Fausset's Bible Dictionary
Zacharias (of the course of Abijah,
Elisabeth (of the daughters of Aaron), who both "walked in all the
commandments and ordinances of the Lord blameless." Elisabeth was
related to the Virgin Mary; but Scripture does not state the exact
relationship; the Greek in
which our Bible renders "cousin," means any "relation" or "kinswoman,"
whether by marriage or birth. It is noteworthy that Jesus, of the
Melchizedek order of priesthood, was related to but not descended from
the Aaronic priests. Zacharias was old, and Elisabeth barren, when, as
he was burning incense at the golden altar, Gabriel announced the answer
to his prayers (not directly for a son, but, as Israel's representative,
for Messiah the Hope of Israel) in the coming birth of a son, the
appointed forerunner of Messiah; John (Jehovah's gift) was to he his
name, because his supernatural birth was a pledge of the Lord's grace,
long looked for, now visiting again His people to their joy (Luke 1).
John was to be "great in the sight of the Lord" (contrast Baruch,Jer_45:5). He should be in himself a pattern of that self denial which accords best with his subject of preaching, legal repentance, "drinking no strong drink, but filled with the Holy Spirit (see the same contrast, Eph_5:18, the minister's enthusiasm ought to be not from artificial stimulant but from the Spirit's unction) from the mother's womb," a Nazarite (Num_6:1-21). Like the great prophet reformer (compare 1Ki_18:36-37) Elijah in "spirit. and power" of preaching, though not in miracles (Joh_10:41), he should turn the degenerate "children to the Lord and to" their righteous "fathers, and the heart of the fathers to the children," their past mutual alienation being due to the children's apostasy; fulfilling Mal_4:4-6; bringing "Moses' law" to their remembrance, "lest Jehovah at His coming should smite the earth with a curse." Thus John should "make ready a people for the Lord." Zacharias for unbelief in withholding credit without a sign was punished with dumbness as the sign until the event came to pass.
In the hill country, where Elisabeth had retired, her cousin Mary saluted her, and the babe leaped in Elisabeth's womb. His birth was six months before our Lord's. At his circumcision on the eighth day Zacharias gave his name John; and his returning faith was rewarded with returning speech, of which his first use was to pour forth a thanksgiving hymn, in which he makes it his son's chief honour that he should be "prophet of the Highest, going before the Lord's face to prepare His ways" as His harbinger. John had the special honour of being the subject off prophecy ages before, and of being associated in close juxtaposition with Messiah Himself. John "waxed strong in spirit and was in the deserts until the day of his showing unto Israel" (Luk_1:80). Meanwhile God's interposition in the wonders of his birth caused "all the people to be in expectation, musing in their hearts whether he were the Christ" (Luk_3:15). The thinly-populated region adjoining the hill country of Judea was his haunt; there communion alone with God prepared him for his work.
At 30, when "the word of God came to" him (Luk_3:2), he went forth, his very appearance a sign of the unworldliness and legal repentance. which he preached; his raiment a camel's hair garment secured with leather girdle (2Ki_1:8) as Elijah's; his food that supplied by the desert, locusts (Lev_11:22) and wild honey (Psa_81:16). All classes, Pharisees, Sadducees, the people, publicans, and soldiers, flocked to him from every quarter, Jerusalem, Judea, and the, region round Jordan (Mat_3:5; Luke 3). The leading sects he denounced as a "generation of vipers" (compare Gen_3:15, the serpent's "seed"), warning them that descent from Abraham would not avail with out doing Abraham's works (compare Joh_8:39), and telling all practically and discriminatingly that the repentance needed required a renunciation of their several besetting sins; and that whereas, on their confession, he baptized with water baptism, the Mightier One would come baptizing with the Holy Spirit and fire (Mat_3:11-12). (See BAPTISM.)
