John the Baptist Character Bible Study Background and Lessons

Name: John the Baptist

Matthew 3, Mark 1:2-14, Luke 1:5-25, 57-80, 3:3-20, John 1:6-8, 19-39

Matthew 14:1-12, Mark 6:14-29, Luke 9:7-9

Meaning of name: His actual name was John as commanded by the angel who appeared to Zacharias. “The Baptist” was a title given to him later on perhaps by the writers of Scripture or perhaps by the crowds. It refers to his well known role of baptizing people. The name John means “God is gracious”. Giving him the name John surprised all of the people since no one in their family had that name and apparently Hebrews often named their child after a relative.

Ancestry and family life: Both of John’s parents were from the tribe of Levi and descended from Aaron. This would obviously make John a Levite as well as in the priestly line. We know very little of John’s growing up days except from Luke 1:80. It is unknown whether perhaps John was consecrated to the Lord from a young age and entrusted to an ascetic group near Jerusalem out in the desert or whether after he became a young adult he moved to the deserts becoming a solitary figure and real “voice from the wilderness”. In any case in the years leading up to his public ministry, he lived in the desert.

When and where he lived: He lived basically the same time period as Jesus, being born six months before Jesus. During this time, Judeah was a province/territory of Rome. The Romans governed the area and had soldiers placed there. They allowed the Jews to continue sacrificing and rule over local matters.

Events surrounding birth: His parents, Elizabeth and Zacharias were old. Elizabeth was barren and they were never able to have kids. Most people at that time really wanted to have kids, and a lot of them.
Elizabeth said that not having any children was a “disgrace” before men. People would have viewed her as an inferior woman because she was unable to have kids and some may have wondered if God was punishing her and her husband for some sin in their lives. From Luke 1:13 we can see that they had prayed to the Lord about this issue. Gabriel says that their petition was heard.

Notes from Luke 1 about events surrounding John’s birth:

  1. Zacharias was a priest and lots were drawn to determine who would have the honor to go into the holy place (not the most holy place) to burn incense to the Lord. Zacharias was chosen. This is yet another example that there are no coincidences, only God’s divine providence. God wanted Z to be the one to go in so that he could send the angel to give the prophecy about John.

  2. Both of John’s parents were very righteous. They are described as walking blamelessly in all the commandments and requirements of the Lord. Clearly it wasn’t because of their sin that they couldn’t have a child. God had a plan for them. His goal wasn’t to make them miserable, but to use their situation to draw people to Himself, do a miracle that would become well known around that entire region, and vindicate John’s future ministry. 1:66. These miracles that the Lord did before and after John’s birth did serve to show all the surrounding region that He was with John. This would lend credibility to John’s future ministry as the last “OT” prophet. For more on his future ministry see 1:76-79.

  3. Z was fearful when Gabriel came. This is a typical response when someone in the Bible sees an angel.

  4. John was chosen by God from before birth (election) to have a special ministry, specifically to fulfill the prophecies in the OT that a forerunner would go before the Christ to prepare the way of the Lord. His life would be characterized by abstinence, self-control, and the anointing of the Holy Spirit. His ministry would be to turn the hearts of Israel back to the Lord to prepare them to receive the Christ.

  5. Z didn’t believe, so Gabriel gave him a sign that he would become mute until John was born.

  6. Elizabeth gave thanks to the Lord for His grace to her.

  7. When Elizabeth saw Mary, the baby leaped in her womb for joy. This is clearly the work of the Holy Spirit. Elizabeth realized through the Spirit that Mary was the mother of her Lord. She recognized how important this baby would be and understood why the baby leaped in her womb. This is yet another miracle in a continuation of miracles which the Lord did to show that this Child was special and truly was from Him to take away the sins of the world.

Training and occupation: John’s line put him as a priest, but his occupation was prophet. From Mark 1:6 we get a hint to John’s lifestyle. From it we learn his clothes were of camels hair and he ate wild honey and locusts. This shows us he led a secluded and even rough life, perhaps because of a vow he had taken. We do know his father said he would not drink wine, which would indicate maybe he would take the Nazarite vow. While it is not necessary to live like that for everyone, there are a few characters in the Bible such as Elijah that live similarly. It is almost like a lifelong fast, ridding themselves of temptations of more luxurious living and practicing self-control and discipline to focus on the Lord and the ministry given to them. Interestingly, locusts are very nutritious and are 60% protein compared to 20% protein content of chicken and beef.

Place in history:

  1. John 1:29-34. John testifies that Jesus is the Son of God, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. In John 5:31-34 Jesus cites John’s testimony as one witness that He is the Christ. In Jewish law it was necessary to have 2-3 witnesses to show that something was true so for man’s sake it was helpful that John (who was recognized as having the hand of the Lord with Him) testified that Jesus was true.

  2. Isaiah 40:3-5, Mal 3:1. When asked if he was the Christ, John responded by quoting Isaiah 40 to show that he was merely a messenger/herald to prepare the way for the coming of Christ. Jesus often alluded to John’s message and many of Jesus’ disciples were originally disciples of John.

  3. Luke 7:28. Jesus said there is no one greater born of a woman, than John, but that the least in the kingdom of God is greater than John. This basically means that prior to Christ John the Baptist is the most honored/important/blessed individual who ever lived. The reasoning could be that he was the one to prepare the way for the coming of Christ. This was a privilege and an honor. John himself actually baptized Jesus as well. Before we raise up John too high we should realize the last part of the verse which indicates that after Jesus even the lowest believer has a better position than John. Now we can be called children of God. Nonetheless John was the last Old Testament era prophet and had a very important role in the gospels.

Lived in the wilderness. Ate honey and locusts. Clothed with camel’s hair.


