By Elizabeth Prata
What if you were going to plant a church or start a ministry or were called to go somewhere, but it was the LEAST populated place in the entire area? Like, the people who lived there are widely dispersed and the whole place thin with people? Would you go? Would you trust that this was a call from God? Or would your trust in Him be tested?
I was reading Matthew 3 yesterday and the chapter opens like this:
Now in those days John the Baptist came, preaching in the wilderness of Judea, saying, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” (Mathew 3:1).
I always had focused on the ‘repent’ part because I love that anytime I read it. But this time I focused on the ‘wilderness’ part. I started asking questions.
When you read your Bible, do you ask questions? I find that’s the best way for me to dig in. I also like to put in place in my mind the locations and distances. Maybe that’s because I love maps. Anyway, I asked myself, ‘Wut? Wait, where IS this wilderness? What does it look like? How far is it from Jerusalem? What is its history?’ Like that.
The wilderness referred to here is John The Baptist’s father’s birthplace. It is where Zacharias and Elizabeth lived and where Mary visited her cousin Elizabeth when Mary was found with child. (Luke 1:39). It was remote and thinly populated – but not totally devoid of people.
Barnes’ Notes says of the ‘Wilderness’:
"In the wilderness of Judea - This country was situated along the Jordan and the Dead Sea, to the east of Jerusalem. The word translated "wilderness"...was a mountainous, rough, and thinly settled country, covered to some considerable extent with forests and rocks, and better suited for pasture than for tilling. There were inhabitants in those places, and even villages, but they were the comparatively unsettled portions of the country, 1 Samuel 25:1-2. In the time of Joshua there were six cities in what was then called a wilderness, Joshua 15:61-62."
The wilderness was the where David fled to take refuge from Saul; we just read in Matthew 3 that John the Baptist prepared for his mission here; and it was here that Jesus suffered His temptation. The area was west of the Dead Sea extending all the way up to just east of Jerusalem. There was little pasture. Much of it was desert and rocky. It was said that to travel there one must travel at least through 3 to 5 hours with no hope of water. Where John the Baptist preached was about a day’s journey from Jerusalem. The place where the Bible records the Baptism of Jesus was where the Jordan River empties into the northern tip of the Dead Sea, likely about five miles north of the Dead Sea and a little more than six miles southeast of the city of Jericho.
And yet…many flocked to hear this preacher…this prophet. God had not sent a prophet for 400 years, not since Malachi. The people were intrigued and hopeful. Baptisms were increasing. (Then Jerusalem was going out to him, and all Judea and all the district around the Jordan; and they were being baptized by him in the Jordan River, as they confessed their sins. Matthew 3:5-6). The Pharisees and Sadducees must have been curious as to this new ‘thing’ happening. Who was John the Baptist? Why was he in the wilderness and not properly in Jerusalem? They went to check him out. They got an earful!
John the Baptist called them a brood of vipers and reminded them of the wrath to come. This must have surprised the religious leaders, because they believed that simply having been born into the genealogy of Abraham kept them from any judgment. But, it was not so. They must have thought, ‘I traveled all the way to the wilderness and all I got was this lousy t-shirt and yelled at’.
When you read the Bible, it helps to picture what is happening. These events are real and actually took place with real people in real time. Make a movie in your head. Feel the searing Palestinian sun, the rocky terrain crunching under your sandaled feet, hot thirst in your throat, weary from a day of walking, then seeing this strange, wild man wearing camel’s hair and a leather belt around his waist, preaching in total Holy Spirit power. Remember, John the Baptist was filled with the Spirit since birth (Luke 1:15). Quite a scene
It was a strange place for God to choose to open His mouth after 400 years. But as Matthew Henry said of this verse,
The Lord plants where He will plant. Desert wilderness? No problem. Corinth, the most immoral city in Asia? Not an issue. Remote jungle of Ecuador? He’s got this. He will plant the seed of the Gospel in hearts of stone, and He makes them grow and thrive into sanctified flesh set apart for His glory. We serve a great and amazing God.