Apart from Jesus Christ, John the Baptist is probably the most theologically significant figure in the Gospels. As was the case with Jesus, his birth was meticulously recorded ( Luke 1:5-25 ). His entrance into the world was marked by angelic proclamation and divine intervention ( Luke 1:57-80 ). John's birth not only parallels that of Jesus, but echoes the momentous occasion of the birth of Isaac to Abraham and Sarah ( Gen 17:15-22 ; 21:1-7 ). John is clearly a pivotal figure in the salvation history of God.
Although his formative years were lived in obscurity in the desert ( Luke 1:80 ), his public ministry ended nearly four hundred years of prophetic silence. John was that voice crying in the wilderness preparing the way for the coming Messiah ( Isa 40:3 ; Matt 3:3 ; Mark 1:2-3 ; Luke 3:3-6 ). In this sense his message and ministry marked the culmination of the law and the prophets, but heralded the inbreaking of the kingdom of God ( Matt 11:12 ; Luke 16:16 ). So John was truly a transitional figure, forming the link between the Old and New Testaments. He spans the ages with one foot firmly planted in the Old Testament and the other squarely placed in the New.
The central theme of his ministry was, "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near" ( Matt 3:2 ).He was called "The Baptist" because his practice was to baptize those who responded to the message he proclaimed and sincerely repented of their sins ( Matt 3:1 ; Mark 6:14 ; Luke 7:20 ).
John was an end-times prophet. He conducted his ministry with an eschatological authority that demanded immediate action. He taught that judgment is at hand. The axe is laid to the roots and God will thoroughly purge his threshing floor ( Matt 3:10-12 ; Luke 3:9 Luke 3:17 ). And the authenticity of repentance was evidenced in very practical terms: share with those in need, eliminate graft, and prohibit extortion ( Luke 3:11-14 ).
John's lifestyle was as austere as his message. He was an ascetic living in the wilderness, clothed in camel hair and subsisting on locusts and wild honey ( Matt 3:4 ; Mark 1:6 ). Unlike Jesus, he expected people to come to him, rather than he going to them ( Matt 3:5 ).
John was no "crowd pleaser." He willingly confronted the hypocrisy of the religious establishment ( Matt 3:7 ; Luke 3:7 ). He did not hesitate to expose the immorality of Herod and chose to die a martyr's death rather than compromise his convictions ( Matt 14:3-12 ; Mark 6:17-29 ).
All of these characteristics portray John as a fiery prophet proclaiming the apocalyptic message of God. Indeed, Luke says that John came "in the spirit and power of Elijah" ( Luke1:17 ). He goes on to allude to Malachi 4:5, which states that Elijah will return "before that great and dreadful day of the Lord." In fact, some contemporaries of John inquired if he were Elijah ( John 1:21 ).
The belief that Elijah would return and prepare the way of the Lord can be traced to Malachi 3:1 and 4:5. Such belief is also found in the extra biblical accounts of Sirah 48:10 and 2 Esdras 6:2f. The Gospels also indicate that many believed that Elijah would come first, and then the Christ ( Matt 11:14 ; 17:10 ; Mark 6:15 ; 9:11 ; Luke 9:8 ).
John flatly denied that he was Elijah reincarnated ( John 1:21 John 1:25 ). Nevertheless Jesus affirmed that Elijah must come first and that he had come in the person of John the Baptist ( Matt 17:11-13 ; Mark 9:12-13 ). John fulfilled Malachi's prophecy in a spiritual sense, rather than in a literal way.
In this way Jesus acknowledges the central role that John played in God's plan of salvation. He was the greatest born among women because he had the privilege of pointing to the Lamb of God ( John 1:29-34 ).Yet as the last great prophet of the pre-Christian era, he was the least in the kingdom of God ( Matt 11:11 ; Luke 7:28 ).
John fully accepted his subordinate role to Christ. He denied that he was the Christ and repeatedly emphasized that he was simply a witness to the Light ( John 1:19-23 ; cf. also John 1:6-9 ; John 3:27-30 ). John stated that Jesus was greater than he, and that Jesus had a more powerful ministry and baptism ( Mark 1:7-8 ; Luke 3:16 ; John 1:26-27 ). He did not want to baptize Jesus, but rather desired to be baptized by Jesus ( Matt 3:13-14 ).John allowed his disciples to leave his own leadership and follow after Jesus ( John 1:35-39 ).
