Easton's Bible Dictionary
the "forerunner of our Lord." We have but fragmentary
and imperfect accounts of him in the Gospels. He was of priestly descent. His
father, Zacharias, was a priest of the course of Abia ( 1 Chronicles 24:10 ),
and his mother, Elisabeth, was of the daughters of Aaron ( Luke 1:5 ). The mission
of John was the subject of prophecy ( Matthew 3:3 ; Isaiah 40:3 ; Malachi 3:1
). His birth, which took place six months before that of Jesus, was foretold by
an angel. Zacharias, deprived of the power of speech as a token of God's truth
and a reproof of his own incredulity with reference to the birth of his son, had
the power of speech restored to him on the occasion of his circumcision ( Luke
1:64 ). After this no more is recorded of him for thirty years than what is mentioned
in Luke 1:80 . John was a Nazarite from his birth ( Luke 1:15 ; Numbers 6:1 -
12 ). He spent his early years in the mountainous tract of Judah lying between
Jerusalem and the Dead Sea ( Matthew 3:1 - 12 ).
At length he came forth into public life, and great multitudes from "every quarter"
were attracted to him. The sum of his preaching was the necessity of repentance.
He denounced the Sadducees and Pharisees as a "generation of vipers," and warned
them of the folly of trusting to external privileges ( Luke 3:8 ). "As a preacher,
John was eminently practical and discriminating. Self-love and covetousness were
the prevalent sins of the people at large. On them, therefore, he enjoined charity
and consideration for others. The publicans he cautioned against extortion, the
soldiers against crime and plunder." His doctrine and manner of life roused the
entire south of Palestine, and the people from all parts flocked to the place
where he was, on the banks of the Jordan. There he baptized thousands unto repentance.
The fame of John reached the ears of Jesus in Nazareth ( Matthew 3:5 ), and he
came from Galilee to Jordan to be baptized of John, on the special ground that
it became him to "fulfil all righteousness" ( Matthew 3:5 ). John's special office
ceased with the baptism of Jesus, who must now "increase" as the King come to
his kingdom. He continued, however, for a while to bear testimony to the Messiahship
of Jesus. He pointed him out to his disciples, saying, "Behold the Lamb of God."
His public ministry was suddenly (after about six months probably) brought to
a close by his being cast into prison by Herod, whom he had reproved for the sin
of having taken to himself the wife of his brother Philip ( Luke 3:19 ). He was
shut up in the castle of Machaerus (q.v.), a fortress on the southern extremity
of Peraea, 9 miles east of the Dead Sea, and here he was beheaded. His disciples,
having consigned the headless body to the grave, went and told Jesus all that
had occurred ( Matthew 14:3 - 12 ). John's death occurred apparently just before
the third Passover of our Lord's ministry. Our Lord himself testified regarding
him that he was a "burning and a shining light" ( John 5:35 ).
Hitchcock's Dictionary of Bible Names
Smith's Bible Dictionary
was of the priestly race by both parents, for his father,
Zacharias, was himself a priest of the course of Abia or Abijah, ( 1 Chronicles
24:10 ) and Elisabeth was of the daughters of Aaron. ( Luke 1:5 ) His birth was
foretold by an angel sent from God, and is related at length in Luke 1. The birth
of John preceded by six months that of our Lord.
John was ordained to be a Nazarite from his birth. ( Luke 1:15 ) Dwelling by himself
in the wild and thinly-peopled region westward of the Dead Sea, he prepared himself
for the wonderful office to which he had been divinely called. His dress was that
of the old prophets --a garment woven of camels hair, ( 2 Kings 1:8 ) attached
to the body by a leathern girdle. His food was such as the desert afforded --locusts,
( Leviticus 11:22 ) and wild honey. ( Psalms 81:16 ) And now the long-secluded
hermit came forth to the discharge of his office. His supernatural birth, his
life, and the general expectation that some great one was about to appear, were
sufficient to attract to him a great multitude from "every quarter." ( Matthew
3:5 ) Many of every class pressed forward to confess their sins and to be baptized.
Jesus himself came from Galilee to Jordan to be baptized of John. [JESUS]
From incidental notices we learn that John and his disciples continued to baptize
some time after our Lord entered upon his ministry. See ( John 3:23 ; 4:1 ; Acts
19:3 ) We gather also that John instructed his disciples in certain moral and
religious duties, as fasting, ( Matthew 9:14 ; Luke 5:33 ) and prayer. ( Luke
11:1 ) But shortly after he had given his testimony to the Messiah, Johns public
ministry was brought to a close. In daring disregard of the divine laws, Herod
Antipas had taken to himself Herodias, the wife of his brother Philip; and when
John reproved him for this, as well as for other sins, ( Luke 3:19 ) Herod cast
him into prison. (March, A.D. 28.) The place of his confinement was the castle
of Machaerus, a fortress on the eastern shore of the Dead Sea. It was here that
reports reached him of the miracles which our Lord was working in Judea. Nothing
but the death of the Baptist would satisfy the resentment of Herodias. A court
festival was kept at Machaerus in honor of the kings birthday. After supper the
daughter of Herodias came in and danced the king by her grace that he promised
with an oath to give her whatsoever she should ask. Salome, prompted by her abandoned
mother, demanded the head of John the Baptist. Herod gave instructions to an officer
of his guard, who went and executed John in the prison, and his head was brought
to feast the eyes of the adulteress whose sins he had denounced. His death is
supposed to have occurred just before the third passover, in the course of the
Lords ministry. (March, A.D. 29.)
