John the Baptist is one of the most well-known Bible characters. John looked and acted out of the norm (which has caused some to think of him as a bit kooky), but he was no ordinary prophet! When we look deeply into the Bible story of John the Baptist, we see many aspects of his strengths and accomplishments. The more I learned, the more I realized he was a superhero of Biblical characters!
Did you know? – We find His preaching in all 4 Gospels. Luke’s account is the most complete.
Prophecy of John the Baptist
Isaiah foretold John’s coming in Isaiah 40:3-
“A voice of one calling: ‘In the wilderness prepare the way for the Lord; make straight in the desert a highway for our God.’”
John quotes this verse in Matthew 3:3 when he announces he is the messenger Isaiah spoke of.
And Malachi 4:5:
“See, I will send you the prophet Elijah before that great and dreadful day of the Lord comes.” These were some of the final words of the Old Testament before all went quiet.
John the Baptist took on the role of Elijah to bring the people back to God. Jesus confirms it– “He is the Elijah who was to come.” (Matthew 11:14)
Did you know? – Some think that the reason John dressed and acted as he did was to emulate Elijah who also wore a “garment of hair and had a leather belt around his waist.” (2 Kings 1:7-8) Their messages were also the same- repent and turn back to God.
The Parents of John the Baptist
Even John’s conception had a dramatic twist.
John’s mother, Elizabeth, was elderly and childless. She was a relative of Mary, the mother of Jesus. His father, Zechariah, was a temple priest. An angel visited him and said Elizabeth would have a son. They were to name him John, and he would be “filled with the Holy Spirit even from birth.” God had a special purpose for John’s life. (Luke 1:5-25) Zechariah doubted the angel’s message, so the angel made him mute until the day of John’s birth.
The Birth of John the Baptist
Elizabeth conceived, and when the time came, John was born. At his circumcision on the 8th day, as per custom, they asked his parents what name he would have. Zechariah wrote “John” as the angel had commanded and could immediately speak. The Holy Spirit filled Zechariah and he praised God profusely. He prophesied of the coming Messiah and that John would prepare His way. John would preach the way of salvation through forgiveness of sins.
The details of John’s early life end with this verse:
Luke 1:80- “And the child grew and became strong in spirit; and he lived in the desert until he appeared publicly to Israel.”
Did you know?- John and Jesus “met” in their mother’s wombs! When pregnant Mary came to visit Elizabeth, John leapt for joy!
How Long was John the Baptist in the Wilderness?
We don’t know how old John was when he entered the desert. We can only assume he was old enough to survive and care for himself. He emerged from the wilderness when he was about 30 years old.
He spent many years there in seclusion with a complete focus on seeking and knowing God.
Did you know?- Men were eligible for military service at age twenty. (Numbers 14:29) If John left for the wilderness at that age, that would give him 10 years to prepare…
Facts about John the Baptist
We know a few facts about John’s childhood- the angel told Zechariah that John would be a “joy and delight” to them, and many would rejoice over his birth because he would be “great in the sight of the Lord.” (Luke 1:14, 15)
According to the angel’s instructions to Zechariah, John was to never drink wine or other fermented drink (these were part of the vows of Nazirites- a God-instituted vow for those who wanted to devote themselves to exclusively serving God.)
John’s clothes were of camel’s hair, and he wore a leather belt. He ate locusts and wild honey for food. John neither lived, dressed, nor ate like his contemporaries. He may have been trying to distance himself from the prideful religious leaders of the day.
Did you know?- Locusts were the only insect deemed “kosher” and eating them was not out of the ordinary; they were eaten roasted or sun-dried.¹
The Preaching of John the Baptist
The word of God came to John to begin his ministry when he was about 30 years old. “He went into all the country around the Jordan, preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.” Luke 3:3.
John and his message attracted sizeable crowds of people. Who was this strange-looking loner coming out of the desert? Hearing that the long-awaited Messiah would come soon was music to the ears of the Jews. They had waited so long!
His preaching was popular, astonishing, and unheard of. When the religious leaders showed up, John gave them words of warning, going as far as calling them “a brood of vipers”. (Matthew 3:7) He knew their appearance was just for show, with no real repentance in their hearts. (Vipers were also venomous and deadly, similar to the message the religious leaders were preaching.)
Did you know?- John’s message of repentance was a shock to the Jews. They were God’s chosen people and believed their entrance into Heaven was assured. Repentance wasn’t necessary.
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Why did John Baptize?
John’s preaching was tremendously popular. People came from all over- from Jerusalem and all Judea- to be baptized by John in the Jordan river.
Baptism already existed as a ceremony, but mostly for Gentiles who desired to become Jews. The Jews had a water immersion ceremony for ritual purification in specific circumstances. But baptism for repentance? No.
John’s act of baptism brought this new meaning. It was a visible sign the person was repenting of their sinful life and turning back to God.
John the Baptist explains:
“The reason I came baptizing with water was that He might be revealed to Israel.” (John 1:31)
“The one who sent me to baptize with water told me, ‘The man on whom you see the Spirit come down and remain is he who will baptize with the Holy Spirit.’” (John 1:33)
John Baptizes Jesus
Just as John explained to the people why he was baptizing (for repentance), here comes Jesus asking to be baptized! John objects; he realized Jesus was sinless, and it would have been better for Jesus to baptize him. But Jesus convinced him that this was but another step in His ministry.
