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Theology > Jesus > Baptism and Temptations > John the Baptist


But the angel said to him, “Do not be afraid, Zechariah, for your prayer has been heard, and your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you shall call his name John. And you will have joy and gladness, and many will rejoice at his birth, for he will be great before the Lord. And he must not drink wine or strong drink, and he will be filled with the Holy Spirit, even from his mother's womb. And he will turn many of the children of Israel to the Lord their God, and he will go before him in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the fathers to the children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the just, to make ready a people prepared for the Lord” (Lu. 1:13-17).

“I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness.”
Jo. 1:23

The full account of John’s family and his birth is found in Lu. 1:5-80. His father was a priest, his mother was from the family of Aaron, and his birth was announced by an angel, with the assertion that he would be filled with the Holy Spirit from his mother’s womb. The Scriptures affirm that his parents “were both righteous before God, walking in all the commandments and ordinances of the Lord blameless” (Lu. 1:6).

Not much is known of his childhood. From his home in the hill country of Judea he went into the wilderness (Lu. 1:80). In this barren area his manner of living and appearance were typical of poor people and the desert people, that is, those who lived a nomadic life; he ate honey and locust, a large grasshopper living in the desert. Such living brings to mind the prophets of old, and especially Elijah.

And it was there that “the word of God came to John the son of Zechariah in the wilderness” (Lu. 3:2), and John began his public ministry, literally “a voice . . . crying in the wilderness” (Mk. 1:3); the date was around A.D. 26-27.

John was the last of the prophets in the Old Testament tradition: “The law and the prophets were until John” (Lu. 16:16); therefore, he inaugurated the new and was the last of the old. For this reason the one who is least in the kingdom is considered greater than John: “Among those born of women there has not risen one greater than John the Baptist; but he who is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he” (Matt. 11:11).

His coming was foretold by the prophets:

The voice of one crying in the wilderness: “Prepare the way of YHWH; make straight in the desert a highway for our God. Every valley shall be exalted and every mountain and hill brought low; the crooked places shall be make straight and the rough places smooth; the glory of YHWH shall be revealed, and all flesh shall set together; for the mouth of YHWH has spoken” (Isa. 40:3-5; see: Matt. 3:3; Mk. 1:1-3; Lu. 3:3-6;);

Behold, I send My messenger and he will prepare the way before Me (Mal. 3:1; see: Matt. 11:10; Mk. 1:2; Lu. 1:76);

Behold, I will sent you Elijah the prophet before the coming of the great and dreadful day of YHWH. And he will turn the hearts of the fathers to the children, and the hearts of the children to their fathers, lest I come and strike the earth with a curse (Mal. 4:5-6: see: Matt. 17:11-13; 11:13-14; Lu. 1:17).

John the Baptist was a messenger to the nation, and like the prophets of old he called the nation to repentance and a change of conduct (Matt. 3:2). The “axe” he asserted was laid at “the root of the trees” and “every tree which does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire” (Lu. 3:9). Whether the “trees” speak of the nation or is a reference to the specific individuals who were hearing him, the point is the same: if no change, then judgment.

John challenged the religious leaders, claiming that mere descent from Abraham was meaningless (Lu. 3:8). He announced the coming of the kingdom and issued to all who heard him a call to repentance and confession in light of the approaching disclosure of the Messiah who would shortly be revealed. The emphasis of his ministry was not himself but the One who was coming after him; he predicted that another was coming:

He who is coming after me is mightier than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire (Matt. 3:11; also Mk. 1:8; Lu. 3:17).

The death of John is recorded in Mk. 6:14-29.

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