Who Was John the Baptist?

The Man in the Wilderness

The Bible identifies John by the title John the Baptist: “In those days came John the Baptist, preaching in the wilderness of Judea, And saying, ‘Repent ye: for the kingdom of heaven is at hand'” (Matthew 3:1-2). The Greek word translated Baptist is the word baptistos. “Baptist” is a transliteration of the Greek word meaning a baptizer; one who administers the rite of baptism; the surname of John, the forerunner of Christ (THAYER’S LEXICON, p. 95).

The term “the Baptist” is indisputably linked with the name John the Baptist. John the Baptist is introduced to the readers of the Gospel as a fulfillment of the prophetic type of Elijah the prophet “crying in the wilderness” (Isaiah 40:3; Malachi 4:5). John the Baptist was the mighty voice of warning, “…Repent ye: for the kingdom of heaven is at hand,” pointing then to the Messiah, “…Behold the Lamb of God, which taketh away the sin of the world” (Matthew 3:2; John 1:29).

John was only a voice heralding the message of the promised Messiah and His kingdom. John the Baptist was fully aware of his subservient position in relationship to the One to come, “He it is, who coming after me is preferred before me, whose shoe’s latchet I am not worthy to unloose” (John 1:27, 30.) The message of John the Baptist was to repent and to be baptized.

John’s message was directed to the Jews of his day who, although religious, were proned to overlook the judgment for their sins. John’s warnings concerned the inescapable judgment that faced the Jewish nation.

John warned the Jews that none but the truly repentant would find acceptance with the Messiah and His kingdom. John’s understanding of his baptism included both the judgment of sin and redemption from sin. John’s baptism sealed the repentant sinner as a member of the covenant people (the Jews) fitted for the appearing of the Messiah and their inheritance of the kingdom (THE MESSIANIC HOPE IN THE NEW TESTAMENT, Matthews Shailer, p. 64.)

John’s Ministry

John the Baptist’s ministry included two basic aspects: baptizing and preaching.

The word “baptize” (Gr. baptizo) literally means, “to dip into” or “to immerse” and its connection with “repentance” (Gr. Metanoeite) means “to change one’s mind or purpose.” Thus, the ordinance of baptism held no inherent virtue or merit but merely symbolized an inward change of attitude toward sin (LIBERTY BIBLE COMMENTARY, Vol. II, p. 101).

It should be noted that John the Baptist’s ministry was actually the beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ: The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. “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 path straight.'” John did baptize in the wilderness, and preach the baptism of repentance for the remission of sins (Mark 1:1-4).

This conclusion (the Gospel began with John the Baptist) has been expounded by many non-Baptist church historians, such as: Lightfoot, “Mark calls the ministry and baptism of John the beginning of the gospel”- Matthew Henry, “In John’s preaching and baptizing there was the beginning of the gospel doctrines and ordinances”; Adam Clark, “It is with the utmost propriety that Mark begins the Gospel dispensation by the preaching of John the Baptist” (JOHN’S BAPTISM, by J. R. Graves, p. 72).

Jesus Being Baptized by John

The significance of John’s baptism was enhanced by Jesus coming to John to receive baptism as the fulfillment of all righteousness (Matthew 3:15). Thus, Jesus acknowledged John’s baptism as possessing authority from Heaven. Jesus came out into the wilderness so that John could see Him and declare Him to his followers as the “Lamb of God” (John 1:7, 15-18, 29-37; Mark 1:7).

The purpose of Jesus receiving John’s baptism was symbolically to clear the scene of all human effort to obtain righteousness and salvation. The “fulfillment of all righteousness” was pertaining to the symbolic meaning of the act of baptism — the death, burial, and resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ (the Gospel). Thus, all believers, by observing the act of baptism, profess symbolically their own death to the former life, as well as identification unto Christ’s death, burial, and resurrection (Romans 6:3-13).

John the Baptist completed his ministry as the forerunner of Christ as he pointed men to the “Lamb of God” — Jesus Christ. He recognized that his own work was completed as he stated: “He must increase, but I must decrease” (John 3:30). John met his death at the hands of Herod the Tetrarch (Antipas) ruler of Galilee and Peraea. John had been arrested because of his outspoken preaching against Herod’s incestuous marriage with Herodias (his brother Philip’s wife).

During John’s imprisonment Herodias’ daughter, Salome, performed a dance before King Herod in celebration of his birthday. Herod promised with an oath that she could have whatever she wanted. Set up by her mother, she asked for John the Baptist’s head in a charger, i.e., a table platter (Matthew 14:3-12; Mark 6:17-29; Luke 3:19-20). John was beheaded that night and those who loved him, buried him.

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Dr. Elmer Towns is a college and seminary professor, an author of popular and scholarly works (the editor of two encyclopedias), a popular seminar lecturer, and dedicated worker in Sunday school, and has developed over 20 resource packets for leadership education.His personal education includes a B.S. from Northwestern College in Minneapolis, Minnesota, a M.A. from Southern Methodist University in Dallas, Texas, a Th.M. from Dallas Theological Seminary also in Dallas, a MRE from Garrett Theological Seminary in Evanston, Illinois, and a D.Min. from Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, California.He is co-founder of Liberty University, with Jerry Falwell, in 1971, and was the only full-time teacher in the first year of Liberty’s existence. Today, the University has over 11,400 students on campus with 39,000 in the Distance Learning Program (now Liberty University Online), and he is the Dean of the School of Religion.Dr. Towns has given theological lectures and taught intensive seminars at over 50 theological seminaries in America and abroad. He holds visiting professorship rank in five seminaries. He has written over 2,000 reference and/or popular articles and received six honorary doctoral degrees. Four doctoral dissertations have analyzed his contribution to religious education and evangelism.

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