The Voice in the Wilderness
[This chapter is based on Luke 1:5-23, 57-80; 3:1-18;
Matt.3:1-12; Mark 1:1-8.]
From among the faithful in Israel, who had long waited for the coming
of the Messiah, the forerunner of Christ arose. The aged priest
Zacharias and his wife Elisabeth were "both righteous before
God;" and in their quiet and holy lives the light of faith shone
out like a star amid the darkness of those evil days. To this godly pair
was given the promise of a son, who should "go before the face of
the Lord to prepare His ways."
Zacharias dwelt in "the hill country of Judea," but he had
gone up to Jerusalem to minister for one week in the temple, a service
required twice a year from the priests of each course. "And it came
to pass, that while he executed the priest's office before God in the
order of his course, according to the custom of the priest's office, his
lot was to burn incense when he went into the temple of the Lord."
He was standing before the golden altar in the holy place of the
sanctuary. The cloud of incense with the prayers of Israel was ascending
before God. Suddenly he became conscious of a divine presence. An angel
of the Lord was "standing on the right side of the altar." The
position of the angel was an indication of favor, but Zacharias took no
note of this. For many years he had prayed for the coming of the
Redeemer; now heaven had sent its messenger to announce that these
prayers were about to be answered; but the mercy of God seemed too great
for him to credit. He was filled with fear and self-condemnation.
But he was greeted with the joyful assurance: "Fear not,
Zacharias: for thy prayer is heard; and thy wife Elisabeth shall bear
thee a son, and thou shalt call his name John. And thou shalt have joy
and gladness; and many shall rejoice at his birth. For he shall be great
in the sight of the Lord, and shall drink neither wine nor strong drink;
and he shall be filled with the Holy Ghost. . . . And many of the
children of Israel shall he turn to the Lord their God. And he shall go
before Him in the spirit and power of Elias, to turn the hearts of the
fathers to the children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the just;
to make ready a people prepared for the Lord. And Zacharias said unto
the angel, Whereby shall I know this? for I am an old man, and my wife
well stricken in years."
Zacharias well knew how to Abraham in his old age a child was given
because he believed Him faithful who had promised. But for a moment the
aged priest turns his thought to the weakness of humanity. He forgets
that what God has promised, He is able to perform. What a contrast
between this unbelief and the sweet, childlike faith of Mary, the maiden
of Nazareth, whose answer to the angel's wonderful announcement was,
"Behold the handmaid of the Lord; be it unto me according to thy
word"! Luke 1:38.
The birth of a son to Zacharias, like the birth of the child of
Abraham, and that of Mary, was to teach a great spiritual truth, a truth
that we are slow to learn and ready to forget. In ourselves we are
incapable of doing any good thing; but that which we cannot do will be
wrought by the power of God in every submissive and believing soul. It
was through faith that the child of promise was given. It is through
faith that spiritual life is begotten, and we are enabled to do the
works of righteousness.
To the question of Zacharias, the angel said, "I am Gabriel,
that stand in the presence of God; and am sent to speak unto thee, and
to show thee these glad tidings." Five hundred years before,
Gabriel had made known to Daniel the prophetic period which was to
extend to the coming of Christ. The knowledge that the end of this
period was near had moved Zacharias to pray for the Messiah's advent.
Now the very messenger through whom the prophecy was given had come to
announce its fulfillment.
The words of the angel, "I am Gabriel, that stand in the
presence of God," show that he holds a position of high honor in
the heavenly courts. When he came with a message to Daniel, he said,
"There is none that holdeth with me in these things, but Michael
[Christ] your Prince." Dan. 10:21. Of Gabriel the Saviour speaks in
the Revelation, saying that "He sent and signified it by His angel
unto His servant John." Rev. 1:1. And to John the angel declared,
"I am a fellow servant with thee and with thy brethren the
prophets." Rev. 22:9, R. V. Wonderful thought--that the angel who
stands next in honor to the Son of God is the one chosen to open the
purposes of God to sinful men.
Zacharias had expressed doubt of the angel's words. He was not to
speak again until they were fulfilled. "Behold," said the
angel, "thou shalt be dumb, . . . until the day that these things
shall be performed, because thou believest not my words, which shall be
fulfilled in their season." It was the duty of the priest in this
service to pray for the pardon of public and national sins, and for the
coming of the Messiah; but when Zacharias attempted to do this, he could
not utter a word.
