John the Baptist Character Bible Study Background and Lessons
Meaning of name: His actual name was John as commanded by the angel who appeared to Zachariah. “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 this name surprised all of the people since no one in their family had that name and it was the Hebrew custom to name children after respected relatives.
Ancestry and family life: Both of John’s parents were from the tribe of Levi and descended from Aaron. Therefore John was a Levite and in the priestly line of Aaron. We know very little of John’s growing up days except from Luke 1:80, which reads: “And the child grew and became strong in spirit; and he lived in the wilderness until he appeared publicly to Israel.” 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 during the same time period as Jesus, being born six months before his Lord. During this time, Judeah was a province of Rome. The Romans governed the area and had soldiers placed there. They allowed the Jews to continue sacrificing as well as exercising token rule over local matters.
Events surrounding birth: His parents, Elizabeth and Zachariah 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 bear children and some may have wondered if God was punishing her and her husband for some sin in their lives.
Luke 1:13 – But the angel said to him: “Do not be afraid, Zechariah; your prayer has been heard. Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son.”
John’s parents faithfully prayed for a child and God answered in a miraculous way. Notes from Luke 1 about events surrounding John’s birth:
1. Zachariah was a priest and lots were drawn to determine who would have the honor to go into the holy place to burn incense to the Lord. Zachariah was chosen. This is yet another example that there are no coincidences, only God’s divine providence. God wanted him 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 by doing a miracle that would become well known around that entire region.
3. The supernatural events surrounding John’s birth were a foreshadow of his supernatural ministry to follow. Luke 1:66 – Everyone who heard this wondered about it, asking, “What then is this child going to be?” For the Lord’s hand was with him. These miracles that the Lord did before and after John’s birth served to show all the surrounding region that He was with John. This would lend credibility to John’s future ministry as the last Old Testament era prophet. (For more on his future ministry see Luke 1:76-79.)
4. Zachariah was fearful when Gabriel came. This is a typical response when someone in the Bible sees an angel. Angels are not cute little babies with wings playing harps and floating in the clouds. Rather they are beings of great power and represent the Lord of Lords.
5. John was chosen by God from before birth to have a special ministry, specifically to fulfill the prophecies in the Old Testament 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 and prepare them to receive the Messiah.
6. Zachariah didn’t believe, so Gabriel gave him a sign that he would become mute until John was born. Although Zachariah was a righteous man, he was not perfect. He demonstrated a clear lack of faith when the angel told him this message. Interestingly, angel asked a similar question of Gabriel, but was not rebuked. From this we learn that the motivation of a question is very important in God’s sight. A person can ask the same question out of a desire to learn or out of a desire to challenge or argue. God can tell the difference.
7. Elizabeth gave thanks to the Lord for His grace to her. It is a simple lesson, but an important one. We often pray for things which we want, but sometimes when we get them we don’t stop to thank God for His answer to prayer. Elizabeth did.
Application: Next time when God answers you prayer, take the time to express your gratitude!
8. When Elizabeth saw Mary, the baby leaped in her womb for joy, demonstrating 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 meant he was a priest by birth, but his occupation was prophet. From Mark 1:6 we get a hint to John’s lifestyle.
John wore clothing made of camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey.
His clothes were made of camel hair and he ate wild honey and locust. From this description, we can infer that 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 not every believer is required to live in this manner, there are a few characters in the Bible such as Elijah that live similarly. It is almost like a lifelong fast, ridding themselves of the temptations of luxurious living and practicing self-control and discipline to focus on the Lord and the ministry given to them. Interestingly, locust are very nutritious and contain sixty percent protein compared to twenty percent the protein content of chicken and beef.
Place in history:
1. John had the privilege to baptize Jesus:
John 1:29-34 – 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. And I myself did not know him, but the one who sent me to baptize with water told me, ‘The man on whom you see the Spirit come down and remain is the one who will baptize with the Holy Spirit.’ I have seen and I testify that this is God’s Chosen One.”
