Though Jesus’ mother and foster father were from King David’s royal family, John the Baptist’s parents were from the priestly clan of Aaron. According to the Jewish historian Josephus, the Levite priests were careful to marry within the tribe to keep the dignity of their priesthood. Though Mary and Elizabeth were relatives, both belonged to different tribes of Israel because intertribal marriages occurred between the elite tribes of Judah and Levi.
In the sight of their contemporaries, the childlessness of Zechariah and Elizabeth was God’s punishment. According to the belief of the time, though Zechariah and Elizabeth appeared pious, they were not justifiable before God. However, the Word of God testifies that both were righteous in God’s eyes. They “lived blamelessly in accordance with all the laws and commands of the Lord” (Lk 1:6).
Despite Zechariah and Elizabeth’s faithfulness to God, they did not get any answer to their prayers for a child in time. Elizabeth was barren and advanced in age. So, it was well-nigh impossible for them to have a child when the angel appeared to Zachariah.
Some prominent persons in the salvation history were born late to their parents when it was naturally impossible. Examples are Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, Samson, and Samuel. According to the Proto-Evangelium of Saint James, Mary, the mother of Jesus was also the child of her parents Joachim and Anne’s old age.
WHY JOHN LIVED IN THE DESERT?
Tradition says John’s parents took him at an early age from their small town in the hill country of Judea (Lk 1:39) to the Judean desert to save his life soon after King Herod ordered to kill all male children under two years of age. Herod’s target was Infant Jesus. So the Holy Family fled to Egypt at the same time. John’s aged parents died when John was young. So, John continued to live in the wilderness under the care of the Essenes community.
The Essenes were a group of priests who disagreed with the corrupt priests of the Temple and moved from Jerusalem to the wilderness. They lived in the Judean Desert that lies east of Jerusalem and goes down to the Dead Sea. While living in the caves, they prepared for the Messiah and concentrated on the study and reflection of the Holy Scripture. They preserved the Qumran scrolls discovered from 1946 to 1956. By the time Jesus started his ministry, they had been active for two hundred years. They might have trained and influenced John, which is clear from John’s lifestyle.
JOHN DRESSED LIKE ELIJAH
John the Baptist dressed like a prophet, especially like Elijah, to reveal to his listeners he was the expected Elijah heralding the Messiah. The Bible describes Elijah’s dress: “He wore a hairy garment with a leather belt around his waist” (2 Kgs 1:8). Malachi had prophesied John’s arrival as Elijah four centuries before John’s birth. “Now I am sending to you Elijah the prophet, before the day of the LORD comes” (Mal 3:23-24; 4:5-6). Angel Gabriel had revealed to Zachariah about John: “He himself will open the way to the Lord with the spirit and power of the Prophet Elijah; he will reconcile fathers and children, and lead the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous, in order to make ready for the Lord a people prepared” (Lk 1:17). Jesus also witnessed that John was the expected second coming of Elijah. “Elijah has come, and they did not recognize him, but treated him as they pleased” (Mt 17:12).
John’s major food was locusts and wild honey. Locusts were clean and permitted food for the Israelites (Lev 11:22). They were poor people’s food. Wild honey came from the nectar of wildflowers. People gathered wild honey from the hollows of trees or rocks. That was the food of wanderers in the wilderness. John’s dependence on locusts and wild honey was a sign that John was living like an Essene. Besides revealing the simple food menu of John, Angel Gabriel had revealed that John would abstain from alcohol: “he shall never drink wine or strong drink” (Lk 1:15).
MUTUAL WITNESS OF JOHN AND JESUS
John’s mission was to prepare the way for the Messiah and introduce Jesus as the Christ to the people. He did that out of conviction. John testified, saying, “I saw the Spirit come down like a dove from the sky and remain upon him. I did not know him, but the one who sent me to baptize with water told me, ‘On whomever you see the Spirit come down and remain, he is the one who will baptize with the holy Spirit.’ Now I have seen and testified that he is the Son of God” (Jn 1:32-34).
Jesus gave witness to John the Baptist affirming he was the Elijah to come ahead of him to prepare the Way of the Lord. “‘I tell you that Elijah has already come, and they did not recognize him but did to him whatever they pleased. So also will the Son of Man suffer at their hands.’ Then the disciples understood he was speaking to them of John the Baptist” (Mt 17:12-13).
