Out of the Desert
1. How was John the Baptist related to Jesus?
2. What’s special about the birth of John the Baptist?
3. What’s special about John’s father? And his mother?
4. What’s the significance of John’s diet and clothing?
5. What sort of ministry did John have when he baptized Jesus?
6. What did baptizing Jesus do to John’s ministry?
7. What did Jesus do after his baptism?
8. How did John end up in jail?
9. Was John always convinced that Jesus was the Messiah?
10. How did John die? Does his death sound plausible?
Jesus began his public ministry by receiving the sacrament of Baptism from his cousin John. John is the son of Mary’s cousin Elizabeth and her husband Zechariah. Zechariah was a priest, therefore a Levite. The fact that Elizabeth is also a Levite means Zechariah is particularly honored, but the fact that they have no children would be looked on as a curse. They lived in the hill country of Judea, south of Jerusalem, except when Zechariah had to serve in the Temple. There would have been about 50 priests doing Temple duties when Zechariah was chosen to burn incense on the Altar, something a priest would only do once in a lifetime. There he meets an angel—Gabriel from the book of Daniel—who tells him Elizabeth will have a child. Zechariah becomes mute as punishment for not believing, or as evidence of the truth of the angel’s power. John’s birth is very similar to that of the prophet Samuel in the Old Testament, conceived after his mother had been barren for a long time.
After the angel tells Mary that she is pregnant too, Mary visits Elizabeth and the baby John leaps in his mother’s womb, presumably in recognition of the nearness of Christ. But there’s no record of the families staying close during the boy’s childhoods.
When John is born, his family wants to call him after his father but Zechariah insists on the name God has promised for the child. The name John doesn’t have any obvious Old Testament significance. John grows up to wear the clothes of a prophet—in particular he dresses and eats like Elijah (2 Kings 8)—and to fulfill the prophesies of Malachi and Isaiah. Jewish tradition suggested Elijah would reappear before the Messiah, and Jesus says in Matt 17:11-13 that Elijah has already come.
The Essene sect practiced baptism, as did John—it wasn’t a particularly Christian invention. The gospels record John being reluctant to baptize Jesus, perhaps because, again, he recognizes who he is. After baptism, and God’s announcement (which may or may not have been heard by everyone) Jesus goes into the desert for a symbolic 40 days where he is undergoes the famous temptations. Meanwhile, presumably, John continues to preach. On Jesus’ return, John’s disciples start to desert to Jesus. In particular, according to John’s gospel, Andrew follows Jesus and goes to fetch his brother Simon, though in Luke we’re told that John had already been arrested. Such disagreements actually add to the authenticity of the gospels, since it’s rare to find un-fabricated accounts that agree in all details.
John’s story is found in the writings of Josephus as well as in the gospels. Herod (Antipas, not the Great) imprisons him for denouncing Herod’s marriage to his sister-in-law, and later executes him. According to Josephus, the execution is a result of a military defeat. According to the gospels, it results from a rash promise Herod makes to his wife’s daughter. In either case, the story is entirely plausible for the time.
At some point during his imprisonment, John sends messengers to ask if Jesus really is who he says. It’s not clear whether this represents doubt on John’s part or a desire to force Jesus’ hand. Whatever the reason, Jesus responds with words that clearly refer to prophecy but makes no direct statement of identity, thus avoiding the consequences of too early a revelation.