Who was John the Baptist in the Bible? John the Baptist, who lived in the wilderness of Judea, was a prophet and a preacher who prepared people for Jesus, the Messiah. Prophesied about in the Old Testament, John the Baptist was the “Elijah” figure in the New Testament. John called people to repentance and restoration and baptized them in a baptism of repentance in preparation for a “greater” baptism of the Holy Spirit and fire by the Messiah to come.
John the Baptist is an important figure in Scripture, but we don’t just find him in Scripture. He has been referenced throughout church history by other Christian writers such as Justin Martyr, Tertullian, Hippolytus, and Origen. We also find John the Baptist referenced in Josephus’s Antiquities of the Jews.
John the Baptist in Josephus’s Writings
This large collection was written by Flavius Josephus, a first-century Jewish historian. His purpose in writing this major work was to retell the history of the Jews in order to explain Judaism and its significance to foreigners. Josephus does us a great favor in the world of biblical studies today because we can gain great insight and cultural-religious context concerning the backgrounds of both Old and New Testament.
In his Antiquities of the Jews, Book 18, Josephus gives us a very brief account concerning John the Baptist and his death under Herod Antipas. Josephus tells us briefly that John the Baptist was “a good man, and commanded the Jews to exercise virtue, both as to righteousness towards one another, and piety towards God…” He also writes about others gathering together in baptism in response to John’s call for a righteous life.
Josephus also records for us that John’s great influence among the people gave Herod fear of a potential rebellion and thus he sent John as a prisoner to Macherus (some sort of prison or castle) where he was later put to death. What’s interesting about this account is that Jewish people believe that the defeat of Herod’s army by the hand of Aretas, king of Arabia, was God’s punishment against him for what he did to John.
“Josephus gives us a very brief account concerning John the Baptist and his death under Herod Antipas.”
Josephus thus gives us insight into John the Baptist and helps us see him as an iconic figure in his Jewish context in addition to his role in Christian history.
If we are to understand the life and ministry of John the Baptist, we need to understand the roles he played. I’ve decided to break down the life and ministry of John the Baptist in six ways and in the end, we can pull a couple pieces of application from his life to our own.
1. John the Baptist Was a Child of Remarkable Origin.
If we look at the Gospel of Luke, we see that John the Baptist has a fascinating origin story. Luke 1 is one of the longest chapters in the New Testament, and there’s a lot there about John the Baptist’s foretelling and birth. I’ll break down John’s remarkable origin in seven ways:
- Luke 1:5-23 – Angelic Announcement. An angel of the Lord (Gabriel) announces that Zechariah and Elizabeth would have a son. They had no child, since Elizabeth was barren (it was considered a curse to be barren because children were considered to be a blessing from the Lord; see Deuteronomy 7:14). This child would be a blessing and he would do great things before the Lord. So the announcement from Gabriel was very exciting!
- Luke 1:24-25 – Conception. I wonder what joy must have filled Elizabeth’s heart when she found out that she had become pregnant despite being barren for so long? Have you considered how remarkable this situation would have been? Glory to God that the curse of barrenness had been lifted and His blessing was now on display! Elizabeth shared her joy with her relative Mary (mother of Jesus), when the two met while both were pregnant (Luke 1:39-40).
- Luke 1:57-58 – Birth. At the age that Elizabeth was, she should not be giving birth (both Zechariah and Elizabeth were “advanced in years”; see Luke 1:7). There would have been great concern for Elizabeth’s and the child’s safety through the community, and sure enough, the Lord showed her great mercy and both the mother and the child were both healthy.
Who was John the Baptist in the Bible? “According to Gabriel’s announcement, this child would be a blessing and he would do great things before the Lord.”
- Luke 1:59a – Circumcision. Just as any good Jewish boy, on the eighth day, John was circumcised. This is significant because circumcision was the sign of the Jewish people’s covenant with God.
