John The Baptist

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Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament [1]

John The Baptist

i. John’s Importance, and Sources for his History.

ii. Birth, Youth, and Pre-Prophetic Life.

iii. The Public Ministry.

iv. John’s Baptism of Jesus and Witness regarding Him.

v. Imprisonment and Death.

vi. John and his Disciples.

vii. Our Lord’s Estimate of John.

i. John’s Importance, and Sources for his History.—The significance of John the Baptist for the history of Christianity is shown by the place given him in the Gospel records by every one of the four Evangelists. St. Mark describes John’s mission in the very first words of his narrative as ‘the beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God’ mark ( Mark 1:1). St. Luke makes the story of John’s birth the prelude to his wonderful narrative of the greater birth at Bethlehem ( Luke 1:5 ff.). The three Synoptists are agreed in representing his mission as the necessary preparation, in accordance with OT prophecy, for the manifestation of the Christ ( Mark 1:2-3,  Matthew 3:3,  Luke 3:4 ff.), while in all the Gospels his baptism of Jesus becomes the moment of the Lord’s equipment with the Spirit for His Messianic office ( Mark 1:9 ff.,  Matthew 3:16 f.,  Luke 3:21 f.; cf.  John 1:32 ff.). In the Prologue to his Gospel the Fourth Evangelist describes John as ‘a man sent from God,’ who ‘came for a witness, to bear witness of the light, that all men through him ( i.e. Jesus) might believe’ ( John 1:6-7). In accordance with this general sense of John’s great importance for Christ and Christianity is the space devoted to him in the Gospel narratives as a whole. It is true that Lk. alone furnishes any information about him previous to the moment when he suddenly issued from his retirement in the wilderness and began to preach the baptism of repentance in the Jordan Valley, and true also that in the case of the Fourth Gospel it is difficult often to distinguish between the Evangelist’s statements as a historian and his own subjective exposition. But when we put together all the references to John’s ministry and history and character which we find either in the form of historical narrative, or testimony from the lips of Jesus, or reflexion on the part of an Evangelist, and when we make use besides of one or two sidelights which fall from the book of Acts and the pages of Josephus, we find that for knowledge regarding the Baptist’s mission, his character, his relation to Jesus Christ, and his place in the history of both the old and the new dispensations, we are in no lack of plentiful and trustworthy sources of information.

ii. Birth, Youth, and Pre-Prophetic Life

The fact that Lk. alone of the Gospels gives an account of John’s earlier life, together with the artistic nature of the narrative and its presumed discrepancy with the representation of the Fourth Gospel in respect of a connexion between John and Jesus previous to the baptism of the latter (cf.  Luke 1:36;  Luke 1:56 with  John 1:31;  John 1:33), has frequently been supposed to reduce this exquisite story to the level of pure legend. In view, however, of St. Luke’s claims to historical accuracy ( Luke 1:1;  Luke 1:4), and of the vindication of these claims at so many points by modern research (cf. W. M. Ramsay, St. Paul the Traveller , ch. i., Was Christ born at Bethlehem  ?; Chase, The Credibility of Acts ), it is impossible to set his narrative aside as if it rested on no basis of historical fact. It is full of poetry, no doubt, but it is the kind of poetry which bursts like a flower from the living stem of actual truth. Any attempt to dissolve the narrative into fictions of a later growth must reckon with the fact that the Evangelist is evidently making use at this point of an early Aramaic source steeped in the colours of the OT—‘the earliest documentary evidence respecting the origins of Christianity which has come down to us, evidence which may justly be called contemporary’ (Plummer, ‘St. Luke’ in Internat. Crit. Com ., p. 7). This document, which, if it is historical, must have rested in large part upon the authority of the Virgin Mary, St. Luke, ‘as a faithful collector of evangelic memorabilia , allows to speak for itself, with here and there an editorial touch’ (Bruce, Expositor’s Gr. Test., ad loc .). To appreciate the historical sobriety and manifestly primary character of this early Jewish-Christian source, we have only to compare the first chapter of Lk. with the relative sections of the Protevangelium Jacobi , and especially with those chapters (22–24) which Harnack calls the Apocryphum Zachariae (see Hasting's Dictionary of the Bible, Extra Vol. p. 431).

According to Lk., John was the son of Zacharias, a priest of the course of Abijah (see art. Zacharias), and his wife Elisabeth who belonged to the family of Aaron ( Luke 1:5 ff.). Elisabeth was a kinswoman (not ‘cousin,’ see Plummer, op. cit. p. 25) of the Virgin Mary ( John 1:36), who paid her a three months’ visit immediately before the birth of John ( Luke 1:56, cf.  Luke 1:36;  Luke 1:39-40). John was the senior of Jesus by six months ( Luke 1:36;  Luke 1:57, cf.  John 2:6). The name John, properly Johanan (Ἰωάννης = יוֹהָנָן, cf. Heb. text and LXX Septuagint of  1 Chronicles 3:24,  2 Chronicles 28:12), was given to the child by his parents in obedience to a Divine direction ( Luke 1:13), and in spite of the opposition of neighbours and kinsfolk ( Luke 1:58-63).

Regarding the place of John’s birth there has been much discussion. Lk. describes the house of Zacharias as in ‘a city of Judah’ which lay in ‘the hill country’ ( Luke 1:39-40). A number of commentators have assumed, without any warrant, that this must have been Hebron, as being a priestly town in that region. Others have suggested that τολις Ἰούδα is a corruption for τολις Ἰούτα (Reland, Pal . [Note: Palestine, Palestinian.] p. 870; Robinson, BR P [Note: RP Biblical Researches in Palestine.] 2 [Note: designates the particular edition of the work referred] ii. 206), so that the Baptist’s birthplace would he Jutah or Juttah, to the south of Hebron (Robinson, op. cit., ib ., and i. 495), which is mentioned in Joshua as having been allotted to the priests (21:16). A tradition as early as the Crusades assigns the honour to Ain Karim , a village which lay between Jerusalem and Bethlehem. All this, however, is purely conjectural, and it is best to be content to say that John was born in a town unknown, in the hill country of Judah. See, further, art. Judah.

Of the external incidents of John’s childhood and youth Lk. gives no information. All that is told us bears upon his spiritual growth. According to an announcement of the angel Gabriel, he was to be ‘filled with the Holy Ghost from his mother’s womb’ ( Luke 1:15). That a peculiar Divine blessing did rest upon him from the first is implied in the words, ‘the hand of the Lord was upon him’ ( Luke 1:66); that this Divine presence made itself manifest in the development of his character is evident when the Evangelist adds, ‘and the child grew, and waxed strong in spirit’ ( Luke 1:80).

But whatever the outward tenor of John’s way in that priestly house in the hill country of Judah, a great crisis must have come at last, followed by a sudden break in his manner of life. A priest’s son, he would naturally, according to all Jewish traditions, have stepped into the priestly office, and enjoyed the honours, abundance, and comparative ease that were parts of his birthright. But spiritual instincts and powers which had long been unknown in Israel began to make themselves felt in the young man’s heart, and this son of a priest went forth into the deserts to be shaped in solitude into a prophet mightier than Elijah or Isaiah. Of the precise nature of the impulse which first led him to withdraw himself from his fellows, the duration of his stay in the wilderness, and the fashion of his life while there, no Evangelist has anything to tell us. But it is certainly a grotesque mistake to suppose that he left his home and the haunts of men in order to become an Essene (see the excellent remarks of Godet on this point, Com. On Lk . i. p. 117 f.).* [Note: This theory, put forth by Grätz (Gesch. der Juden, iii. p. 100) and adopted by many since, has been repeated once more in the art. ‘Essence’ in Jewish Encyc., where it is added that the slience of the NT about the Essense ‘is perhaps the best proof that they furnish the new sect [i.e. Christianity] with its main elements as regards personnel and views’—as striking an illustration as could well be discovered of a fallocious use of the argumentum e silentio. On John’s relations to the Essenes see Lightfoot, Colossians, Dissert. iii.]

There was absolutely no resemblance between John, the desert solitary, as he is described to us in the pages of the Gospels ( Matthew 3:4 || 11:7ff. || 11:18 ||), and the Essenes with their white garments and their cenobitic establishments, as we come across them in the pages of Josephus ( BJ ii. viii. 2–13, Ant . xviii. i. 5). All that can be said is that John was an ascetic as the Essenes were, and that in both cases the revolt against prevailing luxury and corruption sprang out of the deep seriousness which marked the more earnest spirits of the time (see Rüegg, art. ‘Johannes der Täufer’ in PR E [Note: RE Real-Encyklopädie fur protest. Theologic und Kirche.] 3 [Note: designates the particular edition of the work referred] ). John’s withdrawal into the wilderness indicated his disapproval of society as he found it, it signified more especially an absolute break with the prevalent Pharisaic type of piety. But in his case it meant much more than this, much more even than the adoption of severely ascetic habits in the interests of his own spiritual life. It was as one who was conscious that he was set apart for the office of a prophet (cf.  Luke 1:14-17;  Luke 1:76 ff.), and who felt himself called in particular to take up in Israel a work of reformation similar to that of Elijah ( Luke 1:17; cf.  Matthew 11:14;  Matthew 17:12,  John 1:21), that John betook himself to the deserts ( Luke 1:80) and there lived the life of one who hides himself from men that he may the better see the face of God. Locusts and wild honey were his food, while his clothing was a loose cloak (ἔνδυμα) of woven camel’s hair and a leathern girdle about his loins ( Matthew 3:4,  Mark 1:6; cf.  2 Kings 1:8).† [Note: That he ate locusts, as the Bedawin still do, not carob-beans, is now the prevalent opinion of scholars (cf. art. Locust, and in hastings DB, s.v.). Cheyne, however, holds out for carob-beans (Encyc. Bibl., artt. ‘Husks’ and ‘John the Baptist’). See also Expos. Times, xv. [1904] pp. 285, 335, 429, xvi. [1905] p. 382.]

How long John remained in ‘the deserts,’ by which is doubtless meant the awful solitudes of the Wilderness of Judaea, and how he grew into the full sense of the precise nature of his prophetic vocation as the forerunner and herald of the Messiah, we cannot tell. But the Holy Ghost who had been working in him, and the hand of the Lord which had been laid upon him from the first, his own constant brooding over words of ancient prophecy ( John 1:23, cf.  Matthew 3:3 ||), and a deep intuitive reading of the signs of the times, would gradually bring him to a clear knowledge both of his function as a prophet and of the time when he must begin to exercise it. And so came at last the day of his ‘shewing’ (ἀνάδειξις) unto Israel ( Luke 1:80).

iii. The Public Ministry.—It was in the 15th year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar that the word of God came to John in the wilderness summoning him to enter upon his work as a prophet ( Luke 3:1-2). Immediately he obeyed the summons ( Luke 3:3). The scene of his ministry, according to Mk., was ‘the wilderness’ ( Mark 1:4), according to Mt. ‘the wilderness of Judaea’ ( Matthew 3:1), according to Lk. ‘all the country about Jordan’ ( Luke 3:3). Probably, as hitherto, the Wilderness of Judaea continued to be his home—that wild region which stretches westwards from the Dead Sea and the Jordan to the edge of the central plateau of Palestine; but when he preached he must have done so in some place not too far removed from the haunts of men, while, owing to his practice of baptism (almost certainly by immersion), the Jordan necessarily marked the central line of his activity ( Matthew 3:6;  Matthew 13:16,  Mark 1:5;  Mark 1:9). To Jn. we owe the information that he baptized on both sides of the river ( John 1:28;  John 3:28;  John 10:40). John’s work may be considered under two aspects, (1) his preaching, (2) his baptism.

1. John’s Preaching. —According to Mt. the essence of John’s preaching, the text as we might say of all his sermons, was this: ‘Repent ye, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand’ ( Matthew 3:2). The second part of this text was the fundamental part. It shows that John was fully conscious that the long-expected Messianic age was now about to dawn, and that it was his mission to proclaim the fact. By his trumpet-voiced proclamation of this fact he thrilled the nation to its heart and drew forth the multitude into the wilderness to hear him ( Matthew 3:5,  Luke 3:7; cf. Josephus, Ant . xviii. v. 2)—men from Jerusalem and men from Galilee ( John 1:19;  John 1:35 ff.) (civilians and soldiers ( Luke 3:10;  Luke 3:14), Pharisees and publicans side by side ( Matthew 3:7,  Luke 3:12).

But while the preacher’s fundamental message was the announcement of the near approach of the Messianic Kingdom, he combined with these glad tidings of good a stern summons to repentance. Repentance, he said, μετάνοια, a change of mind and heart, were indispensable as a preparatory condition for all who would share in the privileges of the new order about to be set up. To the Jewish mind this was an unexpected and unwelcome note in a herald of the Messiah; and John’s utterance of it and strenuous emphasis upon it form one of the marks of his profound originality as a prophet. According to the popular conviction, all Israel would have a lot and a part in the blessings of the Messianic age, and that specifically because of their descent from Abraham. It was recognized that judgments would accompany the appearance of the Christ, but these judgments were to fall upon the Gentiles, while Abraham’s children would be secure and happy in that day of the Lord. The Talmud explains the cry of the prophetic watchman, ‘The morning cometh, and also the night’ ( Isaiah 21:12), by saying, ‘The night is only to the nations of the world, but the morning to Israel’ (Jerus. [Note: Jerusalem.] Taan . 64 a , quoted by Edersheim, Life and Times , i. 271). Not so, said John. Repentance is the prime requisite for all who would enter the Kingdom of heaven. Descent from Abraham counts for nothing ( Matthew 3:9). Every fruitless or worthless tree must be hewn down and cast into the fire ( Matthew 3:10). The very leaders of the nation themselves, the Pharisees and Sadducees, must bring forth fruit worthy of repentance if they are to escape from the wrath to come ( Matthew 3:7-8).

2. John’s Baptism. —Alongside of the spoken word John set that great distinctive symbol of his ministry from which his title ‘the Baptist’ (ὁ Βαπτιστής) was derived. He came not only preaching but baptizing, or rather, so closely was the symbol interwoven with the word, he came ‘preaching the baptism of repentance’ ( Mark 1:4,  Luke 3:3). To understand John’s baptismal doctrine it is necessary to think of the historical roots out of which it sprang. For though he gave to the rite a depth of meaning it had never had in Israel before, he evidently appealed to ideas on the subject which were already familiar to the Jewish people. In particular, three moments in the preceding history of the religion of Israel appear to be gathered up in the baptism of John as it meets us in the Gospels.

( a ) The theocratic washings of the Jews (Leviticus 11-15, Numbers 19). That a religious intention underlay those ‘divers washings’ of the ceremonial law is evident (cf.  Leviticus 14:32;  Leviticus 15:13,  Mark 1:44,  Luke 2:22;  Luke 5:14,  John 2:6), while the historical connexion of John’s baptism with them is proved by the fact that in NT times βαπτίζειν had come to be the regular term alike for those ceremonial washings and for the Messianic baptism of the Forerunner (for detailed proof and reff. on these points see the present writer’s Sacraments in the NT , p. 56 f.). And yet, though John’s baptism finds its earliest historical roots in the Levitical washings, it is far from finding its complete explanation there. It was essentially an ethical rite, and thus very different from an outward ceremony to which some value could be attached apart from the moral and spiritual condition of the recipient. In the case of all who came to him John insisted upon repentance; and they ‘were baptized of him in Jordan, confessing their sins’ ( Matthew 3:2;  Matthew 3:6).

( b ) The Messianic lustration foretold by the prophets .—Long before the time of John, prophetic souls in Israel had seen that for a true cleansing the nation must look to those Messianic days when God should open a fountain for sin and for uncleanness, sprinkling His people with clean water, and putting a new heart and a new spirit within them ( Jeremiah 33:8,  Ezekiel 36:25-26, Zee 13:1). It was John’s function to declare that those great Messianic promises were now going to receive their fulfilment at the hands of the Messiah Himself. His baptism, we have said, was a baptism of preparation for the Kingdom, preparation which took the form of repentance and confession. But even more than a baptism of preparation it was a baptism of promise, promise both of the Kingdom and the King, being a promissory symbol of a perfect spiritual cleansing which the Messiah in person should bestow—‘I indeed baptize you with water unto repentance; but he that cometh after me … shall baptize you with the Holy Ghost and with fire’ ( Matthew 3:11 ||).