International Standard Bible Encyclopedia
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.
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"
(Luke 1:6). This priestly ancestry is in interesting contrast with his prophetic
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"
(Luke 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"
(Luke 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
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
(John 1:28), and Aenon near Salim (John 3:23). Neither of these places can be
positively identified. We may infer from John 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
(Luke 3:1, 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 (John
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" (Matthew 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" (Luke 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,
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"
(Luke 3:8). What these fruits were he made clear in his answers to the inquiring
multitudes and the publicans and soldiers (Luke 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.
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" (ho baptistes), 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 (Leviticus 11 - 15) have, without doubt,
arcligious import. This is shown by the requirement of sacrifices in connection
with the cleansing, especially the sin offering (Leviticus 14:8, 9, 19, 20; compare
Mark 1:44; Luke 2:22). The designation of John's baptism by the word baptizein,
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 the 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 (Zechariah 13:1), and should
sprinkle His people with clean water and give them a new heart and a new spirit
(Ezekiel 36:25,26; Jeremiah 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" (Matthew 3:11 margin).
(3) Proselyte Baptism
According to the teaching of later Judaism, a stranger who desired to be adopted
into the family of Israel was required, along with circumcision, to receive the
rite of baptism as a means of cleansing from the ceremonial uncleanness attributed
to him as a Gentile. While it is not possible to prove the priority of this practice
of proselyte baptism to the baptism of John, there can be no doubt of the fact,
for it is inconceivable, in view of Jewish prejudice, that it would be borrowed
from John or after this time.
While it seems clear that in the use of the rite of baptism John was influenced
by the Jewish customs of ceremonial washings and proselyte baptism, his baptism
differed very essentially from these. The Levitical washings restored an unclean
person to his former condition, but baptism was a preparation for a new condition.
On the other hand, proselyte baptism was administered only to Gentiles, while
John required baptism of all Jews. At the same time his baptism was very different
from Christian baptism, as he himself declared (Luke 3:16). His was a baptism
of water only; a preparation for the baptism "in the Spirit" which was to follow.
It is also to be observed that it was a rite complete in itself, and that it was
offered to the nation as a preparation for a specific event, the advent of the
We may say, then, that as a "baptism of repentance" it meant a renunciation of
the past life; as a cleansing it symbolized the forgiveness of sins (Mark 1:4),
and as preparation it implied a promise of loyalty to the kingdom of the Messiah.
We have no reason to believe that Jesus experienced any sense of sin or felt any
need of repentance or forgiveness; but as a Divinely appointed preparation for
the Messianic kingdom His submission to it was appropriate.
2. Baptism of Jesus
While the multitudes flocked to the Jordan, Jesus came also to be baptized with
the rest. "John would have hindered him, saying, I have need to be baptized of
thee, and comest thou to me? But Jesus answering said unto him, Suffer it now:
for thus it becometh us to fulfill all righteousness" (Matthew 3:13 - 15). Wherein
was this act a fulfillment of righteousness? We cannot believe that Jesus felt
any need of repentance or change of life. May we not regard it rather as an identification
of Himself with His people in the formal consecration of His life to the work
of the kingdom?
VI. IMPRISONMENT AND DEATH
1. The Time
Neither the exact time of John's imprisonment nor the period of time between his
imprisonment and his death can be determined. On the occasion of the unnamed feast
of John 5:1, Jesus refers to John's witness as already past. At least, then, his
arrest, if not his death, must have taken place prior to that incident, i.e. before
the second Passover of Jesus' ministry.
2. The Occasion
According to the Gospel accounts, John was imprisoned because of his reproof of
Herod's marriage with Herodias, the wife of his brother Philip (Luke 3:19, 20;
compare Matthew 14:3, 1; Mark 6:17, 18). Josephus says (Ant., XVIII, v, 2) that
Herod was influenced to put John to death by the "fear lest his great influence
over the people might put it in his power or inclination to raise a rebellion.
Accordingly, he was sent a prisoner, out of Herod's suspicious temper, to Macherus,
and was there put to death." This account of Josephus does not necessarily conflict
with the tragic story of the Gospels. If Herod desired to punish or destroy him
for the reasons assigned by the evangelists, he would doubtless wish to offer
as the public reason some political charge, and the one named by Josephus would
be near at hand.
