Who was John the Baptist? In this post we begin to learn the backstory of John the Baptist. While our current blog series is studying the Gospel of John, and while this week we are learning about John 1:19-34, to get the backstory of John the Baptist, we need to turn elsewhere. The full account starts in Luke chapter 1, verse 5. Let me summarize it.
In first century Palestine, living near Jerusalem, a priest named Zechariah and his wife, Elizabeth, were very godly Jews, but they were unable to have children. In their old age, God blessed them by telling them they were miraculously going to have a son. God told them to name their son, “John.” God said John was going to grow up to be a great prophet like the prophet Elijah, calling people to return to the Lord. Specifically, God says in verse 17, that their son’s prophetic ministry and purpose was “to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.”
John is going to be a prophet. What is a prophet? A prophet is one who hears from God and the speaks the word of God, most often by calling out sin and directing people to repent of their sin and place their hope in God.
Skip ahead to Luke 1, verse 57, and there we read about John’s birth, and we learn more about John being a prophet. Notice, particularly, verses 76-80. In directing you to read verse 76, I am jumping right into the middle of what is called “Zechariah’s Song.” John’s dad, filled with the Holy Spirit, writes this prophetic song, which says some amazing things about John. In particular notice what Zechariah sings about John in verses 76-79,
“And you, my child, will be called a prophet of the Most High; for you will go on before the Lord to prepare the way for him, to give his people the knowledge of salvation through the forgiveness of their sins, because of the tender mercy of our God, by which the rising sun will come to us from heaven to shine on those living in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the path of peace.”
How many of you fathers prophesied over your sons like that? My guess is that it is not too many. But remember that Zechariah is filled with the Spirit, so God is at work in his life. For 2000 years of church history, we Christian are accustomed to the idea of Christians being the temple of the Spirit, that somehow or another the Spirit lives with us. But in the Jewish mindset of Zechariah’s day, that simply was not an expectation for people. Maybe a King David would be filled with the Spirit, maybe a Prophet like Ezekiel, as you might remember that in our blog series studying through Ezekiel. In the world of the Old Testament, though, only the rare, rare person would encounter the Spirit like that. Not even a priest like Zechariah would expect this.
But the Spirit showed up in Zechariah’s life, God did an amazing work, speaking a mission over the life of Zechariah’s newborn baby. What mission? John was to be the forerunner, the one who goes ahead and prepares the way for God who would come. John’s prophetic ministry, in other words, was to pave the way for another person’s ministry, by speaking truth to the people and the powers, directing them to repent and place their hope in God.
In verse 80, we read simply that John grew, became strong in spirit, and lived in the desert until he appeared publicly to Israel. What? He grew, became strong in spirit and lived in the desert? There is so much missing in that verse. I have so many questions:
- Considering the fact that his parents were elderly when he was born, how long did they live after he was born? Likely not 30 years.
- Given that Jesus was about 30 when he started his ministry, and given that Jesus was born a few months after John, that means John was also about 30 when he started his ministry. If we make an educated guess that his parents died before John was 30, and if they died when he was still a boy, who raised him?
- Did he study to enter the priesthood like his father?
- When did he begin living in the desert? Was he all on his own? How long was in the desert? What was it like living in the desert?
- When did he know that he was to have this forerunner ministry?
We simply don’t know what happened in those intervening years. All we know is that John was born under some amazing circumstances, he had quite the calling on his life, and in 30 years time he was shaped by and grew strong in Spirit.
Also, he seems to have gone a bit wild. Or at least it seems that way at first glance. Frankly, much artwork depicting John the Baptist has him looking like a Fred Flintstone caveman. Why? Check back to the next post, and we’ll learn more about John’s life story.