John the Baptist

By Mary Jane Chaignot

Categories: Prophets

  • Luke is the only gospel that records any information about the birth of John.
  • In his narrative of the birth stories, Luke uses a dramatic technique of alternating between John and Jesus, thereby focusing attention on each individually.
  • John is clearly identified as a successor to the prophets of the Old Testament.
  • John’s parents were Zechariah and Elizabeth.
  • Both were descendants of the tribe of Aaron. Zechariah was a priest of the section of Alba. (Because every descendant of Aaron was automatically a priest, they were divided into twenty-four sections. All the priests were expected to serve during major festivals, but for the rest of the year each section served one week twice during the year. Each section might have had as many as 1000 priests in it. Therefore, their duties were determined by lot. A priest could only be chosen once in his life to enter the sanctuary and burn the incense for the daily sacrifices. The lot fell to Zechariah one very important day.)
  • It was equally important for the daughter of a priest (like Elizabeth) to marry a priest (like Zechariah). Therefore, theirs was an ideal match.
  • John’s parents were identified as being “blameless and righteous.”
  • Nonetheless, this devout couple was childless and getting along in years. (Many scholars see similarities to Abraham and Sarah at this point.)
  • To have a child (especially a boy) was considered to be a great blessing from God; to not have a child was oftentimes seen as a punishment from God.
  • The angel, Gabriel, appeared to Zechariah on the day he was inside the priest’s chambers having been chosen by lot to burn the incense for sacrifice that evening. The angel announced Elizabeth would have a son and they should call his name John.
  • Because the angel began the conversation by saying, “Your prayers have been heard,” scholars assume Zechariah had been praying for Elizabeth to have a son.
  • The name John means, “Yahweh has shown favor” or “God is gracious.”
  • In naming him before he was even born, the angel demonstrated God’s divine intent for this child.
  • The angel’s second prediction included a description of his mission. There would be joy and gladness associated with his birth. John would not drink either wine or strong drink, and he would turn many to God. Most importantly, however, he would be the forerunner of the Messiah.
  • In remembering the prophecies of Malachi that Elijah would return before “that terrible day of the Lord,” Christian interpreters linked John to these prophecies. (Mark has Jesus say that John fulfills this role of Elijah.)
  • Abstaining from wine or strong drink was one of the characteristics of those taking a Nazirite vow. (Though nothing is said about not cutting hair, etc.)
  • Zechariah couldn’t believe his ears regarding the angel’s pronouncement and asked how this would be possible.
  • The angel then told him he would be dumb and unable to speak until the birth of his son. (Hence, Zechariah could not tell anyone what had happened to him inside the sanctuary. Nor could he pronounce the evening blessing upon the people.)
  • The people waiting outside began to worry because he had been inside for so long, but when he came out they could tell he had seen a vision.
  • According to Luke, Jesus’ mother, Mary, and Elizabeth were cousins.
  • The birth story of John is interrupted by the angel’s appearance to Mary announcing the impending birth of her son, Jesus.
  • Elizabeth was six months along when Mary visited her.
  • Ever since the fourth century, churches have commemorated the birth of John the Baptist on June 24th (six months before the birth of Jesus). (There is no consensus on why these particular dates were chosen.)
  • John reportedly “leaped” in Elizabeth’s womb upon Mary’s arrival.
  • When John was born, all their neighbors and cousins did rejoice with her – thus fulfilling the first prophecy.
  • John was circumcised on the eighth day in accordance with the law.
  • On that day the relatives began calling him Zechariah in honor of his father.
  • Elizabeth said he would be called John.
  • Zechariah reiterated his wife’s comments by writing on a tablet.
  • Immediately, Zechariah’s tongue was loosed and he could speak plainly.
  • Zechariah was then filled with the Holy Spirit and he burst into a song of praise, essentially repeating the prophetic words of the angel from the original angelic announcement. (Zechariah’s blessing is called the Benedictus.)
  • And John “grew and waxed strong in spirit,” and he lived in the desert.
  • There is no information on John between the story of his birth and the day he walked out of the desert as an adult preaching a baptism of repentance to the people.
