St. John The Baptist (Fr. Varghese Paul, SJ)

St John the Baptist is a unique prophet in whom the Old Testament and New Testament meet. He is considered the last prophet of the Old Testament. In the New Testament he is the herald of Jesus Christ.

John the Baptist came preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins (Lk 3,3) and he baptized Jesus. So he is called John the Baptist.

Unlike many Bible characters we get a lot of information about John the Baptist from his birth to death. His parents were Zecharia and Elizabeth. St Like writes about them that, Both of them were upright in the sight of God, observing all the Lords commandments and regulations blamelessly. (Lk 1, 6)

St Luke portrays John as a prophet from his birth. When the angel Gabriel announced to Mary the birth of Jesus, he also foretold her, Even Elizabeth your relative is going to have a child in her old age, and she who was said to be barren is in her sixth month. For nothing is impossible with God. (Lk 1, 36-37)

Hearing the news that her relative Elizabeth is pregnant in her old age Mary went to visit her. At that time Mary got ready and hurried to a town in the hill country of Judea, where she entered Zechariahs home and greeted Elizabeth. When Elizabeth heard Marys greeting, the baby leaped in her womb, and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit. In a loud voice she exclaimed: Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the child you will bear! But why am I so favored, that the mother of my Lord should come to me? As soon as the sound of your greeting reached my ears, the baby in my womb leaped for joy. (LK 1, 39-44)

Mary stayed with Elizabeth for about three months and then returned home. (Lk 1, 56)

Among the four Evangelists only Luke speaks about the birth of John the Baptist. When it was time for Elizabeth to have her baby, she gave birth to a son. Her neighbors and relatives heard that the Lord had shown her great mercy, and they shared her joy.

On the eighth day they came to circumcise the child, and they were going to name him after his father Zechariah, but his mother spoke up and said, No! He is to be called John.

They said to her, There is no one among your relatives who has that name.

Then they made signs to his father, to find out what he would like to name the child. He asked for a writing tablet, and to everyones astonishment he wrote, His name is John Immediately his mouth was opened and his tongue was loosed, and he began to speak, praising God. The neighbors were all filled with awe, and throughout the hill country of Judea, people were talking about all these things. Everyone who heard this wondered about it, asking, What then is this child going to be? For the Lords hand was with him. (LK 1, 57-68)

And the child grew and became strong in spirit; and he lived in the desert until he appeared publicly to Israel. (Lk. 1, 57-68; 80)

The Gospel of St Mark starts with prophecy of Isaiah about John as a messenger and immediately we hear Johns preaching to the people to be converted and be baptized. (Mk 1, 4)

Mark has beautifully portrayed John in a few words: John wore clothing made of Camels hair, with a leather belt around his waist and he ate locusts and wild honey. (Mk 1, 6)

John as the messenger proclaims Jesus and baptizes him: After me will come one more powerful than I, the thongs of whose sandals I am not worthy to stoop down and untie. I baptize you with water, but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.

At that time Jesus came from Nazareth in Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. As Jesus was coming up out of the water, he saw heaven being torn open and the Spirit descending on him like a dove. And a voice came from heaven: You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased. (Mk 1, 7-11)

Johns job as the messenger is to prepare the way for Jesus. So introducing John all the four Gospels quote the prophecy of prophet Isaiah, A voice of one calling in the desert, prepare the way for the Lord, make straight paths for him. (Mt 3,3)

The message of John is clear: Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near. (Mt 3,2) Mathew and Mark present John as an effective speaker. Hearing the preaching of John People went out to him from Jerusalem and all Judea and the whole region of the Jordan. Confessing their sins, they were baptized by him in the Jordan River. (Mt. 3, 5-6)

The baptism was not an empty religious ritual for John. Baptism indicates a conversion of heart leading to change in ones life. So John challenges those coming to receive baptism from him to show the fruits of their conversion in their lives.

But when he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming to where he was baptizing, he said to them, You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? Produce fruit in keeping with repentance. And do not think you can say to yourselves, We have Abraham as our father. I tell you that out of these stones God can raise up children for Abraham. (Mt 3, 7-9)

In St Johns Gospel John the Baptist is shown emphatically as a witness to Jesus. There came a man who was sent from God; his name was John. He came as a witness to testify concerning that light, so that through him all men might believe. He himself was not the light; he came only as a witness to the light. (Jn 1, 6-8)

Jesus in the centre of each of the four gospels. Johns place is only after Jesus. So Evangelist John says that John the Baptist himself was not the light; he came only as a witness to the light

About the witness of John the Baptist St John says: Now this was Johns testimony when the Jews of Jerusalem sent priests and Levites to ask him who he was. He did not fail to confess, but confessed freely, I am not the Christ.

