By Bill Warren, NOBTS
Question: What do we know about John the Baptist?
Bill Warren Responds: Most of our information about John comes from Luke 1 and 3:1-20, with additional details coming from the other Gospels and the Jewish historian Josephus, who says John was a righteous person calling people back to God, with Herod putting him in prison due both to what John was saying and his popularity.
As indicated by other NT references to John, his influence did not cease with his death, and even today there is a small group of followers of John the Baptist in Iraq.
John’s father Zechariah was a priest and his mother Elizabeth was also from a priestly family (and related to Mary, the mother of Jesus), which would have been the norm—priestly families normally married within the priestly group. Although older when John was born, Zechariah’s age was still likely below 50, the normal age for priests to retire, for Zechariah is still an active priest. Between John’s birth and later in life, apparently something happened related to the temple leadership in Jerusalem that drove him to shift from his priestly heritage to denouncing those in charge, as seen in Mt. 3:7-10 where he calls the Jerusalem leaders a brood of vipers, referencing their cannibalistic behavior.
John baptized along the Jordan River between the Decapolis city of Scythopolis and Jericho. While the background for John’s baptism includes Jewish purity cleansings (Mikvah) and possibly the daily self-baptisms mentioned in the Dead Sea Scrolls, John’s baptism differed in significant ways.
First, he administered the baptism versus self-baptism.
Second, the emphasis was explicitly related to God’s messianic kingdom dawning and the coming of the Messiah. John is expecting the Messiah to follow up on his work, bringing it to completion with a more powerful baptism in the Spirit.
Third, it is not being governed by the Jewish authorities, but rather is governed by a call from God and open criticism of the Jewish religious and political authorities at the highest levels, with John even denouncing Herod Antipas.
John called for people to confess their sins and change their behavior in preparation for the coming Messiah, with the baptism being an outward demonstration of their changed hearts. To be sure, John’s baptism was one of preparation, not conversion like in the later Christian focus – Jews were being called to get ready for their God’s Messiah who was going to bring in the Kingdom of God.
Christian baptism today looks back on the Messiah who has already come, with the one being baptized having heard this good news and responded with repentance and a commitment to follow Jesus, thus becoming part of God’s salvific mission in this world.