1. Not really any, but since we are not God’s selected prophets then we might want to put a little more gentleness in our speech. While it is not wrong under the right circumstances (God tells you to say it), we probably don’t need to call people a brood of vipers.


1. He recognized that just because a person was a Hebrew, it didn’t mean they had a relationship to God. One’s race didn’t guarantee salvation. In recognizing and preaching against this mistake, John went against the grain of the prideful Jews who looked down on all others and considered that they would be saved because of their heritage.

2. Truth speaker – One thing that always stands out to me when I read about John is his simple, clear, and truthful message. His words were powerful. He struck right to the heart of the matter. He wasn’t afraid of offending people. He wasn’t worried about their reaction (and the religious leaders did hate him). He called the Pharisees and Sadducees a “brood of vipers”. What do you think about this? Were these words offensive? Should have spoken more kindly? In fact, John realized that being politically correct wouldn’t help anybody. If he flattered the religious leaders, that would just stoke their ego even more and increase their false sense of security. Matthew 3:7-10. Basically John is the opposite of 2 Timothy 4:3, which tells how in the end times people will accumulate teachers for themselves who will tickle their ears. He was not an ear-tickler.

3. Luke 3:10-15 John recognized that repentance would show up in every day actions. He gave practical tips to each group specifically targeted to their areas of weakness. Without the fruit of a changed life, it would be evident that a person doesn’t have a close relationship to God. He was not preaching that these things could save a person, but that they were necessary for true repentance to take place.

4. Humility – He must increase. I must decrease. John 3:27-30, Matthew 3:11, 3:14-15. John recognized he was unfit to even tie Jesus’ sandal. He recognized that he was unworthy to baptize Jesus. Both are true. He was unworthy, more worthy than we are, but still unworthy. Although he had many crowds and people following him, he recognized his role was not to attract people to himself, but to push people to Jesus. How might most leaders respond if their followers start following somebody else? Most leaders (like the Pharisees) would have gotten jealous and been angry. They might have tried to think of ways to get the crowds back like offering free food or playing music or something. Not John. What was his attitude towards this role? He not only accepted it, he embraced it joyfully!! What a great example! He used the illustration of a groom and his “best man”. Who gets the attention at a wedding? The best man? What is the best man’s role? The best man’s role is to help behind the scenes to do whatever he can to help out. He is not in the spotlight; the groom is.

6. John boldly stood up to Herod about Herod’s immoral relationship, evidently rebuking/warning Herod about this multiple times. It was extremely dangerous to take such a bold public stand against such a powerful man who had the authority to arrest and kill you. The result was John’s arrest and subsequent murder. This account shows us again his great example of courage. He spoke forth the truth even when it was dangerous. He did not sugar coat it, or hide it. He said what needed to be said. He stood on what was right and didn’t compromise.

How he died: John had publicly rebuked Herod for his immoral and incestuous relationship with his brother’s wife. Herodias then pressured Herod into arresting John and throwing him into prison. Mark shows us that Herod regarded John as a holy man and evidently respected him as being righteous. He sometimes called John from prison to talk to him. However, no true repentance took place. At a banquet Herod made a rash vow to Herodias’ daughter to give her whatever she wanted. Herodias then told her daughter to ask for John’s head and then John was unceremoniously beheaded. His disciples then came and took his body away for burial.

Lessons from his life:

  1. No matter how impossible something seems from man’s standpoint, it is not impossible with God. It looked like there was no way, Z and E would have a child, but God did. It was part of His plan so in fact their old age was nothing. Keep hope and keep praying.

  2. Never doubt God. This lesson is more from Z’s life. Whatever God says in His Word is true. Do not place yourself above God’s Word as its judge to say whether or not is possible, reasonable, or likely. Accept it as truth because it is true.

  3. Know that being in a Christian family doesn’t save you. As I have mentioned before, God doesn’t have any grandchildren. We will all be held personally responsible for our own actions and choices in God’s sight. This is especially applicable to Chris and I who come from Christian families, but also applicable to all of you who one day have children. You need to teach them to understand that they have to make a decision for themselves. Train and teach them so they know all they need to know to make the right decision to serve God with their lives.

  4. Speak the truth. Share the gospel accurately and straightforwardly. Do not be scared to offend people with the message. Remember also Paul who said he became all things to all men. Do not intentionally offend others, but neither should we flatter them or tolerate unbiblical views. The basic facts of the gospel (what are they?) are clear and simple. Anyone can share them. Why can we be bold? Because it is the power of God. We are on the side of the truth so we have nothing to fear.

  5. Understand that a simple life of devotion to the Lord is joyful. We should be content with whatever we had. John lived an EXTREMELY simple life. Some might consider that his standard of living was too poor. No permanent home, no luxurious foods (except locusts), no fancy meals, no expensive clothes, no ipods, no iphones, no plasma flast screen tvs. Do you think he was satisfied? Why could he be satisfied with this kind of simple life? He was satisfied because God satisfied Him. We don’t need things to make us happy. We need a strong relationship to the Lord.

  6. Examine our own lives to see if we have fruit or not. John said that the ax is at the bottom of the tree ready to chop it down and throw it into the fire if that tree doesn’t bear good fruit. I’m assuming none of you want to be chopped down and thrown into hell. If that is the case, we should evaluate our own lives, not based on a past decision of faith, but based on our life right now, based on our actions right now. Are we living a life for God? Are we living in sin? If we are living in sin, we need to repent, which means real change.

  7. Humility. Whatever ministry you do for the Lord or however you are using (and hopefully you are using) your gift for Him, make sure you are doing it for Him and not for yourself. Do not get a big head and consider that the students going to your study are yours. Do not crave attention or respect from men. Even if no one notices you or thanks you, keep right on working wholeheartedly for the Lord. Let us have the same attitude as John and let Him increase in our lives and us decrease. This requires unselfishness.

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