Coming forth to bless the people, "he beckoned unto them, and
remained speechless." They had waited long, and had begun to fear,
lest he had been cut down by the judgment of God. But as he came forth
from the holy place, his face was shining with the glory of God,
"and they perceived that he had seen a vision in the temple."
Zacharias communicated to them what he had seen and heard; and "as
soon as the days of his ministration were accomplished, he departed to
his own house."
Soon after the birth of the promised child, the father's tongue was
loosed, "and he spake, and praised God. And fear came on all that
dwelt round about them: and all these sayings were noised abroad
throughout all the hill country of Judea. And all they that heard them
laid them up in their hearts, saying, What manner of child shall this
be!" All this tended to call attention to the Messiah's coming, for
which John was to prepare the way.
The Holy Spirit rested upon Zacharias, and in these beautiful words
he prophesied of the mission of his son:
"Thou, child, shalt be called the prophet of the Highest;
For thou shalt go before the face of the Lord to prepare His ways;
To give knowledge of salvation unto His people
By the remission of their sins,
Through the tender mercy of our God,
Whereby the Dayspring from on high hath visited us,
To give light to them that sit in darkness and in the shadow of death,
To guide our feet into the way of peace."
"And the child grew, and waxed strong in spirit, and was in the
deserts till the day of his showing unto Israel." Before the birth
of John, the angel had said, "He shall be great in the sight of the
Lord, and shall drink neither wine nor strong drink; and he shall be
filled with the Holy Ghost." God had called the son of Zacharias to
a great work, the greatest ever committed to men. In order to accomplish
this work, he must have the Lord to work with him. And the Spirit of God
would be with him if he heeded the instruction of the angel.
John was to go forth as Jehovah's messenger, to bring to men the
light of God. He must give a new direction to their thoughts. He must
impress them with the holiness of God's requirements, and their need of
His perfect righteousness. Such a messenger must be holy. He must be a
temple for the indwelling Spirit of God. In order to fulfill his
mission, he must have a sound physical constitution, and mental and
spiritual strength. Therefore it would be necessary for him to control
the appetites and passions. He must be able so to control all his powers
that he could stand among men as unmoved by surrounding circumstances as
the rocks and mountains of the wilderness.
In the time of John the Baptist, greed for riches, and the love of
luxury and display had become widespread. Sensuous pleasures, feasting
and drinking, were causing physical disease and degeneracy, benumbing
the spiritual perceptions, and lessening the sensibility to sin. John
was to stand as a reformer. By his abstemious life and plain dress he
was to rebuke the excesses of his time. Hence the directions given to
the parents of John,--a lesson of temperance by an angel from the throne
In childhood and youth the character is most impressible. The power
of self-control should then be acquired. By the fireside and at the
family board influences are exerted whose results are as enduring as
eternity. More than any natural endowment, the habits established in
early years decide whether a man will be victorious or vanquished in the
battle of life. Youth is the sowing time. It determines the character of
the harvest, for this life and for the life to come.
As a prophet, John was "to turn the hearts of the fathers to the
children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the just; to make ready a
people prepared for the Lord." In preparing the way for Christ's
first advent, he was a representative of those who are to prepare a
people for our Lord's second coming. The world is given to
self-indulgence. Errors and fables abound. Satan's snares for destroying
souls are multiplied. All who would perfect holiness in the fear of God
must learn the lessons of temperance and self-control. The appetites and
passions must be held in subjection to the higher powers of the mind.
This self-discipline is essential to that mental strength and spiritual
insight which will enable us to understand and to practice the sacred
truths of God's word. For this reason temperance finds its place in the
work of preparation for Christ's second coming.
In the natural order of things, the son of Zacharias would have been
educated for the priesthood. But the training of the rabbinical schools
would have unfitted him for his work. God did not send him to the
teachers of theology to learn how to interpret the Scriptures. He called
him to the desert, that he might learn of nature and nature's God.
