How John the Baptist Shaped Jesus’ Life and Teachings

John the Baptist, a figure as enigmatic as he was influential, casts a long, compelling shadow over the narrative of the New Testament. Often heralded as a forerunner, his life and teachings have been said to significantly shape the path of another, even more transformative figure—Jesus Christ.

Jesus received baptism from John the Baptist and received endorsement from him. Although they shared a similar worldview and focus in teachings, Jesus differed from John in several ways. Unlike John, Jesus did not practice asceticism or baptize others. Instead, Jesus performed miracles, sought an audience, and avoided making political statements.

But there is a lot more to unpack within these to understand John the Baptist’s impact on Jesus’ life.

Starting with their initial interaction and then how John the Baptist influenced Jesus’ ministry and ways that he did not.

Interaction Between Jesus and John the Baptist

Jesus and John the Baptist had somone what complicated relationship.

Luke starts his gospel by introducing John the Baptist as if he and Jesus were destined to work together.

This may have been possible, but still, how the two came together is another story in itself.

A story worth knowing.

Family Connection Between John the Baptist and Jesus

Later in life, John the Baptist would play a pivotal role in his life and ministry.

But their connection, according to Luke, began at birth. Or one could even argue at conception.

Sharing miraculous conceptions, with angels informing their parents about their future significant lives.

Relatives

Related Mothers, Mary and Elizabeth

According to the Gospel of Luke, their mothers, Elizabeth and Mary, were “relatives” (Lk. 1:36). Traditionally understood as being cousins, although the specific nature of their kinship is not explicitly stated in the biblical texts.

But Luke has Mary going down to visit Elizabeth during their shared pregnancies.

After this initial visit, we are told nothing about future interactions.

But did Jesus and John the Baptist, being peers of only 6 months (Lk.1:36), play together as children?

Discuss their passion for the things of God as they shared Passover meals together.

We do not know.

Baptized By John

Mark, the earliest gospel, tells of Jesus hearing about John baptizing in the Jordan River and then going down to be baptized by him (Mark 1:9).

Even Luke, after his big introduction, simply has Jesus, one of many who are baptized by John (Lk. 3:21) when he was approximately 30. John started his ministry before Jesus.

Matthew has Jesus slightly more intentionally, telling of Jesus travelling from Galilee to the Jordan where John was Baptizing (Matt.3:14).

The gospel of John only mentions John recalling baptizing Jesus (Jn.1:32-34).

Jesus being baptized

This event is one of the most attested events of Jesus’ life.

Beyond the 4 gospels of the Bible, we have 4 other early texts recording Jesus being baptized by John.

  • Letter of Ignatius of Antioch
    • To the Smyrnaeans
    • To the Ephesians
  • Gospel of the Hebrews 2
  • Gospel of Nazoreans

One of many reasons that among scholars, there is little debate if Jesus was baptized by John.

“One of the surest things we know about Jesus is that he was baptized by John”

Crosson, The Historical Jesus; Five Views p.123

But not only was Jesus baptized by John but his ministry grew out from his.

Jesus Launched His Ministry from John’s

The gospels present multiple origin stories of Jesus’ public ministry.

The synoptic suggests that shortly after Jesus’ baptism and subsequential temptations in the wilderness, he returned to Galilee and began his ministry Matt.4, Mark 1, Lk.4).

Mark and Matthew add that Jesus’ ministry began in Galilee after he heard that John the Baptist had been arrested (Matt.412, Mark 1:14).

Some scholars assert that the interaction and impact between John the Baptist and Jesus were minimal.

“There is no biblical evidence indicating that John the Baptist ever became a disciple of Jesus, “

Michael H. Crosby, PH.D. in Sage Journals

But John’s gospel presents a much different story.

John the Baptist called attention to Jesus and even encouraged some of his disciples to become Jesus’ “first” disciples (Jn.1:29, 35-37).

And even in the spirit of his mentor, Jesus begins a similar baptizing ministry in the Judean countryside (Jn.3:22,23). Before John is arrested.

