John the Baptist



Fore-Runner

Who did John the Baptist himself say that he was?:




  • “And this is the record of John, when the Jews sent priests and Levites from Jerusalem to ask him, Who art thou? And he confessed, and denied not; but confessed, I am not the Christ. And they asked him, What then? Art thou Elias? And he saith, I am not. Art thou that prophet? And he answered, No. Then said they unto him, Who art thou? that we may give an answer to them that sent us. What sayest thou of thyself? He said, I am the voice of one crying in the wilderness, Make straight the way of the Lord, as said the prophet Esaias.”


  • (John 1:19-23).




John's self-identification as the voice crying in the wilderness is one significant part of the puzzle. It is repeated in the other gospels:

"And he came into all the country about Jordan, preaching the baptism of repentance for the remission of sins;  As it is written in the book of the words of Esaias the prophet, saying, The voice of one crying in the wilderness, Prepare ye the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.  Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be brought low; and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways shall be made smooth;  And all flesh shall see the salvation of God." (Luke 3:3-6).

"As it is written in the prophets, Behold, I send my messenger before thy face, which shall prepare thy way before thee. The voice of one crying in the wilderness, Prepare ye the way of the Lord, make his paths straight. John did baptize in the wilderness, and preach the baptism of repentance for the remission of sins." (Mark 1:2-4).

"In those days came John the Baptist, preaching in the wilderness of Judaea, And saying, Repent ye: for the kingdom of heaven is at hand. For this is he that was spoken of by the prophet Esaias, saying, The voice of one crying in the wilderness, Prepare ye the way of the Lord, make his paths straight." (Matthew 1:1-3).

Further insight, that John came in the spirit and power of Elijah, was offered to his father prior to his birth:



  • “And there appeared unto him an angel of the Lord standing on the right side of the altar of incense. And when Zacharias saw him, he was troubled, and fear fell upon him. But the angel said unto him, Fear not, Zacharias: for thy prayer is heard; and thy wife Elisabeth shall bear thee a son, and thou shalt call his name John. And thou shalt have joy and gladness; and many shall rejoice at his birth. For he shall be great in the sight of the Lord, and shall drink neither wine nor strong drink; and he shall be filled with the Holy Ghost, even from his mother’s womb. And many of the children of Israel shall he turn to the Lord their God. And he shall go before him in the spirit and power of Elias, to turn the hearts of the fathers to the children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the just; to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.”


  • (Luke 1:11-17).






The priest Zacharias, John the Baptist's father, prophesied about his son that his mission was to "go before the face of the Lord to prepare his ways:"



  • “And thou, child, shalt be called the prophet of the Highest: for thou shalt go before the face of the Lord to prepare his ways; To give knowledge of salvation unto his people by the remission of their sins, Through the tender mercy of our God; whereby the dayspring from on high hath visited us, To give light to them that sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.”


  • (Luke 1:76-79).






John the Baptist was not a lone ranger, he was not a solitary shining star. He explicitly describes himself as a fore-runner to another:

"I indeed baptize you with water unto repentance: but he that cometh after me is mightier than I, whose shoes I am not worthy to bear: he shall baptize you with the Holy Ghost, and with fire:  Whose fan is in his hand, and he will throughly purge his floor, and gather his wheat into the garner; but he will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire." (Matthew 3:11).

"And as the people were in expectation, and all men mused in their hearts of John, whether he were the Christ, or not; John answered, saying unto them all, I indeed baptize you with water; but one mightier than I cometh, the latchet of whose shoes I am not worthy to unloose: he shall baptize you with the Holy Ghost and with fire: Whose fan is in his hand, and he will throughly purge his floor, and will gather the wheat into his garner; but the chaff he will burn with fire unquenchable." (Luke 3:15-17).

"And preached, saying, There cometh one mightier than I after me, the latchet of whose shoes I am not worthy to stoop down and unloose. I indeed have baptized you with water: but he shall baptize you with the Holy Ghost." (Mark 1:7-8).

Though there existed gnostic sects which made John himself into a redeemer figure, it is plain in the Christian New Testament that he is not a stand-alone figure, rather he is Ed McMahon to another's Johnny Carson.




Recalling that John the Baptist's mission has been identified by means of several Old Testament prophecies, let us enquire, who is it before whom John was sent as fore-runner? A mere man? A good king? Or God Himself, coming to save His people?:



  • “Comfort ye, comfort ye my people, saith your God. Speak ye comfortably to Jerusalem, and cry unto her, that her warfare is accomplished, that her iniquity is pardoned: for she hath received of the LORD’S hand double for all her sins.


