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Kitto's Popular Cyclopedia of Biblial Literature

John the Baptist

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The name John denotes grace or favor. In the church John commonly bears the honorable title of 'forerunner of the Lord.'

His parents were Zacharias and Elisabeth, the latter 'a cousin of Mary,' the mother of Jesus, whose senior John was by a period of six months (Luke 1). According to the account contained in the first chapter of Luke, his father, while engaged in burning incense, was visited by the angel Gabriel, who informed him that in compliance with his prayers his wife should bear a son, whose name he should call John—in allusion to the grace thus accorded. A description of the manner of his son's life is given, which in effect states that he was to be a Nazarite, abstaining from bodily indulgences, was to receive special favor and aid of God, was to prove a great religious and social reformer, and so prepare the way for the long-expected Messiah. Zacharias was slow to believe these tidings and sought some token in evidence of their truth. Accordingly a sign was given which acted also as a punishment of his want of faith—his tongue was sealed till the prediction should be fulfilled by the event. Six months after Elisabeth had conceived she received a visit from Mary, the future mother of Jesus. On being saluted by her relation, Elisabeth felt her babe leap in her womb, and, being filled with the Holy Spirit, she broke forth into a poetic congratulation to Mary, as the destined mother of her Lord. At length Elisabeth brought forth a son, whom the relatives were disposed to name Zacharias, after his father—but Elisabeth was in some way led to wish that he should be called John. The matter was referred to the father, who signified in writing that his name was to be John. This agreement with Elisabeth caused all to marvel. Zacharias now had his tongue loosed, and he first employed his restored power in praising God. These singular events caused universal surprise, and led people to expect that the child would prove a distinguished man.

The parents of John were not only of a priestly order, but righteous and devout. Their influence, in consequence, in the training of their son, would be not only benign but suitable to the holy office which he was designed to fill. More than this—the special aids of God's Spirit were with him (). As a consequence of the lofty influences under which he was nurtured, the child waxed strong in spirit. The sacred writer adds that 'he was in the deserts till the day of his showing unto Israel' ().

In the fifteenth year of the Emperor Tiberius, John made his public appearance, exhibiting the austerity, the costume, and the manner of life of the ancient Jewish prophets (Luke 3; Matthew 3). His raiment was camel's hair; he wore a plain leathern girdle about his loins; his food was what the desert spontaneously offered—locusts and wild honey from the rock. The burden of John's preaching bore no slight resemblance to the old prophetic exhortations, whose last echo had now died away for centuries. He called upon the Jewish people to repent, to change their minds, their dispositions and affections, and thus prepared the way for the great doctrine promulgated by his Lord, of the necessity of a spiritual regeneration. That the change which John had in view was by no means of so great or so elevated a kind as that which Jesus required, is very probable; but the particulars into which he enters when he proceeds to address classes or individuals (, sq.; , sq.), serve fully to show that the renovation at which he aimed was not merely of a material or organic, but chiefly of a moral nature. In a very emphatic manner did he warn the ecclesiastical and legal authorities of the land of the necessity under which they lay of an entire change of view, of aim, and of desire; declaring in explicit and awful terms that their pride of nationality would avail them nothing against the coming wrathful visitation, and that they were utterly mistaken in the notion that Divine Providence had any need of them for completing its own wise purposes (). The first reason assigned by John for entering on his most weighty and perilous office was announced in these words—'the kingdom of heaven is at hand.' It was his great work to prepare the mind of the nation, so that when Jesus himself came they might be a people made ready for the Lord.

Had we space to develop the moral character of John, we could show that this fine, stern, high-minded teacher possessed many eminent qualities; but his personal and official modesty in keeping, in all circumstances, in the lower rank assigned him by God, must not pass without special mention. The doctrine and manner of life of John appear to have roused the entire of the south of Palestine, and people flocked from all parts to the spot where, on the banks of the Jordan, he baptized thousands unto repentance. Such, indeed, was the fame which he had gained, that 'people were in expectation, and all men mused in their hearts of John, whether he were the Christ or not' (). Had he chosen, John might without doubt have assumed to himself the higher office, and risen to great worldly power. But he was faithful to his trust, and never failed to declare, in the fullest and clearest manner, that he was not the Christ, but merely his harbinger, and that the sole work he had to do was to usher in the day-spring from on high.

The more than prophetic fame of the Baptist reached the ears of Jesus in his Nazarene dwelling, far distant from the locality of John (). The nature of the report—namely, that his Divinely predicted forerunner had appeared in Judea—showed our Lord that the time was now come for his being made manifest to Israel, Accordingly he comes to the place where John is to be baptized of him, in order that thus he might fulfill all that was required under the dispensation which was about to disappear (). John's sense of inferiority inclines him to ask rather than to give baptism in the case of Jesus, who, however, wills to have it so, and is accordingly baptized of John. Immediately on the termination of this symbolical act, a Divine attestation is given from the opened vault of heaven, declaring Jesus to be in truth the long-looked-for Messiah—'This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased' ().

The relation which subsisted between John and Jesus, after the emphatic testimony above recorded had been borne, we have not the materials to describe with full certainty.

It seems but natural to think, when their hitherto relative position is taken into account, that John would forthwith lay down his office of harbinger, which, now that the Sun of Righteousness Himself had appeared, was entirely fulfilled and terminated. Such a step he does not appear to have taken. On the contrary, the language of Scripture seems to imply that the Baptist church continued side by side with the Messianic (; ; ; ; ), and remained long after John's execution (). Still, though it has been generally assumed that John did not lay down his office, we are not satisfied that the New Testament establishes this alleged fact. John may have ceased to execute his own peculiar work, as the forerunner, but may justifiably have continued to bear his most important testimony to the Messiahship of Christ; or he may even have altogether given up the duties of active life some time, at least, before his death; and yet his disciples, both before and after that event, may have maintained their individuality as a religious communion. Nor is it impossible that some misconception or some sinister motive may have had weight in preventing the Baptist church from dissolving and passing into that of Christ. It was, not improbably, with a view to remove some error of this kind that John sent the embassy of his disciples to Jesus which is recorded in ; . No intimation is found in the record that John required evidence to give him satisfaction; and all the language that is used is proper and pertinent if we suppose that the doubt lay only in the minds of his disciples. That the terms employed admit the interpretation that John was not without some misgivings (; ), we are free to allow. And if any doubt had grown up in the Baptist's mind, it was most probably owing to the defective spirituality of his views; for even of him Jesus has declared, 'he that is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he' (). Were this the case, it would of itself account not only for the embassy sent by John to Jesus, but also for the continuance and perpetuation of John's separate influence as the founder of a sect.

The manner of John's death is too well known to require to be detailed here (; ; ; ; Josephus, Antiq. xviii. 5. 2). He reproved a tyrant for a heinous crime, and received his reward in decapitation.





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Bibliography Information
Kitto, John, ed. Entry for 'John the Baptist'. "Kitto's Popular Cyclopedia of Biblial Literature".

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