December 24, 2017
And so John grows and when he comes of age, God takes him into the wilderness until his “public appearance” (as the ESV renders it) — literally, until his “installation” or “commissioning.” — Until such a time as God raised him up into his public and prophetic role.
But why the wilderness? And what is its significance to us?
To really grasp that, we need to take a bit of a stroll through the Bible and look not only at what takes place in the wilderness, but more importantly, what God uses the wilderness for in the life of his people. By doing so, it is my hope that you will not only understand why John was taken into the wilderness, but that you will gain a better sense of our role as a church …a church in the spiritual wilderness of this world.
Let’s begin by defining what we mean by “wilderness.” The English word originals from the Old English word for a wild deer…thus, the “wild-deer-ness” was a place where one went to hunt wild deer…and for that matter, other wild game. It was a place uninhabited by man and where only the wild animals dwell.
It is the place where you go to hunt or where you go for adventure and while our world is becoming increasingly developed, there are still large areas fo wilderness across the globe that yield new adventures and discoveries.
The Greek word that lies behind our text means very much the same thing — it is an area of trees, desert, or savannah where men have not built cities, established villages, or cultivated fields, though humans might pasture their animals in the plains of the wilderness, typically passing from one area to another.
So, with a definition in mind, let’s begin at looking how God uses wilderness and begin by looking at creation.
Genesis 1 gives us a record of God creating all things — a divine fiat, a miraculous act — creating all things from nothing — ex nihilo — in the space of 6 ordinary days, resting on the seventh, creating the basis for a seven-day week.
And then, in Genesis 2, we find the account doing a bit of a recap, looking more closely at the creation of man on day 6. Sometimes people get all worked up about supposed differences between these two chapters, but they harmonize nicely if you know what it is that you are looking at.
What I want you to see is that the initial creation was created as a wilderness but then God cultivated a region of this to create a garden for man and his family to dwell within.
Now, the command then to work and keep the garden implies that their task was to have dominion over the world by cultivating it, bringing order to disorder after the model that God set in his garden. Yet, when Adam and Eve fell, they were cast out from the garden — a place of perfect order — and into a place of disorder.
Be careful, though, that you do not equate the wilderness with the curse, for it is not so. The wilderness simply becomes harder to cultivate and man will do so by the sweat of his brow. So, now the ordering of disorder still takes place, but it takes place more slowly and with lots of frustration. And, sadly, it is the line of Cain that seems to be more active in the process of building a civilization because by the generation of Noah all of mankind had grown wicked.
So, what does God do? He sends a flood — a cosmic reset of a sort — and once again the world is remade into a wilderness and a new family (Noah and his 3 sons and their wives) are given the same task of taking dominion. To begin that, Noah creates a vineyard…
There is a pattern here: God places man in a context where he can cultivate the wilderness after the model of God, but man pursues his own ends and his own glory and thus God scatters them back into the wilderness. It was the case of Adam and Eve, but later it would also be the case with Cain and Abel, the world and Noah, the people at Babel, and so forth.
A change in the pattern happens, though, when you move from Genesis to Exodus because after 430 years in Egypt, God delivers his people into the wilderness, not because of their sin, but because of the sins of the Egyptians. Yet, God leaves them in the wilderness for 40 years because of the Israelites’ sin after their deliverance.
But I want you to see something here — the purpose of the 40 years was not just to ensure that the original generation that doubted God had died off, but that God was doing something in the wilderness as well — he was teaching the people how to rely on Him alone.
God provided manna and quail, water from a rock, protection from their enemies, light at night and a cloud to guide them during the day — and even their clothing did not wear out. Every need they had was provided for them in the wilderness (Nehemiah 9:21). And, thus God taught them reliance on His promises and on His strength…just as he taught David the same when he fled to the wilderness from Saul, for Elijah as he fled to the wilderness from Jezebel, and even Jesus as he was tested by the Devil.
This provides the backdrop for an important statement in the prophets. For example, through Hosea, God says, ‘I will allure her and bring her into the wilderness’ (Hosea 2:14). Why? Because the people relied on God for all things, not their own works.
But what wilderness will this be? Certainly Hosea is not speaking of the wilderness of Sinai once again. No, the people are scattered amongst the nations — creating a diaspora — something that Ezekiel calls a “Wilderness of Nations.” (Ezekiel 20:23)
And so, when Isaiah prophesies the coming of the Messiah and his forerunner, be begins with these words: “A Voice cries: In the wilderness, prepare the way of the Lord and make straight in the desert a highway for our God.”
Now, if you have your Bibles open to this passage, let me highlight the grammar here, because it is important…for often, the way this is read…notice a colon there: Literally, it reads:
“A Voice Cries out! <colon> In the wilderness prepare the way of Yahweh.”
How is this important? Because it is not so much that the voice is in the wilderness, but it is that the straight path is in the wilderness. What is significant about this? It is significant because God is about to bring his people out of the land and into the wilderness once again — so make is straight because my people are going to enter it. This is not, “Make a straight road because God is coming into the land, but make a straight road because he is taking you out of it.”
And, as God often does with his prophets — he calls them to live out what he is about to do with his people — John then leaves civilization and enters the wilderness where God will provide, until such a time as he begins the public ministry to which he has been called and then calls people out into the wilderness.
Isn’t it interesting that when John begins this covenantal ministry, he appears at the Jordan…the place where the people left the wilderness and crossed over onto dry land to enter the promised land. And thus, John’s baptism of repentance is a reenactment of the river crossing itself.
How is this worked out in the church? Shortly after Pentecost, what does the church do? It heads out of the land and into the wilderness, relying on God (just as the 12 and the 72 were called to not take anything with them but to rely on God’s provision through the man of peace)…they leave the land and enter into the “wilderness of the nations” preaching the Gospel. They are sent into the place of spiritual disorder to bring spiritual order through the Gospel to the world.
And so, when Peter writes his first epistle to the churches in the dispersion, he uses wilderness wandering language, telling the churches that they are heading toward an inheritance (a new promised land) that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven until the last age.
Why? Because like Israel in the wilderness, we too are a church in the wilderness. Unlike Israel in the wilderness, the challenges and provision is not earthly, but it is spiritual.
So, how does this affect our lives in the church?
First, we are in the wilderness and not in the Promised Land…not just yet. Thus, we should expect trials and challenges at every turn, yet God will provide.
Second, not only do we need to learn to trust God’s provision, we also must learn not to do things our way but in the way God has insisted in in his word.