The life of John the Baptist and its significance

John the Baptist is the forerunner of Jesus. He is the son of two pious old people, Zacharias and Elisabeth. These two couldn’t have children at first. The angel Gabriel told Zacharias that he would have a son. John baptized by immersion in the Jordan River. He also baptized Jesus. John told it like it was. He was not appreciated for that. Because of his criticism of King Herod, John was put in prison and beheaded. John the Baptist is seen as the prophet Elijah, who was foretold to return in the time of the Messiah.

John the Baptist in the Gospels

Each of the four evangelists tells about John the Baptist. They do put their own emphasis on this. The evangelist Mark begins his Gospel with John the Baptist. Mark shows that in John the prophecies of the Old Testament have been fulfilled: It is written in the prophet Isaiah: Behold, I will send my messenger before you, and he will prepare a way for you’ (Mark 2:1) . The evangelist Matthew immediately calls John ‘the Baptist’ (Matthew 3:1). It seems that Matthew assumed that John the Baptist was a well-known figure to his readers. Luke begins with the birth story of John. The fourth evangelist, John, begins his gospel with a hymn of praise to Jesus: ,In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God, (John 1:1). The evangelist alternates this hymn with statements by John the Baptist about Jesus (John 1:6-8 and 15).

Zechariah and Elisabeth and the birth of John

Zechariah and Elisabeth are John’s parents. They are already old when he sees the light of day. They were unable to have children for a long time. Both Zacharias and his wife Elisabeth are religious people. They scrupulously follow Jewish ritual regulations. The evangelist Luke emphasizes that they walked blamelessly in all the commandments and laws of the Lord (Luke 1:6).

Elisabeth’s barrenness Zacharias and Elisabeth were childless for a long time. At that time, infertility was not just a suffering that you had to bear personally. Childlessness was also a source of social disgrace and shame. Luke writes that Elisabeth was barren. In ancient times, infertility was usually blamed on women. With her barrenness, Elisabeth is in the line of the founding mothers of Israel: Sarah the wife of the patriarch Abraham, Rebekah the wife of Isaac, Rachel the wife of Jacob. They were initially infertile for a longer period of time before having a child.

Priestly race

Both parents of John the Baptist came from a priestly family. Zacharias belonged to the priestly division of Abijah. The priests at that time were divided into 24 divisions, including that of Abijah. The priestly divisions took turns on duty in the temple. Elisabeth was descended from Aaron, the first high priest the people of Israel had (Luke 1:5).

The announcement of the birth of John the Baptist

When Zechariah was on duty in the temple, the angel Gabriel came to him. This archangel told Zacharias that Elizabeth would have a child despite her old age. They would have a son. They were to name him John. The name John means ‘Yahweh is gracious’. Zacharias was shocked by the angel, but the angel reassured him.

But the angel said to him, “Do not be afraid, Zacharias, your prayer has been heard: your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you shall call his name John.” Joy and gladness will be yours, and many will rejoice at his birth. He will be great in the sight of the Lord, and he will drink no wine or fermented drink. He will be filled with the Holy Spirit while he is still in his mother’s womb, and he will bring many of the people of Israel to the Lord their God. He will go before God as a messenger with the spirit and power of Elijah, to reconcile parents to their children and to bring sinners to righteousness, and so he will prepare the people for the Lord.” (Luke 1:13-17)

John Leaps Up in His Mother’s Womb The angel Gabriel was also sent to Mary to tell her that she would become the mother of the promised Messiah. The angel also told her that her relative Elizabeth was pregnant despite her old age. Mary then immediately traveled to Elisabet. When Elizabeth heard Mary’s voice, the child (John) jumped up in her womb. Elizabeth said to Mary, “When I heard your greeting, the child leaped for joy in my womb” (Luke 1:44).

John is given his name Eight days after the birth of the son of Zacharias and Elisabeth, the child is circumcised, as stated in Jewish law. During circumcision the child is also officially given its name. The people ask Elisabet what the child’s name should be. “Johannes,” she answers. People don’t believe her, because they assume that according to tradition he will be named after his father. They ask Zacharias. Because he cannot speak, he asks for a writing board and writes ‘Johannes’ on it. From that moment on, Zacharias manages to use his voice again (Luke 1:57-64). He gives a eulogy to God. This eulogy later became known as the ‘Praise of Zechariah’ (Luke 1:68-79).

John the Baptist and his disciples

Few people in the Bible know what they eat or what clothes they wear. We know about John the Baptist: he wore a rough cloak of camel’s hair with a leather belt. He ate locusts and wild honey (Matthew 3:4). John gained several followers. Jesus is known to have had twelve disciples. John also had a number of disciples. The Bible does not say exactly how many there were. John’s disciples are mentioned several times in the Bible. For example, the scribes said to Jesus: John’s disciples fast often and pray, as did the disciples of the Pharisees, but yours eat and drink (Luke 5:33).

The proclamation of John the Baptist

Central to John the Baptist’s message is his call to repentance: Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near! (Matthew 3:1. See also Mark 1:4; Luke 3:3; Acts 10:37). John the Baptist called on the people to repent and repent of their wrongdoings.

