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Bible Dictionaries
John the Baptist

Whyte's Dictionary of Bible Characters

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"WHAT manner of child shall this be!" was the universal exclamation of the whole hill-country of Judea over the birth of John. The old age of Zacharias and Elizabeth; the errand from heaven of Gabriel; the dumbness in judgment of Zacharias; and the strange things that he wrote on his writing table; all that made all who heard of it to exclaim, 'What manner of child, we wonder, shall John, the son of Zacharias and Elizabeth, turn out to be!' And the whole manner and character and service of John's childhood and youth and manhood, down to the day of his death, turned out to be wonderful enough to satisfy the most wonder-loving of Elizabeth's neighbours, both in Jerusalem and in all Judea.

John was in the deserts till the day of his showing unto Israel, so Luke tells us. And from Luke, and from some other trustworthy sources, we can see John for the first thirty years of his sequestered life as well almost as if we ourselves had lived in the very next desert to his deserts. For you must always remember this about John that he was in the deserts, and was with the wild beasts, till he began to be about thirty years of age. He was in those terrible deserts that lay all around the Dead Sea. Up and down John wandered, and fasted, and prayed, where Sodom and Gomorrah had once stood till the Lord rained fire and brimstone upon all the inhabitants of those cities, and upon all that grew upon the ground. And John was clothed with camel's hair, and with a leathern girdle about his loins; and he did eat locusts and wild honey. A terrible man. A man not to come near. The very bitumen-miners, whom everybody feared, were afraid of John. It made them sober and civil to one another when John came down to visit them in their squalid settlements. It was not that John was a misanthrope. John was the right opposite of a misanthrope. It was because all other men were misanthropes; were hateful, and were hating one another, that John could not any longer dwell among them, either in Judea or in Jerusalem, either in Sodom or Gomorrah. You totally misread and misunderstand John if you think that it was either misanthropy or moroseness that made John what he was. It was simply John's extraordinarily deep insight into the holy law of God that made him such a monastic of fasting and self-flagellation and prayer.

Before his father Zacharias died, and as long as Elizabeth lived, John had heard things like this at their lips in family worship every day: "The Lord shall lay on Him the iniquity of us all. He shall be stricken, smitten of God, and afflicted. His soul shall be made an offering for sin." It was on such things as these that Elizabeth suckled her heavensent son till it sometimes seemed to him in his loneliness of soul and in his agony of heart that he himself had been made sin, and nothing but sin. And, indeed, in some ways, John came as near being made sin as any mortal man ever came to that unparalleled experience. John was the man of sorrows till the true Man of Sorrows Himself should come. All the appetites of John's body, and all the affections of John's mind and heart, were drunk up and drained dry by the all-consuming fires of his unquenchable conscience. If all sight and sense and conscience of sin had utterly died out of Israel in that day, it had only died out of all other men's hearts to rage like the bottomless pit itself in the great broken heart of Elizabeth's substituted son. And thus it was that the very robbers ran and hid themselves among the rocks of the hill-country when they saw that terrible man standing again over against the city, and crying out, "Oh Jerusalem! Jerusalem! how shalt thou abide the day of His coming? For, behold! that day shall burn as an oven. That great and terrible day, when all that do wickedly shall be as the stubble!" A man alone. A man apart. A great man. "A greater man has never been born of woman," said He who knew all men. "What went ye out into the wilderness to see? A reed shaken with the wind!" He who said that never smiled, say some. I see Him smiling for once as He says that. 'A man clothed in soft raiment! No; anything but that. And anything but a reed; and with anything on but the soft clothing that they put on in kings' houses!'

And, now, from such a divinity-student as that, and after thirty years of such a curriculum and probationership as that, what kind of preaching would you go to church to look for? A dumb dog that cannot bark? A trencher-chaplain? A soft thing of gown and bands and lawn sleeves? A candidate for a manse and a stipend? "O generation of vipers, who hath warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bring forth, therefore, fruits meet for repentance. And now the axe is laid at the root of the trees. Therefore every tree that bringeth not forth good fruit is hewn down and cast into the fire. He that hath two coats let him impart to him that hath none; and he that hath meat, let him do likewise. Do violence to no man. Neither accuse any man falsely, and be content with your wages. He shall baptize you with the Holy Ghost, and with fire. Whose fan is in His hand, and He will gather the wheat into His garner, but the chaff will He burn up with fire unquenchable." The greatest preacher of the past generation when preaching to a congregation of young preachers said this to them: "He who has before his mental eye the four last things will have the true earnestness. He will have the horror and the rapture of one who witnesses a conflagration, or discerns some rich and sublime prospect above and beyond this world. His countenance, his manner, his voice will all speak for him in proportion as his view has been vivid and minute.

Yea, this man's brow, like to a title-leaf,
Foretells the nature of a tragic volume.
Thou tremblest, and the whiteness in thy cheek
Is apter than thy tongue to tell thine errand.

It is this earnestness, in the supernatural order, which is the eloquence of saints; and not of saints only, but of all Christian preachers, according to the measure of their faith and love."

But why, I wonder, was the forerunner able to content himself all his days with being no more than the forerunner? Why did John not leave off his ministry of accusation and condemnation? Why did he not wait upon, and himself take up, the ministry of reconciliation? When he said to his disciples, Behold the Lamb of God! why did the Baptist not go himself with Andrew and the others and become, first, a disciple, and then in due time an apostle, of Jesus Christ? Zacharias's son would have made a better son of thunder than both of Zebedee's sons taken together. Why, then, did John not leave the desert, and the Jordan, and follow Christ? Well, to begin with, he could not help himself. Jesus did not call John any more than He called His own brother James. 'Go you,' John said to Andrew, and to Peter, and to James and John, the sons of Zebedee. 'Go you: I am not worthy to enter under the same roof with Him. I will remain where I am. I will work at the Jordan. I will preach repentance, and He will teach you to preach pardon. The Kingdom of Heaven is soon coming, but I shall not live to see it. I shall not live to see Tabor, and Calvary, and Olivet, and Pentecost, like you. He and you, His disciples, must increase, but I must decrease.' John was a great man and a great preacher, but, as we are wont to say, he never quite escaped out of the seventh of the Romans.

