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Hastings' Dictionary of the Bible

John the Baptist

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JOHN THE BAPTIST . The single narrative of John’s birth and circumcision ( Luke 1:1-80 ) states that, as the child of promise ( Luke 1:13 ), he was born in ‘a city of Judah’ ( Luke 1:39 ), when his parents were old ( Luke 1:7 ). They were both of priestly descent ( Luke 1:5 ), and his mother was a kinswoman of the mother of Jesus ( Luke 1:36 ). John was a Nazirite from his birth ( Luke 1:15 ); he developed self-reliance in his lonely home, and learnt the secret of spiritual strength as he communed with God in the solitudes of the desert ( Luke 1:80 ). In the Judæan wilderness the wild waste which lies to the west of the Dead Sea this Elijah-like prophet ( Luke 1:17 ) ‘on rough food throve’; but, notwithstanding his ascetic affinities with the Essenes, he was not a vegetarian, his diet consisting of edible locusts ( Leviticus 11:22 ) as well as the vegetable honey which exudes from fig-trees and palms ( Matthew 3:4 ). For this and for other reasons as, e.g. , his zeal as a social reformer, John cannot be called an Essene (Graetz). It was not from these ‘Pharisees in the superlative degree’ (Schürer) that the last of the prophets learnt his message. His familiarity with the OT is proved by his frequent use of its picturesque language ( Luke 3:17 , cf. Amos 9:9 , Isaiah 66:24 ; John 1:23 , cf. Isaiah 40:3 ; John 1:29 , cf. Isaiah 53:7 , Exodus 29:38 ; Exodus 12:3 ), but he heard God’s voice in nature as well as in His word: as he brooded on the signs of the times, the barren trees of the desert, fit only for burning, and the vipers fleeing before the flaming scrub, became emblems of the nation’s peril and lent colour to his warnings of impending wrath (cf. G. A. Smith, HGHL [Note: GHL Historical Geography of Holy Land.] p. 495).

In the wilderness ‘the word of God came unto John’ (Luke 3:2 ). The phrase implies ( 1 Samuel 15:10 etc.) that, after more than three centuries of silence, the voice of a prophet was to be heard in the land, and the Synoptic Gospels ( Matthew 3:1-12 , Mark 1:1-8 , Luke 3:1-20 ) tell of the stirring effects of his preaching in ever-widening circles ( Matthew 3:5 ), and give a summary of his message. It is probable that, in the course of his successful six months’ ministry, John moved northwards along the then more thickly populated valley of the Jordan, proclaiming the coming of the Kingdom to the crowds that flocked to hear him from ‘the whole region circumjacent to Jordan’ ( Luke 3:3 ); once at least ( John 10:40 ) he crossed the river (cf. Sanday, Sacred Sites of the Gospel , p. 35 f.; Warfield, Expositor , iii. [1885] i. p. 267 ff.; and see Bethany, Salim). ‘The kingdom of heaven is at hand’ ( Matthew 3:2 ) was the Baptist’s theme, but on his lips the proclamation became a warning that neither descent from Abraham nor Pharisaic legalism would constitute a title to the blessings of the Messianic age, and that it is vain for a nation to plead privilege when its sins have made it ripe for judgment. There is a Pauline ring in the stern reminder that Abraham’s spiritual seed may spring from the stones of paganism ( Luke 3:8 , but also Matthew 3:9 , cf. Romans 4:16 ; Romans 9:7 , Galatians 4:28 ). On the universality of the coming judgment is based John’s call to repentance addressed to all men without respect of persons. The axe already ‘laid to the root of the trees’ ( Luke 3:9 ) will spare those bringing forth good fruit, and not those growing in favoured enclosures. Soldiers, publicans, and inquirers of different classes are taught how practical and how varied are the good works in which the ‘fruits’ of repentance are seen ( Luke 3:8 ff.).