  • John was fearless in proclaiming his message, even going so far as to call the Pharisees a “brood of vipers.” (This was, no doubt, in reference to the fact that they might have been coming for the ritual of baptism, but their lives were just as corrupt as ever – with no signs of true repentance.)
  • Yet he didn’t just condemn their actions, he actively called people to the moral standards required by God. He challenged people to be all they could be.
  • Matthew describes him as wearing a garment made from camel’s hair with a leather belt around his waist, and eating nothing but locusts and honey.
  • Yet he must have made quite an impression because “all” of Jerusalem went out to him in order to be baptized.
  • People were able to recognize him as being a prophet (even though there had been no prophets for almost 400 years).
  • John’s basic message was “REPENT” (change your mind and change your ways.)
  • Each gospel treats John’s baptism of Jesus a little differently, but it is in Matthew that John says he is the one who should be baptized of Jesus. (And Jesus responds that for now this is what they have to do.)
  • According to Mark, Jesus began his ministry after John had been imprisoned.
  • Josephus, a first century historian, writes that John was held in a dungeon cell in the castle of Machaerus, the imposing and impenetrable fortress located in Perea on the eastern side of the Dead Sea. He adds that John was arrested by Herod for denouncing his marriage to his brother’s wife, Herodias. This was a politically sensitive issue because Herod had to dispose of his first wife (who managed to escape back to her father’s kingdom) and was already fighting a battle (which he would lose) against his ex-father-in-law who was trying to avenge his daughter’s honor.
  • When John heard about the wonders Jesus was doing, he sent two of his disciples to ask Jesus whether he was “the one that should come” or if they should “wait for another.”
  • Scholars have multiple thoughts on the nature of this question. Major choices are that John was asking this for the benefit of his followers or that John wanted to hurry things along, asking Jesus to begin decisive action. The idea that John himself had doubts stands in utter contrast to his opening statements about him being the forerunner and Jesus being the one to follow. Yet in Luke’s gospel (where this question occurs), it provides the opening for one of several questions relating to Jesus’ identity. In other words, it could simply be another clever literary device allowing the writer to reveal more about Jesus.
  • The question also allowed Jesus to pay tribute to John, calling him “more than a prophet,” thereby establishing and confirming his prophetic role. He was “more than a prophet” because he was the forerunner of the messiah.
  • In the meantime, while John was in prison, Herod “feared him and protected” him because he knew John was a righteous man. He even liked to “listen” to him.
  • Herodias, however, had no such impulsions. She wanted to kill him, no doubt in order to silence his denunciation of her marriage to Herod and to solidify her position as Herod’s legal wife.
  • Herodias’ opportunity came the day Herod offered to give her daughter, Salome, “anything you want” as a thank you for her seductive dance at his birthday party.
  • Herodias coached her daughter into asking for the head of John; the daughter came up with the idea of having it delivered on a platter.
  • Despite Herod’s “great distress,” he had to save face with his dinner guests and ordered it done.
  • John’s disciples took his body and buried him. (This is in contrast to Jesus’ disciples who all ran away when he was killed.)
  • Yet this was not the end of Herod’s nightmare regarding John. Later on, he feared that Jesus was the reincarnation of John.
  • Jesus also made reference to John’s authority in his conflicts with the temple priests.
  • Josephus adds that Herod’s forces were eventually defeated by his ex-wife’s father. The people saw it as punishment for killing John and a sign of God’s displeasure. If that were true, then it would have been a case of “just desserts.”
  • In short, John lived his beliefs and died for them as well.


Barclay, William. "Matthew, Mark, Luke, John." Daily Study Bible. Philadelphia, PA: Westminster Press, 1975.

Hare, Douglas. "Matthew." Interpretation. Louisville, KY: John Knox Press, 1993.

Gaebelein, Frank. "Matthew-John." Expositor's Bible Commentary. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing, 1985.

Keck, Leander. "Luke-John." New Interpreter's Bible. Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1995.

Mills, Watson and Richard Wilson. Mercer Commentary on the Bible. Macon, GA: Mercer University Press, 1995.

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