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Watson's Biblical & Theological Dictionary

John the Baptist

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the forerunner of the Messiah, was the son of Zechariah and Elizabeth, and was born about six months before our Saviour. His birth was foretold by an angel, sent purposely to deliver this joyful message, when his mother Elizabeth was barren, and both his parents far advanced in years. The same divine messenger foretold that he should be great in the sight of the Lord: that he should be filled with the Holy Spirit from his mother's womb; that he should prepare the way of the Lord by turning many of the Jews to the knowledge of God; and that he should be the greatest of all the prophets, Luke 1:5-15 . Of the early part of the Baptist's life we have but little information. It is only observed that "he grew and waxed strong in spirit, and was in the deserts till the day of his showing unto Israel," Luke 1:80 . Though consecrated from the womb to the ministerial office, John did not enter upon it in the heat of youth, but after several years spent in solitude and a course of self-denial.

The prophetical descriptions of the Baptist in the Old Testament are various and striking. That by Isaiah is: "The voice of him that crieth in the wilderness, Prepare ye the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God," Isaiah 40:3 . Malachi has the following prediction: "Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the coming of the great and dreadful day of the Lord. And he shall turn the hearts of the fathers to the children, and the hearts of the children to the fathers, lest I come and smite the earth with a curse," Malachi 4:5 . That this was meant of the Baptist, we have the testimony of our Lord himself, who declared, "For all the prophets and the law prophesied until John. And if ye will receive it, this is Elias who was to come," Matthew 11:14 . The appearance and manners of the Baptist, when he first came out into the world, excited general attention. His clothing was of camel's hair, bound round him with a leathern girdle, and his food consisted of locusts and wild honey, Matthew 3:4 . The message which he declared was authoritative: "Repent ye, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand;" and the impression produced by his faithful reproofs and admonitions was powerful and extensive, and in a great number of instances lasting. Most of the first followers of our Lord appear to have been awakened to seriousness and religious inquiry by John's ministry. His character was so eminent, that many of the Jews thought him to be the Messiah; but he plainly declared that he was not that honoured person. Nevertheless, he was at first unacquainted with the person of Jesus Christ; only the Holy Ghost had told him that he on whom he should see the Holy Spirit descend and rest was the Messiah. When Jesus Christ presented himself to receive baptism from him, this sign was vouchsafed; and from that time he bore his testimony to Jesus, as the Christ.

Herod Antipas, having married his brother Philip's wife while Philip was still living, occasioned great scandal. John the Baptist, with his usual liberty and vigour, reproved Herod to his face; and told him that it was not lawful for him to have his brother's wife, while his brother was yet alive. Herod, incensed at this freedom, ordered him into custody, in the castle of Machoerus; and he was ultimately put to death. ( See ANTIPAS. ) Thus fell this honoured prophet, a martyr to ministerial faithfulness. Other prophets testified of Christ; he pointed to him as already come. Others saw him afar off; he beheld the advancing glories of his ministry eclipsing his own, and rejoiced to "decrease" while his Master "increased." His ministry stands as a type of the true character of evangelical repentance: it goes before Christ and prepares his way; it is humbling, but not despairing; for it points to "the Lamb of God which taketh away the sins of the world."

The Jews had such an opinion of this prophet's sanctity, that they ascribed the overthrow of Herod's army, which he had sent against his father-in- law, Aretas, to the just judgment of God for putting John the Baptist to death. The death of John the Baptist happened, as is believed, about the end of the thirty-first year of the vulgar era, or in the beginning of the thirty-second.

