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Forerunner of Jesus; a moral reformer and preacher of messianic hope. According to Luke 1:36, Elizabeth and Mary, the mothers of John and Jesus, were either blood relatives or close kinswomen. Luke adds that both John and Jesus were announced, set apart, and named by the angel Gabriel even before their birth.

As is true of Jesus, practically nothing is known of John's boyhood, except that he "grew and became strong in spirit" (Luke 1:80). The silence of his early years, however, was broken by his thundering call to repentance some time around A.D. 28-29, shortly before Jesus began His ministry. Exactly where John preached is not clear. Matthew reports the place as the wilderness of Judea (3:1), but it is more likely that the area was Perea east of the Jordan River. Perea, like Galilee, lay within the jurisdiction of Herod Antipas, under whom John was later arrested.

The four gospels are unanimous in their report that John lived "in the wilderness." There he was raised (Luke 1:80) and was called by God (Luke 3:2), and there he preached (Mark 1:4) until his execution. The wilderness-a vast badland of crags, wind, and heat-was the place where God had dwelled with His people after the Exodus. Ever since, it had been the place of religious hope for Israel. John called the people away from the comforts of their homes and cities and out into the wilderness, where they might meet God.

The conviction that God was about to begin a new work among this unprepared people broke upon John with the force of a desert storm. He was called to put on the prophet's hairy mantle with the resolve and urgency of Elijah himself. Not only did he dress like Elijah, in camel's hair and leather belt (2 Kings 1:8; Mark 1:6); he understood his ministry to be one of reform and preparation, just as Elijah did (Luke 1:17). In the popular belief of the time, it was believed that Elijah would return from heaven to prepare the way for the Messiah (Mal 4:5-6). John reminded the people of Elijah because of his dress and behavior (Matt 11:14; Mark 9:12-13).

John was no doubt as rugged as the desert itself. Nevertheless, his commanding righteousness drew large crowds to hear him. What they encountered from this "voice...crying in the wilderness" (Mark 1:3) was a call to moral renewal, baptism, and a messianic hope.

The bite of John's moral challenge is hard for us to appreciate today. His command to share clothing and food (Luke 3:11) was a painful jab at a society that was hungry to acquire material objects. When he warned the tax collectors not to take more money than they had coming to them (Luke 3:12-13), he exposed the greed that had drawn persons to such positions in the first place. And the soldiers, whom he told to be content with their wages must have winced at the thought of not using their power to take advantage of the common people (Luke 3:14).

John's baptism was a washing, symbolizing moral regeneration, administered to each candidate only once. He criticized the people for presuming to be righteous and secure with God because they were children of Abraham (Matt 3:9). John laid an ax to the root of this presumption. He warned that they, the Jews, would be purged and rejected unless they demonstrated fruits of repentance (Matt 3:7-12).

John's effort at moral reform, symbolized by baptism, was his way of preparing Israel to meet God. He began his preaching with the words, "Prepare the way of the Lord, make His paths straight" (Mark 1:3). He had a burning awareness of one who was to come after him who would baptize in fire and Spirit (Mark 1:7-8). John was a forerunner of this mightier one, a herald of the messianic hope which would dawn in Jesus.

John was a forerunner of Jesus not only in his ministry and message (Matt 3:1; 4:17) but also in his death. Not until John's arrest did Jesus begin His ministry (Mark 1:14), and John's execution foreshadowed Jesus' similar fate. Imprisoned by Antipas in the fortress of Machaerus on the lonely hills east of the Dead Sea John must have grown disillusioned by his own failure and the developing failure he sensed in Jesus' mission. He sent messengers to ask Jesus, "Are You the Coming One, or do we look for another?" (Matt 11:3). John was eventually killed by a functionary of a puppet king who allowed himself to be swayed by a scheming wife, a loose daughter-in-law, and the people around him (Mark 6:14-29).

Josephus records that Herod arrested and executed John because he feared his popularity might lead to a revolt. The gospels reveal it was because John spoke out against Herod's immoral marriage to Herodias, the wife of his brother Philip (Mark 6:17-19). The accounts are complementary, because John's moral righteousness must have fanned many a smoldering political hope to life.

Jesus said of John, "Among those born of women there has not risen one greater than John the Baptist" (Matt 11:11). He was the last and greatest of the prophets (Matt 11:13-14). Nevertheless, he stood, like Moses, on the threshold of the Promised Land. He did not enter the kingdom of God proclaimed by Jesus; and consequently, "he who is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he" (Matt 11:11).

John's influence continued to live on after his death. When the apostle Paul went to Ephesus nearly 30 years later, he found a group of John's disciples (Acts 19:1-7). Some of his disciples must have thought of John in messianic terms. This compelled the author of the Gospel of John, writing also from Ephesus some 60 years after the Baptist's death, to emphasize Jesus' superiority (John 1:19-27; 3:30).


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