When the ecclesiastical authorities sent priests and Levites from Jerusalem to ask, Who art thou? John replied, "I am the voice of one crying in the wilderness, Make straight the way of the Lord" (Joh_1:19-23). The natural wilderness symbolized the moral (Isa_32:15), wherein was no highway for the Lord and for righteousness. The hills of pride and the valleys of degradation must be brought to the one holy level before the Lord (Isaiah 40). John was the forerunner of the reigning Messiah (Mat_3:2; Mal_3:1), but through the nation's rejection of Him that reign was deferred (compare Num_14:34 with Mat_23:37-39). John baptized Jesus and though knowing Him before as a man and his kinsman, yet then first knew His divine Messiahship by the Spirit's visible descent (Joh_1:30-34). (See JESUS; BAPTISM.) John thence forth witnessed to Jesus, desiring to "decrease that He might increase." By his testimony at Bethany (so oldest manuscripts for Bethabara) beyond Jordan, "Behold the Lamb of God," he led two of his disciples to Him, Andrew and John the apostle and evangelist (Joh_1:35 ff; Joh_3:23-36; Joh_4:1-2; Act_19:3).
Yet John never formally joined Jesus; for he was one of the greatest among the Old Testament prophets, but not strictly in the New Testament kingdom, the least in which, as to spiritual privileges, was greater than he (Luk_7:28). His standing was the last of Old Testament prophets, preparatory to the gospel. He taught fasting and prayers, rather in the spirit and therefore with the forms of, the old dispensation which the new would supersede, its new spirit creating its appropriate new forms (Luk_5:33-38; Luk_11:1). Herod Antipas beheaded him in the fortress Machaerus E. of the Dead Sea, to gratify Herodias' spite for John's faithfulness in denouncing her adultery, and in slavish adherence to his reckless oath to give Herodias' daughter Salome, for dancing on his birthday, whatever she might ask. (See HEROD ANTIPAS.)
From the prison John had sent two (the Sinaiticus and Vaticanus manuscripts readMat_11:2 "by," dia, for duo, two) disciples to Jesus to elicit from Himself a profession of His Messiahship, for their confirmation in the faith. (See JESUS.) Jesus at once confirmed them and comforted John himself (who probably had expected to see Jesus more openly vindicating righteousness, as foretold Mal_3:2-5; Mal_4:1-3), by an appeal to His miracles and preaching, the very credentials promised in Isa_35:5; Isa_61:1. Jesus at the same time attested John's unshaken firmness, appealing to His hearers' own knowledge of him (Matthew 11). No reed shaken by the wind, no courtier in soft raiment, was John. But whether it was the ascetical forerunner, or the social Lord Himself, that preached, that generation was dissatisfied, with John because he was too self denying, with Jesus because He would not commend their self-righteous fastings: "we have piped unto you (unto John) and ye have not danced; we have mourned unto you (unto Jesus) and ye have not lamented."
Of John as of Jesus they said, he hath a devil. John fell just before the third Passover of Christ's ministry; his disciples buried him Self denial, humility, wherewith he disclaimed Messiahship and said he was not worthy to unloose His shoes' latchet, zeal for the Lord's honour, and holy faithfulness at all costs, were his prominent graces. (On the "Elias who shall yet come," see ELIJAH, end.) John's ministry extended at its close into Peraea at the S.E. end of the lake of Galilee. When the herald was silenced the Master took up the message (Mar_1:14) in the same quarter. John's labours there so impressed Herod that, "he feared and observed him, and when he heard him did many things, and heard him gladly"; but would not do the one thing needed, give up his adulterous paramour, his brother Philip's wife.
Elijah was translated in a chariot of fire; but John died a felon's death, for the forerunner was to be as his Lord. The worthless Ahab reappears in Herod with similar germs of good struggling with evil. Herodias answers to the cruel Jezebel. As Ahab in spite of himself respected Elijah, so Herod John; but in both cases the bad woman counteracted the good. John in prison fell into the same dejection concerning the failure of the Messianic kingdom, because it did not come in outward manifestation, as Elijah under the juniper. In both cases God came in the still small voice, not the earthquake and fire (Mat_12:15-21).
Taken from: Fausset's Bible Dictionary by Andrew Robert Fausset (1821-1910)