- Luke 1:59b-63 – Naming. Calling somebody by the wrong name is embarrassing (trust me, I’ve done it enough times and you probably have too). The neighbors and relatives believed they should call the child “Zechariah” because it was normal and customary to be named after one’s father. But Zechariah and Elizabeth had known him as “John” since before he was born, based on the name Gabriel had given him. The neighbors and relatives weren’t listening to Elizabeth, so they used sign language to communicate with Zechariah (since he was “silent and unable to speak,” see Luke 1:20). Although he could presumably hear them (he wasn’t deaf), Zechariah did have to write out “his name is John” for the neighbors and relatives in order to settle the argument. From this moment, he was able to speak again.
- Luke 1:67-79 – Zechariah’s Prophecy. Zechariah’s prophecy is rich and poetic! It’s clear that Zechariah had some awareness of what his son John would do: he would announce the coming of Jesus, salvation, and the forgiveness of sins (Luke 1:76-77).
- Luke 1:80 – Childhood. This verse concludes John’s origin story. He would grow, become strong in spirit, and move to the desert until it was time to “appear” and prepare people for the Messiah.
Who was John the Baptist in the Bible? “He would grow, become strong in spirit, and move to the desert until it was time to appear and prepare people for the Messiah.”
John the Baptist, a child of remarkable origin, would play an essential but supporting role, as he prepared people for the coming of Jesus, the Messiah.
2. John the Baptist Was a Forerunner to Jesus.
The role of John the Baptist was to prepare the way for the Messiah and to point people to him. John’s role was prophesied about in the Old Testament, and we see that he quotes those same scriptures when he appears preaching in the wilderness. Let’s look at Isaiah and Malachi:
- Isaiah 40:3-4. Look closely at the words spoken by the prophet Isaiah: “A voice cries: ‘In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord; make straight in the desert a highway for our God. Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain.’” The good news here is that God was coming, and with no hindrance, to set His people free! In a grand, later fulfillment, John the Baptist fits the bill with his ministry: the one preparing the way of the Lord. Jesus, God in the flesh, was coming! John the Baptist quotes this of himself when the religious leaders ask who he is (John 1:19-23).
- Malachi 3:1. The prophet Malachi described somebody in the future labeled as a messenger who would have a unique mission of preparing the way of the Lord. “Behold, I send my messenger, and he will prepare the way before me. And the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple; and the messenger of the covenant in whom you delight, behold, he is coming, says the Lord of hosts.” Jesus quoted from this verse in Matthew 11:10 in reference to John.
Who was John the Baptist in the Bible? “A voice cries: ‘In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord.'”
- Malachi 4:5-6. The “Elijah” of this text is fulfilled in the person of John the Baptist: “Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the great and awesome day of the Lord comes. And he will turn the hearts of fathers to their children and the hearts of children to their fathers, lest I come and strike the land with a decree of utter destruction.” Jesus Himself even identifies John the Baptist as an “Elijah” figure in Matthew 11:14: “And if you are willing to accept it, he is Elijah who is to come.”
John the Baptist was a forerunner to Jesus and he would be the one to prepare the way for Him. It was the beginning of a new Exodus for all of God’s people!
3. John the Baptist Was a Prophet.
John the Baptist was very much like a prophet “of old.” He dressed distinctly like the Old Testament prophets (Elijah the prophet who also wore a garment of hair and a leather belt around his waist). He was prophetic in his preaching in the wilderness. He bluntly called for repentance and restoration and was not afraid to rebuke the Pharisees and Sadducees.
But when he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming to his baptism, he said to them, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit in keeping with repentance. And do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father,’ for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children for Abraham. Even now the axe is laid to the root of the trees. Every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.” (Matt. 3:7-10)
In addition, as mentioned earlier, John the Baptist was the “Elijah” prophesied in Malachi. Elijah was the quintessential prophet of the Old Testament. Jesus connected John to Malachi’s “Elijah” in Matthew 11:13-15 (“he is Elijah who is to come”) and Matthew 17:10-13 (“‘Elijah has already come, and they did not recognize him, but did to him whatever they pleased.’ . . . Then his disciples understood that he was speaking to them of John the Baptist.” The angel Gabriel also seemed to draw the same connection: “And he will go before him in the spirit and power of Elijah” (Luke 1:17).
