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Bridgeway Bible Dictionary
John the Baptist
God’s purpose for John the Baptist was that he be the forerunner of the Messiah. Even before John was born, God revealed to his parents that he had been specially marked out for this task. Like prophets of a former era, John was to live a life of hardship and self-denial, at the same time preaching a message of repentance to the people of Israel. Those who responded to his message in obedience and faith would thereby show themselves to be the true people of God. They would be ready to welcome the Messiah and so enter his kingdom (Luke 1:13-17; Luke 1:57-66; Luke 1:76-79; Matthew 3:2).
Forerunner of the Messiah
People in Israel had long expected that Elijah the prophet would return before the coming of the Messiah (Malachi 4:5). Jesus pointed out that this ‘Elijah’ was in fact John the Baptist (Matthew 11:10-14; Matthew 17:10-13). John preached in the spirit and power of Elijah (Luke 1:17) and shared the harsh existence of Elijah, living in semi-barren regions where he wore rough clothing and ate wild food (Matthew 3:4; Luke 1:80; Luke 3:2; cf. 1 Kings 17:5-7; 1 Kings 19:4-9; 2 Kings 1:8; 2 Kings 2:8).
John began his preaching in that region of Palestine where the Jordan River approached the Dead Sea (Mark 1:4-5; Luke 3:2-3; John 1:28). God had called him to be a prophet (Luke 1:76; Luke 7:26; Luke 16:16; Luke 20:6) and he preached after the manner of the Old Testament prophets. He condemned those who thought that their Israelite nationality guaranteed their salvation (Matthew 3:7-10; cf. Amos 9:7-8), and denounced the greed, corruption and injustice of Israelite society (Luke 3:10-14; cf. Isaiah 5:8-23). The only ones who were truly God’s people were those who repented of their sins and demonstrated their sincerity in baptism (Matthew 3:1-2; cf. Isaiah 1:16-20).
The baptism that John proclaimed, though important, could not empower people for a new life. That power could come only through a greater baptism, the gift of the Holy Spirit; and that was a gift that only the Messiah could give. John was not the Messiah, but he was clearly preparing the way for the Messiah (Luke 3:3-6; Luke 3:15-17; John 1:6-7; John 1:19-28). He announced the kingdom of God (Matthew 3:2).
Introducing the Messiah
John and Jesus were about the same age and were related (Luke 1:36), but their backgrounds and upbringing were different. John was the son of a priest and grew up in Judea in the south of Palestine (Luke 1:5-13; Luke 1:39-41; Luke 1:65; Luke 1:80), whereas Jesus was the son of a carpenter and grew up in Galilee in the north (Luke 1:26; Luke 2:51).
Nothing has been recorded of what association existed between John and Jesus had during their childhood and youth. However, by the time they were about thirty years of age (Luke 3:23) they were at least familiar with each other’s activities.
John knew enough about Jesus to know that Jesus was the better man and had no need for a baptism for repentance. But Jesus insisted that John baptize him. As a result of that baptism, John knew for certain (through the visible descent of the Spirit upon Jesus) that this one was the promised Messiah (Matthew 3:13-17; John 1:33-34). By his baptism Jesus showed that he was on the side of those who, by responding to John’s baptism, had shown themselves to be God’s true people (see ).
The followers of John grew into a clearly recognizable group, characterized by devotion and self-denial (Luke 5:33; John 3:23-25). They spread into regions so far from Jerusalem that many years passed before some of them heard the full message concerning the Messiah of whom John had spoken (Acts 18:24-26; Acts 19:1-5). Yet John was not interested in building a personal following, and he felt well satisfied when his disciples left him to follow Jesus (John 1:35; John 3:26-30).
From the old era into the new
In moving widely around the Jordan region, John would have spent some time in areas west of Jordan controlled by Pilate and some time in areas east of Jordan controlled by Herod Antipas (Luke 3:1; John 1:28; John 3:23). This brought John into conflict with Herod Antipas, whom he rebuked for marrying the wife of his brother, Herod Philip. Antipas replied by throwing John into prison (Mark 6:17-20; Luke 3:19-20).
Shut up in prison, John received only irregular, and possibly inaccurate, reports of Jesus’ ministry. This made him wonder whether Jesus really was the Messiah he had foretold, so he sent messengers to ask Jesus directly (Luke 7:18-20). Jesus reassured John by pointing out that his works were those that the Old Testament prophets had spoken of when they foretold the messianic age (Luke 7:21-23; cf. Isaiah 35:5-6; Isaiah 61:1-3).
Jesus reassured the people also, for he did not want them to lose their respect for John. There was nothing weak or uncertain about John. He did not look for comfort or prestige, but like a true prophet he endured a life of hardship for the sake of God (Luke 7:24-27). John was the last and greatest prophet of the era before Christ. But he did not live to see the fulness of the new era (for he was executed by Herod; Mark 6:21-29). The blessings of the Messiah’s kingdom are such that the humblest believer of this new era is more blessed than the greatest believer of the old (Luke 7:28).
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Fleming, Don. Entry for 'John the Baptist'. Bridgeway Bible Dictionary. https://www.studylight.org/dictionaries/eng/bbd/j/john-the-baptist.html. 2004.
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