The baptism of John was much more perfect than that of the Jews, but less perfect than that of Jesus Christ. "It was," says St. Chrysostom, "as it were, a bridge, which, from the baptism of the Jews, made a way to that of our Saviour, and was more exalted than the first, but inferior to the second. That of St. John promised what that of Jesus Christ executed. Notwithstanding St. John did not enjoin his disciples to continue the baptism of repentance, which was of his institution, after his death, because, after the manifestation of the Messiah, and the establishment of the Holy Ghost, it became of no use; yet there were many of his followers who still administered it, and several years after the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, did not so much as know that there was any other baptism than that of John. Of this number was Apollos, a learned and zealous man, who was of Alexandria, and came to Ephesus twenty years after the resurrection of our Saviour, Acts 18:25 . And when St. Paul came after Apollos to the same city, there were still many Ephesians who had received no other baptism, and were not yet informed that the Holy Ghost was received by baptism in the name of Jesus Christ, Acts 19:1 . The Jews are said by the Apostle Paul to have been "baptized unto Moses," at the time when they followed him through the Red Sea, as the servant of God sent to be their leader. Those who went out to John "were baptized unto John's baptism;" that is, into the expectation of the person whom John announced, and into repentance of those sins which John condemned. Christians are "baptized into the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost," because in this expression is implied that whole system of truth which the disciples of Christ believe; into the name of the Father, the one true and living God whom Christians profess to serve; of the Son, that divine person revealed in the New Testament whom the Father sent to be the Saviour of the world; of the Holy Ghost, the divine person also revealed there as the Comforter, the Sanctifier, and the Guide of Christians.

JOHN THE EVANGELIST was a native of Bethsaida, in Galilee, son of Zebedee and Salome, by profession a fisherman. Some have thought that he was a disciple of John the Baptist before he attended Jesus Christ. He was brother to James the greater. It is believed that St. John was the youngest of the Apostles. Tillemont is of opinion that he was twenty-five or twenty-six years of age when he began to follow Jesus. Our Saviour had a particular friendship for him; and he describes himself by the name of "that disciple whom Jesus loved." St. John was one of the four Apostles to whom our Lord delivered his predictions relative to the destruction of Jerusalem, and the approaching calamities of the Jewish nation, Mark 13:3 . St. Peter, St. James, and St. John were chosen to accompany our Saviour on several occasions, when the other Apostles were not permitted to be present. When Christ restored the daughter of Jairus to life, Mark 5:37 ; Luke 8:51 ; when he was transfigured on the mount, Matthew 17:1-2 ; Mark 9:2 ; Luke 9:28 ; and when he endured his agony in the garden, Matthew 26:36-37 ; Mark 14:32-33 ; St. Peter, St. James, and St. John were his only attendants. That St. John was treated by Christ with greater familiarity than the other Apostles, is evident from St. Peter desiring him to ask Christ who should betray him, when he himself did not dare to propose the question, John 13:24 . He seems to have been the only Apostle present at the crucifixion, and to him Jesus, just as he was expiring upon the cross, gave the strongest proof of his confidence and regard, by consigning to him the care of his mother, John 19:26-27 . As St. John had been witness to the death of our Saviour, by seeing the blood and water issue from his side, which a soldier had pierced, John 19:34-35 , so he was one of the first made acquainted with his resurrection. Without any hesitation, he believed this great event, though "as yet he knew not the Scripture, that Christ was to rise from the dead," John 20:9 . He was also one of those to whom our Saviour appeared at the sea of Galilee; and he was afterward, with the other ten Apostles, a witness of his ascension into heaven, Mark 16:19 ; Luke 24:51 . St. John continued to preach the Gospel for some time at Jerusalem: he was imprisoned by the sanhedrim, first with Peter only, Acts 4:1 , &c, and afterward with the other Apostles, Acts 5:17-18 . Some time after this second release, he and St. Peter were sent by the other Apostles to the Samaritans, whom Philip the deacon had converted to the Gospel, that through them they might receive the Holy Ghost, Acts 8:14-15 . St. John informs us, in his Revelations, that he was banished to Patmos, an island in the AEgean Sea, Revelation 1:9 .

