Now the day ends. Now the poor retreat to the safety of their squalid shelters, and the snakes slither back to their dens. Day after day they come out to me.
While just two of the gospels (Luke and Matthew) refer to Jesus’ birth, all four gospels highlight the story of John. John plays a prominent role in the Good News story. But who is he?
The very first thing we learn about John, even before he is born, is that his appearance will bring great joy, not just for his parents, but for everyone waiting for evidence of divine activity. The angel Gabriel announces to Zechariah that his erstwhile barren wife Elizabeth will bear a son and “You will have joy and gladness, and many will rejoice at his birth” (Luke1:14).
We learn that John “…will be great in the sight of the Lord” (Luke 1:15). His words will have the power to “…turn many of the people of Israel to the Lord their God” (Luke 1:16). Later, Jesus declares, “…among those born of women no one is greater than John” (Luke 7:28).
When we hear John’s story, we are reminded of all those before him who were called by the Spirit to proclaim God’s message: Isaiah, Ezekiel, Jeremiah, Joel, and so on. Yet Luke tells us that John will be greater than all of them, gifted to carry out this work “With the spirit and power of Elijah” (Luke 1:17).
Like the prophets before him, John lambasts the people of Israel, threatening divine judgment if they do not change their ways. Unlike his predecessors, John offers a way out: repent and be baptized. The practice of baptism was not unfamiliar to Jewish people, but John’s one-time-only baptism for the repentance of sins was unique.
Using the words of Isaiah, John exhorts the people to prepare the way of the Lord. Like Jesus, he proclaims the ways of the kin-dom of God, and also like Jesus, he eventually suffers the fate of those who dare to challenge the injustices and oppression handed down by those in power.
- What words or phrases come to mind when you imagine John the Baptist?
- What words or phrases would you use to describe John’s message?
- Compare each gospel story about John: Matthew 3:1–12; Mark 1:1–7; Luke 1:5–24, 57–80 & 3:1–20; John 1:1–29. What similarities and differences do you notice?
- Compare the story of Elizabeth and Zechariah to the story of Sarah and Abraham (Genesis 17:1–8, 15–21). What do you notice?
- Compare the announcement of John’s birth to those of Samson (Judges 13:1–7, 24) and Samuel (1 Samuel 1:1–11). What do you notice and what does this suggest about John’s character?
- What are the angel’s first words to Zechariah and Mary (Luke 1), to the shepherds (Luke 2), and to Joseph (Matthew 1)? How do these words compare with the messages on today’s greeting cards? How do these words compare with John’s greeting (Luke 3:4b–9)?