VII. JOHN AND HIS DISCIPLES
1. The Inner Circle
Frequent reference is made in the Gospel narrative to the disciples of John. As
the multitudes crowded to his baptism, it was natural that he should gather about
him an inner circle of men who should receive special instruction in the meaning
of his work, and should aid him in the work of baptism, which must have soon increased
beyond his power to perform alone. It was in the formation of this inner circle
of immediate followers that he prepared a sure foundation for the work of the
Messiah; for it was from this inner group that the disciples of Jesus were mainly
drawn, and that with his consent and through his witness to the superior worth
of the latter, and the temporary character of his own mission (John 1:29 - 44).
2. Their Training
Concerning the substance of their training, we know from the disciples of Jesus
(Luke 11:1) that it included forms of prayer, and from his own disciples (Matthew
9:14) we learn that frequent fastings were observed. We may be sure also that
he taught them much concerning the Messiah and His work.
3. Their Fidelity
There is abundant evidence of the great fidelity of these disciples to their master.
This may be observed in their concern at the over-shadowing popularity of Jesus
(John 3:26); in their loyalty to him in his imprisonment and in their reverent
treatment of his body after his death (Mark 6:29). That John's work was extensive
and his influence lasting is shown by the fact that 20 years afterward Paul found
in far-off Ephesus certain disciples, including Apollos, the learned Alexandrian
Jew, who knew no other baptism than that of John (Acts 19:1 - 7).
VIII. JOHN AND JESUS
1. John's Relation to Jesus
John assumed from the first the role of a herald preparing the way for the approaching
Messianic age. He clearly regarded his work as Divinely appointed (John 1:33),
but was well aware of his subordinate relation to the Messiah (Mark 1:7) and of
the temporary character of his mission (John 3:30). The Baptist's work was twofold.
In his preaching he warned the nation of the true character of the new kingdom
as a reign of righteousness, and by his call to repentance and baptism he prepared
at least a few hearts for a sympathetic response to the call and teaching of Jesus.
He also formally announced and bore frequent personal testimony to Jesus as the
There is no necessary discrepancy between the synoptic account and that of the
Fourth Gospel in reference to the progress of John's knowledge of the Messianic
character of Jesus. According to Matthew 3:14, John is represented as declining
at first to baptize Jesus because he was conscious of His superiority, while in
John 1:29 - 34 he is represented as claiming not to have known Jesus until He
was manifested by the heavenly sign. The latter may mean only that He was not
known to him definitely as the Messiah until the promised sign was given.
The message which John sent to Jesus from prison seems strange to some in view
of the signal testimonies which he had previously borne to His character. This
need not indicate that he had lost faith in the Messiahship of Jesus, but rather
a perplexity at the course of events. The inquiry may have been in the interest
of the faith of his disciples or his own relief from misgivings due to Jesus'
delay in assuming the expected Messianic authority. John evidently held the prophetic
view of a temporal Messianic kingdom, and some readjustment of view was necessary.
2. Jesus' Estimate of John
Jesus was no less frank in His appreciation of John. If praise may be measured
by the worth of the one by whose lips it is spoken, then no man ever received
such praise as he who was called by Jesus a shining light (John 5:35), more than
a prophet (Matthew 11:9), and of whom He said, "Among them that are born of women
there hath not arisen a greater than John the Baptist" (Matthew 11:11). If, on
the other hand, He rated him as less than the least in the kingdom of heaven,
this was a limitation of circumstances, not of worth.
Jesus paid high tribute to the Divine character and worth of John's baptism; first,
by submitting to it Himself as a step in the fulfillment of all righteousness;
later, by repeated utterance, especially in associating it with the birth of the
Spirit as a necessary condition of inheriting eternal life (John 3:5); and, finally,
in adopting baptism as a symbol of Christian discipleship.
The relative sections in the Gospel Commentaries, in the Lives of Christ, and
the articles on John the Baptist in the several Bible dictionaries. There are
a number of monographs which treat more minutely of details: W.C. Duncan, The
Life, Character and Ac of John the Baptist, New York, 1853; Erich Haupt, Johannes
der Taufer, Gutersloh, 1874; H. Kohler, Johannes der Taufer, Halle, 1884; R.C.
Houghton, John the Baptist: His Life and Work, New York, 1889; H.R. Reynolds,
John the Baptist, London, 1890; J. Feather, John the Baptist, Edinburgh, 1894;
George Matheson in Representative Men of the New Testament, 24-66, Edinburgh,
1905; T. Innitzer, Johannes der Taufer, Vienna, 1908; A.T. Robertson, John the
Loyal, New York, 1911.
Russell Benjamin Miller
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