This banishment of the Apostle to the isle of Patmos is mentioned by many of the early ecclesiastical writers; all of whom, except Epiphanius in the fourth century, agree in attributing it to Domitian. Epiphanius says that John was banished by command of Claudius; but this deserves the less credit; because there was no persecution of the Christians in the time of that emperor, and his edicts against the Jews did not extend to the provinces. Sir Isaac Newton was of opinion that John was banished to Patmos in the time of Nero; but even the authority of this great man is not of sufficient weight against the unanimous voice of antiquity. Dr. Lardner has examined and answered his arguments with equal candour and learning. It is not known at what time John went into Asia Minor. Lardner thought that it was about the year 66. It is certain that he lived in Asia Minor the latter part of his life, and principally at Ephesus. He planted churches at Smyrna, Pergamos, and many other places; and by his activity and success in propagating the Gospel, he is supposed to have incurred the displeasure of Domitian, who banished him to Patmos at the end of his reign. He himself tells us that he "was in the isle that is called Patmos, for the word of God, and for the testimony of Jesus Christ;" and Irenaeus, speaking of the vision which he had there, says, "It is not very long ago that it was seen, being but a little before our time, at the latter end of Domitian's reign." On the succession of Nerva to the empire in the year 96, John returned to Ephesus, where he died at an advanced age in the third year of Trajan's reign, A.D. 100. An opinion has prevailed, that he was, by order of Domitian, thrown into a caldron of boiling oil at Rome, and came out unhurt; but this account rests almost entirely on the authority of Tertullian, and seems to deserve little credit.

2. The genuineness of St. John's Gospel has always been unanimously admitted by the Christian church. It is universally agreed that St. John published his Gospel in Asia; and that, when he wrote it, he had seen the other three Gospels. It is, therefore, not only valuable in itself, but also a tacit confirmation of the other three; with none of which it disagrees in any material point. The time of its publication is placed by some rather before, and by others considerably after, the destruction of Jerusalem. If we accede to the opinion of those who contend for the year 97, this late date, exclusive of the authorities which support it, seems favoured by the contents and design of the Gospel itself. The immediate design of St. John in writing his Gospel, as we are assured by Irenaeus, Jerom, and others, was to refute the Cerinthians, Ebionites, and other heretics, whose tenets, though they branched out into a variety of subjects, all originated from erroneous opinions concerning the person of Christ, and the creation of the world. These points had been scarcely touched upon by the other evangelists; though they had faithfully recorded all the leading facts of our Saviour's life, and his admirable precepts for the regulation of our conduct. St. John, therefore, undertook, perhaps at the request of the true believers in Asia, to write what Clement of Alexandria called a spiritual Gospel; and, accordingly, we find in it more of doctrine, and less of historical narrative, than in any of the others. It is also to be remembered, that this book, which contains so much additional information relative to the doctrines of Christianity, and which may be considered as a standard of faith for all ages, was written by that Apostle who is known to have enjoyed, in a greater degree than the rest, the affection and confidence of the divine Author of our religion; and to whom was given a special revelation concerning the state of the Christian church in all succeeding generations.

We have three epistles by this Apostle. Some critics have thought that all these epistles were written during St. John's exile in Patmos; the first, to the Ephesian church; the others to individuals; and that they were sent alone with the Gospel, which the Apostle is supposed also to have written in Patmos. Thus Hug observes, in his "Introduction:" If St. John sent his Gospel to the continent, an epistle to the community was requisite, commending and dedicating it to them. Other evangelists, who deposited their works in the place of their residence, personally superintended them, and delivered them personally; consequently they did not require a written document to accompany them. An epistle was therefore requisite, and, as we have abundantly proved the first of John's epistles to be inseparable from the Gospel, its contents demonstrate it to be an accompanying writing, and a dedication of the Gospel. It went consequently to Ephesus. We can particularly corroborate this by the following observation: John, in the Apocalypse, has individually distinguished each of the Christian communities, which lay the nearest within his circle and his superintendence, by criteria, taken from their faults or their virtues. The church at Ephesus he there describes by the following traits: It was thronged with men who arrogated to themselves the ministry and apostolical authority, and were impostors, ψευδεις . But in particular he feelingly reproaches it because its "first love was cooled," την αγαπην σου την πρωτην αφηκας . The circumstance of impostors and false teachers happens in more churches. But decreasing love is an exclusive criterion and failing, which the Apostle reprimands in no other community. According to his judgment, want of love was the characteristic fault of the Ephesians: but this epistle is from beginning to the end occupied with admonitions to love, with recommendations of its value, with corrections of those who are guilty of this fault, 1 John 2:5 ; 1 John 2:9-11 ; 1 John 2:15 ; 1 John 3:1 ; 1 John 3:11-12 ; 1 John 3:14-18 ; 1 John 3:23 ; 1 John 4:7-10 ; 1 John 4:12 ; 1 John 4:16-21 ; 1 John 5:1-3 . Must not we therefore declare, if we compare the opinion of the Apostle respecting the Ephesians with this epistle, that, from its peculiar tenor, it is not so strikingly adapted to any community in the first instance as to this?