( c ) Another historical moment which should not be lost sight of is the proselyte baptism of the Jewish Church . It may now be regarded as certain that the baptism of proselytes had been the rule in Israel long before NT times (see especially Schürer, HJ P [Note: JP History of the Jewish People.] ii. i. 319; Edersheim, Life and Times , ii. 745 ff.); and proselyte baptism helps us to understand the baptism of John in certain of its aspects. When a Gentile ‘sought shelter under the wings of the Shekinah,’ it was understood that he was utterly renouncing his past. And John insisted on a like renunciation in the case of candidates for his baptism. The danger of the proclamation that the Kingdom of heaven was at hand lay in the fact that multitudes would claim to enter that Kingdom as a matter of course, without being prepared to submit to the necessary conditions. Not so, said John. God does not depend upon Israel alone for the peopling of His Kingdom. He ‘is able of these stones to raise up children unto Abraham’ ( Matthew 3:9). Even a Jew, if he is to be received, must come as a humble penitent who casts himself upon the Divine grace He must come like a stranger and a proselyte renouncing the past, not as one who claims an inalienable right, but as one who seeks by fruits of repentance to flee from the wrath to come ( Matthew 3:7-8,  Luke 3:7-8). For the baptism of the Coming One is a baptism of judgment. His win-nowing-fan is in His hand; and while He will gather His wheat into the garner, He will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire ( Matthew 3:12,  Luke 3:17). On the baptism of John see, further, art. Baptism.

iv. John’s Baptism of Jesus and Witness regarding Him.— 1 . The baptism of Jesus by John is recorded in all the Synoptics ( Matthew 3:13 ff.,  Mark 1:9 f.,  Luke 3:21), but is not mentioned in the Fourth Gospel. The author, however, makes the Baptist refer to the descent of the Spirit upon Jesus in the form of a dove ( John 1:32 ff.) as an authenticating sign which he received that He was the Messiah; and this incident is represented by the other three as following immediately upon the baptism, though the first two, and probably the third also, describe the visible sign as bestowed upon Jesus Himself along with the approving voice from heaven ( Matthew 3:16,  Mark 1:10 f.,  Luke 3:22). If the scene of the baptism was the same as that of John’s subsequent witness to Jesus recorded in the Fourth Gospel, it took place at ‘Bethany beyond Jordan’ ( John 1:28), a site which has been much discussed, but cannot be said to have been certainly identified (see art. Bethabara).

It was here, then, in all likelihood, that Jesus met John when He came from Galilee to be baptized of him ( Matthew 3:13). At first John was unwilling to perform the rite upon such an applicant, but Jesus insisted. ‘Thus it becometh us to fulfil all righteousness’ ( Matthew 3:15). He recognized John’s baptism as an appointment of the Divine righteousness which it was proper that He should accept. If the fitness of that baptism in the case of Jesus is called in question, we must remember that it had an initiatory aspect which would commend it to Him as He saw in it an opportunity of consecrating Himself definitely and openly to the Messianic kingdom and its tasks. But if John’s words of protest ( Matthew 3:14) imply that even in the baptism of Christ the cleansing aspect of the rite was in view, was it not proper that the ‘Lamb of God’ ( John 1:29;  John 1:36), who had no sense of personal guilt, nothing to repent of or confess, should even now begin to bear upon His heart the burden of the sins of others, even as on a coming day He was to bear them ‘in his own body on the tree’ ( 1 Peter 2:24)?

2 . Of the intercourse of John with Jesus, the Fourth Gospel gives an account which differs widely from that presented in the Synoptics; but apart from the Johannine colouring of the later narrative, the difference is sufficiently explained on the ordinary view that the Synoptists describe the meeting between the two at the time of our Lord’s baptism, while the Fourth Evangelist concerns himself only with John’s subsequent testimony to the now recognized Messiah (cf.  John 1:7 f.). There is no real discrepancy between John’s ‘I knew him not,’ reported in the Fourth Gospel ( John 1:31), and the representation of Mt. ( Matthew 3:13 ff.), that when the Man from Nazareth presented Himself at the Jordan, John declined at first to baptize Him, on the ground of his own unworthiness in comparison. Even if we suppose that in spite of their kinship and the friendship between their mothers the two had not met before, the fact that John’s baptism was a baptism of repentance and confession seems to imply a personal interview with applicants previous to the performance of the rite—an interview which in the case of Jesus must have revealed to one with the Baptist’s insight the beauty and glory of His character. On the other hand, the ‘I knew him not’ of the last Gospel, as the context shows, only means that John did not know that Jesus was indeed the Messiah until he received the promised sign ( John 1:32 f.).

It is true that in the Fourth Gospel John is made to bear a witness to Jesus by the banks of the Jordan ( John 1:15-36) which finds no parallel in the earlier narratives; but if we follow the ordinary view of students of the chronology of our Lord’s life—that the narrative of the Fourth Evangelist comes in after the forty days of the Temptation have intervened, and that John now sees Jesus in the light not only of the authenticating sign given at the baptism, but of his own reflexion ever since upon the subject of the character of Jesus and the fulfilment of the Messianic promise—the fulness and explicitness of his testimony upon this later occasion appear perfectly natural. The twice-repeated ἔμπροσθέν μου γέγονεν ( John 1:15;  John 1:30), it is true, cannot be understood, so far as the Baptist himself is concerned, as referring to pre-existence, though this was probably involved in the thought of the Evangelist. But the designation of Jesus as ‘the Lamb of God’ ( John 1:29;  John 1:36), and especially the phrase ‘which taketh away the sin of the world’ ( John 1:29), reveals a conception of the Saviour’s Messianic functions which is certainly profound, but which, in spite of the objections which have been taken to it, cannot surprise us in the case of one who had brooded like John over the utterances of OT prophecy (cf. especially Isaiah 53).

The Fourth Evangelist records a further witness regarding Jesus which John bore to his own disciples on a later occasion, when he was baptizing in aenon (wh. see), near to Salim ( John 3:23 ff.). In this passage the difficulty of discriminating between the original words and facts of history and the Johannine setting and atmosphere is even greater than usual, but the figure of the Bridegroom ‘that hath the bride’ and the Bridegroom’s friend who rejoices in the other’s joy ( John 3:29), and the saying, ‘He must increase, hut I must decrease’ ( John 3:30), are so thoroughly in keeping with other utterances of the Baptist recorded in the Synoptics as well as in the Fourth Gospel regarding the relations between the Messiah and himself ( Matthew 3:3;  Matthew 3:11,  John 1:15;  John 1:27), that it is difficult to resist the impression of historical reality which they make upon the reader.

v. John’s Imprisonment and Death ( Matthew 14:3-12,  Mark 6:17-29,  Luke 3:19-20; cf. Josephus Ant . xviii. v. 1, 2).—According to the Synoptists, the arrest and execution of John were due to the spiteful hatred of Herodias (wh. see), because he had rebuked Herod for making her his wife in flagrant defiance of the law of Israel ( Leviticus 18:16;  Leviticus 20:21). Josephus, on the other hand, says that Herod put the prophet to death because he ‘feared lest the great influence John had over the people might put it in his power and inclination to raise a rebellion; for they seemed ready to do anything he should advise.’ The two statements, however, are not irreconcilable; and certainly the evidence of Josephus, whose interests as a historian lay altogether in the political direction, is not such as to cast any suspicion on the trustworthiness of the more detailed and more intimate Gospel narrative. It may very well have been the case that, while John’s death was really due to the implacable hate of Herodias, Herod felt that this was hardly an adequate ground, or one that he would care to allege, for the execution of the Baptist, and so made political reasons his excuse. Assuredly there was nothing of the political revolutionary about John; yet his extraordinary influence over the people and the wild hopes raised among certain classes by his preaching might make it easy for Herod to present a plausible justification of his base deed by representing John as a politically dangerous person.

There may seem to be a contradiction within the Evangelic narratives themselves, when we find Mt. saying that Herod would have put John to death but that he feared the multitude ( Matthew 14:5), while Mk. alleges that Herod ‘feared John, knowing that he was a righteous man and an holy, and kept him safe … and heard him gladly’ ( Mark 6:20). But the contradiction lies in Herod’s character rather than in the testimonies of the two writers, and the words πολλὰ ἡπόρει, ‘he was much perplexed’ ( Mark 6:20 WH [Note: H Westcott and Hort’s text.] and Revised Version NT 1881, OT 1885), explain adequately enough a moral situation of which we have the final revelation in Herod’s weakly vacillating behaviour, ‘letting I dare not wait upon I would,’ when Herodias through her daughter Salome ( Matthew 14:6,  Mark 6:22; cf. Josephus Ant . xviii. v. 4) presented her horrible request. That Herod did not really regard John as a political fanatic is suggested by all that the Gospels tell us as to the way in which he treated him while he lay in prison; by the personal audiences he granted him ( Mark 6:20), and by the fact that he allowed him to have intercourse with his disciples ( Matthew 11:2,  Luke 7:18-19), and through them to exchange messages with Jesus ( Matthew 11:2-6,  Luke 7:19-23).

The message which John sent to Jesus has often been regarded as exceedingly strange on the part of one who had previously borne so signal a witness that Jesus was the Christ, and it has even been suggested that he sent his messengers not because there was any wavering of his own faith, but for the sake of his disciples, to whom he wished some confirmation of the Messiahship of Jesus to be given (see Bebb in Hasting's Dictionary of the Bible ii. 680a). But the more simple explanation is also the one which is truer to human nature. The depression wrought by imprisonment on one accustomed to the freedom of the wilderness, together with his disappointment at the seeming delay of Jesus to assert His power and authority as the Christ of Israel, had resulted in an hour of the power of darkness in the soul of the great prophet, when he began to wonder whether after all he had not made a great mistake. That in spite of his doubts he had not lost his faith in Jesus is shown by the very fact that it was to Jesus Himself that he applied to have these doubts removed, as well as by that message of encouragement and ‘strong consolation’ which the Bridegroom sent back to His sorely tried friend: ‘Blessed is he whosoever shall not be offended in me’ ( Matthew 11:6,  Luke 7:23).

From Josephus we learn that the Castle of Machaerus (wh. see) was the scene of the Baptist’s imprisonment ( Ant . xviii. v. 1, 2). Machaerus was a powerful stronghold, at once a fortress and a palace ( BJ vii. vi. 1–3; cf. Pliny, Hist. Nat . v. xvi. 72), situated on the eastern shores of the Dead Sea (G. A. Smith, HGH L [Note: Historical Geog. of Holy Land.] p. 569 f.). Within these gloomy walls, then, the death of John took place, one of ‘those awful tragedies for which nature has provided here so sympathetic a theatre’ ( op. cit. in loc .). Of this tragedy St. Mark has furnished us with the fullest account ( Mark 6:21-29) in a narrative which is not more thrilling in its dramatic vividness than it is instinct with the elements of what might almost be described as self-evidencing moral and historical truth.

vi. John and his Disciples.—Besides the crowds that came to him to be baptized, John appears to have drawn around him a circle of closer followers, who are referred to in all the Gospels as his ‘disciples’ ( Matthew 9:14 [||  Mark 2:18,  Luke 5:33]  Luke 11:2 [||  Luke 7:18-19],  Mark 6:29,  Luke 11:1,  John 1:35;  John 1:37;  John 3:25;  John 4:1; cf.  Acts 18:25;  Acts 19:1 ff.). It appears that, unlike Jesus, he enjoined regular fasts upon his disciples ( Matthew 9:14 ||), and that he also gave them forms of prayer ( Luke 11:1) which they were in the habit of employing frequently ( Luke 5:33). Possibly he utilized them as assistants in the work of baptizing, for which he could hardly have sufficed personally when his movement was at its height.

It was from the circle of these disciples of the Baptist that the disciples of Jesus were immediately drawn ( John 1:28-51), and that not only with John’s full consent, but through his own express witness both in public ( John 1:19 ff.,  John 1:29 ff.) and in private ( John 1:35 f.) to the superior worth of Jesus and to his own function as the mere herald and forerunner of the latter. And yet he did not, as we might have expected, decline, after Christ’s baptism, to stand any longer to others in the relation of a master to his disciples. Perfectly loyal as he was to Him whom he recognized as the Messiah, he evidently felt, as Jesus also did previous to John’s imprisonment ( John 3:22;  John 3:24;  John 4:1-2), that there was still need for a work of preparation, and room therefore for a discipleship to the Forerunner. But when his disciples grew jealous of the rapidly growing popularity of Jesus, and came to him with their complaint, he proclaimed to them once more the true relation between that Other and himself,—‘He must increase, but I must decrease,’—and reminded them how he had said from the first that he was not the Christ, but was sent before Him ( John 3:28; cf.  Matthew 3:11 ||).

The fidelity of John’s disciples to their master is shown by their holding together and continuing to observe his prescriptions after he was cast into prison (cf.  Matthew 4:12 || with  Matthew 9:14 ||), by their attendance upon him during his captivity ( Matthew 11:2 ff.,  Luke 7:18-19 ff.), and by their loving and reverent treatment of his corpse ( Mark 6:29). The vital impression he made upon them, and the self-propagating power of the baptism of repentance in the absence of a higher teaching, is proved by the fact that more than 20 years afterwards, and in the far-off city of Ephesus, St. Paul found certain disciples, including no less a personage than Apollos, the Alexandrian Jew, who knew no other baptism than that of John ( Acts 19:1 ff; cf.  Acts 18:24 ff.). Before the growing light of Christianity John’s baptism as a baptism of preparation for the Messiah soon vanished away, but the traces of his memory and influence are found lingering long afterwards in the name, doctrines, and practices of the Hemerobaptists, who claimed John as one of themselves ( Clem. Hom . ii. 23; cf. Hegesippus in Euseb. Historia Ecclesiastica iv. 22; Justin Martyr, Dial. c. Tryph . On the relation of the Hemerobaptists to John, see Lightfoot, Colossians , p. 402 ff.).

vii. Our Lord’s estimate of John.—The task of appreciating the character and activity of John the Baptist is rendered easy for us by the frequent utterances of Jesus Himself. If the worth of praise is to be measured by the lips from which it falls, no mortal man was ever praised so greatly as he whom Jesus described as ‘a burning and a shining light’ ( John 5:35), as one who was ‘much more than a prophet’ ( Matthew 11:9 Revised Version NT 1881, OT 1885,  Luke 7:26), as the Elijah who by his coming was to ‘restore all things’ ( Matthew 11:14;  Matthew 17:10 ff.,  Mark 9:11 ff.); and of whom He said: ‘Among them that are born of women there hath not risen a greater than John the Baptist’ ( Matthew 11:11; see the whole passage, and cf.  Luke 7:24 ff.). That John had his limitations Jesus made clear ( Mark 2:18 ff.), but He attributed these not to any personal shortcomings, but to the fact that he belonged to the time of preparation, and so stood by a dispensational necessity outside of the realized Kingdom of God ( Matthew 11:11 b,  Luke 7:28 b).

Again and again Jesus revealed His sense of the Divine value that attached to the baptism of John. He showed it when He insisted on submitting to that baptism Himself, and by the words He used on the occasion ( Matthew 3:15). He showed it when He asked the question, ‘The baptism of John, whence was it? from heaven, or of men?’ ( Matthew 21:25 ||), a question to which His own answer was self-evident, and which St. Luke answers for us when he says that ‘all the people when they heard, and the publicans, justified God, being baptized with the baptism of John. But the Pharisees and the lawyers rejected for themselves the counsel of God, being not baptized of him,  Luke 7:29 f.). And may we not say that in His words to a certain Pharisee ( John 3:1) about the necessity of a birth ‘of water and the Spirit’ ( John 3:5), He was indicating once more the deep religious value of John’s water-baptism, while insisting at the same time on the indispensableness of that spiritual birth which comes only from above ( John 3:3)? Time after time, too, even to the closing days of His ministry, words which Jesus let fall reveal to us that He carried about with Him continually the thought of His predecessor’s career, and perceived the bearing of its lessons upon His own ministry and earthly lot and fate (see  Matthew 9:15 ff.  Matthew 11:12 ff.,  Matthew 11:18 f.,  Matthew 17:9 ff.,  Matthew 21:32,  Luke 16:16). And, finally, after His resurrection, we find that as He had justified John at the first by taking up his baptism of preparation, so now He crowns the work of the Forerunner by instituting the baptism of the Kingdom itself ( Matthew 28:19). John had adopted the rite as the distinctive symbol of his reforming activity and the gateway into the sphere of Messianic preparation. Jesus transformed it into a sacrament of the Christian Church—at once the token of the gospel of forgiveness and the sign and seal of discipleship to Himself.

