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As John the Baptist presented himself to his countrymen as the herald and precursor of Jesus, and was acknowledged by Jesus to be so, and as his history is remarkably connected with the early part of the history of our Lord, the notices which are given of him in the Scriptures possess unusual interest. It is my purpose to examine these notices in their order, so as to present, as far as the materials will permit, a continuous view of his life. This life will naturally precede the lives of those who were afterwards sent by the Messiah to publish his laws and doctrines, as John was sent from above to be his harbinger.
In the first chapter of Luke's Gospel, we have an account of the particulars attending the birth of the Baptist. His father was a priest by the name of Zacharias; and his mother, whose name was Elizabeth,“ was of the daughters of Aaron”; so that he was by birth of the order of priesthood, and on the side of both father and mother, of
sacerdotal descent. He was the child of their
His father Zacharias was, as is said by the Evangelist,“ of the course of Abia.” To understand this expression, we must recur to the fact, stated in the First Book of Chronicles, that David divided the descendants of Aaron into twenty-four orders, named after the chief men among them, who should attend to the service of the temple in rotation. The eighth of these orders, or courses, was that of Abijah, or Abia, and the one to which Zacharias belonged.
What was more honorable to the parents of John than their official and hereditary sanctity, they were really holy and virtuous people. “ They were both righteous before God, walking in all the commandments and ordinances of the Lord, blameless.” No parentage could be more fit for the forerunner of the holy Jesus.
As Zacharias was officiating in the temple in his turn, or “ in the order of his course," an angel appeared to him, predicted the birth of his son, and declared that his name should be John, which means, in the Hebrew language, the gift or grace of God. He added that his birth would be the cause of rejoicing to many; that he would be “great in the sight of the Lord”; that he would be singularly abstemious, and “filled with the Holy Spirit”; and that he should go before the Lord “in the spirit and power of Elias.” It was a general expectation among the Jews, that the prophet Elias, or Elijah, was to reappear on earth in person, to announce the arrival of the Messiah ; and this expectation was founded on one or two passages of the Book of Malachi, such as, “Behold I will send my messenger, and he shall prepare the way before me”; and still more explicitly, “Behold I will send you Elijah the prophet before the coming of the great and dreadful day of the Lord.” The words of the angel evidently refer to this prophecy, and at the same time imply that the messenger of the Lord, who was to precede and announce the Messiah, was not to be Elijah himself, according to common expectation, but one who should " go before him in the spirit and power of Elijah,” – one who, like Elijah, should be endowed with a perception of God's purposes towards mankind, and with power to operate on their minds, to persuade them to repentance, and thus “to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.”
In due time John was born; and his birth took place six months before that of Jesus, whose mother Mary was the cousin of his mother Elizabeth. As the former event may be considered the dawn which betokened the rising of the Sun of Righteousness, we perceive the propriety of its being recorded by Luke in the beginning of his Gospel. The circumcision of John took place, as was customary among the Jews, on the eighth day after his birth; and on this day his father Zacharias recovered the use of his speech, of which he had been deprived, as a sign of the truth of what the angel had told him. • He spake, and praised God”; and his joy burst forth in the words of that sublime and holy song, beginning, “Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, for he hath visited and redeemed his people.” We are then told that “the child grew, and waxed strong in spirit, and was in the deserts till the day of his showing unto Israel.” The meaning of this last clause is not that John, in his early childhood, lived alone in a wilderness, but that he passed his days, till he was called to the exercise of his mission, in the privacy of his parents' abode, which was in the deserts or hill-country of Judæa, as we are informed in the former part of the same chapter. As Hebron was the capital of this hill-country, and was, moreover, one of the cities appointed for the residence of the priests, it was probably the place where John passed his childhood with his parents, as Jesus did with his. Its distance south of Jerusalem was between twenty and thirty, and in the same direction from Nazareth about seventy miles.
Nothing more is related of John, till we hear of his call to commence his great work. The period of his entrance on his ministry is marked with great precision. “Now in the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Cæsar, Pontius Pilate being governor of Judæa, and Herod being tetrarch of Galilee, and his brother Philip tetrarch of Iturea and of the region of Trachonitis, and Lysanias the tetrarch of Abilene, Annas and Caiaphas being the high-priests, the word of God came unto John the son of Zacharias, in the wilderness. And he came into all the country about Jordan, preaching the baptism of repentance for the remission of sins.” The call came to him in the wilderness, or thinly peopled hillcountry, where his family resided ; and beginning there, he advanced towards Jerusalem, confining himself to the same retired portions of Judæa, and preaching to those who resorted to him in increasing numbers, till he reached Bethabara beyond Jordan, a few miles from the holy city, where he held his principal station. All this district of country bordered upon the sacred river Jordan, in which he baptized those who were affected by his preaching, and enlisted themselves among his disciples.