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John the Baptist

By Richard Gunther


The Hebrew form of the word "John" is "Johannan" which signifies "the gift of Jehovah". The Greek is loannes, which means "God (Jehovah) is gracious".

The announcement of John's birth was similar to that of Abraham and Sarah (Gen.l7:15) and to Manoah and her husband (Jud.l3:5). In all three cases the to-be mother was frustrated because she could not have a child, and in all three cases God graciously granted one.

When John's father heard the angel say "in the spirit and power of Elias, to make ready a people prepared for the Lord" (Luke 1:16917) he would have connected it with the very similar words of Malachi 4:6. Zacharias asked for a sign (as did Abraham - Gen.25:18; Gideon - Jud.6:30 and Hezekiah - 2Kings 20) but only he was kept in silence until the event.

Luke 1:20 "You shall be dumb" the finite verb and participle denote a continuous sense. Zacharias was silent continuously. Apparently Zacharias was completely deaf and dumb. When at last he was able to communicate he wrote on a table (tablet) "His name is John", thus the first recorded words for the new dispensation were equivalent to "His name is the graciousness of Jehovah". The first written words of the NT. After 400 hundred years of silence, God had finally 'spoken* through the words on the tablet.

The background to John.

Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylon, destroyed the City of Jerusalem and deported the last of the house of Judah - 2Kings 25:21 on, about the year 587 BC. About 539 BC Babylon fell, and a year later, Cyrus the Persian made a decree allowing some Jews to return to rebuild the Temple. Ezra and Nehemiah looked after these people. Many of these returned Jews were very zealous for God's Word. They brought in many rules and regulations, which helped to keep the religious and nationalist fires burning. They rejected anything which challenged what they perceived to be the Law's demands.

After Alexander the Great overthrew the Persian king - 334 to 323 BC his four generals divided his empire, and Palestine became a province of the Seleucid kingdom (306 BC) and various Hellenistic and Egyptian cults entered Palestine. Not only did the Jews reject them, but they also rejected the cult of Serapis, the hybrid of Osiris and Dionysius, and every subtlety of false worship.

When the Greeks came, God raised up the violent but zealous Maccabees to purge the nation. When Antiochus Epiphanes - 175 to 163 BC - tried to put a statue of Zeus in the Temple, Judas Maccabaeus drove him out. Then came the Roman legions, trampling Greece, seizing the Holy City in 63 BC, but still the Jews were incredibly strong in spirit - refusing to handle even coins with images on them, or to carry or have attached to their building Roman flags with eagles on them. In deference to the Jews, the Roman banners were kept out of the City.

Into this atmosphere of unconquerability came John, proclaimed as a prophet, preaching repentance.

Religiously, many of the Jews were stultified and formalised by their observances, but at the same time they were tense with anticipation. Because only the Holy Spirit can make sense of the many converging prophecies regarding the Messiah, His coming was not generally understood or appreciated until after He was crucified. A great warrior king was expected, but a carpenter's son appeared, proclaiming his deity. The Personage of Psalm 2, fierce, righteous, powerful, was easier to envisage than a Messiah in common clothes, walking the streets in sandals. What a strange surprise it was to many when they thought back and remembered the time when a man called Jesus walked up to John and asked to be baptised.

John was a typical prophet. He identified with the others before him - Isaiah, Jeremiah, Amos and Hosea, by crying out for repentance, by continual admonitions, by preaching charity, justice and mercy - Luke 3:10 - 14.

Jesus admired and loved the man. So should we. John was one of the most important people who has ever lived.

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