The Bible tells us nothing about the early years of John the Baptist, except that he grew and waxed strong in spirit, and was in the desert until the days of his showing in Israel. At this time he was described as wearing a garment of camel's hair, with a leathern girdle about his loins, and that he had been subsisting on a diet of locusts and wild honey.
John had come into the region about Jordan preaching to all the baptism of repentance for the remission of sins, crying out after the manner of the ancient prophets, "Repent ye, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand."
It is not to be supposed that John was a mere wild man from the desert who became fired with prophetic zeal. He had come to earth with a mission and was also the divinely-born son of a priest and prophet.
Zacharias had been sufficiently advanced in the priestly office to be allowed to enter the inner parts of the temple, to the Table of Incense, and his son automatically inherited the priestly perogative, although he appears not to have taken formal advantage of it. He apparently did not attend the rabbinical schools, though born of the priestly tribe of Levi, and when he baptized Jesus, it was an act of the priesthood notwithstanding the camel-skin garment, the river and the open sky.
It is believed that John, with his parents, Zacharias and Elizabeth, lived at Hebron, a mountain city at the edge of the Judean desert wilderness, where there were few trees and little vegetation. (The town nearest there in present times is called Ain-Karim.)
It is possible that his parents, out of gratitude dedicated John to God, as Mary's parents had dedicated her, by placing him in a desert monastery. He could have been brought up as an Essene monk for a time, before leaving them for his mission. Or John may have lived as a hermit in contemplation of Moses' Law in its purity, only to return shocked at the practices he saw and fired with zeal to correct matters.
He openly denounced the corruption of the King's court and called Herod an adulterer. He drew large numbers of people -- they flocked to hear him. His must have been a dynamic personality, raw-boned from the austerities he practiced, along with the purity of inner fire crying out for the world to turn from its wicked ways.
John knew his mission as the forerunner of the Messiah and kept watch for this Great One among the crowds. He sought to prepare the people for the coming Messiah by changing their hearts so they would be able to receive him when he came. Such baptisms were not uncommon at the time, but they were not part of the Jewish rites. Neither do they represent present-day baptism in Christ, except in symbolizing an interior cleansing of the individual.
The place of his baptism was along the west bank of the Jordan, a few miles north of the Dead Sea. This was not far from Jerusalem, only about twenty miles, so people traveled out easily to see him and be baptized. The multitude liked him and began to call him John the Baptist. Perhaps they liked him because he reminded them so much of the Jewish prophets of old, being a preacher of immense force and authority. To his father Zacharias the angel promised that John would go before the Messiah "in the spirit and power of Elijah."
Jesus also referred to John as Elijah, for in Matthew 17:10 when the disciples asked him, "Then why do the scribes say that first Elijah must come?" Jesus answered, "Elijah has come, and he is to restore all things; but I tell you that Elijah has already come and they did not know him, but did to him whatever they pleased. So also the Son of Man will suffer at their hands." Then the disciples understood that he was speaking to them of John the Baptist. They referred to the old prophecy which said, "Behold, I will send Elijah the Tishbite before the coming of the day of the Lord."
Elijah, too, was described as a "hairy man," and girt with a girdle of leather about his loins. He is considered "one of the most exciting personalities in the Bible." His name means "God the Lord," or the "strong Lord," and he lived in the ninth century B.C. about one hundred years after David.
Elijah claimed to be the only living prophet at the time when it came to a contest between him and the priests of Baal whom Jezebel, the wife of King Ahab, had brought with her from Sidon. Ahab was the king of Israel, but permitted the pagan worship of his wife to take over the Hebrew priests left living in Israel as compared to eight hundred fifty priests of Baal. (The story of Elijah begins with I Kings, Chapter 17.)
God told Elijah to warn the king that He would bring drought upon the land unless he and the people would return to God. Ahab was displeased, upon which God then warned Elijah to hide during the three years of drought which was straightway brought upon all the land.
He sent a raven to feed Elijah bread and meat, and Elijah drank from a creek beside which he lived until it dried up for lack of rain, and then God sent him to live with a poor widow and her son. After he came, they who were about to starve found their dishes of oil and meal continually replenished of themselves, so they all lived. And at one point Elijah raised the son from death.