Literature.—Relative sections in works on Life of Christ by Neander, Keim, Renan, Weiss, Beyschlag, and Edersheim; Ewald, H I [Note: I History of Israel.] vi. 160–200; Reynolds, John the Baptist  ; Feather, John the Baptist  ; Hasting's Dictionary of the Bible, artt. ‘John the Baptist,’ ‘Baptism,’ and vol. ii. 610f.; PR E [Note: RE Real-Encyklopädie fur protest. Theologic und Kirche.] 3 [Note: designates the particular edition of the work referred] , art. ‘Johannes der Taufer’; Haupt, Johannes der Täufer  ; Bornemann, Die Taufe Christi church Johannes  ; Seeley, Ecce Homo , ch. i.; Expos. Times , xiii. [1902] 483f. XV. [1903] 5ff.: Expositor , i. v. [1877] 11ff., 98 ff., viii. [1878] 23 ff., iii . i. [1885] 267 ff., v. i. [1895] 201 ff., vi. [1897] 139 ff., vii. [1898] 187ff.; Wilkinson, A Johannine Document in the First Chapter of St. Luke’s Gospel  ; the earlier sections of Althaus, Die Heilsbedeutung der Taufe .

J. C. Lambert.

Watson's Biblical & Theological Dictionary [2]

the forerunner of the Messiah, was the son of Zechariah and Elizabeth, and was born about six months before our Saviour. His birth was foretold by an angel, sent purposely to deliver this joyful message, when his mother Elizabeth was barren, and both his parents far advanced in years. The same divine messenger foretold that he should be great in the sight of the Lord: that he should be filled with the Holy Spirit from his mother's womb; that he should prepare the way of the Lord by turning many of the Jews to the knowledge of God; and that he should be the greatest of all the prophets,  Luke 1:5-15 . Of the early part of the Baptist's life we have but little information. It is only observed that "he grew and waxed strong in spirit, and was in the deserts till the day of his showing unto Israel,"  Luke 1:80 . Though consecrated from the womb to the ministerial office, John did not enter upon it in the heat of youth, but after several years spent in solitude and a course of self-denial.

The prophetical descriptions of the Baptist in the Old Testament are various and striking. That by Isaiah is: "The voice of him that crieth in the wilderness, Prepare ye the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God,"  Isaiah 40:3 . Malachi has the following prediction: "Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the coming of the great and dreadful day of the Lord. And he shall turn the hearts of the fathers to the children, and the hearts of the children to the fathers, lest I come and smite the earth with a curse,"  Malachi 4:5 . That this was meant of the Baptist, we have the testimony of our Lord himself, who declared, "For all the prophets and the law prophesied until John. And if ye will receive it, this is Elias who was to come,"  Matthew 11:14 . The appearance and manners of the Baptist, when he first came out into the world, excited general attention. His clothing was of camel's hair, bound round him with a leathern girdle, and his food consisted of locusts and wild honey,  Matthew 3:4 . The message which he declared was authoritative: "Repent ye, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand;" and the impression produced by his faithful reproofs and admonitions was powerful and extensive, and in a great number of instances lasting. Most of the first followers of our Lord appear to have been awakened to seriousness and religious inquiry by John's ministry. His character was so eminent, that many of the Jews thought him to be the Messiah; but he plainly declared that he was not that honoured person. Nevertheless, he was at first unacquainted with the person of Jesus Christ; only the Holy Ghost had told him that he on whom he should see the Holy Spirit descend and rest was the Messiah. When Jesus Christ presented himself to receive baptism from him, this sign was vouchsafed; and from that time he bore his testimony to Jesus, as the Christ.

Herod Antipas, having married his brother Philip's wife while Philip was still living, occasioned great scandal. John the Baptist, with his usual liberty and vigour, reproved Herod to his face; and told him that it was not lawful for him to have his brother's wife, while his brother was yet alive. Herod, incensed at this freedom, ordered him into custody, in the castle of Machoerus; and he was ultimately put to death. ( See Antipas . ) Thus fell this honoured prophet, a martyr to ministerial faithfulness. Other prophets testified of Christ; he pointed to him as already come. Others saw him afar off; he beheld the advancing glories of his ministry eclipsing his own, and rejoiced to "decrease" while his Master "increased." His ministry stands as a type of the true character of evangelical repentance: it goes before Christ and prepares his way; it is humbling, but not despairing; for it points to "the Lamb of God which taketh away the sins of the world."

The Jews had such an opinion of this prophet's sanctity, that they ascribed the overthrow of Herod's army, which he had sent against his father-in- law, Aretas, to the just judgment of God for putting John the Baptist to death. The death of John the Baptist happened, as is believed, about the end of the thirty-first year of the vulgar era, or in the beginning of the thirty-second.

The baptism of John was much more perfect than that of the Jews, but less perfect than that of Jesus Christ. "It was," says St. Chrysostom, "as it were, a bridge, which, from the baptism of the Jews, made a way to that of our Saviour, and was more exalted than the first, but inferior to the second. That of St. John promised what that of Jesus Christ executed. Notwithstanding St. John did not enjoin his disciples to continue the baptism of repentance, which was of his institution, after his death, because, after the manifestation of the Messiah, and the establishment of the Holy Ghost, it became of no use; yet there were many of his followers who still administered it, and several years after the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, did not so much as know that there was any other baptism than that of John. Of this number was Apollos, a learned and zealous man, who was of Alexandria, and came to Ephesus twenty years after the resurrection of our Saviour,  Acts 18:25 . And when St. Paul came after Apollos to the same city, there were still many Ephesians who had received no other baptism, and were not yet informed that the Holy Ghost was received by baptism in the name of Jesus Christ,  Acts 19:1 . The Jews are said by the Apostle Paul to have been "baptized unto Moses," at the time when they followed him through the Red Sea, as the servant of God sent to be their leader. Those who went out to John "were baptized unto John's baptism;" that is, into the expectation of the person whom John announced, and into repentance of those sins which John condemned. Christians are "baptized into the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost," because in this expression is implied that whole system of truth which the disciples of Christ believe; into the name of the Father, the one true and living God whom Christians profess to serve; of the Son, that divine person revealed in the New Testament whom the Father sent to be the Saviour of the world; of the Holy Ghost, the divine person also revealed there as the Comforter, the Sanctifier, and the Guide of Christians.

John The Evangelist was a native of Bethsaida, in Galilee, son of Zebedee and Salome, by profession a fisherman. Some have thought that he was a disciple of John the Baptist before he attended Jesus Christ. He was brother to James the greater. It is believed that St. John was the youngest of the Apostles. Tillemont is of opinion that he was twenty-five or twenty-six years of age when he began to follow Jesus. Our Saviour had a particular friendship for him; and he describes himself by the name of "that disciple whom Jesus loved." St. John was one of the four Apostles to whom our Lord delivered his predictions relative to the destruction of Jerusalem, and the approaching calamities of the Jewish nation,  Mark 13:3 . St. Peter, St. James, and St. John were chosen to accompany our Saviour on several occasions, when the other Apostles were not permitted to be present. When Christ restored the daughter of Jairus to life,  Mark 5:37;  Luke 8:51; when he was transfigured on the mount,  Matthew 17:1-2;  Mark 9:2;  Luke 9:28; and when he endured his agony in the garden,  Matthew 26:36-37;  Mark 14:32-33; St. Peter, St. James, and St. John were his only attendants. That St. John was treated by Christ with greater familiarity than the other Apostles, is evident from St. Peter desiring him to ask Christ who should betray him, when he himself did not dare to propose the question,  John 13:24 . He seems to have been the only Apostle present at the crucifixion, and to him Jesus, just as he was expiring upon the cross, gave the strongest proof of his confidence and regard, by consigning to him the care of his mother,  John 19:26-27 . As St. John had been witness to the death of our Saviour, by seeing the blood and water issue from his side, which a soldier had pierced,  John 19:34-35 , so he was one of the first made acquainted with his resurrection. Without any hesitation, he believed this great event, though "as yet he knew not the Scripture, that Christ was to rise from the dead,"  John 20:9 . He was also one of those to whom our Saviour appeared at the sea of Galilee; and he was afterward, with the other ten Apostles, a witness of his ascension into heaven,  Mark 16:19;  Luke 24:51 . St. John continued to preach the Gospel for some time at Jerusalem: he was imprisoned by the sanhedrim, first with Peter only,  Acts 4:1 , &c, and afterward with the other Apostles,  Acts 5:17-18 . Some time after this second release, he and St. Peter were sent by the other Apostles to the Samaritans, whom Philip the deacon had converted to the Gospel, that through them they might receive the Holy Ghost,  Acts 8:14-15 . St. John informs us, in his Revelations, that he was banished to Patmos, an island in the AEgean Sea,  Revelation 1:9 .

This banishment of the Apostle to the isle of Patmos is mentioned by many of the early ecclesiastical writers; all of whom, except Epiphanius in the fourth century, agree in attributing it to Domitian. Epiphanius says that John was banished by command of Claudius; but this deserves the less credit; because there was no persecution of the Christians in the time of that emperor, and his edicts against the Jews did not extend to the provinces. Sir Isaac Newton was of opinion that John was banished to Patmos in the time of Nero; but even the authority of this great man is not of sufficient weight against the unanimous voice of antiquity. Dr. Lardner has examined and answered his arguments with equal candour and learning. It is not known at what time John went into Asia Minor. Lardner thought that it was about the year 66. It is certain that he lived in Asia Minor the latter part of his life, and principally at Ephesus. He planted churches at Smyrna, Pergamos, and many other places; and by his activity and success in propagating the Gospel, he is supposed to have incurred the displeasure of Domitian, who banished him to Patmos at the end of his reign. He himself tells us that he "was in the isle that is called Patmos, for the word of God, and for the testimony of Jesus Christ;" and Irenaeus, speaking of the vision which he had there, says, "It is not very long ago that it was seen, being but a little before our time, at the latter end of Domitian's reign." On the succession of Nerva to the empire in the year 96, John returned to Ephesus, where he died at an advanced age in the third year of Trajan's reign, A.D. 100. An opinion has prevailed, that he was, by order of Domitian, thrown into a caldron of boiling oil at Rome, and came out unhurt; but this account rests almost entirely on the authority of Tertullian, and seems to deserve little credit.

2. The genuineness of St. John's Gospel has always been unanimously admitted by the Christian church. It is universally agreed that St. John published his Gospel in Asia; and that, when he wrote it, he had seen the other three Gospels. It is, therefore, not only valuable in itself, but also a tacit confirmation of the other three; with none of which it disagrees in any material point. The time of its publication is placed by some rather before, and by others considerably after, the destruction of Jerusalem. If we accede to the opinion of those who contend for the year 97, this late date, exclusive of the authorities which support it, seems favoured by the contents and design of the Gospel itself. The immediate design of St. John in writing his Gospel, as we are assured by Irenaeus, Jerom, and others, was to refute the Cerinthians, Ebionites, and other heretics, whose tenets, though they branched out into a variety of subjects, all originated from erroneous opinions concerning the person of Christ, and the creation of the world. These points had been scarcely touched upon by the other evangelists; though they had faithfully recorded all the leading facts of our Saviour's life, and his admirable precepts for the regulation of our conduct. St. John, therefore, undertook, perhaps at the request of the true believers in Asia, to write what Clement of Alexandria called a spiritual Gospel; and, accordingly, we find in it more of doctrine, and less of historical narrative, than in any of the others. It is also to be remembered, that this book, which contains so much additional information relative to the doctrines of Christianity, and which may be considered as a standard of faith for all ages, was written by that Apostle who is known to have enjoyed, in a greater degree than the rest, the affection and confidence of the divine Author of our religion; and to whom was given a special revelation concerning the state of the Christian church in all succeeding generations.

We have three epistles by this Apostle. Some critics have thought that all these epistles were written during St. John's exile in Patmos; the first, to the Ephesian church; the others to individuals; and that they were sent alone with the Gospel, which the Apostle is supposed also to have written in Patmos. Thus Hug observes, in his "Introduction:" If St. John sent his Gospel to the continent, an epistle to the community was requisite, commending and dedicating it to them. Other evangelists, who deposited their works in the place of their residence, personally superintended them, and delivered them personally; consequently they did not require a written document to accompany them. An epistle was therefore requisite, and, as we have abundantly proved the first of John's epistles to be inseparable from the Gospel, its contents demonstrate it to be an accompanying writing, and a dedication of the Gospel. It went consequently to Ephesus. We can particularly corroborate this by the following observation: John, in the Apocalypse, has individually distinguished each of the Christian communities, which lay the nearest within his circle and his superintendence, by criteria, taken from their faults or their virtues. The church at Ephesus he there describes by the following traits: It was thronged with men who arrogated to themselves the ministry and apostolical authority, and were impostors, ψευδεις . But in particular he feelingly reproaches it because its "first love was cooled," την αγαπην σου την πρωτην αφηκας . The circumstance of impostors and false teachers happens in more churches. But decreasing love is an exclusive criterion and failing, which the Apostle reprimands in no other community. According to his judgment, want of love was the characteristic fault of the Ephesians: but this epistle is from beginning to the end occupied with admonitions to love, with recommendations of its value, with corrections of those who are guilty of this fault,  1 John 2:5;  1 John 2:9-11;  1 John 2:15;  1 John 3:1;  1 John 3:11-12;  1 John 3:14-18;  1 John 3:23;  1 John 4:7-10;  1 John 4:12;  1 John 4:16-21;  1 John 5:1-3 . Must not we therefore declare, if we compare the opinion of the Apostle respecting the Ephesians with this epistle, that, from its peculiar tenor, it is not so strikingly adapted to any community in the first instance as to this?

The second epistle is directed to a female, who is not named, but only designated by the honourable mention, εκλεκτη κυρια , "the elect lady." The two chief positions, which are discussed in the first epistle, constitute the contents of this brief address. He again alludes to the words of our Saviour, "A new commandment," &c, as in  1 John 2:7 , and recommends love, which is manifested by observance of the commandments. After this he warns her against false teachers, who deny that Jesus entered into the world as the Christ, or Messiah, and forbids an intercourse with them. At the end, he hopes soon to see her himself, and complains of the want of writing materials. The whole is a short syllabus of the first epistle, or it is the first in a renewed form. The words also are the same. It is still full of the former epistle: nor are they separated from each other as to time. The female appears before his mind in the circumstances and dangers of the society, in instructing and admonishing which he had just been employed. If we may judge from local circumstances, she also lived at Ephesus. But as for the author, his residence was in none of the Ionian or Asiatic cities, where the want of writing materials is not conceivable: he was still therefore in the place of his exile. The other circumstances noticed in it, are probably the following: the sons of the εκλεκτη κυρια had visited John,  2 John 1:4 . The sister of this matron wishing to show to him an equal respect and sympathy in his fate, sent her sons likewise to visit the Apostle. While the latter were with the Apostle, there was an opportunity of sending to the continent,  2 John 1:13 , namely, of despatching the two epistles and the Gospel.

