river into the Promised Land (Josh. 4:1). Both Elijah and Elisha split the Jordan in order to cross it (II Kgs. 2:8 & 14). It is in this symbolic river the Son of God is baptized by John.
The Bible does not teach water baptism as a moral cleansing. Peter points that water baptism is simply symbolic of the washing away of sins (I Pet. 3:21). Those who are baptized by John understand true repentance comes by confession of sins (Mark 1:5). However, the spotless Lamb of God has no sins to confess. Believers follow Christ’s example of water baptism, identifying with His death, burial and resurrection (Rom. 6:3-4).
In the only conversation recorded between John and Jesus, John admits his need. “I need to be baptized by You, yet you ask this of me” (Matt. 3:14). But John’s initial hesitation is due to humility, not disobedience. When Jesus tells John to baptize Him, he obeys. Although the voice of Jehovah has been silent for four hundred hears, as the Son of God emerges from the water, He speaks to affirm His Son’s deity. “This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased” (Mark 1:11). The Holy Spirit descends in the form of a gentle dove, symbolic of the future arrival of the Spirit in the lives of believers (Acts 2:4).
John and Herod
Herod Antipas is the Roman tetrarch of Judea from 4 BC to AD 39. Aware of Herod’s wily ways, Jesus compares him to a fox (Luke 13:32).To better comprehend John’s objection to the marriage of Herod and Herodias, it must be understood that Herodias has been married to her father’s brother, Philip. Although she is Herod’s niece, she leaves her husband to marry Herod. Herod also divorces his wife to marry Herodias. Incestuous marriages are forbidden by law. John contests this marital union on the basis of adultery and incest.
Mark affirms that Herod sees John as a holy man and that John speaks to Herod on several occasions (Mark 6:20). One can picture the contrast between Herod in his royal robes and the preacher in his clothing of camel’s hair. Although John’s preaching has some effect upon Herod, he does not repent. Herod seems to respect John, but when John accuses him of adultery, Herod must make a decision (v. 18).
Many will gladly listen to a pastor until he begins to point out their private sins. Although some preachers will sugar coat the facts, John will not. A weaker minister might have suggested to Herod that this marriage is an unwise political career move. But John takes the matter to the highest court and brings the adulterous couple before the supreme Judge of the world. By his accusation, John lays his ax to the root of their rotten family tree. He leaves the castle, but is soon arrested (Mark 6:17). Herodias is aware Herod respects John and knows her throne is not secure while John lives. She is like a mad Jezebel, thirsting for the blood of Elijah. Had she the power, she would have killed John herself (v. 19).
The free man of the wilderness is now incarcerated, probably in the Castle Machaerus, known as The Black Tower. This fortress stands on a high hill on the east shore of the Dead Sea. From its 200 foot towers one can see Jordan, the Red Sea and Jerusalem. But John cannot enjoy this view, for he is locked in the lower dungeons hewn from solid rock.
In the depths of his earthen prison, John seems to have some doubts. He only wants assurance he has not missed God’s will. He sends two of his disciples to ask Jesus if He really is the Messiah (Luke 7:20). Jesus sends back words of comfort. “Tell John…the blind see, the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised…and blessed is he that is not offended in Me” (v. 22).
The Bible is filled with real people with real issues. Had John the Baptist not wavered, had Jonah not pouted, had Thomas not doubted, had Moses not run away, had David not sinned with Bathsheba, had Peter not denied the Lord and had Elijah not run from Jezebel, we might shut our Bibles, believing that only perfect persons can effectively serve the Lord. But the Word of God assures us that all Believers will face both external opposition and internal doubts.
John and Herodias
Herod’s court is noted for its shameless parties and immoral women are often introduced during the festivities. The young daughter of Herodias dances for Herod at his birthday party (Mark 6:21). Because the girl pleases him, he tells her she may have whatever she wants (v. 22). But the hasty promise of Herod seals the fate of John. Herodias seizes the moment, instructing her daughter to ask for the head of John on a plate (v. 25). Herod is very sorry for his rash vow, but not sorry enough to endanger his political career by retracting his promise.
John has now been in prison for many months. His executioner arrives, he is decapitated and his head is delivered to Herodias. Josephus the historian records that John’s body is cast over the castle wall and lays unburied until John’s disciples learn of his death and bury him (Mark 6:29). Upon hearing the news of John’s death, Jesus departs into the desert to be alone (Matt. 13:14). John is misunderstood, persecuted and finally killed. Steven will not be the first Christian to be martyred: that honor belongs to John the Baptist.
Scripture abounds with cases similar to this. As with Ahab when he vacillates, Jezebel has her way with him and dogs eat them both (I Kings 21:23-24). When Samson compromises his morality, Delilah has her way with him. Blinded and mocked by his enemies, Samson is forced to grind grain like an animal (Judges 16:21). Although Herod listens to John, Herodias has her way with him. Heeding his woman, he orders the death of the prophet. History records that Herod is eventually defamed, banished from Rome and dies in obscurity.
As the angel has promised before his birth, John is destined to be great in God’s sight (Luke 1:15). Although a man’s worth is often exaggerated after his death, Jesus praises the character of John while he is still alive. He proclaims a greater man has never been born (Matt. 11:11). John is great when he accuses Herod of immorality (Mark 6:18). He is great when he tells us to “behold the Lamb of God that takes away the sins of the world” (John 1:36). But John’s true greatness lies in his recognition that Jesus must be promoted, not himself. “I must decrease, but He must increase” should be every Christian’s motto (John 3:30).
A prophet tends to show up in an era when God’s people have been unfaithful and confused. When messianic expectancy is at its lowest point, John bursts on the scene like a shooting star. For two thousand years, the Jews have been waiting for the event which John will announce. His preaching produces a dynamic effect; even the religious leaders go into the desert to hear him. Every sermon John preaches prepares people for the coming of Messiah: and preparation means repentance.
As it was John’s great privilege to announce the arrival of Christ, so now it is our great privilege to announce His second coming.
Working from Bible texts and this article, respond to the following:
1. John was from a family of:
B. tax collectors
2. How was Jesus’ mother related to John’s mother?
3. What was especially unique about John (Luke 1:15)?
4. Which Old Testament prophet predicted the arrival of John?
5. Which of the following terms best describes John?
6. From the above article, list similarities between Elijah and John.
7. List some of John’s warnings found in Matthew 3, Luke 3, and John 1 & 10.
8. From the above article, list some characteristics of John.
9. Unlike the others, why did Jesus not confess His sins when He was baptized (Mark 1:5)?
10. Herodias was Herod’s:
11. John accused Herod of:
12. What did Herodias’ daughter ask the king for?
13. What did Jesus testify concerning John (Matt. 11:11)?