When three years had elapsed, Elijah sent word to Ahab the king that he wished to see him, but Ahab's reply was moreinsulting so Elijah demanded that all the priests of Baal should gather and offer up sacrifice with him and prove whom God favored. Each priest would provide a bull for the sacrifice, but no fire, for the God of Power should provide the only fire. The actual contest was called with 450 of the priests and prophets of Baal and Elijah, their lone challenger.
All day long Elijah derided their vain efforts to produce fire until his turn came. Then he dug a trench all around his altar to God and prepared the bull of sacrifice. He next poured water over the bull and filled the trench with water -- then called down the fire from heaven. In response to his prayer the fire of the Lord fell and consumed everything -- the bull, the water, and even the stones.
Elijah then had the prophets of Baal killed, and he prophesied the coming of rains, which soon fell in accord with God's promise. Elijah did not die at the end of his mission on earth, but a chariot of fire took him up by a whirlwind into heaven. If John the Baptist was indeed the reincarnation of Elijah, what a mighty soul he was and no stranger to miracles.
To this day Elijah takes part in the Jewish feast of the Passover, when the door is open to receive him after the glass of wine has been poured out and stands waiting for him.
The name John is a contraction of the older name "Jehohanan," or "Johanna," which means "Jehovah has shown mercy," or in the more literal meaning "God-given," or "God's gracious gift." He was the herald sent to announce the arrival of that gift.
In theological circles John is commonly called the Precursor, from the Latin, "to run before." The date of his ministry is fairly well established due to the precise recording of Luke, who said that in the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, the word of God came to
John in the wilderness. This was supposedly about 28 A.D.
In obedience to the Word, John then came from the desert to preach in the region around Jordan, calling for two things, the ablution of baptism and the confession of sin. So it was that when John saw some of the falsely pious Pharisees and Sadducees coming to be baptized, he challenged their sincerity. 'You off-spring of vipers, who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?'
He exhorted them to bring forth fruit worthy of repentance and not to be satisfied with being called a descendant of Abraham. For the time had come when each tree would be judged by its fruit, and "every tree that does not bring forth good fruit is hewn down and cast into the fire."
All the people then asked him what they must do. And he answered teaching them simply, thus: "He that has two coats, let him give to him that has none. And he that has food, let him do likewise."
To the publicans, or tax collectors, who next sought his advice he said (for they were the main extortionists): "Collect no more than the assessment due to you."
And when the soldiers also asked him saying, "And what must we do?" John answered, saying:"Do not resort to violence or false accusation; and be content with your wages."
His teaching was so different from their more recent "prophets" who had been attempting to take over by force, with high pretensions of rank and power, that they wondered at his simplicity, for he asked of them nothing but that they "repent."
The very word "repent" in Greek meant literally this: "Change your way of thinking," "Change your mind." In Hebrew it was "shub" which means to "return" from a false road in order to set foot upon the right one.
The people who had so long awaited the Messiah were on tip- toe in expectation that perhaps this was He. So they questioned him, but John answered truthfully:
"I baptize you with water. But there is one to come who is mightier than I, whose shoes I am not worthy to unfasten. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his granary, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire."
The Roman governor apparently thought him harmless, as did the priestly clan, since they made no effort to impede his work. He was a great evangelist, and they perhaps looked upon him as a phenomenon of the times.
But his direct insults to Herod could not be ignored. Herod himself wished no trouble with John, but his illegal wife became vindictive at the insults directed against her immoral behavior. For she was legally the wife of Herod's brother, and John was determined to cleanse from corruption the "high places" as well as the low.
John continued to preach many other good tidings to the people, in expectation of the great day when Jesus would come to this same place to be baptized of him in the Jordan.
While there is nothing in John's statements which directly tie him to any relationship with the Essene community, the location of his preaching and baptismal work here in the Jordan Valley near the Dead Sea was very near the site of the Qumran group -- practically within view of their buildings. So he must inevitably have experienced some contact with them, whether or not he actually joined the group.
While orthodox Jews did not baptize, the Essene rites did include baptism, and thus it is in no way far-fetched to assume that John spent at least some time among the Essene community.