The sources of first-hand information concerning the life and work of John the Baptist are limited to the New Testament and Josephus Luke and Matthew give the fuller notices, and these are in substantial agreement. The Fourth Gospel deals chiefly with the witness after the baptism. In his single notice (Ant., XVIII, v, 2), Josephus makes an interesting reference to the cause of John's imprisonment. See VI, 2, below.
II. Parentage. John was of priestly descent. His mother, Elisabeth, was of the daughters of Aaron, while his father, Zacharias, was a priest of the course of Abija, and did service in the temple at Jerusalem. It is said of them that “they were both righteous before God, walking in all the commandments and ordinances of the Lord blameless” (Luk_1:6). This priestly ancestry is in interesting contrast with his prophetic mission.
III. Early Life. We infer from Luke's account that John was born about six months before the birth of Jesus. Of the place we know only that it was a city of the hill country of Judah. Our definite information concerning his youth is summed up in the angelic prophecy, “Many shall rejoice at his birth. For he shall be great in the sight of the Lord, and he shall drink no wine nor strong drink; and he shall be filled with the Holy Spirit, even from his mother's womb” (Luk_1:14-16), and in Luke's brief statement, “And the child grew, and waxed strong in spirit, and was in the deserts till the day of his showing unto Israel” (Luk_1:80). The character and spiritual insight of the parents shown in the incidents recorded are ample evidence that his training was a fitting preparation for his great mission.
IV. Ministry. 1. The Scene: The scene of the Baptist's ministry was partly in the wilderness of Southern Judea and partly in the Jordan valley. Two locations are mentioned, Bethany or Bethabara (Joh_1:28), and Aenon near Salim (Joh_3:23). Neither of these places can be positively identified. We may infer from Joh_3:2 that he also spent some time in Peraea beyond the Jordan.
2. His First Appearance: The unusual array of dates with which Luke marks the beginning of John's ministry (Luk_3:1, Luk_3:2) reveals his sense of the importance of the event as at once the beginning of his prophetic work and of the new dispensation. His first public appearance is assigned to the 15th year of Tiberius, probably 26 or 27 AD, for the first Passover attended by Jesus can hardly have been later than 27 AD (Joh_2:20).
3. His Dress and Manner: John's dress and habits were strikingly suggestive of Elijah, the old prophet of national judgment. His desert habits have led some to connect him with that strange company of Jews known as the Essenes. There is, however, little foundation for such a connection other than his ascetic habits and the fact that the chief settlement of this sect was near the home of his youth. It was natural that he should continue the manner of his youthful life in the desert, and it is not improbable that he intentionally copied his great prophetic model. It was fitting that the one who called men to repentance and the beginning of a self-denying life should show renunciation and self-denial in his own life. But there is no evidence in his teaching that he required such asceticism of those who accepted his baptism.
4. His Message: The fundamental note in the message of John was the announcement of the near approach of the Messianic age. But while he announced himself as the herald voice preparing the way of the Lord, and because of this the expectant multitudes crowded to hear his word, his view of the nature of the kingdom was probably quite at variance with that of his hearers. Instead of the expected day of deliverance from the foreign oppressor, it was to be a day of judgment for Israel. It meant good for the penitent, but destruction for the ungodly. “He will gather his wheat into the garner, but the chaff he will burn up with ... fire” (Mat_3:12). “The axe also lieth at the root of the trees: every tree therefore that bringeth not forth good fruit is hewn down, and cast into the fire” (Luk_3:9). Yet this idea was perhaps not entirely unfamiliar. That the delay in the Messiah's coming was due to the sinfulness of the people and their lack of repentance, was a commonplace in the message of their teachers (Edersheim, Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah, I, 169). The call to repentance was then a natural message of preparation for such a time of judgment. But to John repentance was a very real and radical thing. It meant a complete change of heart and life. “Bring forth ... fruits worthy of repentance” (Luk_3:8). What these fruits were he made clear in his answers to the inquiring multitudes and the publicans and soldiers (Luk_3:10-14). It is noticeable that there is no reference to the usual ceremonies of the law or to a change of occupation. Do good; be honest; refrain from extortion; be content with wages.
5. His Severity: John used such violence in addressing the Pharisees and Sadducees doubtless to startle them from their self-complacency. How hopelessly they were blinded by their sense of security as the children of Abraham, and by their confidence in the merits of the law, is attested by the fact that these parties resisted the teachings of both John and Jesus to the very end. With what vigor and fearlessness the Baptist pressed his demand for righteousness is shown by his stern reproof of the sin of Herod and Herodias, which led to his imprisonment and finally to his death.
1. Significance: The symbolic rite of baptism was such an essential part of the work of John that it not only gave him his distinctive title of “the Baptist” , but also caused his message to be styled “preaching the baptism of repentance.” That a special virtue was ascribed to this rite, and that it was regarded as a necessary part of the preparation for the coming of the Messiah, are shown by its important place in John's preaching, and by the eagerness with which it was sought by the multitudes. Its significance may best be understood by giving attention to its historical antecedents, for while John gave the rite new significance, it certainly appealed to ideas already familiar to the Jews.
(1) Lustrations Required by the Levitical Law. The divers washings required by the law (Lev 11 through 15) have, without doubt, arcligious import. This is shown by the requirement of sacrifices in connection with the cleansing, especially the sin offering (Lev_14:8, Lev_14:9, Lev_14:19, Lev_14:20; compare Mar_1:44; Luk_2:22). The designation of John's baptism by the word ??????????, bapt??zein, which by New Testament times was used of ceremonial purification, also indicates some historical connection (compare Sirach 34:25).
(2) Anticipation of Messianic Lustrations Foretold by Prophets. John understood that his baptism was a preparation for the Messianic baptism anticipated by the prophets, who saw that for a true cleansing the nation must wait until God should open in Israel a fountain for cleansing (Zec_13:1), and should sprinkle His people with clean water and give them a new heart and a new spirit (Eze_36:25, Eze_36:26; Jer_33:8). His baptism was at once a preparation and a promise of the spiritual cleansing which the Messiah would bestow. “I indeed baptize you with water unto repentance: but he that cometh after me ... shall baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire” (Mat_3:11 margin).