  • They asked him, Then who are you? Are you Elijah?
  • He said, I am not.
  • Are you the prophet?
  • He answered, No.

Finally they said, Who are you? Give us an answer to take back to those who sent us. What do you say about yourself?

John replied in the words of Isaiah the prophet, I am the voice of one calling in the desert, Make straight the way for the Lord.

Now some Pharisees who had been sent questioned him, Why then do you baptize if you are not the Christ, nor Elijah, nor the Prophet?

I baptize with water, John replied, but among you stands one you do not know. He is the one who comes after me, the thongs of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie. (Jn 1, 19-27)

Encouraged by John the Baptist two of his disciples became Jesus disciples. The next day John saw Jesus coming toward him and said, Look, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world! This is the one I meant when I said, A man who comes after me has surpassed me because he was before me. I myself did not know him, but the reason I came baptizing with water was that he might be revealed to Israel.

Then John gave this testimony: I saw the Spirit come down from heaven as a dove and remain on him. I would not have known him, except that the one who sent me to baptize with water told me, The man on whom you see the Spirit come down and remain is he who will baptize with the Holy Spirit. I have seen and I testify that this is the Son of God.

The next day John was there again with two of his disciples. When he saw Jesus passing by, he said, Look, the Lamb of God!

When the two disciples heard him say this, they followed Jesus. (Jn 1, 29-37)

According to St Johns Gospel both Jesus and John the Baptist are baptizing people at the same time Jesus and his disciples went out into the Judean countryside, where he spent some time with them, and baptized. Now John also was baptizing at Aenon near Salim, because there was plenty of water, and people were constantly coming to be baptized. (This was before John was put in prison.) (Jn 3, 22-24).

Once the disciples of John complained to him that Jesus too was baptizing and many people were flocking to him. To this John replied, A man can receive only what is given to him from heaven. You yourselves can testify that I said, I am not the Christ but am sent ahead of him.... He must become greater; I must become less. (Jn 3, 27-28; 30)

Obviously John the Baptist and Jesus were appreciating each other. It is specially striking the praises bestowed by Jesus on John the Baptist in the two Gospels of St Mathew and St Luke.

The Gospels of Mathew, Mark and Luke have noted that king Herod had married his brother Philips wife Herodias and done also much evil against the Jewish people. John the Baptist did not mint words in condemning the atrocities of the king. Mark says, For Herod himself had given orders to have John arrested, and he had him bound and put in prison. He did this because of Herodias, his brother Philips wife, whom he had married. For John had been saying to Herod, It is not lawful for you to have your brothers wife. (Mk 6, 17-18)

Now John was in the prison of Herod for several months and as he heard different things about Jesus from his own disciples he began to have doubt about Jesus of whom he had pointed out as the Lamb of God whether he was the anointed one of God or not! So John sent two of his disciples with the question, Are you the one who was to come or should we expect some one else? (Mt 11, 3)

There are a number of references in the Bible about Christ, the Anointed one. Referring to them Jesus replied to the two disciples of John the Baptist, Go back and report to John what you hear and see: The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cured, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is preached to the poor. Blessed is the man who does not fall away on the account of me. (Mt 11, 4-6)

Jesus spoke to the people around him after the two disciples of John left him. This is the one about whom it is written: I will send my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way before you.

I tell you the truth: Among those born of women there has not risen anyone greater than John the Baptist; yet he who is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he. (Mt 11, 10-11)

While praising John to the sky Jesus highly appreciates all those who put their faith in God. John must have been very happy to hear from them, when his two disciples returned with the answers of Jesus to his queries. He must have also persuaded his remaining disciples to follow Jesus. It must have been then, at the beginning of Jesus public ministry, that John was beheaded.

Mathew and Mark have given a description of the occasion of the beheading of John the Baptist. John denounced the marriage of Herod to his brother Philips wife Herodias. So Herod and Herodias wanted to do away with John. But Herod was afraid of the people, because they considered him a prophet. (Mt 14, 5)

But prompted by his false oath on the occasion of his birthday Herod gave in to the demand of his dancing daughter who, at the request of her mother Herodias asked for Johns head. He ordered that her request be granted had head John beheaded in the prison. His head was brought in on a platter and given to the girl, who carried it to her mother. Johns disciples came and took his body and buried it. Then they went and told Jesus. (Mt 14, 9-12)

Once again I recall here the witness of Jesus to John the Baptist, John was a lamp that burned and gave light and you chose for a time to enjoy his light. (Jn 5, 35)

In Christian religion and history one can see the profound influence of John the Baptist. Great artists like Leonardo da Vinci, Michaelangelo, Caravaggio, Donatello, Botticelli and Titian; etc. have made John immortal with their great paintings of John the Baptist. The whole Christian world venerate John the Baptist as a great saint and prophet.

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