Who was John the Baptist in the Bible? “John the Baptist was the ‘Elijah’ prophesied in Malachi.”
John’s prophetic ministry is very reminiscent of what we read about Elijah the prophet. They both preached boldly against kings and their behavior (1 Kings 18:17-19 / Matt. 14:3-4), both preached repentance and fought against false religion (1 Kings 18:21 / Matt. 3:1-2), evil women sought their lives (1 Kings 19:1-2 / Mark 6:19-29), both were fed in the wilderness (1 Kings 17:2-7 / Matt. 3:4), and they even had the same appearance (2 Kings 1:7-8 / Matt. 3:4).
4. John the Baptist Was a Bold Preacher.
John the Baptist preached a bold repentance and invited people to be baptized for repentance. We find this recorded in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke:
- Matthew 3:5-6, 11 – “Many from Jerusalem and all Judea and all the region about the Jordan went out to John the Baptist to be baptized, confessing their sins. . . . ‘I baptize you with water for repentance.’”
- Luke 3:16 – “I baptize you with water, but he who is mightier than I is coming, the strap of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.”
Who was John the Baptist in the Bible? “John the Baptist preached a bold repentance and invited people to be baptized for repentance.”
John the Baptist’s baptism of repentance was a shadow (a prefigure) of a “greater” baptism that was soon to come (Jesus). While this “greater” baptism came through Jesus, we find out that there are still believers in the book of Acts who knew only of John’s baptism:
- Acts 18:24-26 – [The case of Apollos] “Now a Jew named Apollos, a native of Alexandria, came to Ephesus. He was an eloquent man, competent in the Scriptures. He had been instructed in the way of the Lord. And being fervent in spirit, he spoke and taught accurately the things concerning Jesus, though he knew only the baptism of John.”
- Acts 19:2-4 – [The case of Paul encountering disciples in Ephesus] “And he said to them, ‘Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you believed?’ And they said, ‘No, we have not even heard that there is a Holy Spirit.’ And he said, ‘Into what then were you baptized?’ They said, ‘Into John’s baptism.’ And Paul said, ‘John baptized with the baptism of repentance, telling the people to believe in the one who was to come after him, that is, Jesus.’”
John’s preaching was penetrating, powerful, and practical. From his confrontation of the Pharisees and Sadducees to his insistence that people focus on the One who would follow him, John was a bold preacher.
Who was John the Baptist in the Bible? “From his confrontation of the Pharisees and Sadducees to his insistence that people focus on the One who would follow him, John was a bold preacher.”
5. John the Baptist Baptized Jesus.
There are two important notes that need to be made here.
First, John’s baptism of Jesus is the initiation of Jesus’ ministry.
We see this recorded in Matthew, Mark and Luke. It was necessary for John to baptize Jesus in order “to fulfill all righteousness.”
“Then Jesus came from Galilee to the Jordan to John, to be baptized by him. John would have prevented him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” But answered him, “Let it be so now, for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness.” Then he consented.” (Matt. 3:13-15)
Second, John’s baptism of Jesus brings about a divine anointing of his Messiahship.
At Jesus’ baptism by John, Jesus’ ministry was inaugurated and we see a glimpse of the Trinity (Father, Son, and Spirit):
And when he came up out of the water, immediately he saw the heavens being torn open and the Spirit descending on him like a dove. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased.” (Mark 1:10-11)
Who was John the Baptist in the Bible? “John’s baptism of Jesus is the initiation of Jesus’ ministry.”
6. John the Baptist Faced Conflict and Death.
Because John was prophetic and a bold preacher, he came into the crosshairs of the ruler in Galilee, Herod Antipas (son of Herod the Great). John was not afraid to confront him, especially in the case of Herodias, and that’s a whole mess in and of itself. See what Mark records:
“For it was Herod who had sent and seized John and bound him in prison for the sake of Herodias, his brother Philip’s wife, because he had married her. For John had been saying to Herod, “It is not lawful for you to have your brother’s wife.” And Herodias had a grudge against him and wanted to put him to death. But she could not… “ (Mark 6:17-19)
Because Herodias had a grudge against John, eventually John had to face death. Matthew 14:6-12 records the story for us and it goes like this. It was Herod’s birthday and Herodias’ daughter danced for him and his company. Herod promised with an oath to give her whatever she might ask for (up to half the kingdom!). Bad move. Herodias prompted her daughter to ask Herod for the head of John on a platter. Herod did not want to break his word, and so he followed through with her request and John was beheaded in the prison.
