John the Baptist

1. A Voice crying in the Wilderness

"Like a voice crying in the wilderness" is an expression used in the modern world to denote an unpopular message. It refers to ideas which oppose the fashion of the time. It is a lone voice pleading against the action being taken by the majority. In a sense this was how it was used concerning John the Baptist. Matthew, Mark and Luke quote from Isaiah 40:3. Modern translators have tended to separate the ‘voice’ from the ‘wilderness’ at least in Isaiah. It can be translated "A voice of one calling: In the wilderness prepare the way for the LORD" (NIV).

John was the last of the great prophets of Israel and followed quite distinctly in their tradition. His birth and preparation were directly guided by God and he was the "voice of God" bringing his people back to the way of the Lord. He was not expressing his own opinions or looking for popular applause; he had a mission and a message from God. He was, as Malachi promised, the messenger who was to come "to prepare the way before me, and the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple". (Mal.3:1 RSV) This picture is of a slave who went before the entourage of ancient royalty, clearing the way and making sure that people and materials were swept from the road. Thus he was the herald of the presence of the king. For many centuries Israel had waited for a Deliverer. At first Moses referred to "that prophet". Much later, God’s promises to David led to the idea of an anointed one—the Messiah. He was to represent God in a very special way to bring salvation to God’s people. He was to put right that which was wrong and usher in a time of peace and prosperity. To John was committed the task of preparing the way for the Son of God. It was the greatest task any human being could do apart from Christ himself. Luke very carefully sets the political and religious scene in the first century (Luke 3:1‑2). Those verses speak of Roman tyranny and immorality; of local intrigue and weakness and of priestcraft and the oppression of ordinary people. Into this kind of world John the Baptist was born. It was here that he and his cousin were to work and suffer and die. For centuries God had been preparing his people to receive his Son. They had not listened to the messengers God sent, and they were not ready to receive him. The hearts of that generation in Israel were like uncultivated soil. Nothing short of a mighty storm could now make them ready for their Messiah, so that he could sow his seed of the Kingdom. In that "voice" from the wilderness Israel had her storm and it was a voice which thundered to slave and prince alike without expediency or partiality. It was a voice which broke up the stony hearts of God’s people and came down like rain upon the lives of ordinary but neglected people. Where did such a preacher come from and how had he been reared and trained for his mighty task? Why of all places did he come from the desert? John was born in the hill country of Judea, the child of elderly parents. They were of priestly families within the tribe of Levi. The record says that they were law abiding folk, upright in character and the ones to rear a boy who has to serve the Lord, except that they were past the time when they would normally expect to start a family.

It would be easy to get a very unfavourable view of the priesthood from the Gospels unless we note such comments about Zacharias and Elizabeth. They correlate with the report that came later concerning the growth of the Early Church, which records that "many of the priests were obedient to the faith" (Acts 6:7 RSV). Elizabeth had endured an aching heart for many a long year, for she had no children. It was common in Israel for women to want a child who might deliver God’s people from their enemies. This aged couple had the double honour of entertaining in their home the mother of the One who was to be Messiah and to be the parents of a son who would one day herald that Messiah.

It is reasonable to suppose that Zacharias taught John to be a priest from his earliest years. It was a father’s duty to rear his son to follow his own calling; how much more this boy of whom the angel Gabriel had spoken. Much more, the old father had been filled with God’s spirit at John’s birth and prophesied that the boy would become the prophet of the Most High. With what interest John must have learned about Zacharias’ encounter with an angel in the Temple as he was fulfilling his duties as a priest. How did the old man relate the shock which amounted to unbelief? With what enthusiasm did John listen again and again to the angel’s words and his father’s prediction concerning his own future.

Zacharias’ words recorded in Luke 1:67‑79 form quite a remarkable hymn of praise. They embody much important teaching and bring together the hopes and promises of God to Israel. This is more than a celebration of his restored speech or the jubilation of a father who has gained a remarkable son in his old age. This is no less than an announcement that God is about to break through into the world of men and come to his people Israel. Zacharias would not know just how this was going to be fulfilled; like so many in Israel at that time, the things contained in his prophecy meant to him that Israel would be restored to her former glory. Nevertheless the vision of the old priest is conveyed to us in words which aptly describe the work of Jesus. He was coming to bring light to replace darkness, salvation from sin and a restored relationship with God. His work would herald that Kingdom which would eventually bring peace and goodwill to all men.

John’s education with his father would be much more than was required to become a priest. Every Hebrew boy learned by heart the Messianic promises. Something of their significance would begin to dawn in the boy’s heart as he became familiar with those promises. John’s parents were old when he was born; by the time he reached manhood it is probable that they slept with their fathers. To whom would John turn? In the period when the Qumran scrolls were coming to light and the Essene community was being publicised, some writers made a case for John having spent time in their monastery. Whether or not he came under their influence for a while the Scriptures remain silent. The Gospel description of John’s diet and clothing do not fit at all with the Qumran group; they cultivated their own vegetables, but John found his food among the wildlife of the desert. His cloak was like the desert nomad’s garments which were made from woven animal hair and quite unlike the Essene white linen tunics. All we are told is that he was in the desert until the day of his appearance to Israel.

While we may find it tantalising that there is so little information about John, it was never intended that he should draw attention to himself. People commented on the fact that he "did no miracle". (John 10:41) He came to prepare God’s people for their Messiah and point them to him. He did this without thought of ambition or personal success in the most selfless way possible. He could draw men to Christ and then shrink away into the shadows. His attitude is enshrined in the words of Katie Barclay Wilkinson.

"May his beauty rest upon me, as I seek the lost to win,
And may they forget the channel, seeing only him."

Golden Bells 551

It is a vital lesson to learn from one who was so near to Christ. It is more than likely that Jesus and John spent time together in their boyhood as cousins. Yet the words recorded of John about Jesus were not of his human life. John speaks not of the person whom he had known for 30 years; rather it is the spiritual life with which John is concerned, the Lamb of God takes away the sin of the world. This was to be echoed in Paul’s words to the Corinthians; "...we regard no one from a human point of view; even though we once regarded Christ from a human point of view, we regard him thus no longer" (2 Cor.5:16 RSV). Had John gone into the priesthood he might have become a great preacher in the cities and moved among the throngs. He might have spent his time in learning or exchanging thoughts with the great teachers in Jerusalem as Jesus did. God’s purpose for John was not in that direction. He spent a long time in the desert, alone and quietly meditating upon the great God of Israel and his word; thus he came to know him in the quietness of his inner being. Not for this Nazarite were the busy streets and public places which could snare him from his purpose; with only the wild animals as neighbours he was away from that which could divert his attention and hinder God’s purpose. This is how God has often prepared those who are to speak for him. There must be silence, when self stops striving and God is allowed to act and speak in our lives.

(To be continued)