  • “The voice of him that crieth in the wilderness, Prepare ye the way of the LORD, make straight in the desert a highway for our God. Every valley shall be exalted, and every mountain and hill shall be made low: and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough places plain: And the glory of the LORD shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together: for the mouth of the LORD hath spoken it. The voice said, Cry. And he said, What shall I cry? All flesh is grass, and all the goodliness thereof is as the flower of the field: The grass withereth, the flower fadeth: because the spirit of the LORD bloweth upon it: surely the people is grass. The grass withereth, the flower fadeth: but the word of our God shall stand for ever.


  • “O Zion, that bringest good tidings, get thee up into the high mountain; O Jerusalem, that bringest good tidings, lift up thy voice with strength; lift it up, be not afraid; say unto the cities of Judah, Behold your God! Behold, the Lord GOD will come with strong hand, and his arm shall rule for him: behold, his reward is with him, and his work before him. He shall feed his flock like a shepherd: he shall gather the lambs with his arm, and carry them in his bosom, and shall gently lead those that are with young.”


  • (Isaiah 40:1-11).




Jesus confirmed the prophecy given to Zacharias, that it was John the Baptist who came in the power and spirit of Elijah, despite his own disclaimer:

"And his disciples asked him, saying, Why then say the scribes that Elias must first come? And Jesus answered and said unto them, Elias truly shall first come, and restore all things. But I say unto you, That Elias is come already, and they knew him not, but have done unto him whatsoever they listed. Likewise shall also the Son of man suffer of them. Then the disciples understood that he spake unto them of John the Baptist." (Matthew 17:10-13).

"But what went ye out for to see? A prophet? yea, I say unto you, and more than a prophet. For this is he, of whom it is written, Behold, I send my messenger before thy face, which shall prepare thy way before thee. Verily I say unto you, Among them that are born of women there hath not risen a greater than John the Baptist: notwithstanding he that is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he. And from the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven suffereth violence, and the violent take it by force. For all the prophets and the law prophesied until John. And if ye will receive it, this is Elias, which was for to come. He that hath ears to hear, let him hear." (Matthew 11:9-15).

Before whose face was Elijah to come?:



  • “Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the coming of the great and dreadful day of the LORD: And he shall turn the heart of the fathers to the children, and the heart of the children to their fathers, lest I come and smite the earth with a curse.”


  • (Malachi 4:5-6).




Even Bible critics are obliged to acknowlege that the fore-runner goes before Jehovah Himself, not any subordinate, all the while no doubt fervently hoping no one else notices:

"The abode of the preacher of repentance in the wilderness, his activity in preparing the way for the Messiah, necessarily recalled the passage of Isaiah (xl. 3 ff. LXX.): φωνη βοωντος εν ερημω ετοιμασατε την οδον Κυριω κ. τ. λ. This passage, which in its original connection related not to the Messiah and his forerunner, but to Jehovah, for whom a way was to be prepared through the wilderness toward Judea, that he might return with his people from exile, is quoted by the first three Evangelists as a prophecy fulfilled by the appearance of the Baptist (Matt. iii. 3; Mark i. 3; Luke iii. 4ff). . .Jesus had said (Matt. xi. 10; Luke vii. 27):. . .This is he of whom it is written, Behold I send my messenger before thy face, to prepare thy way before thee; and Mark in the introduction to his Gospel, applies these words of Malachi (iii. 1), together with the above passage from Isaiah, without distinguishing their respective sources, to the forerunner, John. The text is a messianic one; Jehovah, however, does not therein speak of sending a messenger before the Messiah, but before himself: and it is only in the New Testament citations in all these instances that the second person (σου) is substituted for the first." (David Friedrich Strauss, The Life of Jesus Critically Examined, pp. 230-231).

This messenger comes before the face of the living God: "Behold, I will send my messenger, and he shall prepare the way before me: and the Lord, whom ye seek, shall suddenly come to his temple, even the messenger of the covenant, whom ye delight in: behold, he shall come, saith the LORD of hosts." (Malachi 3:1). Now if this is John the Baptist, the fore-runner to Jesus, then who is Jesus?

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God's law will not allow His children to follow a false prophet:

"But the prophet, which shall presume to speak a word in my name, which I have not commanded him to speak, or that shall speak in the name of other gods, even that prophet shall die. And if thou say in thine heart, How shall we know the word which the LORD hath not spoken? When a prophet speaketh in the name of the LORD, if the thing follow not, nor come to pass, that is the thing which the LORD hath not spoken, but the prophet hath spoken it presumptuously: thou shalt not be afraid of him." (Deuteronomy 18:20-22).