“Because John was prophetic and a bold preacher, he came into the crosshairs of the ruler in Galilee, Herod Antipas.”
John had courage in the face of conflict and death and knew that he had fulfilled his role in the unfolding of God’s plan through Jesus Christ. John the Baptist was the one to prepare the way for the Messiah and point people to him. He had accomplished his purpose. And no one was prouder of John than Jesus, who said,
“Truly, I say to you, among those born of women there has arisen no one greater than John the Baptist” (Matt. 11:11).
What Can We Learn from John’s Life?
I believe there are a couple pieces of application that we can pull from John’s life and ministry and apply to our own.
1. Be Prepared for Risks.
John was a bold preacher, proclaiming the truth even when it wasn’t popular with others. It was gutsy to call out Herod in the case of Herodias. But John understood the risk and chose to proclaim the truth. Eventually, it led to his death.
What about us? Are we also willing to take risks for the sake of the gospel? Christianity is a risky business and it could cost us our comfort, our reputation, our jobs, even future jobs, and loss of family or friends. In some places, it could even cost us our life. Is it worth it? Absolutely—because Jesus is worthy (Rev. 5:12). We have been called to follow Jesus and it comes with risk. It’s a one-way journey of no return:
Then Jesus told his disciples, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.” (Matt. 16:24)
John the Baptist was a risk-taker when he proclaimed truth, and we too will face the risks as we continue to proclaim truth in a hostile world until Jesus calls us home. Living for Jesus comes with risk, but they are risks that we must be willing to take.
2. Get Out of the Way.
One of the most important lessons that we can learn from John’s life was his willingness to step aside. John’s ministry was booming before Jesus came on the scene. Once Jesus began his ministry, John’s ministry started to decrease. What did John do? What did he say? The Gospel of John records John’s response to his disciples who were jealous of Jesus’ popularity. John told his disciples that he was rejoicing for Jesus, in the same way that the bridegroom’s friend rejoices for the bridegroom when he gets married. After all, John explained, “A person cannot receive even one thing unless it is given him from heaven” (John 3:27). Then, John told them words we need to commit to memory:
“He must increase, but I must decrease.” (John 3:30)
John chooses to step aside and exalt Christ. Maybe he is talking to himself here. Perhaps he is saying, as Mark Moore put it in his commentary, “My ministry I received from God. Therefore, I have no right to promote myself or exceed the bound of my purpose.”
“John told his disciples that he was rejoicing for Jesus, in the same way that the bridegroom’s friend rejoices for the bridegroom when he gets married.”
John forfeits his popularity and his influence in order to “make Jesus famous.” We also should step aside and choose to exalt Jesus instead of ourselves. We should continually whisper to ourselves, “He must increase, but I must decrease.”
 Although Josephus’ Antiquities of the Jews is not Scripture, it has proven valuable in the world of biblical study and insight into Jewish thought, background, and history.
 William Whiston, The Works of Josephus: Complete and Unabridged (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, Inc, 1987), 484.
 Some scholars believe that it is a different author who writes this section of Isaiah and the following major section (Isaiah 56-66). That is why Isaiah is sometimes split up and labeled “Second Isaiah” and “Third Isaiah.” I personally believe that “Isaiah the son of Amoz” (Isaiah 1:1) wrote all three major sections of the book of Isaiah.
 All scriptures are quoted from ESV.
 Jesus, being baptized by John, points to people’s needs. Jesus didn’t need to repent (since he is sinless), but Israel did. Jesus is the Messianic representation of God’s people and will carry out God’s plan all the way to death on a cross.
 Mark E. Moore, “From John to Jesus (John 3:22-36),” in The Chronological Life of Christ (Joplin, MO: College Press Publishing Company, 2007), 101.