John testified 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. John was the forerunner to the Messiah, the voice crying in the wilderness – A voice of one calling:
“In the wilderness prepare the way for the Lord; make straight in the desert a highway for our God. 4 Every valley shall be raised up, every mountain and hill made low; the rough ground shall become level, the rugged places a plain. 5 And the glory of the Lord will be revealed, and all people will see it together. For the mouth of the Lord has spoken.”
When asked if he was the Christ, John responded by quoting part of the above verses 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, including Peter and John.
3. Jesus had a high respect for John –
Luke 7:28 – I tell you, among those born of women there is no one greater than John; yet the one who is least in the kingdom of God is greater than he.
This basically means that prior to Christ John the Baptist is the most honored individual who ever lived. The reasoning could be that he was the one to prepare the way for the coming of Christ. John himself actually baptized Jesus , indicating the respect which Jesus had for him. The latter part of the verse is not a knock on John. Rather, it is a reminder to true believers of the high value and position we have in God’s sight. Now we can be called children of God, which is a special title given to believers in the New Testament era after the cross.
1. John called the Pharisees a “brood of vipers.” – This is really not a weakness, but we should imitate this quality with caution. As a prophet, God led him to do this in order to shock the people and hopefully wake up the Pharisees from their spiritual lethargy. However, we do not necessarily need to emulate this strong speech. At times, there is a place for it, but using such language should not be done lightly. Instead a person should pray and seek the Spirit’s leading. Generally, gentleness is the way to go.
2. Even though he knew that Jesus was the Messiah, when he was in prison there was a period where he doubted it (Luke 7:19-28.) John the Baptist was human after all. Of all people, he knew who Jesus was. And yet during the moment of his most serious trial, loneliness, and desperation, flickers of doubt crossed his mind.
Application: For believers, having doubts or questions at times is a normal part of our Christian walk. But when John doubted he sought for the answer and presumably accepted it. It is normal to have questions or to have moments of doubt. When we do, we must deal with those in the right way. Take those thoughts to God and let the truth be your solid rock to stand on. Be careful not to let these thoughts control you or spiral out of control.
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.
Application: God has no grand-children. Someone may think that he is a Christian because he was born into a Christian, church-going family. But this does not save anyone. The only way to be saved is by grace through faith. It is a personal decision that no one can make for you.
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 he 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 – But when he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming for baptism, he said to them, “You brood of vipers, who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Therefore bear fruit in keeping with repentance; and do not suppose that you can say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham for our father’; for I say to you that from these stones God is able to raise up children to Abraham. The axe is already laid at the root of the trees; therefore every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.
John portrays the opposite character quality of the “ear-ticklers” Paul talks about in 2 Timothy 4:3.
3. John recognized that repentance would show up in every day actions (Luke 3:10-15.) 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 –
John 3:30 – He must increase, but I must decrease.
John demonstrated a great amount of humility (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. His disciples came and complained to him that the crowds were following Jesus rather than him. Peter and John were also followers of John the Baptist first.
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. Not John. What was his attitude towards this role? He not only accepted it, he embraced it joyfully! He must increase, but I must decrease. What a great example!
6. John boldly stood up to Herod about Herod’s immoral relationship with Herodias, evidently rebuking Herod about this multiple times.
Matthew 14:4 – For John had been saying to him, “It is not lawful for you to have her.”
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: (Matthew 14:1-12) 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 up to half the kingdom. 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 chance for Zachariah and Elizabeth to have a child, but God did. Since it was part of His plan nothing can stand in the way, even their own old age. No matter what obstacles stand in front of you, keep hoping and keep praying.
2. Never doubt God. This lesson is from Zachariah’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 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 those 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 Paul who said he became all things to all men (1 Corinthians 9:22.) Do not intentionally offend others, but neither should we flatter them or tolerate heretical views. The basic facts of the gospel are clear and simple. Anyone can share them. Why can we be bold? Because it is the power of God (Romans 1:16.) 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 have. John lived an extremely simple life. Some might consider that his standard of living was too poor. He had no permanent home, no luxurious food, no fancy meals, no expensive clothes, and no electronics. 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 your life 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 gifts and talents for Him, make sure you are doing it for Him and not for yourself. Do not become prideful and consider that the students going to your Bible study are yours. Sheep belong to the true shepherd. We are only caretakers. 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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John the Baptist
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