Who was John the Baptist and what was his relationship to Jesus?

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John the Baptist
ICON of Saint John the Baptist.

John is unique in the story of salvation. He’s the inter-testamental lynchpin: part Hebrew prophet, part Christian missionary. His strange diet and dress, his preference for the wilderness, and his stern message of repentance puts him in a class with folks like Elijah, Amos, and Isaiah. He doesn’t, however, simply talk about the coming of Emmanuel. He has the distinct advantage of being able to point him out to the crowds: “Behold, the Lamb of God!”

John’s life begins in typical Bible-hero fashion with a miracle-birth story. That is the way scripture bookmarks a life and says: “Pay attention!” as with Isaac, Moses, Samuel, and Jesus himself. We know that John’s life is peculiarly interwoven with that of Jesus from the moment he leaps in Elizabeth’s womb when Mary and her burgeoning womb are present. John, inheriting the priesthood of his father Zechariah, abandons institutional religion to become a never-ending prophet of Advent, announcing “Prepare the way of the Lord!” to all who will listen.

At the same time it’s often pointed out that John never concludes his ministry to become a disciple of Jesus. Even after he declares who Jesus is, he continues to preach and baptize. Later in prison John seems concerned that his own message of repentance or damnation seems discordant with the “mercy and forgiveness” gospel of Jesus being reported to him. He has to ask: Are you the one who is to come, or should we keep looking?

If John is uncertain of his role at times, so were plenty of other people. King Herod is afraid of John and twice as scared of Jesus after he puts John to death. He thinks Jesus may be John’s reincarnation. When Jesus asks his disciples what people are saying about him, they admit that some folks can’t tell him from John, and both John’s and Jesus’ followers got them confused with Elijah.

The fact that John never ceased his ministry even after Jesus started his reminds us that only a few of John’s followers transferred their allegiance to Jesus. The school of John dies hard: His disciples are still practicing their sect in the time of the early church. That is why the late-entry Gospel of John takes pains to subordinate John to Jesus, as when John declares: I am not the Christ. He must increase, and I must decrease.

• Matthew 3; 11:2-15; 17:10-13; Mark 1:1-11; 6:14-29; 8:27-30; John 1:6-9, 15-42; 3:22-30; Acts 13:24-25; 18:24-26; 19:1-7

• "John the Baptist: Preparing the Way" by Father Jerome Murphy-O'Connor, O.P., Scripture from Scratch, 1999

John the Baptist: Prophet and Evangelist by Carl R. Kazmierski (Liturgical Press, 1996)
John the Baptist: Prophet of Purity for a New Age by Catherine Murphy (Liturgical Press, 2003)

Reprinted with permission from PrepareTheWord.com. ©TrueQuest Communications.

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