It was a lonely region where he found his home, in the midst of
barren hills, wild ravines, and rocky caves. But it was his choice to
forgo the enjoyments and luxuries of life for the stern discipline of
the wilderness. Here his surroundings were favorable to habits of
simplicity and self-denial. Uninterrupted by the clamor of the world, he
could here study the lessons of nature, of revelation, and of
Providence. The words of the angel to Zacharias had been often repeated
to John by his God-fearing parents. From childhood his mission had been
kept before him, and he had accepted the holy trust. To him the solitude
of the desert was a welcome escape from society in which suspicion,
unbelief, and impurity had become well-nigh all-pervading. He distrusted
his own power to withstand temptation, and shrank from constant contact
with sin, lest he should lose the sense of its exceeding sinfulness.
Dedicated to God as a Nazarite from his birth, he made the vow his
own in a life-long consecration. His dress was that of the ancient
prophets, a garment of camel's hair, confined by a leather girdle. He
ate the "locusts and wild honey" found in the wilderness, and
drank the pure water from the hills.
But the life of John was not spent in idleness, in ascetic gloom, or
in selfish isolation. From time to time he went forth to mingle with
men; and he was ever an interested observer of what was passing in the
world. From his quiet retreat he watched the unfolding of events. With
vision illuminated by the divine Spirit he studied the characters of
men, that he might understand how to reach their hearts with the message
of heaven. The burden of his mission was upon him. In solitude, by
meditation and prayer, he sought to gird up his soul for the lifework
Although in the wilderness, he was not exempt from temptation. So far
as possible, he closed every avenue by which Satan could enter, yet he
was still assailed by the tempter. But his spiritual perceptions were
clear; he had developed strength and decision of character, and through
the aid of the Holy Spirit he was able to detect Satan's approaches, and
to resist his power.
John found in the wilderness his school and his sanctuary. Like Moses
amid the mountains of Midian, he was shut in by God's presence, and
surrounded by the evidences of His power. It was not his lot to dwell,
as did Israel's great leader, amid the solemn majesty of the mountain
solitudes; but before him were the heights of Moab, beyond Jordan,
speaking of Him who had set fast the mountains, and girded them with
strength. The gloomy and terrible aspect of nature in his wilderness
home vividly pictured the condition of Israel. The fruitful vineyard of
the Lord had become a desolate waste. But above the desert the heavens
bent bright and beautiful. The clouds that gathered, dark with tempest,
were arched by the rainbow of promise. So above Israel's degradation
shone the promised glory of the Messiah's reign. The clouds of wrath
were spanned by the rainbow of His covenant-mercy.
Alone in the silent night he read God's promise to Abraham of a seed
numberless as the stars. The light of dawn, gilding the mountains of
Moab, told of Him who should be as "the light of the morning, when
the sun riseth, even a morning without clouds." 2 Sam. 23:4. And in
the brightness of noontide he saw the splendor of His manifestation,
when "the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall
see it together." Isa. 40:5.
With awed yet exultant spirit he searched in the prophetic scrolls
the revelations of the Messiah's coming,--the promised seed that should
bruise the serpent's head; Shiloh, "the peace giver," who was
to appear before a king should cease to reign on David's throne. Now the
time had come. A Roman ruler sat in the palace upon Mount Zion. By the
sure word of the Lord, already the Christ was born.
Isaiah's rapt portrayals of the Messiah's glory were his study by day
and by night,--the Branch from the root of Jesse; a King to reign in
righteousness, judging "with equity for the meek of the
earth;" "a covert from the tempest; . . . the shadow of a
great rock in a weary land;" Israel no longer to be termed
"Forsaken," nor her land "Desolate," but to be
called of the Lord, "My Delight," and her land
"Beulah." Isa. 11:4; 32:2; 62:4, margin. The heart of the
lonely exile was filled with the glorious vision.
He looked upon the King in His beauty, and self was forgotten. He
beheld the majesty of holiness, and felt himself to be inefficient and
unworthy. He was ready to go forth as Heaven's messenger, unawed by the
human, because he had looked upon the Divine. He could stand erect and
fearless in the presence of earthly monarchs, because he had bowed low
before the King of kings.
John did not fully understand the nature of the Messiah's kingdom. He
looked for Israel to be delivered from her national foes; but the coming
of a King in righteousness, and the establishment of Israel as a holy
nation, was the great object of his hope. Thus he believed would be
accomplished the prophecy given at his birth,--
"To remember His holy covenant; . . .
That we being delivered out of the hand of our enemies
Might serve Him without fear,
In holiness and righteousness before Him, all the days of our
He saw his people deceived, self-satisfied, and asleep in their sins.