It is astonishing how many 'liberal' Christians, or those in quest of the 'historical Jesus,' will, before they will believe that Jesus is the God before whom John cleared a path, prefer to believe that John and Jesus both were false prophets. If we follow the self-identification of John and Jesus, we must conclude that Malachi's first 'messenger' is John: "Behold, I will send my messenger, and he shall prepare the way before me," and the second, the 'messenger of the covenant,' is the Lord God: "and the Lord, whom ye seek, shall suddenly come to his temple, even the messenger of the covenant, whom ye delight in. . ." This can be none other than Jesus. Some people would rather explain these references by asserting that both John and Jesus believed in the imminent end of the world, and that they were mistaken because this did not happen.

There is a gnostic sensibility which celebrates, and indeed will even follow, a false prophet 'Jesus:'

"There is silence all around. The Baptist appears, and cries: 'Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand.' Soon after that comes Jesus, and in the knowledge that He is the coming Son of Man lays hold of the wheel of the world to set it moving on that last revolution which is to bring all ordinary history to a close. It refuses to turn, and He throws Himself upon it. Then it does turn; and crushes Him. Instead of bringing in the eschatological conditions, He has destroyed them. The wheel rolls onward, and the mangled body of the one immeasurably great Man, who was strong enough to think of Himself as the spiritual ruler of mankind and to bend history to His purpose, is hanging upon it still. That is His victory and His reign." (Albert Schweitzer, The Quest of the Historical Jesus, pp. 370-371).

Let us leave these gnostics to their dark vision.

When we drive through the country-side, our first glimpse of a mountain-range in the distance reveals an undifferentiated lump. As we approach closer, the mass defines itself into ridges with valleys between. Likewise, prophecies which incorporate a number of different elements, surmised as contemporaneous in the absence clear information to the contrary, resolve themselves upon their nearer approach into different events occurring at different times, as for instance the Messiah's first advent and second advent. John himself may have become perplexed at the unfolding sequence, because, though in receipt of family lore that identified his relative Jesus as the coming one, he began to wonder:

"And John calling unto him two of his disciples sent them to Jesus, saying, Art thou he that should come? or look we for another? When the men were come unto him, they said, John Baptist hath sent us unto thee, saying, Art thou he that should come? or look we for another? And in that same hour he cured many of their infirmities and plagues, and of evil spirits; and unto many that were blind he gave sight. Then Jesus answering said unto them, Go your way, and tell John what things ye have seen and heard; how that the blind see, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, to the poor the gospel is preached. And blessed is he, whosoever shall not be offended in me." (Luke 7:19-23).

Jesus' answer is telling; it reinforces John's mission of fore-runner to the One on high: "Say to them that are of a fearful heart, Be strong, fear not: behold, your God will come with vengeance, even God with a recompence; he will come and save you. Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf shall be unstopped." (Isaiah 35:4-5). God will come, and not another. Some people prefer to believe He didn't. But these people are not taking the scriptures literally nor seriously, and if they say they are Christians, then by their own admission they follow one whom their own mouths have condemned as a false prophet.

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Historicity

There is little to be gained by denying the historicity of John the Baptist, which doesn't mean participants in the 'Jesus' publishing industry haven't tried. But not only were there gnostic sects which claimed John as their redeemer figure rather than Jesus, but the historian Flavius Josephus mentions John:



  • “Now some of the Jews thought that the destruction of Herod’s army came from God, and that very justly, as a punishment of what he did against John, that was called the Baptist: for Herod slew him, who was a good man, and commanded the Jews to exercise virtue, both as to righteousness towards one another, and piety towards God, and so to come to baptism; for that the washing [with water] would be acceptable to him, if they made use of it, not in order to the putting away [or the remission] of some sins [only], but for the purification of the body; supposing still that the soul was thoroughly purified beforehand by righteousness. Now when [many] others came in crowds about him, for they were very greatly moved [or pleased] by hearing his words, Herod, who feared lest the great influence John had over the people might put it into his power and inclination to raise a rebellion, (for they seemed ready to do any thing he should advise,) thought it best, by putting him to death, to prevent any mischief he might cause, and not bring himself into difficulties, by sparing a man who might make him repent of it when it would be too late. Accordingly he was sent a prisoner, out of Herod’s suspicious temper, to Macherus, the castle I before mentioned, and was there put to death. Now the Jews had an opinion that the destruction of this army was sent as a punishment upon Herod, and a mark of God’s displeasure to him.”


  • (Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews, Book XVIII, Chapter 5, Section 2, p. 1136).




Josephus is at pains to defend John from any suspicion of sacramentalism, as if baptism by itself could effect anything. Rather, John's baptism was intended to be an outward sign of an inward change of heart. He plainly draws upon sources of information other than the gospel, because his account of Herod's motivation in imprisoning and executing John takes a different perspective.

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