John the Baptist reached beyond himself, both backward and forward in time. He represented the history of Israel, waiting for the fulfillment of God’s promise to send a messiah. And he pointed to the future, announcing the coming of the Messiah who would establish the reign of God.
John stood at the threshold between the Old and New Testaments, a bridge linking the two. In him we see the culmination of centuries of prophecy, anticipation, and preparation. He is the last of the prophets announcing Jesus from afar, and the first of the witnesses to Jesus, actually pointing him out.
The Baptist appeared out of the desert in the spirit and power of Elijah (2 Kings 1:8; Matthew 11:14; Luke 1:17). Not only was John foreshadowed in Elijah, a prophet consumed with zeal for the glory of the Lord, but his coming and role were foretold by Isaiah and Malachi. John fulfilled Isaiah’s prophecy of the voice of one crying in the wilderness (Isaiah 40:3) as he came proclaiming a call to repentance. And Malachi had announced a coming day of judgment, the "day of the Lord," which was to be preceded by a special emissary of God: "Behold, I send my messenger to prepare the way before me. . . . [H]e is like a refiner’s fire and like fuller’s soap" (3:1-2).
John broke the prophetic silence that had followed Malachi for several hundred years. Although his message was like that of the great Old Testament prophets who had so often called Israel to repentance, John went even further: He proclaimed that the kingdom of God was now at hand and exhorted his hearers to prepare for it by purifying their hearts.
Who was this man, the one whom Jesus himself called the greatest of those born of women, yet least among all those in the kingdom of God (Matthew 11:11)? John was the son of Zechariah and Elizabeth, who were "both righteous before God, walking in all the commandments and ordinances of the Lord blameless" (Luke 1:6). But the couple was childless; Elizabeth was sterile, and she and her husband were "advanced in years" (1:7).
In Jewish society childlessness was a particular sorrow because it ruled out the couple as potential parents or ancestors of the expected Messiah. Barrenness was considered a shame or even, at times, a punishment for sin. However, Zechariah and Elizabeth’s disappointment did not estrange them from God. Zechariah continually made his plea to God for a child, and God answered in an extraordinary way (Luke 1:8-17).
Even while John was in his mother’s womb, he began his lifelong mission of announcing the coming of the Lord. When Mary, pregnant with the child Jesus, visited Elizabeth, John leapt for joy in the womb in recognition of the presence of the redeemer (Luke 1:41). Zechariah’s canticle of praise (1:67-79), uttered in the Holy Spirit at the wondrous birth of his son, vibrates with hope and expectation as Israel stands on the verge of seeing God’s promise fulfilled: "You, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High; for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways" (1:76).
The New Testament is succinct in describing the years between John’s birth and the beginning of his public ministry: "The child grew and became strong in spirit, and he was in the wilderness till the day of his manifestation to Israel" (Luke 1:80). Yet we can suppose that John was raised in the traditions of contemporary Judaism. Gabriel’s directives to Zechariah that the child never drink wine or strong drink (1:15) indicate that John was set apart for the Lord.
John lived in the wilderness, being formed in communion with God to fulfill his role as herald of the Messiah. In the desert—where he was disciplined in prayer, fasting, and detachment from the material world—his focus was on God alone: As St. Jerome put it, "John lived in the desert, and his eyes, searching for Christ, refused to see anything but him."
John dressed in camel’s hair, girded with a leather belt, and survived on locusts and wild honey (Matthew 3:4; Mark 1:6). The austerity of the desert strengthened him for his mission. In the wilderness John’s ear was attuned to the voice of God, alert to the Spirit who told him about the one who was to follow him. During those years in the desert, John’s longing to see the Messiah he was to proclaim must have grown in maturity and vitality. He, the friend of the bridegroom (John 3:29), eagerly awaited the moment when he could cry out, "Behold, the bridegroom comes."
In ancient times, when a king traveled from place to place, messengers ran ahead to announce his coming and encourage the people to prepare to receive the royal visitor. Messengers did not take this role upon themselves but were appointed to it. So too was John an envoy, a herald chosen by God to announce his reign and the imminent coming of his Son.
After centuries of waiting, imagine Israel’s heightened sense of expectancy! People flocked to the desert to see John and hear what he was preaching. Because he attracted great crowds – Pharisees and Sadducees as well as common people – his influence was widespread. As the first-century Jewish historian Josephus noted, "John called the Baptist . . . was a good man and had urged the Jews to exert themselves to virtue, both as to justice toward one another and reverence towards God. . . . [All the people] massed about him, for they were very greatly moved by his words. . . . They seemed ready to do anything he should advise."
John made it clear that preparation for the coming of the Messiah demanded conversion of heart. He exhorted his listeners, "Bear fruit that befits repentance" (Matthew 3:8). It was not enough to stop sinning – the evidence of repentance must be apparent in the way one lives.
True to his mission as a herald, John neither claimed more than God assigned to him nor attempted to promote himself. He was willing to fulfill his role as forerunner and to step aside at Jesus’ appearance; in fact, John even pointed his own disciples toward Jesus (John 1:35-41). The Baptist’s humility and genuine readiness to step off center stage are clear in his final witness to Jesus: "He who has the bride is the bridegroom; the friend of the bridegroom, who stands and hears him, rejoices greatly at the bridegroom’s voice; therefore this joy of mine is now full. He must increase, but I must decrease" (3:29-30).
Little is known of John’s relationship with Jesus. We have no idea whether the two grew up with knowledge of one another, though Luke describes them as distant cousins (Luke 1:36). According to John’s own testimony, he did not recognize Jesus to be the one whose coming he was proclaiming until he saw the Spirit rest upon him at his baptism (John 1:31-34).
How often did John and Jesus meet after Jesus began his public ministry? The gospels tell us nothing, though they record that the imprisoned John sent his disciples to Jesus to inquire about his messianic identity. In answer, Jesus pointed to his deeds and then gave public testimony that John was "more than a prophet" and was "Elijah who is to come" (Matthew 11:2-14). Finally, when John was beheaded by Herod (Matthew 14:1-12; Mark 6:14-29), Jesus went into the hills alone to grieve and pray (Matthew 14:13).
Even in death John continued to be a forerunner of Jesus. He was a Christian martyr before Christ himself was crucified. As the Jesuit missionary and author Fr. André Retif eloquently wrote,
Should we not say that John loved Christ in life and preceded him in death? Others have followed in the footsteps of Christ, but John, in this respect also, preceded Christ, who, we almost dare to say, walked in John’s footsteps. It is certainly very hard for a friend of Christ to die without the help of his example and with no knowledge of his triumphant resurrection and glorious ascension. John had even this bitter cup to drink. He drained it before his Master; and it almost seems, if it be possible, that he wanted to encourage him in death. (John the Baptist: Missionary of Christ)
John’s message did not die with him. The church honors John with many titles that reflect how faithfully he carried out his mission: Witness of the Lord, Voice of the Word, Precursor of Truth, Crown of the Prophets, Forerunner of the Redeemer, Preparer of Salvation, Light of the Martyrs, and Servant of the Word. His call still reaches us today: "Bear fruit that befits repentance."
—An excerpt from the book God's Promises Fulfilled.