John the Baptist
John the Baptist (Hebrew: Yochanan haTevilah—Greek: Iōannēs ho Baptistēs) was born c. 4 BC (3757–3758 in the Hebrew calendar) in the Roman province of Judea. His father was Zechariah, a priest belonging to the order of Abijah. John's mother was Elizabeth, a descendant of the Hebrew forefather Aaron. He was Jesus' second cousin and his forerunner, proclaiming his messianic arrival and preparing Israel for Jesus' ministry. John was Jesus' hype man! His name in Hebrew, Yochanan (H3076), literally means "God has been gracious." Jesus identified John as "Elijah who is to come" (Matt. 11:14), quoting the prophet Malachi: "Lo, I will send you the prophet Elijah before the great and terrible day of the LORD comes" (4:5). The angel Gabriel also said this about John when speaking to his father Zechariah: "He will turn many of the people of Israel to the Lord their God. With the spirit and power of Elijah he will go before him, to turn the hearts of parents to their children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous, to make ready a people prepared for the Lord" (Luke 1:16-17). Jesus gave John his highest compliment ever: "Truly I tell you, among those born of women no one has arisen greater than John the Baptist" (Matt. 11:11a). John baptized Jesus after he gave this important reason: "Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness" (Matt. 3:15b).
Ministry: Crying Out in the Wilderness
Many scholars believe that John was a member of the Essenes, an ascetic Jewish community who anticipated the messiah and practiced ritual baptism. He lived in the Judean wilderness while the Essenes lived at Qumran. John wore camel's hair and leather, eating locusts and wild honey (cf. Matt. 3:4; Mark 1:6). However, for John, baptism in water (Greek: baptisma; G908, "immersion" or "dip") was not just about cleansing, but of repentance (Greek: metanoia; G3341, "change of mind"). Simply put, the Essenes considered baptism their way of being ritually clean beyond the Jerusalem temple, but in line with the Law of Moses. However, John's baptism required an individual to give up their life of deliberate sin (cf. Matt. 3:2-11; Mark 1:4, 15; Luke 3:3, 8), not just a routine practice of self-atonement. Moreover, John baptized Jesus to inaugurate his ministry and to solemnize his atoning death for all people (cf. Rom. 6:4). One of the places John baptized people was Aenon near Salim, a Judean village on the Jordan River with an abundance of water (cf. John 3:23). He also immersed various penitents near Bethany, a Judean village near Jerusalem (cf. John 1:28).
John the Baptist's ministry ended when Jesus' began. In fact, Jesus' earliest disciples had been students of John first (cf. John 1:35-36). Furthermore, when the apostles looked to replace Judas Iscariot after his death, they believed John's baptism was a necessary requirement (cf. Acts 1:22). John testified, "I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, 'Make straight the way of the Lord'" (John 1:23; cf. Isa. 40:3). He was not the messiah; John quickly dismissed this identification. However, John was equally swift to prepare his Jewish compatriots for the true Messiah, Jesus of Nazareth: "I baptize with water. Among you stands one whom you do not know, the one who is coming after me; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandal" (John 1:26-27). In other words, John was saying that he not worthy enough to be a slave to Jesus, let alone a prophet like Elijah. Nevertheless, this was John's greatest testimony about the Messiah:
Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world! This is he of whom I said, "After me comes a man who ranks ahead of me because he was before me." I myself did not know him; but I came baptizing with water for this reason, that he might be revealed to Israel. . . . I saw the Spirit descending from heaven like a dove, and it remained on him. I myself did not know him, but the one who sent me to baptize with water said to me, "He on whom you see the Spirit descend and remain is the one who baptizes with the Holy Spirit." And I myself have seen and have testified that this is the Son of God (John 1:29b-34).
Death of John the Baptist
Herod Antipas (21 BC–AD 39) sentenced John the Baptist to death by decapitation c. AD 30. John rebuked Herod for divorcing his wife Phasaelis to illicitly marry Herodias, the wife of Herod Philip (20 BC–AD 34)—his brother. So, Antipas had John arrested and imprisoned. At one of his banquets, he was so impressed by his daughter Salome's erotic dancing that Antipas granted her any request, no matter how whimsical. Salome talked to Herodias, who demanded John the Baptist's head on a serving plate (cf. Matt. 14:1-12; Mark 6:14-29). Josephus also mentioned John in his Antiquities of the Jews, recording that Herod Antipas executed him at the Machaerus fortress:
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, who was a good man, and commanded the Jews to exercise virtue, both as to righteousness towards one another, and piety towards God, and so to come to baptism; for that the washing would be acceptable to him, if they made use of it, not in order to the remission of some sins, but for the purification of the body; supposing still that the soul was thoroughly purified beforehand by righteousness. Now when others came in crowds about him, for they were very 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 would 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. Now the Jews had an opinion that the destruction of this army was sent as a punishment upon Herod, and a mark of God's displeasure to him (Ant. 18.5.2).
Blessed are you, LORD our God, King of the universe, by whose providence your servant John the Baptist was wonderfully born, and sent to prepare the way of your Son our Savior by preaching repentance: Make us so to follow his teaching and holy life, that we may truly repent, boldly rebuke vice, patiently suffer for the sake of truth, and proclaim the coming of Jesus the Messiah our Lord; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.
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Josephus. Antiquities of the Jews 18. Ed. Peter Kirby. Fullerton, CA: Early Jewish Writings, 2022. http://www.earlyjewishwritings.com/text/josephus/ant18.html.
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