John the Baptizer, also known as John the Baptist in Scripture, was a fearless preacher who followed the example of a prophet named Elijah from over 800 years earlier. Here is what the Gospel of Matthew says about John:
In those days John the Baptist came preaching in the wilderness of Judea, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” For this is he who was spoken of by the prophet Isaiah when he said, “The voice of one crying in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord; make his paths straight.’” Now John wore a garment of camel’s hair and a leather belt around his waist, and his food was locusts and wild honey. Then Jerusalem and all Judea and all the region about the Jordan were going out to him, and they were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. (Matthew 3:1-5)
John helped create a spiritual fervor among many people in Judea. He rejected the corrupt priesthood in Jerusalem and sought the Judean Wilderness instead. His ministry was located in the Jordan River Valley, about a day’s walk from Jerusalem.
John’s life and ministry
The presence of John the Baptizer in the Judean Wilderness was seen by many as the fulfillment of prophecies made by Isaiah and Malachi. Hundreds of years earlier, these two prophets predicted a man would prepare the way in the desert for the coming of the Messiah. For instance, the prophet Isaiah wrote:
“A voice cries: ‘In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord; make straight in the desert a highway for our God. Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain. And the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together, for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.” (Isaiah 40:3-5)
John was the son of Zechariah and Elizabeth. Zechariah was a priest in the Temple at Jerusalem. Elizabeth was described as the “kinswoman” of Mary, the mother of Jesus, meaning that they were related through either marriage or blood. By tradition, Elizabeth was considered Mary’s aunt or great-aunt. While the precise relationship is never established in the historical record, John the Baptizer and Jesus of Nazareth were related.
Baptism was a form of ritual cleansing. As John the Baptizer’s name would suggest, that’s just what he did. He baptized his disciples in the Jordan River as a sign of their repentance before God. Symbolically, the unclean person went into the water, repented of their wrongdoings, and came out of the water “clean.”
John’s interactions with Jesus
John’s ministry of baptism was also designed to identify and announce the Messiah. John got that opportunity when Jesus himself came to John to be baptized. The Gospel of Matthew records the baptism of Jesus this way:
And when Jesus was baptized, immediately he went up from the water, and behold, the heavens were opened to him, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and coming to rest on him; and behold, a voice from heaven said, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.” (Matthew 3 16-17)
John the Baptizer later recounts the event in the Gospels, as written by John the Apostle:
And John bore witness: “I saw the Spirit descend from heaven like a dove, and it remained on him. I myself did not know him, but he who sent me to baptize with water said to me, ‘He on whom you see the Spirit descend and remain, this is he who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.’ And I have seen and have borne witness that this is the Son of God.” (John 1:32-34)
This ritual cleansing by John marked the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry. He had spent over 30 years of his life in relative obscurity. However, this moment with John and the accompanying miracle was a public declaration that Jesus was in fact the long awaited Messiah.