As John baptized Jesus, God’s audible voice and the Holy Spirit descending as a dove reassured all that Jesus was the Messiah. This was the first formal and public declaration of Jesus’s ministry. Jesus didn’t announce His ministry in the temple or with religious leaders. He stood in the river like everyone else and showed them His humanity. He didn’t need to be baptized, but did so to relate to us.
The Ministry of John the Baptist
The Jews of Jerusalem sent priests and Levites to speak with John. They were to investigate this new message he was preaching and see if he was a prophet. He was quite popular and a threat to their own message.
John begins by confessing that he was not the Messiah.
Then who are you, what do you have to say about yourself, they asked. Are you Elijah? The Prophet Moses promised? They wanted answers.
John gives them the words of Isaiah that define his ministry. He was “the voice of one calling in the desert, make straight the way for the Lord.”
400+ years of prophetic silence had left the people and the religious leaders in dire need of a renewal of faith and obedience. His ministry message was “repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near.” (Matthew 3:1,3)
John’s aim and focus was to turn the hearts of the people towards the coming Messiah. He was completely faithful to his ministry and had zero interest in making a name for himself. To further show his humble nature, he proclaimed himself unworthy to even untie Jesus’ sandals- a servant’s job.
Did you know?- John’s preaching reached multitudes of people and influenced many. Even King Herod “feared John and protected him, knowing him to be a righteous and holy man. When Herod heard John, he was greatly puzzled; yet he liked to listen to him.” Mark 6:20.
Life of John the Baptist
John lived a selfless and humble life. He knew his special calling and completely accepted it. Not everyone could live their entire life to build up the ministry of someone else. But John selflessly paved the way for Jesus. He was in complete surrender to his God-appointed task.
John’s ministry was on fire; many were repenting and being baptized. Everyone was anxiously awaiting the Messiah, including John. When he sees Jesus coming towards him, he points Him out and says, “Look! The Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!” John 1:29.
He directs everyone’s attention away from himself and onto Jesus. He proclaims Jesus as the sacrifice for every sin ever committed. The Messiah had arrived!
John’s eyes were always on his message and purpose; never himself. Even though he completed his mission to “pave the way” for Jesus, he continued to bring people to repentance and baptize.
His own disciples saw Jesus and His disciples baptizing as well, and became jealous. They saw it as “stealing” people away from John.
John explains that everything he had done was a gift from God. It filled him with joy that he was part of God’s plan. (Do we have this attitude about our calling?)
He then shows us the one and only way to live for Christ:
“He must become greater; I must become less.” He was completely humble, and did nothing out of selfish conceit or vanity.
John the Baptist Doubts
John continued to preach the good news of Messiah’s arrival and mission. He did not lose his fervent desire to point everyone he could to Jesus.
He even fearlessly confronted King Herod with his sin- his illegal and adulterous marriage to Herodias. This angered Herod and he had John imprisoned.
John had been in prison for months when he heard that Jesus was performing miracles. It’s clear that John believed Jesus was the Messiah. But months in a prison cell gave him doubts and second thoughts. He, too, like the disciples, might have imagined Messiah’s kingdom looking very different.
John sent two of his own disciples to ask Jesus, “Are you the one who was to come, or should we expect someone else?” Luke 7:20. Jesus had the disciples report back to John with a record of the miracles He had performed- the exact ones prophesied in Isaiah that the Messiah would perform.
Did you know?- The similarities of John and Elijah continue. Elijah also suffered gloomy despair and a crumbling faith. He even asks God to let him die. (1 Kings 19:4-14.)
The Death of John the Baptist
John lost his life defending God’s law. Herodias orchestrated a revengeful but successful plan to have John killed. Herod reluctantly ordered John beheaded to satisfy the request of his wife and to save face.
When Jesus heard the news, he “withdrew by boat to a solitary place.” Matthew 14:13. He was grieving the loss of this faithful and extraordinary man.
What did Jesus say about John the Baptist?
Jesus gives a beautiful tribute to John in Matthew 11:7-19. In verse 11, He tells them, “I tell you the truth: Among those born of women there has not risen anyone greater than John the Baptist.”
While John considered himself far from great, Jesus reminded the crowd that God had chosen John to pave the way for the world to meet the Messiah.
John the Baptizer
John played an important role in God’s intricate plan to bring Jesus to earth so that He could redeem us. We can learn from John when carrying out our own part of this plan that we are called to do.
•John prepared for years before he was called out to begin his ministry. He knew God’s voice and the part he had to play.
How well do you know God’s voice?
•John spoke through the power of the Holy Spirit. God has filled us with this same power.
How are you putting it to use?
•John was passionate- humble- brave- obedient- bold- focused- faithful- and passionate about his mission.
Which of these attributes would you like to work on?
Can you think of a better way to live for Christ than by John’s own words?- “He must become greater; I must become less.” Let’s speak His truth and point others to Him as John did. May we be humble and obedient and never lose sight of the mission Jesus gave us all- to share the Good News with the world.
May John’s passion and heart for his calling be a beautiful influence in all our lives!
¹Halley’s Bible Handbook, 25th edition, Zondervan Publishing house, page 653.
All Scripture is taken from the NIV unless specified otherwise.
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