The third epistle is written to Caius. The author consoles himself with the hope, as in the former epistle, of soon coming himself,  3 John 1:14 . He still experiences the same want of writing materials,  3 John 1:13 . Consequently, he was still living in the same miserable place: also, if we may judge from his hopes, the time was not very different. The residence of Caius is determined by the following criteria: The most general of them is the danger of being misled by false teachers,  3 John 1:3-4 . That which leads us nearer to the point, is the circumstance of John sometimes sending messages thither, and receiving accounts from thence,  3 John 1:5-8 , that he supposes his opinions to be so well known and acknowledged in this society, that he could appeal to them, as judges respecting them,  3 John 1:12 , and that, finally, he had many particular friends among them, 3

 John 1:15 . The whole of this is applicable to a considerable place, where the Apostle had resided for a long time; and in the second epoch of his life, it is particularly applicable to Ephesus. He had lately written to the community, of which Caius was a member, εγραψα τη εκκλησια , "I wrote to the church,"  3 John 1:9 . If this is to be referred to the first epistle, (for we are not aware of any other to a community,) then certainly Ephesus is the place to which the third epistle was also directed, and was the place where Caius resided. From hence, the rest contains its own explanation. John had sent his first epistle thither; it was the accompanying writing to the Gospel, and with it he also sent the Gospel. Who was better qualified to promulgate the Gospel among the believers than Caius, especially if it was to be published at Ephesus?

The above view is ingenious, and in its leading parts satisfactory; but the argument from the Apostle's supposed want of "writing materials," is founded upon a very forced construction of the texts. There seems, however, no reason to doubt of the close connection, in point of time, between the epistles and the Gospel; and, that being remembered, the train of thought in the mind of the Apostle sufficiently explains the peculiar character of the latter.

Hastings' Dictionary of the Bible [3]

John The Baptist . The single narrative of John’s birth and circumcision (  Luke 1:1-80 ) states that, as the child of promise (  Luke 1:13 ), he was born in ‘a city of Judah’ (  Luke 1:39 ), when his parents were old (  Luke 1:7 ). They were both of priestly descent (  Luke 1:5 ), and his mother was a kinswoman of the mother of Jesus (  Luke 1:36 ). John was a Nazirite from his birth (  Luke 1:15 ); he developed self-reliance in his lonely home, and learnt the secret of spiritual strength as he communed with God in the solitudes of the desert (  Luke 1:80 ). In the Judæan wilderness the wild waste which lies to the west of the Dead Sea this Elijah-like prophet (  Luke 1:17 ) ‘on rough food throve’; but, notwithstanding his ascetic affinities with the Essenes, he was not a vegetarian, his diet consisting of edible locusts (  Leviticus 11:22 ) as well as the vegetable honey which exudes from fig-trees and palms (  Matthew 3:4 ). For this and for other reasons as, e.g. , his zeal as a social reformer, John cannot be called an Essene (Graetz). It was not from these ‘Pharisees in the superlative degree’ (Schürer) that the last of the prophets learnt his message. His familiarity with the OT is proved by his frequent use of its picturesque language (  Luke 3:17 , cf.   Amos 9:9 ,   Isaiah 66:24;   John 1:23 , cf.   Isaiah 40:3;   John 1:29 , cf.   Isaiah 53:7 ,   Exodus 29:38;   Exodus 12:3 ), but he heard God’s voice in nature as well as in His word: as he brooded on the signs of the times, the barren trees of the desert, fit only for burning, and the vipers fleeing before the flaming scrub, became emblems of the nation’s peril and lent colour to his warnings of impending wrath (cf. G. A. Smith, HGHL [Note: GHL Historical Geography of Holy Land.] p. 495).

In the wilderness ‘the word of God came unto John’ ( Luke 3:2 ). The phrase implies (  1 Samuel 15:10 etc.) that, after more than three centuries of silence, the voice of a prophet was to be heard in the land, and the Synoptic Gospels (  Matthew 3:1-12 ,   Mark 1:1-8 ,   Luke 3:1-20 ) tell of the stirring effects of his preaching in ever-widening circles (  Matthew 3:5 ), and give a summary of his message. It is probable that, in the course of his successful six months’ ministry, John moved northwards along the then more thickly populated valley of the Jordan, proclaiming the coming of the Kingdom to the crowds that flocked to hear him from ‘the whole region circumjacent to Jordan’ (  Luke 3:3 ); once at least (  John 10:40 ) he crossed the river (cf. Sanday, Sacred Sites of the Gospel , p. 35 f.; Warfield, Expositor , iii. [1885] i. p. 267 ff.; and see Bethany, Salim). ‘The kingdom of heaven is at hand’ (  Matthew 3:2 ) was the Baptist’s theme, but on his lips the proclamation became a warning that neither descent from Abraham nor Pharisaic legalism would constitute a title to the blessings of the Messianic age, and that it is vain for a nation to plead privilege when its sins have made it ripe for judgment. There is a Pauline ring in the stern reminder that Abraham’s spiritual seed may spring from the stones of paganism (  Luke 3:8 , but also   Matthew 3:9 , cf.   Romans 4:16;   Romans 9:7 ,   Galatians 4:28 ). On the universality of the coming judgment is based John’s call to repentance addressed to all men without respect of persons. The axe already ‘laid to the root of the trees’ (  Luke 3:9 ) will spare those bringing forth good fruit, and not those growing in favoured enclosures. Soldiers, publicans, and inquirers of different classes are taught how practical and how varied are the good works in which the ‘fruits’ of repentance are seen (  Luke 3:8 ff.).

The baptism of John was the declaration unto all men, by means of a symbolic action, that the condition of entrance into God’s Kingdom is the putting away of sin. It was a ‘repentance-baptism,’ and its purpose was ‘remission of sins’ ( Mark 1:4 ) [Weiss regards this statement as a Christianized version of John’s baptism, but Bruce ( EGT [Note: Expositor’s Greek Testament.] , in loc. ) agrees with Holtzmann that forgiveness is implied ‘if men really repented’]. John’s baptism was no copying of Essene rites, and it had a deeper ethical significance than the ‘divers washings’ of the ceremonial law. It has close and suggestive affinities with the prophet’s teaching in regard to spiritual cleansing (  Isaiah 1:16 ,   Ezekiel 36:25 ,   Zechariah 13:1 ), the truth expressed in their metaphorical language being translated by him into a striking symbolic act; but John’s baptism has most definite connexion with the baptism of proselytes, which was the rule in Israel before his days (Schürer, HJP [Note: JP History of the Jewish People.] ii. 322 f.). John sought ‘to make men “proselytes of righteousness” in a new and higher order. He came, as Jesus once said, “in the way of righteousness”; and the righteousness he wished men to possess … did not consist in mere obedience to the law of a carnal commandment, but in repentance towards God and deliberate self-consecration to His kingdom’ (Lambert, The Sacraments in the NT , p. 62). When Jesus was baptized of John (  Matthew 3:13 ff.,   Mark 1:9 ff.,   Luke 3:21 f.), He did not come confessing sin as did all other men (  Matthew 3:6 ); the act marked His consecration to His Messianic work, and His identification of Himself with sinners. It was part of His fulfilment of all righteousness (  Matthew 3:15 ), and was followed by His anointing with the Holy Spirit. John knew that his baptism was to prepare the way for the coming of a ‘mightier’ than he, who would baptize with the Holy Spirit (  Mark 1:8 ). But after Pentecost there were disciples who had not advanced beyond the Baptist’s point of view, and were unaware that the Holy Spirit had been poured out (  Acts 18:25;   Acts 19:3 f.).

The narrative in  John 1:15-34 assumes as well known the Synoptic account of John’s activity as evangelist and baptizer (  John 1:25 f.). From what John heard and saw at the baptism of Jesus, and from intercourse with Jesus, he had learnt that his mission was not only to announce the Messiah’s coming, and to prepare His way by calling men to repent, but also to point Him out to men.

Many critics regard the words, ‘Behold the Lamb of God, which taketh away the sin of the world’ ( John 1:29 ), as inconsistent with John’s later question, ‘Art thou he that cometh, or look we for another?’ (  Matthew 11:3 ); but if John learnt from Jesus what was His ideal of the Messiah’s work, it may well be, as Garvie says, ‘that Jesus for a time at least raised John’s mind to the height of His own insight; that when the influence of Jesus was withdrawn, John relapsed to his own familiar modes of thought; and that the answer of Jesus by the two disciples … was a kindly reminder’ of an earlier conversation ( Expositor , vi. [1902] v. 375).

This heightened sense of the glory of Jesus was accompanied by a deepening humility in John’s estimate of his own function as the Messiah’s forerunner. In his last testimony to Jesus ( John 3:29 ) ‘the friend of the bridegroom’ is said to have rejoiced greatly as he heard the welcome tidings that men were coming to Jesus (v. 26). It was a high eulogy when Jesus said, ‘John hath borne witness unto the truth’ (  John 5:33 ); but it also implied the high claim that the lowlier members of the Church, which is His bride, enjoy greater spiritual privileges than he who, in spite of his own disclaimer (  John 1:21 ), was truly the Elijah foretold by Malachi (  Matthew 11:14; cf.   Malachi 4:5 ), the herald of the day of which he saw only the dawn. It was not John’s fault that in the early Church there were some who attached undue importance to his teaching and failed to recognize the unique glory of Jesus the Light to whom he bore faithful witness (  John 1:7 f.).

The Synoptic narrative of the imprisonment and murder of John yields incidental evidence of his greatness as a prophet. There were some who accounted for the mighty works of Jesus by saying ‘John the Baptist is risen from the dead’ ( Mark 6:14 ).

Josephus ( Ant . XVIII. v. 2) makes the preaching of John the cause of his execution, and says nothing of his reproof of Antipas for his adultery with his brother’s wife (  Mark 6:18 ). Some historians ( e.g. Ranke) arbitrarily use Josephus as their main source, to the disparagement of the Gospels. But Sollertinsky ( JThSt [Note: ThSt Journal of Theological Studies.] i. 507) has shown that when the person of Antipas is concerned, ‘we are bound to consider the historian’s statements with the greatest care.’ Schürer (op. cit. ). who holds that the real occasion of John’s imprisonment was Herod’s fear of political trouble, nevertheless allows that there is no real inconsistency between the statement of Josephus and the further assertion of the Evangelists that John had roused the anger of Herod, and still more of Herodias, by his stern rebuke.

The last mention of John in the Gospels ( Matthew 21:26 ,   Mark 11:32 ,   Luke 20:6 ) shows that Herod had good cause to fear the popular temper. John’s influence must have been permanent as well as wide-spread when the chief priests were afraid of being stoned if they slighted him. After the transfiguration our Lord alluded to the sufferings of John, as He endeavoured to teach His disciples the lesson of His cross: ‘I say unto you that Elijah is come, and they have also done unto him whatsoever they listed’ (  Mark 9:13 ).

J. G. Tasker.

Baker's Evangelical Dictionary of Biblical Theology [4]

Apart from Jesus Christ, John the Baptist is probably the most theologically significant figure in the Gospels. As was the case with Jesus, his birth was meticulously recorded ( Luke 1:5-25 ). His entrance into the world was marked by angelic proclamation and divine intervention ( Luke 1:57-80 ). John's birth not only parallels that of Jesus, but echoes the momentous occasion of the birth of Isaac to Abraham and Sarah ( Genesis 17:15-22;  21:1-7 ). John is clearly a pivotal figure in the salvation history of God.

Although his formative years were lived in obscurity in the desert ( Luke 1:80 ), his public ministry ended nearly four hundred years of prophetic silence. John was that voice crying in the wilderness preparing the way for the coming Messiah ( Isaiah 40:3;  Matthew 3:3;  Mark 1:2-3;  Luke 3:3-6 ). In this sense his message and ministry marked the culmination of the law and the prophets, but heralded the inbreaking of the kingdom of God ( Matthew 11:12;  Luke 16:16 ). So John was truly a transitional figure, forming the link between the Old and New Testaments. He spans the ages with one foot firmly planted in the Old Testament and the other squarely placed in the New.

The central theme of his ministry was, "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near" ( Matthew 3:2 ). He was called "The Baptist" because his practice was to baptize those who responded to the message he proclaimed and sincerely repented of their sins ( Matthew 3:1;  Mark 6:14;  Luke 7:20 ).

John was an end-times prophet. He conducted his ministry with an eschatological authority that demanded immediate action. He taught that judgment is at hand. The axe is laid to the roots and God will thoroughly purge his threshing floor ( Matthew 3:10-12;  Luke 3:9,17 ). And the authenticity of repentance was evidenced in very practical terms: share with those in need, eliminate graft, and prohibit extortion ( Luke 3:11-14 ).

John's lifestyle was as austere as his message. He was an ascetic living in the wilderness, clothed in camel hair and subsisting on locusts and wild honey ( Matthew 3:4;  Mark 1:6 ). Unlike Jesus, he expected people to come to him, rather than he going to them ( Matthew 3:5 ).

John was no "crowd pleaser." He willingly confronted the hypocrisy of the religious establishment ( Matthew 3:7;  Luke 3:7 ). He did not hesitate to expose the immorality of Herod and chose to die a martyr's death rather than compromise his convictions ( Matthew 14:3-12;  Mark 6:17-29 ).

All of these characteristics portray John as a fiery prophet proclaiming the apocalyptic message of God. Indeed, Luke says that John came "in the spirit and power of Elijah" ( Luke 1:17 ). He goes on to allude to  Malachi 4:5 , which states that Elijah will return "before that great and dreadful day of the Lord." In fact, some contemporaries of John inquired if he were Elijah ( John 1:21 ).

The belief that Elijah would return and prepare the way of the Lord can be traced to  Malachi 3:1,4:5 . Such belief is also found in the extrabiblical accounts of Sirah 48:10, 2 Esdras 6:2 f. The Gospels also indicate that many believed that Elijah would come first, and then the Christ ( Matthew 11:14;  17:10;  Mark 6:15;  9:11;  Luke 9:8 ).

John flatly denied that he was Elijah reincarnated ( John 1:21,25 ). Nevertheless Jesus affirmed that Elijah must come first and that he had come in the person of John the Baptist ( Matthew 17:11-13;  Mark 9:12-13 ). John fulfilled Malachi's prophecy in a spiritual sense, rather than in a literal way.

In this way Jesus acknowledges the central role that John played in God's plan of salvation. He was the greatest born among women because he had the privilege of pointing to the Lamb of God ( John 1:29-34 ). Yet as the last great prophet of the pre-Christian era, he was the least in the kingdom of God ( Matthew 11:11;  Luke 7:28 ).

John fully accepted his subordinate role to Christ. He denied that he was the Christ and repeatedly emphasized that he was simply a witness to the Light ( John 1:19-23; cf. also  John 1:6-9;  John 3:27-30 ). John stated that Jesus was greater than he, and that Jesus had a more powerful ministry and baptism ( Mark 1:7-8;  Luke 3:16;  John 1:26-27 ). He did not want to baptize Jesus, but rather desired to be baptized by Jesus ( Matthew 3:13-14 ). John allowed his disciples to leave his own leadership and follow after Jesus ( John 1:35-39 ).

But for all of his greatness, John was merely human. In this sense he too joined in the popular speculations about the identity of Christ. It may be that John's vision of the Messiah varied so much from what he heard and saw in Jesus, that he came to question if Jesus were really the Christ ( Matthew 11:1-2;  Luke 7:18 ). The fact that Jesus was not an ascetic, and that he actively sought the fellowship of publicans and sinners may have been an offense to John and his disciples ( Matthew 9:9-17;  Matthew 11:18-19;  Luke 7:33-34 ). Jesus may have rebuked John in this regard when he said, "Blessed is the man who does not fall away on account of me" ( Matthew 11:6;  Luke 7:23 ).

Finally, even though John was merely a witness serving as a transitional figure, the impact of his life and ministry should not be underestimated. During his lifetime he had a following of disciples who shared common practices such as fasting and prayers ( Matthew 9:14;  John 1:35-37;  4:1-2 ). John's disciples survived his death and spread throughout the Mediterranean world. Apollos was from Alexandria in North Africa and at one point knew only of the baptism of John ( Acts 18:24-25 ). Similarly, upon arriving in Ephesus, Paul encountered about a dozen disciples of John. They too had only experienced the baptism of John ( Acts 19:1-7 ). These instances indicate that the Baptist's movement may have had more influence than what we are able to glean from the New Testament.

In recent scholarship, the historical relationship between Jesus and John has been the subject of study. How did Jesus view John and what did John make of Jesus' ministry? In this type of study, John often serves as a paradigm for interpreting the life and ministry of Jesus. For example, the inclusion of the suffering and death of John may foreshadow the pain and death of Jesus on the cross. Also, to what extent did John influence the life and ministry of Jesus? Indeed, the ill treatment of John by Herod Antipas may have had a significant impact upon Jesus' early ministry in Galilee and in his final days in Jerusalem.

