“Amen, I say to you, among those born of women there has been none greater than John the Baptist; yet the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.”
You cannot read the Gospels without encountering our parish patron, Saint John the Baptist. John the Baptist is the last of the prophets of the Old Covenant, and the forerunner of the Messiah, announcing the beginning of the New Covenant. John the Baptist is the only other person besides the Lord Jesus whose birth and death is recorded in the Gospels.
In the Church calendar year the births of only three persons are commemorated: Our Lord on December 25th, His blessed Mother on September 8th and St. John the Baptist on June 24th. The Church commemorates the martyrdom St. John the Baptist on August 29th. From the Gospels we learn many details about the life and times of our patron saint.
The Birth of John the Baptist Foretold
The first chapter of the Gospel of Saint Luke describes the announcement of the birth of John the Baptist (Luke 1: 5-25). We are introduced to Zechariah and Elizabeth, a devout Jewish couple, who had always prayed and hoped for a child. They were now in their old age; it seemed that their prayers had gone unanswered. Zechariah was a priest. He was performing his duties as a priest in the Temple at Jerusalem and was preparing to burn incense when an angel of the Lord appeared to him and announced their prayers for a child were heard and they would have a son. The angel told Zechariah his son’s name—John. The angel then went on to describe John and his mission:
“…for he will be great before the Lord, and he shall drink no wine nor strong drink, and he will be filled with the Holy Spirit, even from his mother’s womb. And he will turn many of the sons of Israel to the Lord their God, and he will go before him in the spirit and power of Eli’jah, to turn the hearts of the fathers to the children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the just, to make ready for the Lord a people prepared.” (Luke 1: 15-17)
Zechariah could hardly believe what he was hearing and asked the angel how he was to know that all this was true as both he and his wife were advanced in years. The angel told Zechariah his name—Gabriel, who stands in the presence of God. Gabriel told Zechariah that God sent him to bring this good news to Zechariah. He gave Zechariah a sign: “And behold, you will be silent and unable to speak until all these things come to pass.” While all this was happening to Zechariah, the people outside were wondering why the burning of the incense was taking so long. Finally, Zechariah came out to the courtyard where the people were, he was unable to speak. The people could see that something had happened to Zechariah during the burning of the incense. He made signs to them, but remained mute. When his time for service to the temple ended he went home. Not long after his wife Elizabeth became pregnant, she was overjoyed that her prayer for a child was to be answered.
John the Baptist is the first to recognize the Lord
While Zechariah and Elizabeth awaited the birth of their son John, the angel Gabriel announced another birth. Gabriel was sent one more time from the throne of God to a city in Galilee called Nazareth to the Virgin Mary. Our story here concerns John the Baptist, but you should read this part of the story in the Gospel of Luke, Chapter 1, verses 26-38. Besides learning that she was to be the mother of the Messiah, Mary learned of the pregnancy of her kinswoman Elizabeth from Gabriel. After the angel left, Mary traveled from Nazareth to the hill country of Judah to visit Elizabeth and help her. The next part of the story continues in Luke Chapter 1, verses 39-56.
When Mary arrived at the house she greeted Elizabeth. When Elizabeth heard the greeting of Mary, her child leaped in her womb. Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit and she cried out to Mary, “Blessed are you among women and blessed is the fruit of your womb”. She went on to ask why “is this granted to me that the mother of my Lord should come to me?” She told Mary that as soon as she heard the sound of Mary’s greeting, “the child in my womb leaped for joy”. John the Baptist, the Lord’s forerunner, recognized the presence of our Lord in the womb of Mary. Elizabeth goes on to tell Mary that she is blessed because she believed what was told her by the angel. Mary then sings her canticle, the Magnificat, in verses 46 though 55. Priests, consecrated religious and many lay persons sing or recite the Magnificat every day during Evening Prayer:
My soul magnifies the Lord,
And my spirit rejoices in God my Savior.
For He has regarded the low estate of His handmaiden,
For behold, henceforth all generations shall call me blessed.
For He who is mighty has done great things for me, and holy is His name.
And His mercy is on those who fear Him from generation to generation.
He has shown strength with His arm:
He has scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts.
He has put down the mighty from their thrones,
and exalted those of low degree.
He has filled the hungry with good things;
and the rich He has sent empty away.
He has helped His servant Israel, in remembrance of His mercy;
As He spoke to our fathers, to Abraham and to His posterity forever.
Mary stayed with Elizabeth for about three months and then returned to her home in Nazareth.
