Christ’s ministry was introduced by a man called John the Baptist. Who was he? What was John the Baptist’s mission and purpose? What can we learn from him?
Before we dive into Jesus’ life during His public ministry in this series “Walk as He Walked,” we need to make a slight detour and look at the life of another individual.
The coming of the Christ didn’t happen in isolation. God sent a very special person ahead of Him. We know him as John the Baptist.
Who was this man and what was his purpose?
Who were the parents of John the Baptist?
We are introduced to John the Baptist’s parents in Luke 1.
His father, Zacharias, was a Levite, a priest who served in the temple. Zacharias was married to a woman named Elizabeth, who had been unable to bear children (Luke 1:7). Elizabeth was actually a relative—perhaps a cousin—of Mary, Jesus’ mother (verse 36). This means that John the Baptist and Jesus were also related, likely second or third cousins.
Zacharias and Elizabeth were an exemplary couple—“both righteous before God,” according to Luke (verse 6, emphasis added throughout). This shows they had grown together in God’s way of life (1 Peter 3:7). This family environment was a key part of John’s preparation for his unique ministry.
John the Baptist was born six months before Jesus. To learn what this fact shows us about the general timing of Jesus’ birth, read our article “John the Baptist: No Greater Prophet.”
What was John the Baptist’s purpose?
Because of their strong marriage and manner of living, God chose Zacharias and Elizabeth to be the parents of the man who would prepare the way for the Messiah. You can read the details of how this was revealed to Zacharias in Luke 1:8-25.
Here is a summary of what the angel revealed about John’s calling and purpose:
- He wouldn’t drink alcohol—he would abstain from many of the normal physical pleasures of life (Matthew 11:18). Perhaps this was so he would have no distractions from his mission. (Of course, the Bible doesn’t forbid people from drinking in moderation—this was specifically for John because of his unique calling.)
- His ministry would help orient the minds of his countrymen to God.
- He would prepare the people to hear and receive the words of the Christ, who would come after him.
- He would be a fulfillment of the Elijah prophecy in Malachi 3:1 and 4:5.
He was also to fulfill another prophecy in Isaiah 40:3: “The voice of one crying in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the LORD; make straight in the desert a highway for our God [Christ].’” (This is one of many verses that prove Jesus Christ was God. To learn more about the identity and divinity of Christ, read “Jesus in the Old Testament?”)
John the Baptist was given the job of heralding Christ’s first coming and alerting the people of their need to repent and listen to Him!
John the Baptist’s lifestyle and ministry
We don’t know much about John the Baptist’s personal life. We do know that his parents would have provided him a strong education in the Scriptures. We know him as John the Baptist, but as a child he would have simply been known as John bar Zacharias, or John the son of Zacharias.
John directed people to the true Christ, who was God in the flesh. John made no attempt to compete or draw attention to himself.But his calling and purpose were very different from those of his father. Instead of beginning temple service when he reached adulthood, he began his ministry and led a unique lifestyle.
“Now John was clothed with camel’s hair and with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey” (Mark 1:6).
Though this description may seem odd when viewed through 21st-century eyes, it was customary dress for the ancient prophets. His clothing and lifestyle symbolized his separation from the surrounding culture, as well as the fact that his life was solely dedicated to his mission. It was no coincidence that his attire resembled Elijah’s (2 Kings 1:8) since he was a fulfillment of the prophecy of a coming Elijah (Matthew 11:13-14).
We read of crowds of people who listened to him and heeded his message, including tax collectors and soldiers. For these professionals to take John seriously meant that his preaching must have been compelling. He wasn’t regarded as some radically unstable, alienated and lonesome preacher, as movies often portray him.
John the Baptist was not a loner. In fact, he had a group of disciples who learned at his feet—meaning he led a formal educational effort (John 1:35; 3:25).
What was John’s baptism?
We read that “John came baptizing in the wilderness and preaching a baptism of repentance for the remission of sins” (Mark 1:4). Though the Jews had practiced ritual washings similar to baptism, John’s baptism—full immersion into water—is the first time this ceremony is mentioned in the Bible.
Repentance was a core element of John’s message. His teaching on repentance wasn’t just about feeling sorry for one’s sins, but the need to “bear fruits worthy of repentance” (Luke 3:8). Put differently, John admonished his listeners to change the way they lived (see also verses 10-14). We read that many listened and were baptized (Mark 1:5).
John’s preaching on repentance—turning from sin and changing from the inside out—would prepare people to receive Jesus’ message. Jesus would also preach about repentance and change—but in greater depth (verses 14-15; Matthew 5-7).
John received a special honor—something only one man in all of human history has had. John baptized God in the flesh, Jesus Christ (Luke 3:21-22). Although John was initially reluctant, Jesus insisted that it be done (Matthew 3:13-15). Jesus wasn’t baptized for the forgiveness of His sins (He had no sin), but to set an example for those who would strive to walk as He walked.
Jesus’ baptism underscores the truth that baptism is an essential part of the true Christian calling.
To learn more about the importance of baptism, read “Do You Have to Be Baptized to Be Saved?”
John pointed people to Christ
People questioned whether John could himself be the Christ, and he was quick to point them away from himself and toward Jesus of Nazareth (Luke 3:15-16). John made it absolutely clear that his work was not comparable to, or in any competition with, the much greater work Jesus would do!
At one point, as Jesus’ ministry began, John’s disciples informed him that people were gravitating toward Jesus rather than him. John’s disciples were concerned that he was losing his following. But John’s response demonstrated how well he understood his mission and showed the depth of his humility. He told his disciples, “[Jesus] must increase, but I must decrease. He who comes from above is above all” (John 3:30-31).
John directed people to the true Christ, who was God in the flesh. John made no attempt to compete or draw attention to himself. He had the humility to recognize that his ministry needed to wind down and end so that the Messiah’s work could take center stage.
The legacy and example of John the Baptist
Shortly before Jesus began preaching in Galilee, John was arrested and imprisoned for denouncing a flagrant sin committed by Herod the tetrarch (Matthew 14:1-9). After about a year or so in prison, he was decapitated for a very petty and tragic reason (Mark 6:22-28).
Jesus held John in high regard, going so far as to say he was God’s greatest prophet (Luke 7:28). Considering that the prophets would have included extraordinary men like Elijah, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel and Daniel, that is one of the greatest compliments anyone could ever receive from the Son of God.
Jesus’ respect for John confirms the benefits of searching his life for lessons. Though some aspects of John’s life were specific to his calling and shouldn’t be imitated today, here are three key lessons we can learn from this great man:
- John’s life centered around pointing people toward Jesus Christ. We should live our lives the same way—striving to direct people toward the One whose example we follow, not toward ourselves. This requires a deep level of humility—an essential virtue of true Christianity.
- John stood out from the world around him. You and I are not called to live in the wilderness, eat locusts or wear camel hair, but we are called to show we are different by our conduct (2 Corinthians 6:17). When people truly strive to walk as Christ walked, they will be different from the world around them (Matthew 5:16).
- John’s life mission was to proclaim God’s truth to others. He tried to reach as many people as possible with the message of repentance and Christ’s arrival. Today, the Church of God is responsible for announcing the good news of the Kingdom of God and preparing people for Christ’s return. You can be a part of that work.
John the Baptist lived a short life, but every indication shows he lived it well and fulfilled the unique purpose God gave him. He is a worthy example to consider as we strive to walk just as his Cousin walked.