This initial ministry of Jesus is so successful that John’s disciples become nervous that it will outgrow theirs (Jn.3:26).

Leaving many scholars like Sanders holding that Jesus was, in fact, a disciple of John for a while.

“Jesus began his public work, as far as we have any information at all about it, in close connection with John the Baptist, probably as a disciple.”

Jesus and Judaism p.91, E.P. Sanders

Leaving a conflict of history between the Gospel of John and the Synoptic.

Ironically, most scholars take John’s presentation as being more historically trustworthy. The reverse of most historians studying the life of Jesus.

“The current majority view of scholars is that Jesus is likely to have been John’s disciple at some time before beginning his own ministry (and in the opinion of some, during the early part of his ministry too).”

Aplin, Max from The University of Edinburgh

Keener suggests that it is possible to have both.

“This Gospel thus may report accurate historical tradition that in the earliest stage of Jesus’ ministry, which overlapped with John in a comparable region, Jesus’ disciples supervised others’ baptism under his instruction. The author is careful to report that Jesus himself did not practise baptism. (Jn.4:2) which might help explain why it does not appear in Synoptic tradition.”

The Historical Jesus of the Gospels p.176, Craig S. Keener

Jesus’ early ministry was in proximity of John but largely performed by his disciples, most likely the same men who had ministered under John earlier.

Then, moving to Galilee, Jesus begins “his” ministry.

Which ironically does not include baptism, but more on that later.

Influence of John the Baptist on Jesus

Even once Jesus is not longer ministering under or near John the Baptist, you can still see the influence of John on Jesus and his ministry in Galilee.

At thirty thousand feet view there are two significant impacts John had on Jesus.

Eschatology Worldview and Fever

There is some debate if Jesus followed his mentor’s lead in eschatology. Making him an apocalyptic.

But almost all scholars believe that John was an apocalyptic prophet, proclaiming that God was about to act in the world in a big way.

“Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”

NIV Matt.3:2

The debate is about whether Jesus had the same view and message.

“I have argued that John the Baptist was an apocalyptic prophet preparing his followers for the imminent advent of God as the Coming One but that Jesus, after having originally accepted that vision, eventually changed his response some time after the execution of John.”

Crossan p.259 The Historical Jesus, The Life of a Mediterranean Jewish Peasant
Apocalypse

I go more in-depth in Was Jesus an Apocalyptic Prophet? , you can click the link if you want a fuller discussion or, even better, read the debate between Dale Allison and 3 members of the Jesus Seminary in The Apocalyptic Jesus: A Debate.

But it still stands that Jesus did speak of a coming immediate change.

“Truly I tell you, this generation will certainly not pass away until all these things have happened.”

NIV Mark 13:30

Spoiler alert: I have become convinced that he most likely was. Jesus followed his mentor in proclaiming that the end was near. Teaching and living as such.

A view also shared by E.P. Sanders

“At the beginning of Jesus’ career, then, we find him accepting the mission of John the Baptist, who said the climax of history was at hand.”

p.95 The Historical Figure of Jesus, E.P. Sanders

Jesus Teaching Shares Focus with John the Baptist.

Beyond the coming kingdom of God and the end of the current world order, Jesus also shared other beliefs with John the Baptist.

“Jesus shared John’s call to the nation for renewal and identified with it.”

Darrell L. Bock p.255 The Historical Jesus; Five Views

Beliefs that filled his teaching.

Repentance

As noted earlier, John’s message was focused on repentance.

Women Repenting

“And so John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness, preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.”

NIV Mark 1:4

Jesus’ message was the same initially.

” From that time on Jesus began to preach, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”

NIV Matthew 4:17

We can only start from where we are. Jesus was no different. He had learned from John and continued his message of calling the people to repentance.

Son of Man

There is much discussion among scholars and lay Christians about who the “Son of Man” was that Jesus regularly spoke of.

But John also spoke of a future figure that would right the wrongs of the world.

