What does John’s stern appearance & diet signify? With what Old Testament prophet is John identified & why?
“Now John was clothed with camel's hair and wore a leather belt around his waist and ate locusts and wild honey” (Mark 1:6 ).
John the Baptist was a living anachronism, a prophet of old like Jeremiah (1:2) and Malachi (1:1) to whom the word of God came “shattering four hundred years of prophetic silence” (Howell, 25). In case the Jewish faithful missed it, John the Baptist's appearance would have matched the stories passed down from their ancestors regarding the appearance of God's prophets. He would have appeared most specifically like the prophet Elijah, who also wore a garment of camel hair and a leather belt (2 Kings 1:8) (interestingly, but irrelevantly some have posited that Elijah did not wear camel hair, but that Elijah himself was a really hairy man (Henry, 26). This additional parallel only reinforced the angel Gabriel's word that John would come “in the spirit and power of Elijah” (Luke 1:16-17) and fulfill the word of Malachi 3:1 and 4:5. Though John the Baptist denied it, all this significant evidence was not lost on the Jewish priests and Levites from Jerusalem who asked him “Who are you?...Are you Elijah?...Are you the Prophet?” (John 1:20-21).
Since John the Baptist was also to fulfill the role of Elijah, preparing the way for the coming Messiah by calling the nations to repentance, his clothes spoke a message all of their own. The “rough” clothing and austere diet recall the stern self-sacrificing, self-denying ministries of the Old Testament prophets, not that of a lucrative rabbi (Howell, Lecture). In this way John's clothes were an enacted parable protesting the spiritual softness that had become Israel’s self-indulgent religious establishment (Howell 25). Furthermore, John's clothes fit the emphasized humility of Jesus Christ's arrival, the King who was born to an unknown family, laid in an animal trough, and announced to lowly shepherds. John's mission would have been well understood in the East as that of a courier who went ahead to proclaim the monarch's coming and thus the need for the citizens to prepare for His arrival (Thomas/Gundy, 42 footnote). However, the Christ King's courier is an ascetic without proper clothes, let alone attire worthy of a king who made the announcement in the barren wasteland of southern Judea.
Some interpreters have attempted to draw modern applications from this passage. By pointing to John the Baptist, they attempt to support ascetic practices due to his spurning of long and soft clothing saying that “those, who are lovely in heart, should show it by a holy indifference in their attire.” While modern readers can agree with these interpreters' other statements that Christians should “not make the putting on of apparel their adorning” (Henry, 26) as Paul encourages worshipers (1 Timothy 2:10), this ascetic application borderlines on turning John's actions into a legalistic command for all believers. Instead of mandating the Pharisaical tendency to outwardly express “loveliness of heart,” each person should only follow extra-biblical convictions as led by the Spirit while granting grace and charity to those the Spirit has not led to do likewise.
Brett Yardley: Warrior for Christ. Devoted Husband. Proud Father. Martial Artist. Hopeful Philosopher & Theologian. Aspiring Teacher & Writer.