The early Christian traditions that form the Gospel material on John are also the focus of modern research. For example, the scathing accusations and warnings of John are associated with the ministry of Jesus ( Luke 3:7-18 ), but in the end are not typical of his message. Also there appears to have been an early tradition that John had been raised from the dead ( Mark 6:14-16 ). What possible sources may have given rise to these traditions?

Even the topographical setting of John's ministry may be of theological significance. The desert setting may underscore the stark nature of John's message or may be symbolic of Israel's struggle in the desert.

And finally, the psychological and sociological analysis of John is of interest here. In accordance with the criteria of the sociology of deviance, John's behavior and message could be classified as "deviant." In this light, Matthew's use of  Isaiah 40:2-3 in 3:7-10 may seek to justify John and endorse the legitimacy of his ministry.

In conclusion, John the Baptist is of great theological importance in the New Testament. He ended nearly four hundred years of prophetic silence and paved the way for the Messiah. In the spirit of Elijah, he preached a message of repentance and baptism. In his darkest hour he questioned if Jesus was the One who was to come, or whether there would be another. He inaugurated a spiritual movement that had influence long after his death and extended throughout the Mediterranean world.

William A. Simmons

See also Elijah; Jesus Christ

Bibliography . R. E. Brown, New Testament Essays  ; M. Cleary, ITQ 54 (1988): 211-27; M. Faierstein, JBL 100 (1981): 75-86; R. C. Kazmierski, Bib 68 (1987): 22-40; J. Lambrecht, NTS 38 (1992): 357-84; P. J. Meier, JBL 99/3 (1980): 383-405; J. R. Miller, NTS 34 (1988): 611-22; S. J. Nortje, Neotestamentica 23 (1989): 349-58; P. Parker, Perspectives in Religious Studies 8 (1981): 4-11; J. A. T. Robinson, NTS 4 (1958): 263-81; idem, Twelve New Testament Studies  ; C. Scobie, John the Baptist  ; W. Wink, John the Baptist in the Gospel Tradition .

Fausset's Bible Dictionary [5]

Son of Zacharias (of the course of Abijah,  1 Chronicles 24:10) and Elisabeth (of the daughters of Aaron), who both "walked in all the commandments and ordinances of the Lord blameless." Elisabeth was related to the Virgin Mary; but Scripture does not state the exact relationship; the Greek in  Luke 1:36 ( Sungenees ), which our Bible renders "cousin," means any "relation" or "kinswoman," whether by marriage or birth. It is noteworthy that Jesus, of the Melchizedek order of priesthood, was related to but not descended from the Aaronic priests. Zacharias was old, and Elisabeth barren, when, as he was burning incense at the golden altar, Gabriel announced the answer to his prayers (not directly for a son, but, as Israel's representative, for Messiah the Hope of Israel) in the coming birth of a son, the appointed forerunner of Messiah; John (Jehovah's gift) was to he his name, because his supernatural birth was a pledge of the Lord's grace, long looked for, now visiting again His people to their joy (Luke 1).

John was to be "great in the sight of the Lord" (contrast Baruch,  Jeremiah 45:5). He should be in himself a pattern of that self denial which accords best with his subject of preaching, legal repentance, "drinking no strong drink, but filled with the Holy Spirit (see the same contrast,  Ephesians 5:18, the minister's enthusiasm ought to be not from artificial stimulant but from the Spirit's unction) from the mother's womb," a Nazarite ( Numbers 6:1-21). Like the great prophet reformer (compare  1 Kings 18:36-37) Elijah in "spirit. and power" of preaching, though not in miracles ( John 10:41), he should turn the degenerate "children to the Lord and to" their righteous "fathers, and the heart of the fathers to the children," their past mutual alienation being due to the children's apostasy; fulfilling  Malachi 4:4-6; bringing "Moses' law" to their remembrance, "lest Jehovah at His coming should smite the earth with a curse." Thus John should "make ready a people for the Lord." Zacharias for unbelief in withholding credit without a sign was punished with dumbness as the sign until the event came to pass.

In the hill country, where Elisabeth had retired, her cousin Mary saluted her, and the babe leaped in Elisabeth's womb. His birth was six months before our Lord's. At his circumcision on the eighth day Zacharias gave his name John; and his returning faith was rewarded with returning speech, of which his first use was to pour forth a thanksgiving hymn, in which he makes it his son's chief honour that he should be "prophet of the Highest, going before the Lord's face to prepare His ways" as His harbinger. John had the special honour of being the subject off prophecy ages before, and of being associated in close juxtaposition with Messiah Himself. John "waxed strong in spirit and was in the deserts until the day of his showing unto Israel" ( Luke 1:80). Meanwhile God's interposition in the wonders of his birth caused "all the people to be in expectation, musing in their hearts whether he were the Christ" ( Luke 3:15). The thinly-populated region adjoining the hill country of Judea was his haunt; there communion alone with God prepared him for his work.

At 30, when "the word of God came to" him ( Luke 3:2), he went forth, his very appearance a sign of the unworldliness and legal repentance. which he preached; his raiment a camel's hair garment secured with leather girdle ( 2 Kings 1:8) as Elijah's; his food that supplied by the desert, locusts ( Leviticus 11:22) and wild honey ( Psalms 81:16). All classes, Pharisees, Sadducees, the people, publicans, and soldiers, flocked to him from every quarter, Jerusalem, Judea, and the, region round Jordan ( Matthew 3:5; Luke 3). The leading sects he denounced as a "generation of vipers" (compare  Genesis 3:15, the serpent's "seed"), warning them that descent from Abraham would not avail with out doing Abraham's works (compare  John 8:39), and telling all practically and discriminatingly that the repentance needed required a renunciation of their several besetting sins; and that whereas, on their confession, he baptized with water baptism, the Mightier One would come baptizing with the Holy Spirit and fire ( Matthew 3:11-12). (See Baptism .)

When the ecclesiastical authorities sent priests and Levites from Jerusalem to ask, Who art thou? John replied, "I am the voice of one crying in the wilderness, Make straight the way of the Lord" ( John 1:19-23). The natural wilderness symbolized the moral ( Isaiah 32:15), wherein was no highway for the Lord and for righteousness. The hills of pride and the valleys of degradation must be brought to the one holy level before the Lord (Isaiah 40). John was the forerunner of the reigning Messiah ( Matthew 3:2;  Malachi 3:1), but through the nation's rejection of Him that reign was deferred (compare  Numbers 14:34 with  Matthew 23:37-39). John baptized Jesus and though knowing Him before as a man and his kinsman, yet then first knew His divine Messiahship by the Spirit's visible descent ( John 1:30-34). (See Jesus ; BAPTISM.) John thence forth witnessed to Jesus, desiring to "decrease that He might increase." By his testimony at Bethany (so oldest manuscripts for Bethabara) beyond Jordan, "Behold the Lamb of God," he led two of his disciples to Him, Andrew and John the apostle and evangelist ( John 1:35 ff;  John 3:23-36;  John 4:1-2;  Acts 19:3).

Yet John never formally joined Jesus; for he was one of the greatest among the Old Testament prophets, but not strictly in the New Testament kingdom, the least in which, as to spiritual privileges, was greater than he ( Luke 7:28). His standing was the last of Old Testament prophets, preparatory to the gospel. He taught fasting and prayers, rather in the spirit and therefore with the forms of, the old dispensation which the new would supersede, its new spirit creating its appropriate new forms ( Luke 5:33-38;  Luke 11:1). Herod Antipas beheaded him in the fortress Machaerus E. of the Dead Sea, to gratify Herodias' spite for John's faithfulness in denouncing her adultery, and in slavish adherence to his reckless oath to give Herodias' daughter Salome, for dancing on his birthday, whatever she might ask. (See Herod ANTIPAS.)

From the prison John had sent two (the Sinaiticus and Vaticanus manuscripts read  Matthew 11:2 "by," Dia , for Duo , two) disciples to Jesus to elicit from Himself a profession of His Messiahship, for their confirmation in the faith. (See Jesus .) Jesus at once confirmed them and comforted John himself (who probably had expected to see Jesus more openly vindicating righteousness, as foretold  Malachi 3:2-5;  Malachi 4:1-3), by an appeal to His miracles and preaching, the very credentials promised in  Isaiah 35:5;  Isaiah 61:1. Jesus at the same time attested John's unshaken firmness, appealing to His hearers' own knowledge of him (Matthew 11). No reed shaken by the wind, no courtier in soft raiment, was John. But whether it was the ascetical forerunner, or the social Lord Himself, that preached, that generation was dissatisfied, with John because he was too self denying, with Jesus because He would not commend their self-righteous fastings: "we have piped unto you (unto John) and ye have not danced; we have mourned unto you (unto Jesus) and ye have not lamented."

Of John as of Jesus they said, he hath a devil. John fell just before the third Passover of Christ's ministry; his disciples buried him Self denial, humility, wherewith he disclaimed Messiahship and said he was not worthy to unloose His shoes' latchet, zeal for the Lord's honour, and holy faithfulness at all costs, were his prominent graces. (On The "Elias Who Shall Yet Come," See Elijah , end.) John's ministry extended at its close into Peraea at the S.E. end of the lake of Galilee. When the herald was silenced the Master took up the message ( Mark 1:14) in the same quarter. John's labours there so impressed Herod that, "he feared and observed him, and when he heard him did many things, and heard him gladly"; but would not do the one thing needed, give up his adulterous paramour, his brother Philip's wife.

Elijah was translated in a chariot of fire; but John died a felon's death, for the forerunner was to be as his Lord. The worthless Ahab reappears in Herod with similar germs of good struggling with evil. Herodias answers to the cruel Jezebel. As Ahab in spite of himself respected Elijah, so Herod John; but in both cases the bad woman counteracted the good. John in prison fell into the same dejection concerning the failure of the Messianic kingdom, because it did not come in outward manifestation, as Elijah under the juniper. In both cases God came in the still small voice, not the earthquake and fire ( Matthew 12:15-21).

Bridgeway Bible Dictionary [6]

God’s purpose for John the Baptist was that he be the forerunner of the Messiah. Even before John was born, God revealed to his parents that he had been specially marked out for this task. Like prophets of a former era, John was to live a life of hardship and self-denial, at the same time preaching a message of repentance to the people of Israel. Those who responded to his message in obedience and faith would thereby show themselves to be the true people of God. They would be ready to welcome the Messiah and so enter his kingdom ( Luke 1:13-17;  Luke 1:57-66;  Luke 1:76-79;  Matthew 3:2).

Forerunner of the Messiah

People in Israel had long expected that Elijah the prophet would return before the coming of the Messiah ( Malachi 4:5). Jesus pointed out that this ‘Elijah’ was in fact John the Baptist ( Matthew 11:10-14;  Matthew 17:10-13). John preached in the spirit and power of Elijah ( Luke 1:17) and shared the harsh existence of Elijah, living in semi-barren regions where he wore rough clothing and ate wild food ( Matthew 3:4;  Luke 1:80;  Luke 3:2; cf.  1 Kings 17:5-7;  1 Kings 19:4-9;  2 Kings 1:8;  2 Kings 2:8).

John began his preaching in that region of Palestine where the Jordan River approached the Dead Sea ( Mark 1:4-5;  Luke 3:2-3;  John 1:28). God had called him to be a prophet ( Luke 1:76;  Luke 7:26;  Luke 16:16;  Luke 20:6) and he preached after the manner of the Old Testament prophets. He condemned those who thought that their Israelite nationality guaranteed their salvation ( Matthew 3:7-10; cf.  Amos 9:7-8), and denounced the greed, corruption and injustice of Israelite society ( Luke 3:10-14; cf.  Isaiah 5:8-23). The only ones who were truly God’s people were those who repented of their sins and demonstrated their sincerity in baptism ( Matthew 3:1-2; cf.  Isaiah 1:16-20).

The baptism that John proclaimed, though important, could not empower people for a new life. That power could come only through a greater baptism, the gift of the Holy Spirit; and that was a gift that only the Messiah could give. John was not the Messiah, but he was clearly preparing the way for the Messiah ( Luke 3:3-6;  Luke 3:15-17;  John 1:6-7;  John 1:19-28). He announced the kingdom of God ( Matthew 3:2).

Introducing the Messiah

John and Jesus were about the same age and were related ( Luke 1:36), but their backgrounds and upbringing were different. John was the son of a priest and grew up in Judea in the south of Palestine ( Luke 1:5-13;  Luke 1:39-41;  Luke 1:65;  Luke 1:80), whereas Jesus was the son of a carpenter and grew up in Galilee in the north ( Luke 1:26;  Luke 2:51).

Nothing has been recorded of what association existed between John and Jesus had during their childhood and youth. However, by the time they were about thirty years of age ( Luke 3:23) they were at least familiar with each other’s activities.

John knew enough about Jesus to know that Jesus was the better man and had no need for a baptism for repentance. But Jesus insisted that John baptize him. As a result of that baptism, John knew for certain (through the visible descent of the Spirit upon Jesus) that this one was the promised Messiah ( Matthew 3:13-17;  John 1:33-34). By his baptism Jesus showed that he was on the side of those who, by responding to John’s baptism, had shown themselves to be God’s true people (see Baptism ).

The followers of John grew into a clearly recognizable group, characterized by devotion and self-denial ( Luke 5:33;  John 3:23-25). They spread into regions so far from Jerusalem that many years passed before some of them heard the full message concerning the Messiah of whom John had spoken ( Acts 18:24-26;  Acts 19:1-5). Yet John was not interested in building a personal following, and he felt well satisfied when his disciples left him to follow Jesus ( John 1:35;  John 3:26-30).

From the old era into the new

In moving widely around the Jordan region, John would have spent some time in areas west of Jordan controlled by Pilate and some time in areas east of Jordan controlled by Herod Antipas ( Luke 3:1;  John 1:28;  John 3:23). This brought John into conflict with Herod Antipas, whom he rebuked for marrying the wife of his brother, Herod Philip. Antipas replied by throwing John into prison ( Mark 6:17-20;  Luke 3:19-20).

Shut up in prison, John received only irregular, and possibly inaccurate, reports of Jesus’ ministry. This made him wonder whether Jesus really was the Messiah he had foretold, so he sent messengers to ask Jesus directly ( Luke 7:18-20). Jesus reassured John by pointing out that his works were those that the Old Testament prophets had spoken of when they foretold the messianic age ( Luke 7:21-23; cf.  Isaiah 35:5-6;  Isaiah 61:1-3).

Jesus reassured the people also, for he did not want them to lose their respect for John. There was nothing weak or uncertain about John. He did not look for comfort or prestige, but like a true prophet he endured a life of hardship for the sake of God ( Luke 7:24-27). John was the last and greatest prophet of the era before Christ. But he did not live to see the fulness of the new era (for he was executed by Herod;  Mark 6:21-29). The blessings of the Messiah’s kingdom are such that the humblest believer of this new era is more blessed than the greatest believer of the old ( Luke 7:28).

Morrish Bible Dictionary [7]

Son of Zacharias, priest of the order of Abia, or Abijah ( 1 Chronicles 24:10 ), and of Elizabeth, a descendant of Aaron, born when they were both old. The conception was foretold by the angel Gabriel, who announced that John was to be a Nazarite, and should be filled with the Holy Ghost from his birth. His mission was also foretold: in the spirit and power of Elias he would be the forerunner of Christ, and would call the people to repentance, according to the prophecy in  Isaiah 40:3 . All that is recorded of his early life is "the child grew, and waxed strong in spirit, and was in the deserts till the day of his showing unto Israel."  Luke 1:80 .

When he began his ministry he is described as having on "raiment of camel's hair, and a leathern girdle about his loins: and his meat was locusts and wild honey." He preached in the wilderness, calling on the people to repent, for the kingdom of heaven was at hand. The people went out to him, and were baptised of him in the Jordan, confessing their sins.  Matthew 3:1-6 . A godly remnant morally apart from the nation was thus prepared in spirit for the Lord. With these (the excellent in the earth,  Psalm 16 ) the Lord Jesus identified Himself.