The Birth of John the Baptist
Luke continues recounting the story of John the Baptist in verse 57 of Chapter 1. Elizabeth gave birth to her son and her neighbors, friends and kinfolk rejoiced with her and Zechariah. On the eighth day after the birth of her child, the circumcision ceremony takes place. The child receives its name at the ceremony. The family and friends thought the boy’s name should be Zechariah after his father. Elizabeth said that her son’s name should be John. They went to Zechariah and asked him what name the child should have. Zechariah, who was still mute, asked for a tablet and wrote, “His name is John.” No sooner had he finished writing the name when he was able to speak and his first words were his canticle, the Benedictus in verses 68-79. Priests, consecrated religious and many lay persons sing or recite the Benedictus every day during Morning Prayer:
Blessed be the Lord God of Israel,
for he has visited and redeemed his people,
and has raised up a horn of salvation for us
in the house of his servant David,
as he spoke by the mouth of his holy prophets from of old,
that we should be saved from our enemies,
and from the hand of all who hate us;
to perform the mercy promised to our fathers,
and to remember his holy covenant,
the oath which he swore to our father Abraham, to grant us
that we, being delivered from the hand of our enemies,
might serve him without fear,
in holiness and righteousness before him all the days of our life.
And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High;
for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways,
to give knowledge of salvation to his people in the forgiveness of their sins,
through the tender mercy of our God,
when the day shall dawn upon us from on high
to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death,
to guide our feet into the way of peace.
Luke ends his narrative about the birth of John the Baptist here. We resume John’s story in Chapter 3 of Luke. The other evangelists, Matthew, Mark and John do not mention the details surrounding the birth of John the Baptist, but begin with his preaching.
The preaching of John the Baptist
Luke continues his narrative of the life of John the Baptist by setting John’s prophetic ministry in historical context by telling us the names of major political and religious figures of John’s day…names from history—Tiberius Caesar, Pontius Pilate, Herod (Antipas—son of Herod the Great), Herod Philip (another son of Herod the Great), Annas and Caiaphas (high priests of that time). Matthew just tells us, “In those days…” Mark sets the stage by quoting the prophet Isaiah. John the Evangelist introduces John the Baptist in the beautiful prologue of his gospel—“There was a man sent from God whose name was John.” (John 1:6-8) and that John came to bear witness to the light. To understand the role of John the Baptist in the plan of salvation, turn to the book of the Prophet Isaiah. Beginning in Chapter 40 of Isaiah, God speaks words of comfort to his people who are in exile in Babylon. “A voice cries: In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God.” To get an idea of the preaching of John the Baptist, read Matthew 3: 1-12, Mark 1: 1-8, Luke 3: 1-20, and John 1:19-28.
John must have been a striking figure to behold. He looked like a prophet. The gospels describe what John wore and what he ate. “Now John wore a garment of camel’s hair, and a leather belt around his waist; and his food was locusts and wild honey.” John preached repentance to the people. He administered a baptism to the people who responded to his call for repentance.
If you wanted to hear John preach, you had to make an effort. John did not preach in the synagogues, or in the Temple precincts, or on street corners of the big cities, but “in the wilderness” in the region about the Jordan River. Word about John spread and the people came out to hear John preach.
John’s message was not a “feel good” message. He called on the people to confess their sins and repent. He was not afraid to speak the truth and even called on the religious leaders of his day to “bear fruit that befits repentance”, the people had been in expectation of the Messiah for generations. The Old Testament book of the Prophet Malachi has several prophecies concerning the days when the Messiah would appear:
Behold, I send my messenger to prepare the way before me, and the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple; the messenger of the covenant in whom you delight, behold, he is coming, says the LORD of hosts. (Malachi 3:1) and
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 heart of the fathers to the children, and the heart of the children to their fathers, lest I come and smite the earth with a curse. (Malachi 4:5-6)
Some wondered if John was the promised Christ. John knew who he was and what his mission was: “I baptize you with water for repentance, but he who is coming after me is mightier than I, whose sandal I am not worthy to carry; he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire.” The people asked John, “What then shall we do?” John advice: “He, who has two coats, let him share with him who has none, and he who has food, let him do likewise.” He had advice to tax collectors and soldiers…anyone responding to his message. John’s message was accepted by many people, but others resented him.
Among those who resented John’s message was Herod Antipas, the son of Herod the Great and the Tetrarch (ruler) of Galilee and Perea and his second wife, Herodias. He divorced his first wife; Herodias had been the wife of his brother. Herodias had a daughter from her first marriage, Salome. John condemned Herod’s marriage to Herodias as unlawful. Besides his role as the forerunner of the Messiah, John the Baptist was a witness (martyr) to the indissolubility of marriage.
The Baptism of Jesus by John the Baptist
Three of the Gospels describe the Baptism of the Lord by John the Baptist: Matthew 3: 13-17; Mark 1: 9-12; and Luke 3: 21-22. In John 1: 29-34 the baptism of Jesus is not described, but John declared Jesus to be the “Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.” If you don’t quite understand why the sinless Jesus needed baptism, you are not alone. Saint John himself tries to prevent it. Jesus told him, “Let it be so for now; for thus it is fitting to fulfill all righteousness.” Jesus was sinless, but wished to be baptized by John as the final preparation for his mission as Messiah. The Catechism of the Catholic Church in paragraphs 535-537 describes the baptism of Jesus as among the mysteries of Jesus’ public life:
535 Jesus’ public life begins with his baptism by John in the Jordan. John preaches “a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins”. A crowd of sinners – tax collectors and soldiers, Pharisees and Sadducees, and prostitutes- come to be baptized by him. “Then Jesus appears.” The Baptist hesitates, but Jesus insists and receives baptism. Then the Holy Spirit, in the form of a dove, comes upon Jesus and a voice from heaven proclaims, “This is my beloved Son.” This is the manifestation (“Epiphany”) of Jesus as Messiah of Israel and Son of God.