“I baptize you with water for repentance. But after me comes one who is more powerful than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor, gathering his wheat into the barn and burning up the chaff with unquenchable fire.”

NIV Matthew 3:11

A similar message is in Luke 3:16.

Jesus also spoke of a future figure that would right the wrongs of the current world.

“For the Son of Man is going to come in his Father’s glory with his angels, and then he will reward each person according to what they have done.”

NIV Matthew 16:27

To be fair, at times, Jesus referred to himself as the “son of man.” But he also, like John the Baptist, looks forward to the future arrival of someone in power to bring change.

“At that time people will see the Son of Man coming in clouds with great power and glory.

Mark 13:26

Of who this future individual was, the two may not have had exactly the same vision in mind.

In Matthew 11:2-11/Luke 7:19-28, we have John sending some of his disciples to ask if Jesus was the one that he had preached about and was waiting for.

Jesus points them to his miracles as proof that he was the one.

But as noted, John may have been looking for a little more judgment and vindication than what Jesus was doing.

Still, Jesus used this opportunity to speak highly of John and praise him.

“I tell you, among those born of women there is no one greater than John”

NIV Luke 7:28a

Ways Jesus was Different than John the Baptist

Despite all these similarities, Jesus was his own man. He had some very distinct practises and beliefs that differed from John the Baptist.

Baptism

Baptism is the biggest difference between John the Baptist and Jesus.

John was obsessed with ritual cleansing, baptism.

That is what he is known for, and for good reason. Because that is what he did.

He called people to repent and be baptized.

Not Jesus.

Nowhere is it recorded that Jesus baptized anyone.

Jesus did not baptize others

In fact, the writer of John goes out of his way to separate Jesus from baptism.

“although in fact it was not Jesus who baptized, but his disciples.”

NIV John 4:2

Why did Jesus go down to the Jordan to be baptized?

Considered it essential or at the least that it was part of righteousness.

Jesus replied, “Let it be so now; it is proper for us to do this [be baptized] to fulfill all righteousness.” Then John consented.

NIV Matthew 3:15

Why did he not continue the practice of his mentor and baptize?

We may never know why, but it’s a significant difference between the two ministries.

Healing Miracles and Exorcistism

It is intriguing the size of the following that John grew without any use of the supernatural, but Jesus almost immediately started healing and casting out demons.

“News about him spread all over Syria, and people brought to him all who were ill with various diseases, those suffering severe pain, the demon-possessed, those having seizures, and the paralyzed; and he healed them”

NIV Matthew 4:24

This is just one of many distinct differences between the two ministries.

Asceticism

From birth, John lived an ascetic life, restricting what he ate, drank and even wore.

John the Baptist did not drink alcohol (Lk.1:14)

He ate only honey and locust. This may have been more out of necessity than choice, but still, it was the lifestyle he lived (Matt.3:4).

Even within this restrictive diet, John fasted (Mark 2:18-22, Lk.5:33).

Finally, he wore cheap but rough camel hair clothes with a single leather belt.

This contrasted greatly with Jesus’ lifestyle.

A fact that even Jesus pointed out.

“For John the Baptist came neither eating bread nor drinking wine, and you say, ‘He has a demon.’ The Son of Man came eating and drinking, and you say, ‘Here is a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners.’”

NIV Luke 7:33,34

Sharing a very similar message of repentance and preparation for the kingdom of God. But John and Jesus differ greatly on the how.

How should we now live?

John said by limiting what we enjoy.

Jesus embraced the pleasure of life as he intermingled with the people who sought to influence.

Judgement

Possibly related to what they enjoyed was whom they hung out with.

Jesus was notorious for eating with “sinners.”

The Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, ‘Here is a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners.’ But wisdom is proved right by her deeds.”

NIV Matthew 11:19

We are not clearly told that John refused to have fellowship with “sinners,” but at the time, a common reason that religious groups like the Essenes withdrew into that wilderness was to remove themselves from such individuals.

There is a distinct difference between the two ministries.