To the Pharisees and the Sadducees he was especially severe, calling them a 'generation of vipers' (  Matthew 3:7 ), but in Luke the multitude are so designated, for all must flee from the wrath to come, and bring forth fruits meet for repentance. The axe was laid to the root of the tree. There was One coming with the winnowing fan, who would divide the wheat from the chaff.

When the religious authorities at Jerusalem sent to John to ask who he was, he declared that he was not the Christ, nor Elias, nor 'that prophet.'  Deuteronomy 18:15,18 . He was "the voice of one crying in the wilderness, Make straight the way of the Lord," as Isaiah had prophesied.   John 1:19-23 . The Lord, in speaking of John, said, "Elias is indeed come,"  Mark 9:13 , which seems to clash with  John 1:21; another passage however explains it: "If ye will receive it, this is Elias which was for to come."  Matthew 11:14 . He had come in the spirit and power of Elias, as foretold by Gabriel; and he was Elias to those who received him and who afterwards followed the Lord, as Andrew and another in  John 1:40 .

So far we have considered John's official place as the forerunner of Christ, but in John's gospel the Baptist's testimony is given to the Lamb of God. He also adds, "I knew him not," but he had been told that He upon whom he saw the Holy Spirit descend and remain was the Baptiser with the Holy Ghost; and he adds, "I saw, and bare record that this is the Son of God." He may have known Jesus in a natural way, but his knowing Him as Son of God was by a divinely-given testimony. John proclaimed Jesus as "the Lamb of God that taketh away the sin of the world;" and in the hearing of two of his own disciples he said, "Behold the Lamb of God." Jesus was to be the object of their hearts, and they followed Him. Afterwards, when John was told that Jesus was baptising, and that all the people were going to Him, he gave a remarkable answer: "He that hath the bride is the bridegroom; but the friend of the bridegroom, which standeth and heareth him, rejoiceth greatly because of the bridegroom's voice: this my joy therefore is fulfilled. He must increase, but I must decrease." John was the friend of the bridegroom. The Lord said that among those born of women no one was greater than John; but the least in the kingdom of heaven was greater than he, because the latter was in a new dispensation, John being connected with the law and the prophets of the old dispensation.   Matthew 11:11-13 .

While in prison John's faith or patience seems in measure to have failed him, and he sent two of his disciples to the Lord with the question, "Art thou he that should come, or do we look for another?" He evidently had not apprehended the humiliation and rejection of the Messiah, and expected to have been delivered from prison by the power which he knew had been exercised in grace by the Lord. The Lord wrought various miracles while John's disciples were there, and bade them tell him what they had seen and heard, adding, "Blessed is he, whosoever shall not be offended in me."  Luke 7:19-23 .

It was because of John's faithfulness in reproving the sins of Herod Antipas that he had been by him cast into prison. This led to his death through Salome and her guilty mother. John's work was done; he was faithful unto death.  Mark 6:14-29 .

Smith's Bible Dictionary [8]

John The Baptist. John the Baptist was of the priestly race by both parents, for his father, Zacharias, was himself a priest of the course of Abia or Abijah,  1 Chronicles 24:10, and his mother, Elisabeth, was of the daughters of Aaron.  Luke 1:5. His birth was foretold, by an angel sent from God, and is related at length in Luke 1. The birth of John preceded by six months, that of our Lord. John was ordained to be a Nazarite from his birth.  Luke 1:15.

Dwelling by himself in the wild and thinly-peopled region westward of the Dead Sea, he prepared himself for the wonderful office, to which he had been divinely called. His dress was that of the old prophets - a garment woven of camel's hair,  2 Kings 1:8, attached to the body by a leathern girdle. His food was such as the desert afforded - locusts,  Leviticus 11:22, and wild honey.  Psalms 81:16.

And now, the long-secluded hermit came forth, to the discharge of his office. His supernatural birth, his life, and the general expectation that some great one was about to appear, were sufficient to attract to him, a great multitude from "every quarter."  Matthew 3:5. Many of every class pressed forward to confess their sins, and to be baptized. Jesus himself came from Galilee to Jordan, to be baptized of John. See Jesus Christ .

From incidental notices, we learn that John and his disciples continued to baptize, some time after our Lord entered upon his ministry. See  John 3:23;  John 4:1;  Acts 19:3. We gather also that John instructed his disciples, in certain moral and religious duties, as fasting,  Matthew 9:14;  Luke 5:33, and prayer.  Luke 11:1.

But shortly after he had given his testimony to the Messiah , John's public ministry was brought to a close. In daring disregard of the divine laws, Herod Antipas had taken to himself Herodias, the wife of his brother Philip; and when John reproved him for this, as well as for other sins,  Luke 3:19, Herod cast him into prison. (March, A.D. 28). The place of his confinement, was the castle of Machaerus, a fortress on the eastern shore of the Dead Sea. It was here that reports reached him, of the miracles which our Lord was working in Judea.

Nothing, but the death of the Baptist, would satisfy the resentment of Herodias. A court festival was kept at Machaerus in honor of the king's birthday. After supper, the daughter of Herodias came in, and danced for the king and, by her grace, he promised with an oath, to give her whatsoever she should ask. Salome, prompted by her abandoned mother, demanded the head of John the Baptist. Herod gave instructions to an officer of his guard, who went and executed John in the prison, and his head was brought, to feast the eyes of the adulteress, whose sins he had denounced. His death is supposed to have occurred, just before the third Passover , in the course of the Lord's ministry. (March, A.D. 29).

Easton's Bible Dictionary [9]

 1 Chronicles 24:10 Luke 1:5 Matthew 3:3 Isaiah 40:3 Malachi 3:1 Luke 1:64 Luke 1:80 Luke 1:15 Numbers 6:1-12 Matthew 3:1-12

At length he came forth into public life, and great multitudes from "every quarter" were attracted to him. The sum of his preaching was the necessity of repentance. He denounced the Sadducees and Pharisees as a "generation of vipers," and warned them of the folly of trusting to external privileges ( Luke 3:8 ). "As a preacher, John was eminently practical and discriminating. Self-love and covetousness were the prevalent sins of the people at large. On them, therefore, he enjoined charity and consideration for others. The publicans he cautioned against extortion, the soldiers against crime and plunder." His doctrine and manner of life roused the entire south of Palestine, and the people from all parts flocked to the place where he was, on the banks of the Jordan. There he baptized thousands unto repentance.

The fame of John reached the ears of Jesus in Nazareth ( Matthew 3:5 ), and he came from Galilee to Jordan to be baptized of John, on the special ground that it became him to "fulfil all righteousness" (3:15). John's special office ceased with the baptism of Jesus, who must now "increase" as the King come to his kingdom. He continued, however, for a while to bear testimony to the Messiahship of Jesus. He pointed him out to his disciples, saying, "Behold the Lamb of God." His public ministry was suddenly (after about six months probably) brought to a close by his being cast into prison by Herod, whom he had reproved for the sin of having taken to himself the wife of his brother Philip ( Luke 3:19 ). He was shut up in the castle of Machaerus (q.v.), a fortress on the southern extremity of Peraea, 9 miles east of the Dead Sea, and here he was beheaded. His disciples, having consigned the headless body to the grave, went and told Jesus all that had occurred ( Matthew 14:3-12 ). John's death occurred apparently just before the third Passover of our Lord's ministry. Our Lord himself testified regarding him that he was a "burning and a shining light" ( John 5:35 ).

Cyclopedia of Biblical, Theological and Ecclesiastical Literature [10]

( Ι᾿Ωάννης Βαπτιστής Or Simply Ι᾿Ωάννης , When the reference is clear, as in  Matthew 3:4;  Matthew 4:12; Lat. Joannes [Tacitus, Hist ., 5, 12]; Heb. יוֹחָנָן denoting Grace , or Favor [see Simonis, Lex. N.T. p. 513]). In the Church John commonly bears the honorable title of "forerunner of the Lord" antecursor et praeparator viarum Domini (Tertull. Ad. Marc . 4, 33); in Greek, Πρόδρομος , Προάγγελος Κυρίου . The accounts of him which the Gospels present are fragmentary and imperfect; they involve, too, some difficulties which the learned have found it hard to remove; yet enough is given to show that he was a man of a lofty character and that the relation in which he stood to Christianity was one of great importance. Indeed, according to our Lord's own testimony, he was a more honored character and distinguished saint than any prophet who had preceded him ( Luke 7:28). (See Prophet).

1. John was of the priestly race by both parents, for his father Zacharias was himself a priest of the course of Abia, or Abijah ( 1 Chronicles 24:10), offering incense at the very time when a son was promised to him; and Elizabeth was of the daughters of Aaron ( Luke 1:5), the latter "a cousin" ( Συγγενής Relative ) of Mary, the mother of Jesus, whose senior John was by a period of six months (Luke 1). Both parents, too, were devout persons, walking in the commandments of God and waiting for the fulfillment of his promise to Israel. The divine mission of John was the subject of prophecy many centuries before his birth, for  Matthew 3:3 tells us that it was John who was prefigured by Isaiah as "the voice of one crying in the wilderness, Prepare ye the way of the Lord, make his paths straight" ( Isaiah 40:3), while by the prophet Malachi the Spirit announces more definitely, "Behold, I will send my messenger, and he shall prepare the way before me" ( Isaiah 3:1). His birth a birth not according to the ordinary laws of nature, but through the miraculous interposition of Almighty power was foretold by an angel sent from God, who announced it as an occasion of joy and gladness to many, and at the same time assigned to him the name of John, to signify either that he was to be born of God's especial favor, or, perhaps, that he was to be the harbinger of grace. The angel Gabriel, moreover, proclaimed the character and office of this wonderful child even before his conception, foretelling that he would be filled with the Holy Ghost from the first moment of his existence, and appear as the great reformer of his countrymen another Elijah in the boldness with which he would speak truth and rebuke vice but, above all, as the chosen forerunner and herald of the long-expected Messiah. These marvellous revelations as to the character and career of the son for whom he had so long prayed in vain were too much for the faith of the aged Zacharias, and, when he sought some assurance of the certainty of the promised blessing, God gave it to him in a judgment the privation of speech until the event foretold should happen a judgment intended to serve at once as a token of God's truth and a rebuke of his own incredulity. And now the Lord's gracious promise tarried not. Elizabeth, for greater privacy, retired into the hill country, whither she was soon afterwards followed by her kinswoman Mary, who was herself the object and channel of divine grace beyond measure greater and more mysterious. The two cousins, who were thus honored above all the mothers of Israel, came together in a remote city, and immediately God's purpose was confirmed to them by a miraculous, sign; for, as soon as Elizabeth heard the salutations of Mary, the babe leaped in her womb, thus acknowledging, as it were, even before birth, the presence of his Lord ( Luke 1:43-44). Three months after this, and while Mary still remained with her, Elizabeth was delivered of a son, B.C. 6. The exact spot where John was born is not determined. The rabbins (Otho, Lex. Rabb. p. 324; Witsii Miscell. Sacr . 2, 389) fix on Hebron, in the hill country of Judaea; Paulus, Kuinoel, and Meyer, after Reland, are in favor of Jutta, "a city of Juda." (See Juttah).

On the eighth day the child of promise was, in conformity with the law of Moses ( Leviticus 12:3), brought to the priest for circumcision, and, as the performance of this rite was the accustomed time for naming a child, the friends of the family proposed to call him Zacharias, after the name of his father. The mother, however, required that he should be called John, a decision which Zacharias, still speechless, confirmed by writing on a tablet, "his name is John." The judgment on his want of faith was then at once withdrawn, and the first use which he made of his recovered speech was to praise Jehovah for his faithfulness and mercy ( Luke 1:64). God's wonderful interposition in the birth of John had impressed the minds of many with a certain solemn awe and expectation ( Luke 3:15). God was surely again visiting his people. His providence, so long hidden, seemed once more about to manifest itself. The child thus supernaturally born must doubtless be commissioned to perform some important part in the history of the chosen people. Could it be the Messiah? Could it be Elijah? Was the era of their old prophets about to be restored? With such grave thoughts were the minds of the people occupied as they mused on the events which had been passing under their eyes, and said one to another, "What manner of child shall this be?" while Zacharias himself, "filled with the Holy Ghost," broke forth in a glorious strain of praise and prophecy a strain in which it is to be observed that the father, before speaking of his own child, blesses God for remembering his covenant and promise in the redemption and salvation of his people through him of whom his own son was the prophet and forerunner. A single verse contains all that we know of John's history for a space of thirty years, the whole period which elapsed between his birth and the commencement of his public ministry: "The child grew and waxed strong in the spirit, and was in the deserts till the day of his showing unto Israel" ( Luke 1:80).

John it will be remembered, was ordained to be a Nazarite (see  Numbers 6:1-21) from his birth, for the words of the angel were, "He shall drink neither wine nor strong drink" ( Luke 1:15). What we are to understand by this brief announcement is probably this: the chosen forerunner of the Messiah and herald of his kingdom was required to forego the ordinary pleasures and indulgences of the world, and live a life of the strictest self-denial in retirement and solitude. The apocryphal Protev. Jac. ch. 22, states that his mother, in order to rescue her son from the murder of the children at Bethlehem which Herod commanded, fled with him into the desert. She could find no place of refuge, the mountain opened at her request and gave the needed shelter in its bosom. Zacharias, being questioned by Herod as to where his son was to be found, and refusing to answer, was slain by the tyrant. At a later period Elizabeth died, when angels took the youth under their care (Fabricius, Cod. Apocryph. p. 117 sq.; comp. Kuhn, Leben Jesu, 1, 163, remark 4). It was thus that the holy Nazarite, dwelling by himself in the wild and thinly-peopled region westward of the Dead Sea, called "desert" in the text, prepared himself by self-discipline, and by constant communion with God, for the wonderful office to which he had been divinely called. Here year after year of his stern probation passed by, till the time for the fulfilment of his mission arrived. The very appearance of the holy Baptist was of itself a lesson to his countrymen; his dress was that of the old prophets a garment woven of camel's hair ( 2 Kings 1:8), attached to the body by a leathern girdle. His food was such as the desert spontaneously afforded locusts ( Leviticus 11:22) and wild honey ( Psalms 81:16) from the rock. (See Endemann, De Victu Jo. Bapt. Hersfeld, 1752; Thadd. a St. Adamo, De victu Joa. Bapt. in deserto, Bonn, 1785; M Ü ller, Varia de victu Joa. Baptist. Bonn, 1829; Hackett, Illustr. of Script. p. 96.) Desert though the place is designated, the country where he spent these early years the wild mountainous tract of Judah lying between Jerusalem and the Dead Sea, along which it stretches was not entirely destitute of means for supporting human existence ( Matthew 3:1-12;  Mark 1:1-8;  Luke 3:1-20;  John 10:28; Justin Martyr, Dial. Cum Tryph. c. 88). Josephus, in his Life (2, 2), gives an account of one of his instructors, Banus, which throws light on John's condition in the desert: "He lived in the desert, and had no other food than what grew of its own accord, and bathed himself in cold water frequently, both by night and by day. I imitated him in these things, and continued with him three years." Some writers infer that John was an Essene; so says, e.g. Taylor, editor of Calmet's Dictionary Of The Bible ; comp. Johnson, Monks Before Christ (Bost. 1870, 12mo), p. 109 sq. But this is denied by R É nan, Vie De Jesus (13th ed. Paris, 1867), p. 101 sq.