But for all of his greatness, John was merely human. In this sense he too joined in the popular speculations about the identity of Christ. It may be that John's vision of the Messiah varied so much from what he heard and saw in Jesus, that he came to question if Jesus were really the Christ ( Matt 11:1-2 ; Luke 7:18 ). The fact that Jesus was not an ascetic, and that he actively sought the fellowship of publicans and sinners may have been an offense to John and his disciples ( Matt 9:9-17 ; Matt 11:18-19 ; Luke 7:33-34 ).Jesus may have rebuked John in this regard when he said, "Blessed is the man who does not fall away on account of me" ( Matt 11:6 ; Luke 7:23 ).
Finally, even though John was merely a witness serving as a transitional figure, the impact of his life and ministry should not be underestimated. During his lifetime he had a following of disciples who shared common practices such as fasting and prayers ( Matt 9:14 ; John 1:35-37 ; 4:1-2 ). John's disciples survived his death and spread throughout the Mediterranean world. Apollos was from Alexandria in North Africa and at one point knew only of the baptism of John ( Acts 18:24-25 ). Similarly, upon arriving in Ephesus, Paul encountered about a dozen disciples of John. They too had only experienced the baptism of John ( Acts 19:1-7 ). These instances indicate that the Baptist's movement may have had more influence than what we are able to glean from the New Testament.
In recent scholarship, the historical relationship between Jesus and John has been the subject of study. How did Jesus view John and what did John make of Jesus' ministry? In this type of study, John often serves as a paradigm for interpreting the life and ministry of Jesus. For example, the inclusion of the suffering and death of John may foreshadow the pain and death of Jesus on the cross. Also, to what extent did John influence the life and ministry of Jesus? Indeed, the ill treatment of John by Herod Antipas may have had a significant impact upon Jesus' early ministry in Galilee and in his final days in Jerusalem.
The early Christian traditions that form the Gospel material on John are also the focus of modern research. For example, the scathing accusations and warnings of John are associated with the ministry of Jesus ( Luke 3:7-18 ), but in the end are not typical of his message. Also there appears to have been an early tradition that John had been raised from the dead ( Mark 6:14-16 ). What possible sources may have given rise to these traditions?
Even the topographical setting of John's ministry may be of theological significance. The desert setting may underscore the stark nature of John's message or may be symbolic of Israel's struggle in the desert.
And finally, the psychological and sociological analysis of John is of interest here. In accordance with the criteria of the sociology of deviance, John's behavior and message could be classified as "deviant." In this light, Matthew's use of Isaiah 40:2-3 in 3:7-10 may seek to justify John and endorse the legitimacy of his ministry.
In conclusion, John the Baptist is of great theological importance in the New Testament. He ended nearly four hundred years of prophetic silence and paved the way for the Messiah. In the spirit of Elijah, he preached a message of repentance and baptism. In his darkest hour he questioned if Jesus was the One who was to come, or whether there would be another. He inaugurated a spiritual movement that had influence long after his death and extended throughout the Mediterranean world.
William A. Simmons
Bibliography. R. E. Brown, New Testament Essays; M. Cleary, IT Q54 (1988): 211-27; M. Faierstein, JBL100 (1981): 75-86; R. C. Kazmierski, Bib 68(1987): 22-40; J. Lambrecht, NTS38 (1992): 357-84; P. J. Meier, JBL99/3(1980): 383-405; J. R. Miller, NTS 34 (1988): 611-22; S. J. Nortje, Neotestamentica23 (1989): 349-58; P. Parker, Perspectives in Religious Studies8 (1981): 4-11;J. A. T. Robinson, NTS4 (1958): 263-81; idem, Twelve New Testament Studies;C. Scobie, John the Baptist; W. Wink, John the Baptist in the Gospel Tradition.
Copyright © 1996 by Walter A. Elwell. Published by Baker Books, a division of
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Bibliography InformationElwell, Walter A. "Entry for 'John the Baptist'". "Evangelical Dictionary of Theology".