At this time a message from God came to John son of Zechariah, who was living in the wilderness.
Then John went from place to place on both sides of the Jordan River, preaching that people should be baptized to show that they had repented of their sins and turned to God to be forgiven.
Isaiah had spoken of John when he said, "He is a voice shouting in the wilderness, 'Prepare the way for the LORD's coming! Clear the road for Him!
The valleys will be filled, and the mountains and hills made level. The curves will be straightened, and the rough places made smooth.
And then all people will see the salvation sent from God.'" (Luke 3:2b-6)
It is good for us to go back and look at the Old Testament portion in focus. Here it is:
Listen! It's the voice of someone shouting, "Clear the way through the wilderness for the LORD! Make a straight highway through the wasteland for our God!
Fill in the valleys, and level the mountains and hills. Straighten the curves, and smooth out the rough places.
Then the glory of the LORD will be revealed, and all people will see it together. The LORD has spoken!" (Isaiah 40:3-5)
There are some differences between these accounts. It is not a word for word match to Isaiah. The quote has been clipped from the LXX. I am not going to open up a can of worms with that comment at this stage; there are too many other things to comment. It's clear from looking at the Isaiah quote that the wilderness is emphasized with the repetition. In the Luke statement the idea of the leveling and in filling relates to spiritual things. Hence the comment by Luke setting the scene that the preaching focused on baptism for repentance for the forgiveness of sins. That gives us the clue as to where all this headed.
Why is John in the wilderness? Why isn't he where the people were?
The wilderness refers to the nation of Israel stuck in a spiritual wilderness for 400 years with no word from the Lord. The Angelic visitations to the nation concerning the coming of the Messiah are the first Words from the Lord during the Inter-Testamental period. There has been a lack of hearing from the Lord. The people have been in a spiritual wilderness. Why didn’t John go to the big cities and preaching there? Why not preach this word in Jerusalem. I don't know for sure but I suspect it has something to do with testing the children of Israel out as to their willingness to get serious with God and leave behind the comforts of an indolent life and come out from among them. Are you willing to leave behind the safe and secure to venture in to the wilderness to hear His voice. Israel are frequently tested in the wilderness. So too are individuals in Scripture. Leaving behind the trappings of life to test for yourself what is real and of value, that which is most important to you. So the people are called out of the city to face God in the wilderness in order to find Him again. Hence "the voice in the wilderness" stands for two ideas. John's voice is literally in the wilderness. If the people of Israel wanted to respond they had to go to the wilderness. But the notion is also the voice comes to Israel's wilderness experience of not hearing from God and not being connecting with Him. There are two meanings.
Is John just following the prophecy in order to fulfill it?
Many skeptics think prophecy in Scripture is engineered by a person knowing the prophecy before hand and then trying to live their live to fulfill the prophecy in order to make it come about. So the idea of the critics is that John heads off to the wilderness and lives there because the "prophecy" is set in the wilderness. That is a very narrow view of biblical truth if that is your viewpoint. The Bible account is way more marvelous than that.
Why does he go both sides of the river?
Michael, one of my Wycliffe colleagues, wrote "I was surprised by the English translation you used in your Gem saying “John went from place to place on both sides of the Jordan River.” Both sides? Where did that come from." I deliberately chose that translation because of the way it put the idea. It was somehow out of the ordinary and captivating. Reading a different, unusual reading will sometimes capture our attention in ways that reading our favourite doesn’t. Literally the word used means the region surrounding the Jordan. The focus is the Jordan. The word περίχωρον from "peri" meaning around and "xoros" which means region is showing that the focus is on the Jordan itself. He preaches in the region surrounding the Jordan river. When I saw the translation in the NLT I thought, I like that. I will choose that one. Another reason I often use the NLT is that with every copy sold a donation is made to Wycliffe Bible Translators. As Michael wrote to me, "So he went everywhere in the Jordan river vicinity. Up and down the river. It doesn’t say both sides of the Jordan, though I don’t know why he would limit himself to one side. The Gospel of John mentions him baptizing in “Bethany on the other side of the Jordan”; we don’t know where that town is, but it was clearly in the south, on the east side of the Jordan from Judea proper." Other commentators say the focus is on the Jordan because John needed water to baptize. I think it runs deeper than that. I am sure there is more to it than that but I haven't got the reason figured out yet.
It is clear that John went beyond the region of the Jordan at another time. John also ministered up in Galilee because he encounters Herod Antipas and we saw the other day he was the tetrarch in the Northern region. John was arrested by Herod Antipas so he clearly had to be in the area that Herod ruled over. Yet he also clearly spent most of his time in around the Jordan. Was it simply a question of needing water to baptize or is there something more behind this? I plan to ask John when I see him if I don't get it figured out beforehand. Ha ha and you thought Ian had all the answers. No, it is not possible to have all the answers to Bible questions. It is too deep for that.
This gem is already getting long so I will address the other questions tomorrow. Enough for now.
The grass isn’t greener on the other side of the fence. It's greener where you water it. Rick Warren
(and it's greener along the Jordan – ha ha)
You can't inherit the Promised Land with Egyptian mentality! Rick Godwin