2. At length, in the fifteenth year of the associate reign of the emperor Tiberius (see Jarvis, Chronicles Introd. p. 228 sq., 462 sq.), or A.D. 25, the long-secluded hermit came forth to the discharge of his office. His supernatural birth, his hard ascetic life, his reputation for extraordinary sanctity, and the generally-prevailing expectation that some great one was about to appear these causes, without the aid of miraculous power, for "John did no miracle" ( John 10:41), were sufficient to attract to him a great multitude from "every quarter" ( Matthew 3:5). Brief and startling was his first exhortation to them "Repent ye, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand." A few scores of verses contain all that is recorded of John's preaching, and the sum of it all is repentance not mere legal ablution or expiation, but a change of heart and life. Herein John, though exhibiting a marked contrast to the scribes and Pharisees of his own time, was but repeating, with the stimulus of a new and powerful motive, the lessons which had been again and again impressed upon them by their ancient prophets (comp.  Isaiah 1:16-17;  Isaiah 55:7,  Jeremiah 7:3-7;  Ezekiel 18:19-32;  Ezekiel 36:25-27,  Joel 2:12-13  Micah 6:8;  Zechariah 1:3-4). But, while such was his solemn admonition to the multitude at large, he adopted towards the leading sects of the Jews a severer tone, denouncing Pharisees and Sadducees alike as "a generation of vipers," and warning them of the folly of trusting to external privileges as descendants of Abraham ( Luke 3:8). Now at last, he warns them that "the axe was laid to the root of the tree," that formal righteousness would be tolerated no longer, and that none would be acknowledged for children of Abraham but such as did the works of Abraham (comp.  John 8:39). Such alarming declarations produced their effect and many of every class pressed forward to confess their sins and to be baptized.

What, then, was the baptism which John administered? (See Washing). (Comp. Olshausen, Comment. ad loc. Job.; Dale, Johannic Baptism, Phila. 1871.) Not altogether a new rite, for it was the custom of the Jews to baptize proselytes to their religion; not an ordinance in itself conveying remission of sins, but rather a token and symbol of that repentance which was an indispensable condition of forgiveness through him whom John pointed out as "the Lamb of God that taketh away the sins of the world." Still less did the baptism of John impart the grace of regeneration of a new spiritual life ( Acts 19:3-4). This was to be the mysterious effect of baptism "with the Holy Ghost," which was to be ordained by that "mightier one" whose coming he proclaimed. The preparatory baptism of John was a visible sign to the people, and a distinct acknowledgment by them that a hearty renunciation of sin and a real amendment of life were necessary for admission into the kingdom of heaven, which the Baptist proclaimed to be at hand. But the fundamental distinction between John's baptism unto repentance and that baptism accompanied with the gift of the Holy Spirit which our Lord afterwards ordained is clearly marked by John himself ( Matthew 3:11-12). (See Baptism Of John).

As a preacher, John was eminently practical and discriminating. Self love and covetousness were the prevalent sins of the people at large on them, therefore, he enjoined charity and consideration for others. The publicans he cautioned against extortion, the soldiers against violence and plunder. His answers to them are, no doubt, to be regarded as instances of the appropriate warning and advice which he addressed to every class. The first reason assigned by John for entering on his most weighty and perilous office was announced in these words: "The kingdom of heaven is at hand." It was his great work to prepare the mind of the nation, so that when Jesus himself came they might be a people made ready for the Lord. What was the exact idea which John intended to convey by the term "kingdom of heaven" it is not easy, at least in the space before us, to determine with satisfaction. (See Richter. De munere sacro Joanni Bapt. divinitus delegato, Lips. 1756.) We feel ourselves, however, justified in protesting against the practice of those who take the vulgar Jewish notion and ascribe it to John, while some go so far as to deny that our Lord himself, at the first, possessed any other. Had we space to develop the moral character of John, we could show that this fine, stern, high-minded teacher possessed many eminent qualities; but his personal and official modesty in keeping, in all circumstances, in the lower rank assigned him by God must not pass without special mention. The doctrine and manner of life of John appear to have roused the entire of the south of Palestine, and people flocked from all parts to the spot where, on the banks of the Jordan, he baptized thousands unto repentance. Such, indeed, was the fame which he had gained, that "people were in expectation, and all men mused in their hearts of John, whether he were the Christ or not" ( Luke 3:15). Had he chosen, John might without doubt have assumed to himself the higher office, and risen to great worldly power; but he was faithful to his trust, and never failed to declare, in the fullest and clearest manner, that he was not the Christ, but merely his harbinger, and that the sole work he had to do was to usher in the day spring from on high. (See Beecher, Life of Jesus, vol. 1, ch. 5.)

The more than prophetic fame of the Baptist reached the ears of Jesus in his Nazarene dwelling, far distant from the locality of John ( Matthew 2:9;  Matthew 2:11). The nature of the report namely, that his divinely-predicted forerunner had appeared in Judaea showed our Lord that the time had now come for his being made manifest to Israel. The mission of the baptist an extraordinary one for an extraordinary purpose was not limited to those who had openly forsaken the covenant of God, and so forfeited its principles; it was to the whole people alike. This we must infer from the baptism of one who had no confession to make, and no sins to wash away. Jesus himself came from Galilee to Jordan to be baptized of John, on the special ground that it became him "to fulfil all righteousness," and, as man, to submit to the customs and ordinances which were binding upon the rest of the Jewish people. John, however, naturally at first shrank from offering the symbols of purity to the sinless Son of God. Immediately on the termination of this symbolical act, a divine attestation was given from the opened vault of heaven, declaring Jesus to be in truth the long looked-for Messiah "This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased" ( Matthew 3:17). The events which are found recorded in  John 1:19 sq. seem to have happened after the baptism of Jesus by John. (See Jesus Christ).

Here a difficult question arises How is John's acknowledgment of Jesus at the moment of his presenting himself for baptism compatible with his subsequent assertion that he knew him not save by the descent of the Holy Spirit upon him, which took place after his baptism? It is difficult to imagine that the two cousins did not personally recognize each other, from their close relationship, and the account which John could not have failed to receive of the remarkable circumstances attending Jesus' birth; hence his general deference at that time, but his explicit testimony subsequently (see Kuinol, Alford, Comment. on  Matthew 3:14). The supposition that John was not personally acquainted with Jesus is therefore out of the question (see L Ü cke, Comment. on  John 1:31). Yet it must be borne in mind that their places of residence were at the two extremities of the country, with but little means of communication between them. Perhaps, too, John's special destination and mode of life may have kept him from the stated festivals of his countrymen at Jerusalem. It is possible, therefore, that the Savior and the Baptist had not often met. It was certainly of the utmost importance that there should be no suspicion of concert or collusion between them. John, however, must assuredly have been in daily expectation of Christ's manifestation to Israel, and so a word or sign would have sufficed to reveal to him the person and presence of our Lord, though we may well suppose such a fact to be made known by a direct communication from God, as in the case of Simeon ( Luke 2:26; comp. Jackson On The Creed, Works. Oxf. ed. 6, 404). At all events, it is wholly inconceivable that John should have been permitted to baptize the Son of God without being enabled to distinguish him from any of the ordinary multitude. Upon the whole, the true meaning of the words Κἀγώ Οὐκ Η͂δειν Αὐτόν would seem to be as follows: And I, even I, though standing in so near a relation to him, both personally and ministerially, had no assured knowledge of him as the Messiah. I did not know him, and I had not authority to proclaim him as such till I saw the predicted sign in the descent of the Holy Spirit upon him. It must be borne in mind that John had no means of knowing by previous announcement whether this wonderful acknowledgment of the divine Son would be vouchsafed to his forerunner at his baptism or at any other time (see Dr. Mill's Hist. Character of St. Luke's Gospel, and the authorities quoted by him). (See Baptism Of Jesus).

With the baptism of Jesus John's more especial office ceased. The king had come to his kingdom. The function of the herald was discharged. It was this that John had with singular humility and self-renunciation announced beforehand: "He must increase, but I must decrease." It seems but natural to think, therefore, when their hitherto relative position is taken into account, that John would forthwith lay down his office of harbinger, which, now that the Sun of Righteousness himself had appeared, was entirely fulfilled and terminated. Such a step he does not appear to have taken. From incidental notices we learn that John and his disciples continued to baptize some time after our Lord entered upon his ministry (see  John 3:23;  John 4:1). We gather also that John instructed his disciples in certain moral and religious duties, as fasting ( Matthew 9:14;  Luke 5:33) and prayer ( Luke 11:1). In short, the language of Scripture seems to imply that the Baptist Church continued side by side with the Messianic ( Matthew 11:3;  Luke 7:19;  John 14:25), and remained long after John's execution ( Acts 19:3). Indeed, a sect which bears the name of "John's disciples" exists to the present day in the East, whose sacred books are said to be pervaded by a Gnostic leaven. (See Gesenius, in the Allgem. Literaturzeitung, 1817, No. 48, p. 378, and in the Hall. Encyclop., probeheft, p. 95 sq.; Burckhardt, Les Nazor É Eans Apell '''''É''''' S Zaebiens Et Chr É Tiens De St. Jean, Secte Gnostique, Strasb. 1810; also Blarkey, in the Bibl. Hag . 4, 355 sq.; Schaff, Apost. Hist. p. 279 sq.). (See ST. Christians Ofjohn )

They are hostile alike to Judaism and Christianity, and their John and Jesus are altogether different from the characters bearing these names in our evangelists. Still, though it has been generally assumed that John did not lay down his office, we are not satisfied that the New Testament establishes this alleged fact. John may have ceased to execute his own peculiar work as the forerunner, but may justifiably have continued to bear his most important testimony to the Messiahship of Christ; or he may even have altogether given up the duties of active life some time, at least, before his death; and yet his disciples, both before and after that event, may have maintained their individuality as a religious communion. Nor will the student of the New Testament and of ecclesiastical history, who knows how grossly a teacher far greater than John was, both during his life and after his crucifixion, misunderstood and misrepresented, think it impossible that some misconception or some sinister motive may have had weight in preventing the Baptist Church from dissolving and passing into that of Christ. (See Weber, J. d. T Ä ufer und die Parteien seiner Zeit, Gotha, 1870.) It was, not improbably, with a view to remove some error of this kind that John sent the embassy of his disciples to Jesus which is recorded in  Matthew 11:3;  Luke 7:19. The spiritual course which the teachings of Jesus were more and more taking, and the apparent failure, or at least uneasy postponement of the promised kingdom in the popular sense, especially after their esteemed master lay in prison, and was in imminent danger of losing his life, may well have led John's disciples to doubt if Jesus were in truth the expected Messiah; but no intimation is found in the record that John required evidence to give him satisfaction. (See below.) Be that as it may, it is certain that John still continued to present himself to his countrymen in the capacity of witness to Jesus. Especially did he bear testimony to him at Bethany beyond Jordan (for Bethany, not Bethabara, is the reading of the best MSS.). So confidently, indeed, did he point out the Lamb of God, on whom he had seen the Spirit alighting like a dove, that two of his own disciples, Andrew, and probably John, being convinced by his testimony, followed Jesus as the true Messiah.

3. But shortly after he had given his testimony to the Messiah, John's public ministry was brought to a close. He had, at the beginning of it, condemned the hypocrisy and worldliness of the Pharisees and Sadducees, and he had now occasion to denounce the lust of a king. In daring disregard of the divine laws, Herod Antipas had taken to himself the wife of his brother Philip; and when John reproved him for this, as well as for other sins ( Luke 3:19), Herod cast him into prison. Josephus, however, assigns a somewhat different cause for Herod's act from that given in the Gospels: "Now some of the Jews thought that the destruction of Herod's army came from God, and that very justly, as a punishment of what he did against John that was called the Baptist; for Herod slew him, although he was a good man, and commanded the Jews to exercise virtue, both as to righteousness one towards another and piety towards God, and so to come to baptism. Now when others came in crowds about him for they were greatly moved by hearing his words Herod, who feared lest the great influence John had over the people might put it into his power and inclination to raise a rebellion (for they seemed ready to do anything he should advise), thought it best, by putting him to death, to prevent any mischief he might cause, and not bring himself into difficulties by sparing a man who might make him repent of it when it should be too late. Accordingly he was sent a prisoner, out of Herod's suspicious temper, to Machaerus, the castle I before mentioned, and was there put to death" (Ant. 18, 5, 2). There is no contrariety between this account and that which is given in the New Testament. (See Lamy, Diss. de vinculis Joa. Bapt.; Van Til, De Joa. Bapt. incarceratione fictitia Herodiana vincula antecedente, L.B. 1710.) Both may be true: John was condemned in the mind of Herod on political grounds, as endangering his position, and executed on private and ostensible grounds, in order to gratify a malicious but powerful woman. The scriptural reason was but the pretext for carrying into effect the determination of Herod's cabinet. That the fear of Herod was not without some ground may be seen in the popularity which John had gained ( Mark 11:32; see Lardner, Works , 6, 483).

The castle of Machaerus, where John was imprisoned and beheaded, was a fortress lying on the southern extremity of Peraea, at the head of the Lake Asphaltites, between the dominions of Herod and Aretas, king of Arabia Petraea, and at the time of our history appears to have belonged to the former (Lardner, 6, 483). It was here that the above-mentioned reports reached him of the miracles which our Lord was working in Judaea miracles which, doubtless, were to John's mind but the confirmation of what he expected to hear as to the establishment of the Messiah's kingdom. But if Christ's kingdom were indeed established, it was the duty of John's own disciples, no less than of all others, to acknowledge it. They, however, would naturally cling to their own master, and be slow to transfer their allegiance to another. With a view, therefore, to overcome their scruples, John sent two of them to Jesus himself to ask the question, "Art thou he that should come?" They were answered not by words, but by a series of miracles wrought before their eyes the very miracles which prophecy had specified as the distinguishing credentials of the Messiah ( Isaiah 35:5;  Isaiah 61:1); and while Jesus bade the two messengers carry back to John as his only answer the report of what they had seen and heard, he took occasion to guard the multitude who surrounded him against supposing that the Baptist himself was shaken in mind, by a direct appeal to their own knowledge of his life and character. Well might they be appealed to as witnesses that the stern prophet of the wilderness was no waverer, bending to every breeze, like the reeds on the banks of Jordan. Proof abundant had they that John was no worldling, with a heart set upon rich clothing and dainty fare the luxuries of a king's court and they must have been ready to acknowledge that one so inured to a life of hardness and privation was not likely to be affected by the ordinary terrors of a prison. But our Lord not only vindicates his forerunner from any suspicion of inconstancy, he goes on to proclaim him a prophet, and more than a prophet; nay, inferior to none born of woman, though in respect to spiritual privileges behind the least of those who were to be born of the Spirit and admitted into the fellowship of Christ's body ( Matthew 11:11). It should be noted that the expression Δὲ Μικρότερος , Κ . Τ . Λ ., is understood by Chrysostom, Augustine, Hilary, and some modern commentators to mean Christ himself, but this interpretation is less agreeable to the spirit and tone of our Lord's discourse. Jesus further proceeds to declare that John was, according to the true meaning of the prophecy, the Elijah of the new covenant, foretold by Malachi ( Malachi 3:4).

The event, indeed, proved that John was to Herod what Elijah had been to Ahab, and a prison was deemed too light a punishment for his boldness in asserting God's law before the face of a king and a queen. Nothing but the death of the Baptist would satisfy the resentment of Herodias. Though foiled once, she continued to watch her opportunity, which at length arrived. A court festival was kept in honor of the king's birthday. After supper the daughter of Herodias, came in and danced before the company, and so charmed was the king by her grace that he promised with an oath to give her whatsoever she should ask. Salome, prompted by her abandoned mother, demanded the head of John the Baptist. The promise had been given in the hearing of his distinguished guests, and so Herod, though loath to be made the instrument of so bloody a work, gave instructions to an officer of his guard, who went and executed John in the prison, and his head was brought to feast the eyes of the adulteress whose sins he had denounced. (See Herodias).

According to the Scripture account, the daughter of Herodias obtained the Baptist's head at the entertainment, without delay. How could this be when Machaerus lay at a distance from Jerusalem? The feast seems to have been made at Machaerus, which, besides being a stronghold, was also a palace, built by Herod the Great, and here Antipas appears to have been spending some time with his paramour Herodias.

4. Thus was John added to that glorious army of martyrs who have suffered for righteousness' sake. His death seems to have occurred just before the third Passover, in the course of the Lord's ministry, A.D. 28. Herod undoubtedly looked upon him as some extraordinary person, for no sooner did he hear of the miracles of Jesus than, though a Sadducee himself, and, as such, a disbeliever in the resurrection, he ascribed them to John, whom he supposed to have risen from the dead. (See Herod Antipas).

