And he [John] will turn many Israelites to the Lord their God. He will be a man with the spirit and power of Elijah. He will prepare the people for the coming of the Lord. He will turn the hearts of the fathers to their children, and he will cause those who are rebellious to accept the wisdom of the godly. [Luke 1:16-17 (NLT)]
When the angel promised John’s birth to Zechariah, it was ordained that the child would be named John, that he would be a Nazarite, and that he would prepare the people for the coming of the Lord. After that, other than his circumcision, the only thing we know about John’s youth is that he “grew up and became strong in spirit. And he lived in the wilderness until he began his public ministry to Israel.” [Luke 1:80] We know that Zechariah lived in the hill country of Judea and church tradition places his home in Ein Karem near Jerusalem. Considering Zechariah’s and Elizabeth’s advanced ages, they probably didn’t live to see their boy become a man. Nevertheless, they would have been sure their son knew of his divine calling and made provisions for his care.
The word translated as wilderness or desert is erémos, meaning a barren place, it typically was used to describe the desert to the east and south of Palestine. It is speculated that John may have resided in the erémos with a community of Essenes who lived in the Judean desert near Qumran. This Jewish sect studied and copied Hebrew scripture and practiced various forms of asceticism like fasting, prayer, and celibacy. 1st century historian Josephus tells us they often took in children who were dedicated by their parents to such a lifestyle and the Dead Sea scrolls tell us they often recruited members from priestly families.
There are similarities between John and the Essenes. They both strived for holiness through a demanding ascetic lifestyle, practiced a baptism ritual requiring a change in heart, and described themselves as voices in the wilderness. Like John, Essenes had a special diet and members vowed never to eat food prepared outside the community. There was, however, a loophole and anything eatable found in nature that didn’t require preparation was allowed so John’s strange diet of wild honey and locusts would have been acceptable for an Essene.
There are, however, significant differences between the Essenes and John. Essenes interpreted Isaiah’s words, “Clear the way through the wilderness for the Lord! Make a straight highway through the wasteland” to mean they should separate themselves from Judah and civilization and live in the wilderness to await redemption. The Essenes lived in almost total isolation but John did just the opposite and became a very public voice by the banks of the Jordan as he called the nation to repent. The Essenes’ doctrine expected two Messianic figures along with a prophetic figure. The Dead Sea scrolls make it clear they did not believe Jesus to be a messianic figure but John recognized Jesus as the one and only Messiah.
With his call for the nation’s repentance, John is far more like an Old Testament prophet than an Essene. Just as Elijah confronted King Ahab about his sins, John confronted Herod. Like Elijah, he wore clothing of camel’s hair with a leather belt and his attire, while seeming strange to us, would have made perfect sense to a 1st century Jew. Jesus made the connection when he told John’s disciples that John was the fulfillment of Malachi’s prophecy that a prophet would come in the spirit and power of Elijah to prepare the way for the Lord.
John the Baptist is the connection between the Old and New Testaments—between the old covenant of the law and the new covenant of grace. We may not know much about John before his thirtieth year but we do know that he fulfilled the task God set before him: “to prepare the way for the Lord. …to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, and to guide us to the path of peace.”