John the Baptist, like some much more evangelical men, was well-nigh smothered out of life in the slough of despond. 'Art thou He that should come, or do we look for another? Why dost thou eat and drink with Scribes and Pharisees, and leave me lying here in this prison-house of Herod and his harlots? Why dost thou eat and drink and make wine out of water for weddings? Rather, surely, should all God's true servants put on sackcloth and ashes and mourn apart, every family apart, and their wives apart. Art thou He that should come, or do we look for another?' Yes; this is Elias come back again. "I have been very zealous for the Lord," complained Elias in his cave in Horeb. "I only am left, and they seek my life. It is enough. Let me die, O Lord, for I am no better than my fathers." The God of all comfort be thanked for Elias, and for John, and for the slough of despond! They are all written for our rebuke, and for our learning, and for our sure consolation. Had these things not been written we would have turned away from our Bible in despair, saying: 'These men are giants and saints. These are not men of like passions as we are. Why,' we are often tempted to complain, 'Why is God's Kingdom so long in coming? What hinders it, if indeed Christ is on His throne and has all things in His hand? Why does He not burst open my prison-house and redress my cause? Why is my sanctification so postponed? Art thou He that should come, or do we look for another?' "Go and show John again those things that ye do see, and hear. The blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised up, and the poor have the Gospel preached to them. And blessed is he, whosoever shall not be offended in Me. He that believeth, and hopeth against hope, and endureth to the end, he alone shall be saved."

But by far the very best thing that the Baptist ever said or did was what he said to his jealous disciples: "A man can receive nothing," he said, "except it be given him from Heaven. He that hath the bride is the bridegroom. He must increase, but I must decrease." I would rather have had the grace from God to say that than have been the greatest man ever born of woman. For he who thinks, and says, and does a thing like that is born, not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God. And yet, when I come up close to it and look it in the face, this great utterance of the Baptist is not by any means so unapproachable as I took it to be at my first sight of it. I myself could have said and done all that John said and did that day. That is to say, had I been in his exact circumstances? For what were his exact circumstances? They were these, and much more than these. John had drunk in the Sonship and the Messiahship of Jesus of Nazareth with his mother's milk. And he had been brought up all his days on that same marrow of lions. His mother Elizabeth, you may be very sure, did not die, nor did Zacharias depart in peace, till they had both told over and over again to their forerunner-son every syllable they had to tell. And thus it was that for full thirty years John did nothing else but wait for the Messiah. John thought about no one else, and spake about no one else, for all these endless years, but the Lamb of God. And thus it was that when Jesus of Nazareth came south to the Jordan to be baptized of John, the Baptist remonstrated and refused, and said: "I have need to be baptized of Thee." No, there was nothing at all so great or so good in John's self-effacing speech to his disciples. The most envious-minded man in all the world does not envy a lion, or an eagle, or an angel. A beggar does not envy a king. He only envies his neighbour-beggar whose pockets are so full of coppers and crumbs at night. "Potter envies potter." And the more theology there was in John's first great utterance, "Behold the Lamb of God," the less morality there was in his second great utterance, "He must increase, but I must decrease." No thanks to John not to be jealous of the Son of God! But had Jesus been simply a carpenter of Nazareth, and John's cousin to boot, turned suddenly such a popular preacher with all men, and with all John's baptized disciples going after him; and had John, in that case, said all this about his own decreasing, then I would down on the spot and kiss his feet.

"I was to preach in Clackmannan, where the most of the people were already for me to be their minister, but some that had the greatest power were against me, as it ordinarily fared with me in the places where I used to preach. On the Saturday afternoon there came a letter to my hand, desiring me to give the one-half of the day to another probationer, whom those who were against me had their eye upon. In these circumstances, seeing what hazard I was in of an evil eye, I committed the keeping of my heart to the Lord that I might be helped to carry evenly. He got the forenoon, for so it was desired by his friends. I was, as I expected, terribly assaulted by the tempter. When I came home from church my heart was in a manner enraged against itself on that account, and I confessed it before the Lord, abhorring myself, and appealing to God's omniscience, that I would fain have had it otherwise. As I was complaining that Satan had winnowed me, and had brought up much filthy stuff out of my heart, it came to my mind: 'But I have prayed for thee that thy faith fail not.' And then, in the evening, after service, while I sat musing over the day, I proposed this question to myself: Wouldest thou be satisfied with Christ as thy portion, though there was no hell to be saved from? And my soul answered, Yes! Supposing, further, wouldst thou be content with Christ, though likewise thou shouldest lose credit and reputation, and see other men before thee, and meet with much trouble and trial for His sake? And my soul answered, Yes! This was the last sermon I preached in Clackmannan, for I was going out of the country; and neither of us two preachers of that Sabbath was the person that God had designed for that pulpit."

He that hath the bride is the bridegroom.

Bibliography Information
Whyte, Alexander. Entry for 'John the Baptist'. Alexander Whyte's Dictionary of Bible Characters. https://www.studylight.org/​dictionaries/​eng/​wbc/​j/john-the-baptist.html. 1901.
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