He longed to rouse them to a holier life. The message that God had given
him to bear was designed to startle them from their lethargy, and cause
them to tremble because of their great wickedness. Before the seed of
the gospel could find lodgment, the soil of the heart must be broken up.
Before they would seek healing from Jesus, they must be awakened to
their danger from the wounds of sin.
God does not send messengers to flatter the sinner. He delivers no
message of peace to lull the unsanctified into fatal security. He lays
heavy burdens upon the conscience of the wrongdoer, and pierces the soul
with arrows of conviction. The ministering angels present to him the
fearful judgments of God to deepen the sense of need, and prompt the
cry, "What must I do to be saved?" Then the hand that has
humbled in the dust, lifts up the penitent. The voice that has rebuked
sin, and put to shame pride and ambition, inquires with tenderest
sympathy, "What wilt thou that I shall do unto thee?"
When the ministry of John began, the nation was in a state of
excitement and discontent verging on revolution. At the removal of
Archelaus, Judea had been brought directly under the control of Rome.
The tyranny and extortion of the Roman governors, and their determined
efforts to introduce the heathen symbols and customs, kindled revolt,
which had been quenched in the blood of thousands of the bravest of
Israel. All this intensified the national hatred against Rome, and
increased the longing to be freed from her power.
Amid discord and strife, a voice was heard from the wilderness, a
voice startling and stern, yet full of hope: "Repent ye; for the
kingdom of heaven is at hand." With a new, strange power it moved
the people. Prophets had foretold the coming of Christ as an event far
in the future; but here was an announcement that it was at hand. John's
singular appearance carried the minds of his hearers back to the ancient
seers. In his manner and dress he resembled the prophet Elijah. With the
spirit and power of Elijah he denounced the national corruption, and
rebuked the prevailing sins. His words were plain, pointed, and
convincing. Many believed him to be one of the prophets risen from the
dead. The whole nation was stirred. Multitudes flocked to the
John proclaimed the coming of the Messiah, and called the people to
repentance. As a symbol of cleansing from sin, he baptized them in the
waters of the Jordan. Thus by a significant object lesson he declared
that those who claimed to be the chosen people of God were defiled by
sin, and that without purification of heart and life they could have no
part in the Messiah's kingdom.
Princes and rabbis, soldiers, publicans, and peasants came to hear
the prophet. For a time the solemn warning from God alarmed them. Many
were brought to repentance, and received baptism. Persons of all ranks
submitted to the requirement of the Baptist, in order to participate in
the kingdom he announced.
Many of the scribes and Pharisees came confessing their sins, and
asking for baptism. They had exalted themselves as better than other
men, and had led the people to entertain a high opinion of their piety;
now the guilty secrets of their lives were unveiled. But John was
impressed by the Holy Spirit that many of these men had no real
conviction of sin. They were timeservers. As friends of the prophet,
they hoped to find favor with the coming Prince. And by receiving
baptism at the hands of this popular young teacher, they thought to
strengthen their influence with the people.
John met them with the scathing inquiry, "O generation of
vipers, who hath warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bring forth
therefore fruits meet for repentance; and think not to say within
yourselves, We have Abraham to our father: for I say unto you, that God
is able of these stones to raise up children unto Abraham."
The Jews had misinterpreted God's promise of eternal favor to Israel:
"Thus saith the Lord, which giveth the sun for a light by day, and
the ordinances of the moon and of the stars for a light by night, which
divideth the sea when the waves thereof roar; The Lord of hosts is His
name: If those ordinances depart from before Me, saith the Lord, then
the seed of Israel also shall cease from being a nation before Me
forever. Thus saith the Lord; If heaven above can be measured, and the
foundations of the earth searched out beneath, I will also cast off all
the seed of Israel for all that they have done, saith the Lord."
Jer. 31:35-37. The Jews regarded their natural descent from Abraham as
giving them a claim to this promise. But they overlooked the conditions
which God had specified. Before giving the promise, He had said, "I
will put My law in their inward parts, and write it in their hearts; and
will be their God, and they shall be My people. . . . For I will forgive
their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more." Jer. 31:33,
To a people in whose hearts His law is written, the favor of God is
assured. They are one with Him. But the Jews had separated themselves
from God. Because of their sins they were suffering under His judgments.