JOHN’S ARREST BY KING HEROD ANTIPAS
King Herod Antipas, the tetrarch of Galilee and Perea, had imprisoned John. Herod Antipas was one son of King Herod the Great, who had ruled all over Judea and the surrounding regions at the time of Jesus’ birth. After the death of Herod the Great, his kingdom was divided and his sons ruled them.
Herod Antipas ruled over Galilee. He arrested John the Baptist because John questioned Herod’s immoral behavior of taking his brother Philip’s wife Herodias as his own and for other evils Herod had done (Lk 3:19-20). Mark states that “Herodias harbored a grudge against him and wanted to kill him but was unable to do so” (Mk 6:19). According to the historian Josephus, Herod was afraid of the popularity of John and his influence on the crowds. Herod feared John could ignite a rebellion against the king with John’s appeal to the crowd. So, he wanted to silence John by putting him in prison and did not intend to execute him for fear of agitation from the people if he would kill the prophet. Mark also states that Herod considered John as “a righteous and holy man” and “When he heard him speak he was very much perplexed, yet he liked to listen to him.” (Mk 6:20).
MARTYRODOM OF JOHN
Matthew and Mark details the martyrdom of John. Herod had imprisoned John because he criticized Herod for keeping his brother Philip’s wife, Herodias, as his own. She had a grudge against John and was looking for an opportunity to kill him. The opportunity came during the birthday banquet of Herod. The daughter of Herodias, Salome, danced, delighting Herod and the guests. Herod swore to give her whatever she might ask for. Prompted by her mother, she asked for the head of John the Baptist on a platter. Keeping his promise, Herod ordered to behead John. His disciples buried his corpse (Mt 14:1-12; Mk 6:17-29).
JOHN THE BATPTIST AND JESUS
John the Baptist knew Jesus through his parents because Jesus and John were second cousins. John’s parents might have told him of the divine intervention at the birth of himself and Jesus. Since Jesus spend thirty years of his private life in Nazareth of Galilee, and John lived in the Judean desert, they might not get a chance for interaction. John did not know what Jesus was until he saw the divine intervention when he baptized Jesus. That made him recognize Jesus as the Messiah.
When Jesus and his apostles were in Caesarea Philippi, “he asked his disciples, ‘Who do people say that the Son of Man is?’ They replied, ‘Some say John the Baptist, others Elijah, still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets” (Mt 16:13-14). According to the belief of the time, like the evil spirit of a deceased, enters a living person making him or her a demoniac, the spirit of a holy person could enter the life of person and continue his good works.
Since King Herod Antipas beheaded John the Baptist at the early stage of the public ministry of Jesus, people who had listened to John doubted whether the spirit of John was working in Jesus of Nazareth.
1. John and Jesus could have facial similarity because they were cousins and were only six months apart in age.
2. Their message was similar because both preached for repentance to prepare for the Kingdom of God.
3. Both baptized people at River Jordan and both had disciples.
4. Former disciples of John became the followers of Jesus.
5. John and Jesus criticized the religious leaders of the time and got opposition from them.
6. Their lives were in danger.
Their resemblance was so close that Herod Antipas, the tetrarch who beheaded John said of Jesus to his servants, “This man is John the Baptist. He has been raised from the dead; that is why mighty powers are at work in him” (Mt 14:2).
Other similarities between John and Jesus:
Angel Gabriel announced their birth ahead of time.
God gave their names through the angel.
Both were exceptional children by birth.
John and Jesus were filled with the Holy Spirit.
Both could attract an enormous crowd by their preaching.
DIFFERENCE BETWEEN JOHN AND JESUS
John was the herald of the Messiah, and Jesus was the Messiah
Unlike Jesus, John did not perform any miracle.
John grew up in the wilderness with the Essenes; Jesus grew up at a home in Nazareth.
John baptized people with water; Jesus baptized them with water and Spirit (Mt 3:11).
Unlike Jesus, John did not go to reach out to the people in the towns and villages. They came to him.
John lived a Nasserite lifestyle while Jesus mingled with the public (Mt 11:18-19; Lk 7:33-34).
Unlike John, Jesus preached also in parables.
Jesus was the bridegroom; John was the friend of the groom (Jn 3:29).
While John made his disciples fast, Jesus did not insist that on his disciples (Mk 2:18).
John the Baptist had a God-assigned mission in the world. He faithfully did it and died for moral principle. Jesus said, Amen, I say to you, among those born of women there has been none greater than John the Baptist (Mt 11:11). However, John was humble and said of Jesus, “He must increase; I must decrease” (Jn 3:30). We also have a God-given purpose in the world. Let us fulfill that with the humble model of John the Baptist.