The second epistle is directed to a female, who is not named, but only designated by the honourable mention, εκλεκτη κυρια , "the elect lady." The two chief positions, which are discussed in the first epistle, constitute the contents of this brief address. He again alludes to the words of our Saviour, "A new commandment," &c, as in 1 John 2:7 , and recommends love, which is manifested by observance of the commandments. After this he warns her against false teachers, who deny that Jesus entered into the world as the Christ, or Messiah, and forbids an intercourse with them. At the end, he hopes soon to see her himself, and complains of the want of writing materials. The whole is a short syllabus of the first epistle, or it is the first in a renewed form. The words also are the same. It is still full of the former epistle: nor are they separated from each other as to time. The female appears before his mind in the circumstances and dangers of the society, in instructing and admonishing which he had just been employed. If we may judge from local circumstances, she also lived at Ephesus. But as for the author, his residence was in none of the Ionian or Asiatic cities, where the want of writing materials is not conceivable: he was still therefore in the place of his exile. The other circumstances noticed in it, are probably the following: the sons of the εκλεκτη κυρια had visited John, 2 John 1:4 . The sister of this matron wishing to show to him an equal respect and sympathy in his fate, sent her sons likewise to visit the Apostle. While the latter were with the Apostle, there was an opportunity of sending to the continent, 2 John 1:13 , namely, of despatching the two epistles and the Gospel.

The third epistle is written to Caius. The author consoles himself with the hope, as in the former epistle, of soon coming himself, 3 John 1:14 . He still experiences the same want of writing materials, 3 John 1:13 . Consequently, he was still living in the same miserable place: also, if we may judge from his hopes, the time was not very different. The residence of Caius is determined by the following criteria: The most general of them is the danger of being misled by false teachers, 3 John 1:3-4 . That which leads us nearer to the point, is the circumstance of John sometimes sending messages thither, and receiving accounts from thence, 3 John 1:5-8 , that he supposes his opinions to be so well known and acknowledged in this society, that he could appeal to them, as judges respecting them, 3 John 1:12 , and that, finally, he had many particular friends among them, 3

John 1:15 . The whole of this is applicable to a considerable place, where the Apostle had resided for a long time; and in the second epoch of his life, it is particularly applicable to Ephesus. He had lately written to the community, of which Caius was a member, εγραψα τη εκκλησια , "I wrote to the church," 3 John 1:9 . If this is to be referred to the first epistle, (for we are not aware of any other to a community,) then certainly Ephesus is the place to which the third epistle was also directed, and was the place where Caius resided. From hence, the rest contains its own explanation. John had sent his first epistle thither; it was the accompanying writing to the Gospel, and with it he also sent the Gospel. Who was better qualified to promulgate the Gospel among the believers than Caius, especially if it was to be published at Ephesus?

The above view is ingenious, and in its leading parts satisfactory; but the argument from the Apostle's supposed want of "writing materials," is founded upon a very forced construction of the texts. There seems, however, no reason to doubt of the close connection, in point of time, between the epistles and the Gospel; and, that being remembered, the train of thought in the mind of the Apostle sufficiently explains the peculiar character of the latter.


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Bibliography Information
Watson, Richard. Entry for 'John the Baptist'. Richard Watson's Biblical & Theological Dictionary. https://www.studylight.org/dictionaries/wtd/j/john-the-baptist.html. 1831-2.

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