“And so John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.” Mark 1:4
The gospel’s inclusion of the setting of the Baptist’s ministry in the wilderness is not merely a historical nugget but carries deep meaning in its connection to Israel’s prophetic history. No doubt John the Baptist performed his ministry in the wilderness, at least in part, to remind the Israelites of their past and bring them to a crisis of decision in the present.
The wilderness was a place of God’s provision
After God led Israel out of slavery in Egypt he led them into the wilderness. The wilderness served not only as an obstacle that Israel needed to traverse to get to the Promised Land, but as a place where Israel could learn about God’s special provision in a dangerous and unhospitable land. In the wilderness he provided food and water. He ensured that their garments would not wear out. He gave them physical security through military victories over Egypt and the Amalekites.
After Israel had rebelled against God and were facing Babylonian exile God recalls their wilderness experience: “I remember the devotion of your youth, how as a bride you loved me and followed me through the wilderness, through a land not sown” (Jeremiah 2:2). Then he accuses them of forgetting God’s provision: “They did not ask, ‘Where is the LORD’ who brought us up out of Egypt and led us through the barren wilderness, through a land of ravines, a land of deserts and ravines, a land of drought and utter darkness, a land where no one travels and no one lives” (Jeremiah 2:6).
In the wilderness Israel was like a young child, just birthed through God’s act of deliverance from slavery from Egypt, an event which culminated in the Passover and the crossing of the Red Sea. In the wilderness the Israelites found themselves in a place of childlike dependence upon God’s miraculous provision.
The wilderness was a place of God’s renewal
Yet Israel did not remain in the wilderness. God brought them out of a land of scarcity and into a land of abundance. Moses predicted that there they would grow complacent and prideful and that they would turn away from God. His prediction proved true and God brought judgement on their rebellion in the form of the destruction of their land (so that their once fertile land became an inhospitable and dangerous place like the wilderness) and the ultimate expulsion from the land in exile.
The prophets called on God’s people to remember and return. And, in doing so, they would find that God would be faithful to his promise and restore his people. Here again we see the wilderness come into effect. Isaiah vividly describes how God will bring hope to even the most hopeless situations:
The desert and the parched land will be glad;
the wilderness will rejoice and blossom.
Like the crocus, 2 it will burst into bloom;
it will rejoice greatly and shout for joy.
The glory of Lebanon will be given to it,
the splendor of Carmel and Sharon;
they will see the glory of the Lord,
the splendor of our God.
3 Strengthen the feeble hands,
steady the knees that give way;
4 say to those with fearful hearts,
“Be strong, do not fear;
your God will come,
he will come with vengeance;
with divine retribution
he will come to save you.”
5 Then will the eyes of the blind be opened
and the ears of the deaf unstopped.
6 Then will the lame leap like a deer,
and the mute tongue shout for joy.
Water will gush forth in the wilderness
and streams in the desert. (Isaiah 35:1-6)
Later, the voice of one who declares the good news of God’s restoration is a voice in the wilderness. The gospel writers apply this directly to John the Baptist:
“In the wilderness prepare
the way for the Lord
make straight in the desert
a highway for our God. (Isaiah 40:3)
Out of the natural danger of the wilderness God brings both creation and recreation. In the first case, God uses the wilderness to form his people. In the second, he transforms the wilderness itself.
The wilderness brings about a crisis of decision
Yet the wilderness is not a place of guaranteed restoration. It is not a pleasant place, and its unpleasantness can either bring reliance or rebellion. Israel rebelled in the wilderness as often as it trusted. They complained that there was no food and water. They built a golden calf when Moses was on Mount Sinai. They rebelled when God instructed them to go into the Promised Land. The wilderness brought Israel to a crisis of decision. They could either trust God, or they could turn away.
The wilderness in John the Baptist’s ministry
When John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness he called people to repent, to turn away from their sin and return to God. His call for a turning of the heart was mirrored by a call to return to the wilderness, the place where God’s relationship with his people began and could begin again.
John called the people to reenact Israel’s birth as a nation. In baptism they reenacted the Red Sea experience. In the wilderness, they reenacted a radical trust in the God who provides. In confession and repentance they forsook their old ways in Egypt.
In doing so John called the people to a crisis of decision. They could either rebel like their ancestors or trust God and find renewal. But John didn’t simply call them to work harder. He pointed them to Jesus. The way that they would express their trust in God would be to trust in the One who He sent, the one more powerful than John.
The wilderness and the start of Jesus’s ministry
Finally, it’s worth it to show how the gospel writers use the wilderness motif in Jesus’s ministry. Jesus himself is baptized, identifying himself with Israel specifically, and with humanity in general. He, too, has a Red Sea experience in which God the Father publicly calls him out as chosen for a purpose. Immediately afterwards he is led into the wilderness where he experiences intense temptation from Satan himself. Here he must face his own crisis of decision. Does he trust God or does he go the way of Israel and humanity and rebel?
His answers are given in Matthew: “Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God” (4:4), “Do not put the Lord your God to the test” (4:7), and “Worship the Lord God, and serve him only” (4:10). At the precises place where Israel and humanity was faithless, Jesus proved faithful.
Our wilderness experience?
John the Baptist called people to a crisis of decision and, in reading the gospel story, the evangelists draw us to that same decision. We encounter in Jesus the chance to repent, find renewal, and restart our lives afresh. This isn’t just a call to “try harder”, or “do better.” It’s a call to receive a transformed heart. John baptized with water, an outward sign of new birth. But, Jesus promised a baptism by the Holy Spirit. That transformative power is enough to bring streams in the desert, to make the deaf hear, the blind see, and the lame walk, and to turn the rocky soil of our hearts into a field where life can flourish.