536 The baptism of Jesus is on his part the acceptance and inauguration of his mission as God’s suffering Servant. He allows himself to be numbered among sinners; he is already “the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world”. Already he is anticipating the “baptism” of his bloody death. Already he is coming to “fulfill all righteousness”, that is, he is submitting himself entirely to his Father’s will: out of love he consents to this baptism of death for the remission of our sins. The Father’s voice responds to the Son’s acceptance, proclaiming his entire delight in his Son. The Spirit whom Jesus possessed in fullness from his conception comes to “rest on him”. Jesus will be the source of the Spirit for all mankind. At his baptism “the heavens were opened” – the heavens that Adam’s sin had closed – and the waters were sanctified by the descent of Jesus and the Spirit, a prelude to the new creation.
537 Through Baptism the Christian is sacramentally assimilated to Jesus, who in his own baptism anticipates his death and resurrection. The Christian must enter into this mystery of humble self-abasement and repentance, go down into the water with Jesus in order to rise with him, be reborn of water and the Spirit so as to become the Father’s beloved son in the Son and “walk in newness of life.”
Let us be buried with Christ by Baptism to rise with him; let us go down with him to be raised with him; and let us rise with him to be glorified with him.
Everything that happened to Christ lets us know that, after the bath of water, the Holy Spirit swoops down upon us from high heaven and that, adopted by the Father’s voice, we become sons of God.
John declares: “Behold the Lamb of God” to his hearers. Two disciples hear this and followed Jesus. One was Andrew who after talking with Jesus finds his brother Simon (Peter) and tells him, “We have found the Messiah.” John directs his followers to the Lord Jesus.
“He must increase, I must decrease.”
John was aware that his mission was coming to an end. The Gospel of John (John 3: 25-30) recounts an incident where the disciples of John tell him, “Rabbi, he who was with you beyond the Jordan, to whom you bore witness, here he is, baptizing and all are going to him.” John reminds his followers that he told them that he was not the Christ, but had been sent before him. He goes on to say, “He who has the bride is the bridegroom; the friend of the bridegroom, who stands and hears him, rejoices greatly at the bridegroom’s voice; therefore this joy of mine is now full. He must increase, but I must decrease.”
Imprisonment and Beheading of John
The Gospels of Matthew and Mark, (Matthew 14: 3-12, 6-8; Mark 6: 17-29) recount various details about the arrest and imprisonment of John. Herod has John arrested and imprisoned. The daughter of Herodias dances for Herod at a banquet given for his birthday. Herod is so delighted with her dancing that he promises to give her anything she asks, “up to half my kingdom.” The daughter asks her mother, “What shall I ask?” Her mother says, “The head of John the Baptist.” So as not to embarrass himself in front of his guests, Herod has John beheaded; his head is placed on a platter and given to the girl who in turn gave it to her mother. While the gospels never name the daughter of Herodias, the historian Josephus provides her name—Salome.
Our Lord speaks of John the Baptist
When John was imprisoned he sent his disciples to ask the Lord, “Are you he who is to come, or shall we look for another?” We can only speculate why John would ask such a question. Perhaps his followers were asking him about Jesus and he sent them to ask the question so they could hear the answer from the Lord himself. Jesus answers the question by quoting the prophet Isaiah (Isaiah 35:5),
“Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight and the lame walk, lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear, and the dead are raised up and the poor have the good news preached to them.” (Matthew 11: 2-6). As the disciples of John left and went back to give John the answer to his question, Jesus turned to the crowds and asked them a rhetorical question about John and then provides the answer (Matthew 11:7-15).”
“What did you go out into the wilderness to behold? A reed shaken by the wind? Why then did you go out? To see a man clothed in soft raiment? Behold, those who wear soft raiment are in kings’ houses. Why then did you go out? To see a prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet. This is he of whom it is written, ‘Behold, I send my messenger before thy face, who shall prepare thy way before thee.’ Truly, I say to you, among those born of women there has risen no one greater than John the Baptist; yet he who is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he. From the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven has suffered violence, and men of violence take it by force. For all the prophets and the law prophesied until John; and if you are willing to accept it, he is Eli’jah who is to come. He who has ears to hear, let him hear.”
What lesson can a Christian take from the life of Saint John the Baptist? A Christian would do well to adopt this saying from Saint John as a motto of Christian living: “He must increase, but I must decrease.”
Saint John the Baptist, pray for us!