Holy Scripture tells us that the body of the Baptist was laid in the tomb by his disciples, and ecclesiastical history records the honors which successive generations paid to his memory. He is mentioned in the Koran, with much honor, under the name of Jahja (see Hottinger, Historia Orientalis, p. 144-149, Tigur. 1660; Herbelot, Biblioth. Or . 2, 283 sq.).

The brief history of John's life is marked throughout with the characteristic graces of self-denial, humility, and holy courage. So great, indeed, was his abstinence that worldly men considered him possessed. "John came neither eating nor drinking, and they said he hath a devil." His humility was such that he had again and again to disavow the character and decline the honors which an admiring multitude almost forced upon him. To their questions he answered plainly he was not the Christ, nor the Elijah of whom they were thinking, nor one of their old prophets. He was no one a voice merely the voice of God calling his people to repentance in preparation for the coming of him whose shoe latchet he was not worthy to unloose. For his boldness in speaking truth, he went a willing victim to prison and to death.

Resembling, though John did, in so many things the Elijah of former days, the exit of the one from his field of labor was remarkable for its humiliating circumstances, as the other for its singular glory the one dying as a felon by the hand of the executioner, the other, without tasting at all of death, ascending to heaven in a chariot of fire. But in John's case it could not be otherwise; the forerunner, no more than the disciple, could be above his Master; and especially in the treatment of the one must the followers of Jesus be prepared for what was going to be accomplished in the other. After John's death, and growing out of it, a whole series of special actions and discourses were directed to this end by our Lord. The manner of John's death, therefore, is on no account to be regarded as throning a depreciatory reflection on his position and ministry. He was, as Christ himself testified, "a burning and a shining light" ( John 5:35), and he fulfilled his arduous course in a truly noble and valiant spirit. Fairbairn.

5. For the literature connected with this subject, see, besides the treatises noticed above, Hase, Leben Jesu (4th ed. Leipzig, 1854), p. 82, 86, 149; Volbeding, Index Programmatum, p. 20 sq., 23, 125; Walch, Bibliotheca Theologica, 3, 402; Witsii Exerc. de Joanne Bapt. (in his Miscell. Sacra, 2, 367); Leopold, Johannes der T Ä ufer (Hannov. 1825); Usteri. Nachrichten von Johannes dem T Ä ufer (in the Studien und Kritiken, 1829, 3:439); Von Rohden, Johannes der T Ä ufer (L Ü beck, 1838); Neander, Leb. Jesu (Hamb. 1837), p. 49; Keim, Leb. Jesu, 1, 469-523; Hausrath, Leben Jesu, p. 316-340. The ecclesiastical traditions touching John may be found in the Acta Sanct. 4, 687-846; and, in a compendious form, in Tillemont. M É moires, 1, 82-108, 482-505. Other treatises of a more special character, in addition to those above cited, are: Hottinger, Pentas dissert. Bibl. chronol. (Traj. a. R. 1723) p. 143 sq.; Deyling, Observationes sacr. 3, 251 sq.; Ammon, Pr. de doctrina et morte Jo. Bapt. (Erlangen; 1809); Rau, Pr. de Joan. Bapt. in rem Christ. studiis (Frlang. 1785), 2, 4; Abegg, Orat. de Jo. Bapt. (Heidelb. 1820); Bax, Specim. de Jo. Bapt. (L. B. 1821); Stein, Ueb. Gesch. Lehre u. Schicksale Joh. d. T. (in Keil's Analect. 4, 1, 37 sq.); Wessenberg, Johannes der Vorl Ä ufer uns. Herrn (Constanz, 1821); M Ü ller, Pr. de Jo. Bapt. (Helmst. 1733); Asp. Obs. Phil. hist. de Jo. Bapt. (Upsala, 1733) Lisco, Biblische Beitr. Ü ber J. d. T Ä ufer (Berlin, 1826); Eckhard, Josephus de Jo. Bapt. testatus (Eisen. 1785); Harenberg, De cibo Jo. Bapt. (in Otia Gand. sacra, Traj. ad R. 1740, p. 1 sq.); Amnele, Amictus et victus J. Bpt. (Upsal. 1755); Stollberg, id. (Vitemb. 1673); Carpzov, De cultu Jo. B. Antiquat. Chr. (Rome, 1755); Huth, Num. Jo. B. Maria et discip. Chr. fuerint baptizati (Erlangen, 1759); Blatt, A Dissert. on John's Message to our Savior (London, 1789); Zeigermann, Comm. de consil. quo Jo. discip. ad Jesum ablegaverit (Nuremb. 1813); Frank, Joh. d. T Ä ufer (Eisleben, 1841); Kromayer, De baptisme Christi (Lips. 1680).

International Standard Bible Encyclopedia [11]

( Ἰωάνης , Iōánēs ):

I. Sources

II. Parentage

III. Early Life

IV. Ministry

1. The Scene

2. His First Appearance

3. His Dress and Manner

4. His Message

5. His Severity

V. Baptism

1. Significance

(1) Lustrations Required by the Levitical Law

(2) Anticipation of Messianic Lustrations Foretold by the Prophets

(3) Proselyte Baptism

2. Baptism of Jesus

VI. Imprisonment And Death

1. The Time

2. The Occasion

VII. John And His Disciples

1. The Inner Circle

2. Their Training

3. Their Fidelity

VIII. John And Jesus

1. John's Relation to Jesus

2. Jesus' Estimate of John


I. Sources.

The sources of first-hand information concerning the life and work of John the Baptist are limited to the New Testament and Josephus Luke and Matthew give the fuller notices, and these are in substantial agreement. The Fourth Gospel deals chiefly with the witness after the baptism. In his single notice ( Ant ., Xviii , v, 2), Josephus makes an interesting reference to the cause of John's imprisonment. See VI, 2, below.

II. Parentage.

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.

III. Early Life.

We 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.

IV. Ministry.

1. The Scene:

The 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.

2. His First Appearance:

The unusual array of dates with which Luke marks the beginning of John's ministry ( Luke 3:1 ,  Luke 3:2 ) 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 ).

3. His Dress and Manner:

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.

4. His Message:

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.

5. His Severity:

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.

V. Baptism.

1. Significance:

The 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" ( ὁ βαπτστἡς , ho baptistḗs ), 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.

(1) Lustrations Required by the Levitical Law.

The divers washings required by the law ( Leviticus 11 through 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 ,  Leviticus 14:9 ,  Leviticus 14:19 ,  Leviticus 14:20; compare  Mark 1:44;  Luke 2:22 ). The designation of John's baptism by the word βαπτἱζειν , baptı́zein , which by New Testament times was used of ceremonial purification, also indicates some historical connection (compare Sirach 34:25).

(2) Anticipation of Messianic Lustrations Foretold by Prophets.

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 ,  Ezekiel 36:26;  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).

(3) Proselyte Baptism.

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.

2. Baptism of Jesus:

While 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?

VI. Imprisonment and Death.

1. The Time:

Neither 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.

2. The Occasion:

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 ,  Luke 3:20; compare  Matthew 14:3 ,  Matthew 14:4;  Mark 6:17 ,  Mark 6:18 ). 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.

VII. John and His Disciples.

1. The Inner Circle:

Frequent reference is made in the Gospel narrative to the disciples of John. As the multitudes crowded to his baptism, it was natural that he should gather about him an inner circle of men who should receive special instruction in the meaning of his work, and should aid him in the work of baptism, which must have soon increased beyond his power to perform alone. It was in the formation of this inner circle of immediate followers that he prepared a sure foundation for the work of the Messiah; for it was from this inner group that the disciples of Jesus were mainly drawn, and that with his consent and through his witness to the superior worth of the latter, and the temporary character of his own mission ( John 1:29-44 ).

2. Their Training:

Concerning the substance of their training, we know from the disciples of Jesus ( Luke 11:1 ) that it included forms of prayer, and from his own disciples ( Matthew 9:14 ) we learn that frequent fastings were observed. We may be sure also that he taught them much concerning the Messiah and His work.

3. Their Fidelity:

There is abundant evidence of the great fidelity of these disciples to their master. This may be observed in their concern at the over-shadowing popularity of Jesus ( John 3:26 ); in their loyalty to him in his imprisonment and in their reverent treatment of his body after his death ( Mark 6:29 ). That John's work was extensive and his influence lasting is shown by the fact that 20 years afterward Paul found in far-off Ephesus certain disciples, including Apollos, the learned Alexandrian Jew, who knew no other baptism than that of John ( Acts 19:1-7 ).

VIII. John and Jesus.

1. John's Relation to Jesus:

John 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.

2. Jesus' Estimate of John:

Jesus 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.


The relative sections in the Gospel Commentaries, in the Lives of Christ, and the articles on John the Baptist in the several Bible dictionaries. There are a number of monographs which treat more minutely of details: W.C. Duncan, The Life, Character and Acts of John the Baptist , New York, 1853; Erich Haupt, Johannes der Taufer , Gutersloh, 1874; H. Kohler, Johannes der Taufer , Halle, 1884; R.C. Houghton, John the Baptist: His Life and Work , New York, 1889; H.R. Reynolds, John the Baptist , London, 1890; J. Feather, John the Baptist , Edinburgh, 1894; George Matheson in Representative Men of the New Testament , 24-66, Edinburgh, 1905; T. Innitzer, Johannes der Taufer , Vienna, 1908; A.T. Robertson, John the Loyal , New York, 1911.

Kitto's Popular Cyclopedia of Biblial Literature [12]

The name John denotes grace or favor. In the church John commonly bears the honorable title of 'forerunner of the Lord.'

His parents were Zacharias and Elisabeth, the latter 'a cousin of Mary,' the mother of Jesus, whose senior John was by a period of six months (Luke 1). According to the account contained in the first chapter of Luke, his father, while engaged in burning incense, was visited by the angel Gabriel, who informed him that in compliance with his prayers his wife should bear a son, whose name he should call John—in allusion to the grace thus accorded. A description of the manner of his son's life is given, which in effect states that he was to be a Nazarite, abstaining from bodily indulgences, was to receive special favor and aid of God, was to prove a great religious and social reformer, and so prepare the way for the long-expected Messiah. Zacharias was slow to believe these tidings and sought some token in evidence of their truth. Accordingly a sign was given which acted also as a punishment of his want of faith—his tongue was sealed till the prediction should be fulfilled by the event. Six months after Elisabeth had conceived she received a visit from Mary, the future mother of Jesus. On being saluted by her relation, Elisabeth felt her babe leap in her womb, and, being filled with the Holy Spirit, she broke forth into a poetic congratulation to Mary, as the destined mother of her Lord. At length Elisabeth brought forth a son, whom the relatives were disposed to name Zacharias, after his father—but Elisabeth was in some way led to wish that he should be called John. The matter was referred to the father, who signified in writing that his name was to be John. This agreement with Elisabeth caused all to marvel. Zacharias now had his tongue loosed, and he first employed his restored power in praising God. These singular events caused universal surprise, and led people to expect that the child would prove a distinguished man.

The parents of John were not only of a priestly order, but righteous and devout. Their influence, in consequence, in the training of their son, would be not only benign but suitable to the holy office which he was designed to fill. More than this—the special aids of God's Spirit were with him . As a consequence of the lofty influences under which he was nurtured, the child waxed strong in spirit. The sacred writer adds that 'he was in the deserts till the day of his showing unto Israel' .

In the fifteenth year of the Emperor Tiberius, John made his public appearance, exhibiting the austerity, the costume, and the manner of life of the ancient Jewish prophets (Luke 3; Matthew 3). His raiment was camel's hair; he wore a plain leathern girdle about his loins; his food was what the desert spontaneously offered—locusts and wild honey from the rock. The burden of John's preaching bore no slight resemblance to the old prophetic exhortations, whose last echo had now died away for centuries. He called upon the Jewish people to repent, to change their minds, their dispositions and affections, and thus prepared the way for the great doctrine promulgated by his Lord, of the necessity of a spiritual regeneration. That the change which John had in view was by no means of so great or so elevated a kind as that which Jesus required, is very probable; but the particulars into which he enters when he proceeds to address classes or individuals (, sq.; , sq.), serve fully to show that the renovation at which he aimed was not merely of a material or organic, but chiefly of a moral nature. In a very emphatic manner did he warn the ecclesiastical and legal authorities of the land of the necessity under which they lay of an entire change of view, of aim, and of desire; declaring in explicit and awful terms that their pride of nationality would avail them nothing against the coming wrathful visitation, and that they were utterly mistaken in the notion that Divine Providence had any need of them for completing its own wise purposes . The first reason assigned by John for entering on his most weighty and perilous office was announced in these words—'the kingdom of heaven is at hand.' It was his great work to prepare the mind of the nation, so that when Jesus himself came they might be a people made ready for the Lord.

Had we space to develop the moral character of John, we could show that this fine, stern, high-minded teacher possessed many eminent qualities; but his personal and official modesty in keeping, in all circumstances, in the lower rank assigned him by God, must not pass without special mention. The doctrine and manner of life of John appear to have roused the entire of the south of Palestine, and people flocked from all parts to the spot where, on the banks of the Jordan, he baptized thousands unto repentance. Such, indeed, was the fame which he had gained, that 'people were in expectation, and all men mused in their hearts of John, whether he were the Christ or not' . Had he chosen, John might without doubt have assumed to himself the higher office, and risen to great worldly power. But he was faithful to his trust, and never failed to declare, in the fullest and clearest manner, that he was not the Christ, but merely his harbinger, and that the sole work he had to do was to usher in the day-spring from on high.

The more than prophetic fame of the Baptist reached the ears of Jesus in his Nazarene dwelling, far distant from the locality of John . The nature of the report—namely, that his Divinely predicted forerunner had appeared in Judea—showed our Lord that the time was now come for his being made manifest to Israel, Accordingly he comes to the place where John is to be baptized of him, in order that thus he might fulfill all that was required under the dispensation which was about to disappear . John's sense of inferiority inclines him to ask rather than to give baptism in the case of Jesus, who, however, wills to have it so, and is accordingly baptized of John. Immediately on the termination of this symbolical act, a Divine attestation is given from the opened vault of heaven, declaring Jesus to be in truth the long-looked-for Messiah—'This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased' .

The relation which subsisted between John and Jesus, after the emphatic testimony above recorded had been borne, we have not the materials to describe with full certainty.

It seems but natural to think, when their hitherto relative position is taken into account, that John would forthwith lay down his office of harbinger, which, now that the Sun of Righteousness Himself had appeared, was entirely fulfilled and terminated. Such a step he does not appear to have taken. On the contrary, the language of Scripture seems to imply that the Baptist church continued side by side with the Messianic (;;;; ), and remained long after John's execution . Still, though it has been generally assumed that John did not lay down his office, we are not satisfied that the New Testament establishes this alleged fact. John may have ceased to execute his own peculiar work, as the forerunner, but may justifiably have continued to bear his most important testimony to the Messiahship of Christ; or he may even have altogether given up the duties of active life some time, at least, before his death; and yet his disciples, both before and after that event, may have maintained their individuality as a religious communion. Nor is it impossible that some misconception or some sinister motive may have had weight in preventing the Baptist church from dissolving and passing into that of Christ. It was, not improbably, with a view to remove some error of this kind that John sent the embassy of his disciples to Jesus which is recorded in; . No intimation is found in the record that John required evidence to give him satisfaction; and all the language that is used is proper and pertinent if we suppose that the doubt lay only in the minds of his disciples. That the terms employed admit the interpretation that John was not without some misgivings , we are free to allow. And if any doubt had grown up in the Baptist's mind, it was most probably owing to the defective spirituality of his views; for even of him Jesus has declared, 'he that is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he' . Were this the case, it would of itself account not only for the embassy sent by John to Jesus, but also for the continuance and perpetuation of John's separate influence as the founder of a sect.

The manner of John's death is too well known to require to be detailed here (;;;; Josephus, Antiq. xviii. 5. 2). He reproved a tyrant for a heinous crime, and received his reward in decapitation.

The Nuttall Encyclopedia [13]

The forerunner of Christ, who baptized with water unto, or on the confession of, repentance, in anticipation of, and in preparation for, the appearance in the immediate future of One who would baptize with the Spirit and with fire; his fate is well known, and the motive of it.