“But ‘change now or be destroyed’ was not his message, it was John’s. Jesus was ‘God loves you.’”

p.233 The Historical Figure of Jesus, E.P. Sanders

Jesus did preach repentance and spoke of judgment based on one’s actions (Matt.25), but at the same time, he had fellowship with many who were still “living in sin.”

Showing the love of God for all, even unrepented sinners.

Urban Focus Instead of Wilderness.

Urban may not be the right word because even Jesus seemed to avoid the big cities except for Jerusalem in the end. But his approach was different than John’s in seeking people.

Village in the countryside

John withdrew to the wilderness, having people come out to him (Mark 1:4,5). Making no attempt to “seek and save” the lost.

“John was a wilderness prophet proclaiming impending judgment.”

p.167 The Historical Jesus of the Gospels, Craig S. Keener

Jesus’ approach was much different.

“Whereas John had worked outside settled area, Jesus went from town to town, village to village, usually preaching in synagogues and the sabbath.”

p.13 The Historical Figure of Jesus, E.P. Sanders

Even from the beginning.

“Jesus replied, “Let us go somewhere else—to the nearby villages—so I can preach there also. That is why I have come.”

NIV Mark 1:38

Yes, there were times that Jesus did withdraw with his disciples for a focus time of teaching or refreshing, but he then always turned back to seeking and finding the “lost.”

Jesus set up his base of operation in Capernaum (Mk.1:21), not the wilderness. This appears to be a very intentional move to connect with people.

Non-Political

According to the gospels, it was John the Baptist’s criticism of Herod Antipas that ended up getting him arrested and killed (Matt. 14:3-5, Mk.6:17,18).

It does not seem that Jesus repeated this mistake until maybe his actions in Jerusalem this last week.

“and he (Jesus) seems not to have attacked Antipas or his government.”

p.205 The Historical Figure of Jesus, E.P. Sanders

Jesus did not hold a high opinion of Herod Antipas, but he did directly challenge him or criticize him as John had done.

At that time some Pharisees came to Jesus and said to him, “Leave this place and go somewhere else. Herod wants to kill you.” He replied, “Go tell that fox, ‘I will keep on driving out demons and healing people today and tomorrow, and on the third day I will reach my goal.’ 

NIV Luke 13:31,32

This may have been as simple as Jesus saw what had happened to John and reasoned that his arrest and death accomplished little towards the mission. So, why poke the bear if there are more important things to focus on?

Keeping his thoughts about the current government’s actions to himself. There were more important things to focus on.

As he said, Jerusalem was where he wanted to die. There were different authority figures that he would boldly challenge and call out.

Interestingly, it still was not the “official government” Pilate whom he challenged but the Sanhedrin.

But that’s a topic for another day.

Resources

  • https://era.ed.ac.uk/handle/1842/5467
  • https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/014610790803800403?journalCode=btba
  • The Historical Jesus; Five Views
  • The Historical Figure of Jesus, E.P. Sanders
  • The Historical Jesus of the Gospels, Craig S. Keener
  • The Conversion of Jesus: From Jesus the Baptizer to Jesus the Healer; Paul Hollenbach 1982
  • The Historical Jesus, The Life of a Mediterranean Jewish Peasant
  • Jesus and Judaism, E.P. Sanders
  • The Historical Figure of Jesus, E.P. Sanders

Ryan Nickel

Two loves of my life beyond my wife and 4 children are history and the person of Jesus. From childhood, I was captivated by history and still love reading and learning about the past. One life in particular that intrigues me in history is the person of Jesus. It's fascinating to think about how the course of human history was changed by a carpenter turned preacher. Both in our times and also in his. I attempt to process all I am learning about him through conversations, writing and shooting videos about the life and teachings of Jesus. With each word drawing me closer into his life. Ryan Nickel has been part of range of churches, including Baptist, Evangelical Free and Church of Christ. In 1999 I graduated from Peace River Bible Institute with a Bachelor of Religious Studies.

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