The Kingdom of God is Near John the Baptist points out that the Kingdom of God is near. When that kingdom breaks through, creation will be delivered from evil. This is an encouragement to some of his listeners. They experience it as a message of salvation. For others it is a warning of the coming judgment. The Pharisees and Sadducees, who came to John out of curiosity, were told by him what it was all about. Johannes did not mince his words. He calls them brood of vipers.

O brood of vipers, who has convinced you that you are safe from the coming judgment? Rather, bring forth fruits worthy of new life, and do not think that you can say within yourself, We have Abraham as our father. For I tell you, from these stones God is able to raise up children of Abraham! The ax is already at the root of the tree: every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. (Matthew 3:7b-11)


John the Baptist and Jesus

The evangelist Mark sees in John the Baptist the fulfillment of the words of the prophet Isaiah: Behold, I send my messenger before you, he will prepare a way for you. A loud voice sounds in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight. John the Baptist was a pioneer, a herald. He prepared the way for Jesus. ‘He prepares the people for the Lord (Luke 1:17). Later this view of John the Baptist is confirmed by Jesus himself.

He is the one about whom it is written: “Behold, I am sending my messenger before you, and he will prepare a way for you.” I tell you the truth, among all those born of woman there was never one greater than John the Baptist; but in the kingdom of heaven the least is greater than he. (Matthew 11:10-11)


John baptizes Jesus

Jesus went from his native Galilee to the Jordan River. There he asked John to baptize him. John initially refuses: I should be baptized by you, and then you come to me? (Matthew 3:14). However, Jesus stood his ground and John baptized him. When Jesus was baptized and came up out of the water, the heavens opened and the Holy Spirit came and sat on him in the form of a dove. There came a voice from heaven, saying, This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased. Immediately after his baptism, Jesus went into the wilderness for forty days and was tempted by Satan (Matthew 4:1).

John the Baptist testifies about Jesus

John the Baptist said of Jesus: ‘He who comes after me is greater than I, because he was before me (John 1: 15). John said to the Pharisees, “But there is one among you whom you do not know, and he who comes after me is not worthy to untie the straps of his sandals” (John 1:27). When John the Baptist sees Jesus, he calls him the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world (John 1:29). John refers to the sacrifice of his life that Jesus will make when he dies on the cross.

John doubts whether Jesus is the promised Messiah

John the Baptist is captured by King Herod. When John was in prison he began to doubt whether Jesus was really the promised Messiah. John himself had proclaimed that the kingdom of God was near. When that kingdom comes, the prisoners will be set free. The prophets of the Old Testament had this (for example Isaiah 61:1). John wonders why the breakthrough of that kingdom is not happening. He sent some of his disciples to Jesus asking: Are you the one who would come, or should we expect someone else? (Matthew 11:3).

Jesus answered, “Tell John what you hear and see: the blind will see again, the lame will walk, the sick will be cleansed, the deaf will hear, the dead will be raised, and the good news will be preached to the poor. Happy is the one who doesn’t take offense to me.’ (Matthew 11:4-6)


John the Baptist as the returned Elijah

“Before the great and awesome day of the LORD comes, I will send you Elijah the prophet” (Malachi 3:23). The prophet Malachi writes about the second coming of Elijah. The prophet Elijah lived several centuries before Malachi, during the time of the wicked King Ahab. Elijah fought against the idolatry of the fertility god Baal. Elijah did not die, but he ascended to heaven in a chariot of fire and horses of fire (2 Kings 2). This exceptional end to his life on earth led people to believe that God will one day send him back to earth. This expectation was put in writing by the prophet Malachi. According to Jesus, these words were fulfilled in John the Baptist (Matthew 17:10-12, Mark 9:11-13, Luke 1:17).

The disciples asked him, ,Why do the scribes say that Elijah must come first?, He replied, “Elijah would indeed come and restore all things. But I tell you that Elijah has already come, only they did not recognize him, but they have done to him whatever they pleased. So also the Son of Man will have to suffer at their hands.” Then the disciples understood that he was referring to John the Baptist. (Matthew 17:10-13)


John beheaded on Herod’s orders

Source: Caravaggio, Wikimedia Commons (Public domain)

John the Baptist was imprisoned by King Herod Antipas. John had reproached him for his shameful attitude to life. After his divorce, Herod married Herodias, the wife of his brother Herod Philip. This union was forbidden by Jewish law (Leviticus 18:16 and 20:21). On the occasion of Herod’s birthday, Salome, the daughter of Herodias, dances for him. The king is impressed by Salome’s dance and he promises to give her whatever she wishes. Instigated by Herodias, Salome asks for the head of John the Baptist. Herod reacts sadly. He wanted to spare John’s life. However, he knows he is bound by his promise. He does not want to lose face in front of the participants of the feast (Matthew 14:1-12), so he orders John to be beheaded in prison. The head is brought into the banquet hall on a platter and given to the girl. She must have been around 18 or 19 years old. Her reaction is not mentioned. John’s disciples later collect his remains and bury them.

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