This was the cause of their bondage to a heathen nation. Their minds
were darkened by transgression, and because in times past the Lord had
shown them so great favor, they excused their sins. They flattered
themselves that they were better than other men, and entitled to His
These things "are written for our admonition, upon whom the ends
of the world are come." 1 Cor. 10:11. How often we misinterpret
God's blessings, and flatter ourselves that we are favored on account of
some goodness in us! God cannot do for us that which He longs to do. His
gifts are used to increase our self-satisfaction, and to harden our
hearts in unbelief and sin.
John declared to the teachers of Israel that their pride,
selfishness, and cruelty showed them to be a generation of vipers, a
deadly curse to the people, rather than the children of just and
obedient Abraham. In view of the light they had received from God, they
were even worse than the heathen, to whom they felt so much superior.
They had forgotten the rock whence they were hewn, and the hole of the
pit from which they had been digged. God was not dependent upon them for
the fulfilling of His purpose. As He had called Abraham out from a
heathen people, so He could call others to His service. Their hearts
might now appear as lifeless as the stones of the desert, but His Spirit
could quicken them to do His will, and receive the fulfillment of His
"And now also," said the prophet, "the ax is laid unto
the root of the trees: therefore every tree which bringeth not forth
good fruit is hewn down, and cast into the fire." Not by its name,
but by its fruit, is the value of a tree determined. If the fruit is
worthless, the name cannot save the tree from destruction. John declared
to the Jews that their standing before God was to be decided by their
character and life. Profession was worthless. If their life and
character were not in harmony with God's law, they were not His people.
Under his heart-searching words, his hearers were convicted. They
came to him with the inquiry, "What shall we do then?" He
answered, "He that hath two coats, let him impart to him that hath
none; and he that hath meat, let him do likewise." And he warned
the publicans against injustice, and the soldiers against violence.
All who became the subjects of Christ's kingdom, he said, would give
evidence of faith and repentance. Kindness, honesty, and fidelity would
be seen in their lives. They would minister to the needy, and bring
their offerings to God. They would shield the defenseless, and give an
example of virtue and compassion. So the followers of Christ will give
evidence of the transforming power of the Holy Spirit. In the daily
life, justice, mercy, and the love of God will be seen. Otherwise they
are like the chaff that is given to the fire.
"I indeed baptize you in water unto repentance," said John;
"but He that cometh after me is mightier than I, whose shoes I am
not worthy to bear: He shall baptize you with the Holy Ghost and with
fire." Matt. 3:11, R. V., margin. The prophet Isaiah had declared
that the Lord would cleanse His people from their iniquities "by
the spirit of judgment, and by the spirit of burning." The word of
the Lord to Israel was, "I will turn My hand upon thee, and purely
purge away thy dross, and take away all thy tin." Isa. 4:4; 1:25.
To sin, wherever found, "our God is a consuming fire." Heb.
12:29. In all who submit to His power the Spirit of God will consume
sin. But if men cling to sin, they become identified with it. Then the
glory of God, which destroys sin, must destroy them. Jacob, after his
night of wrestling with the Angel, exclaimed, "I have seen God face
to face, and my life is preserved." Gen. 32: 30.
Jacob had been guilty of a great sin in his conduct toward Esau; but
he had repented. His transgression had been forgiven, and his sin
purged; therefore he could endure the revelation of God's presence. But
wherever men came before God while willfully cherishing evil, they were
destroyed. At the second advent of Christ the wicked shall be consumed
"with the Spirit of His mouth," and destroyed "with the
brightness of His coming." 2 Thess. 2:8. The light of the glory of
God, which imparts life to the righteous, will slay the wicked.
In the time of John the Baptist, Christ was about to appear as the
revealer of the character of God. His very presence would make manifest
to men their sin. Only as they were willing to be purged from sin could
they enter into fellowship with Him. Only the pure in heart could abide
in His presence.
Thus the Baptist declared God's message to Israel. Many gave heed to
his instruction. Many sacrificed all in order to obey. Multitudes
followed this new teacher from place to place, and not a few cherished
the hope that he might be the Messiah. But as John saw the people
turning to him, he sought every opportunity of directing their faith to
Him who was to come.
[ Back ] [ Up ] [ Next ]