The baptism of John was the declaration unto all men, by means of a symbolic action, that the condition of entrance into God’s Kingdom is the putting away of sin. It was a ‘repentance-baptism,’ and its purpose was ‘remission of sins’ (Mark 1:4 ) [Weiss regards this statement as a Christianized version of John’s baptism, but Bruce ( EGT [Note: Expositor’s Greek Testament.] , in loc. ) agrees with Holtzmann that forgiveness is implied ‘if men really repented’]. John’s baptism was no copying of Essene rites, and it had a deeper ethical significance than the ‘divers washings’ of the ceremonial law. It has close and suggestive affinities with the prophet’s teaching in regard to spiritual cleansing ( Isaiah 1:16 , Ezekiel 36:25 , Zechariah 13:1 ), the truth expressed in their metaphorical language being translated by him into a striking symbolic act; but John’s baptism has most definite connexion with the baptism of proselytes, which was the rule in Israel before his days (Schürer, HJP [Note: JP History of the Jewish People.] ii. 322 f.). John sought ‘to make men “proselytes of righteousness” in a new and higher order. He came, as Jesus once said, “in the way of righteousness”; and the righteousness he wished men to possess … did not consist in mere obedience to the law of a carnal commandment, but in repentance towards God and deliberate self-consecration to His kingdom’ (Lambert, The Sacraments in the NT , p. 62). When Jesus was baptized of John ( Matthew 3:13 ff., Mark 1:9 ff., Luke 3:21 f.), He did not come confessing sin as did all other men ( Matthew 3:6 ); the act marked His consecration to His Messianic work, and His identification of Himself with sinners. It was part of His fulfilment of all righteousness ( Matthew 3:15 ), and was followed by His anointing with the Holy Spirit. John knew that his baptism was to prepare the way for the coming of a ‘mightier’ than he, who would baptize with the Holy Spirit ( Mark 1:8 ). But after Pentecost there were disciples who had not advanced beyond the Baptist’s point of view, and were unaware that the Holy Spirit had been poured out ( Acts 18:25 ; Acts 19:3 f.).

The narrative in John 1:15-34 assumes as well known the Synoptic account of John’s activity as evangelist and baptizer ( John 1:25 f.). From what John heard and saw at the baptism of Jesus, and from intercourse with Jesus, he had learnt that his mission was not only to announce the Messiah’s coming, and to prepare His way by calling men to repent, but also to point Him out to men.

Many critics regard the words, ‘Behold the Lamb of God, which taketh away the sin of the world’ (John 1:29 ), as inconsistent with John’s later question, ‘Art thou he that cometh, or look we for another?’ ( Matthew 11:3 ); but if John learnt from Jesus what was His ideal of the Messiah’s work, it may well be, as Garvie says, ‘that Jesus for a time at least raised John’s mind to the height of His own insight; that when the influence of Jesus was withdrawn, John relapsed to his own familiar modes of thought; and that the answer of Jesus by the two disciples … was a kindly reminder’ of an earlier conversation ( Expositor , vi. [1902] v. 375).

This heightened sense of the glory of Jesus was accompanied by a deepening humility in John’s estimate of his own function as the Messiah’s forerunner. In his last testimony to Jesus (John 3:29 ) ‘the friend of the bridegroom’ is said to have rejoiced greatly as he heard the welcome tidings that men were coming to Jesus (v. 26). It was a high eulogy when Jesus said, ‘John hath borne witness unto the truth’ ( John 5:33 ); but it also implied the high claim that the lowlier members of the Church, which is His bride, enjoy greater spiritual privileges than he who, in spite of his own disclaimer ( John 1:21 ), was truly the Elijah foretold by Malachi ( Matthew 11:14 ; cf. Malachi 4:5 ), the herald of the day of which he saw only the dawn. It was not John’s fault that in the early Church there were some who attached undue importance to his teaching and failed to recognize the unique glory of Jesus the Light to whom he bore faithful witness ( John 1:7 f.).

The Synoptic narrative of the imprisonment and murder of John yields incidental evidence of his greatness as a prophet. There were some who accounted for the mighty works of Jesus by saying ‘John the Baptist is risen from the dead’ (Mark 6:14 ).

Josephus ( Ant . XVIII. v. 2) makes the preaching of John the cause of his execution, and says nothing of his reproof of Antipas for his adultery with his brother’s wife ( Mark 6:18 ). Some historians ( e.g. Ranke) arbitrarily use Josephus as their main source, to the disparagement of the Gospels. But Sollertinsky ( JThSt [Note: ThSt Journal of Theological Studies.] i. 507) has shown that when the person of Antipas is concerned, ‘we are bound to consider the historian’s statements with the greatest care.’ Schürer (op. cit. ). who holds that the real occasion of John’s imprisonment was Herod’s fear of political trouble, nevertheless allows that there is no real inconsistency between the statement of Josephus and the further assertion of the Evangelists that John had roused the anger of Herod, and still more of Herodias, by his stern rebuke.

The last mention of John in the Gospels (Matthew 21:26 , Mark 11:32 , Luke 20:6 ) shows that Herod had good cause to fear the popular temper. John’s influence must have been permanent as well as wide-spread when the chief priests were afraid of being stoned if they slighted him. After the transfiguration our Lord alluded to the sufferings of John, as He endeavoured to teach His disciples the lesson of His cross: ‘I say unto you that Elijah is come, and they have also done unto him whatsoever they listed’ ( Mark 9:13 ).

J. G. Tasker.


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Bibliography Information
Hastings, James. Entry for 'John the Baptist'. Hastings' Dictionary of the Bible. https://www.studylight.org/dictionaries/hdb/j/john-the-baptist.html. 1909.

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Sunday, October 20th, 2019
the Week of Proper 24 / Ordinary 29
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