A Voice in the Wilderness (Refiner’s Fire, Pt 13)

NOTE: “Refiner’s Fire” is a mini-series within my overall series on the gospel of Matthew. To start from the beginning, go here and look for the Refiner’s Fire section at the bottom.


In our Bibles, the Old and New Testaments are separated only by a blank and a title page. We can go directly from the last words of Malachi to the first words of Matthew with hardly a pause—and so it’s easy to forget what, in history, lay between those words.

After Israel’s thousand-year walk with God, during which the presence of God dwelt with the people in various visible and tangible ways, the prophets faithfully spoke, the Old Testament Scriptures were written, and miraculous events were part of lived Israelite experience at least every few generations, the people returned from Babylon with a promise of full restoration to come after a long period of 490 prophetic years—and then God more or less went silent.

In Ezekiel chapter 10, the prophet Ezekiel described God’s manifest glory departing from the temple. As we saw in our earlier look at the postexilic prophets Haggai and Malachi, although the exiles rebuilt the temple, it was clear that Yahweh had not returned—and the long silence after the handful of post-exilic prophets died only accentuated this absence.

The silence itself had been foretold:

Hear this! The days are coming—
this is the declaration of the Lord GOD—
when I will send a famine through the land:
not a famine of bread or a thirst for water,
but of hearing the words of the LORD.
People will stagger from sea to sea
and roam from north to east,
seeking the word of the LORD,
but they will not find it.
(Amos 8:11–12)

Though God continued to watch over his people in notable ways, the period of silence—marked by the absence of any real prophetic voice—lasted another four hundred years or so. And then, as Luke tells the story, a priest called Zechariah went to serve his yearly turn in the Holy Place of the temple and there encountered the angel Gabriel, the same angel who had spoken to Daniel nearly five centuries before. The angel told him that he would have a son in his old age and name him John.


There will be joy and delight for you,
And many will rejoice at his birth.
For he will be great in the sight of the Lord
And will never drink wine or beer.
He will be filled with the Holy Spirit
while still in his mother’s womb.
He will turn many of the sons of the Israel
To the Lord their God.
And he will go before Him
In the spirit and power of Elijah,
To turn the hearts of the fathers to their children,
And the disobedient to the understanding of the righteous,
To make ready for the Lord a prepared people.
(Luke 1:14–17)

Thirty years later, “the word of God came to John the son of Zechariah in the wilderness” (Luke 3:2, ESV). The famine had ended; a new era had begun.

A Life Begins …

Despite his prominent place in the gospel story, we know very little about John’s early life. He was born to elderly Levite parents somewhere in the hill country of Judea, just as the angel foretold. According to Luke 1:15, he was filled with the Holy Spirit while still in his mother Elizabeth’s womb.

John’s birth was accompanied by several miraculous events. Of course, his conception was a miracle in the first place—Elizabeth was well past menopause when John was conceived. In fact, when the angel told Zechariah he would have a son, his initial response was to express disbelief for exactly that reason.

As a rebuke for his lack of faith (and also as a sign of God’s involvement in the pregnancy), the angel struck Zechariah mute, promising him that his voice would be restored after the child was born. This came to pass, but not immediately—Zechariah’s voice returned only after he insisted, in writing, that the newborn boy be named John in accordance with the angel’s instructions and not given a family name.

Finally, an event occurred while John was still in his mother’s womb that would especially foreshadow the days to come. Elizabeth had a young cousin named Mary, who had recently had an angelic visitation of her own—and immediately after it, she went to visit her older cousin and stay with her for the first several months of her pregnancy. The moment Mary arrived, the as-yet-unborn John responded to her presence and the presence of the child she had conceived:

When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the baby leaped inside her, and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit. Then she exclaimed with a loud cry:

“You are the most blessed of women,
and your child will be blessed!

How could this happen to me, that the mother of my Lord should come to me? For you see, when the sound of your greeting reached my ears, the baby leaped for joy inside me! She who has believed is blessed because what was spoken to her by the Lord will be fulfilled!” (Luke 1:41–45)

The Desert Prophet

Although John and Jesus were relatives, the Bible does not tell us whether they spent time together as children or young adults. And in fact, that doesn’t seem to have been the case. Mary and her husband Joseph took Jesus to Egypt when he was a young child and after that settled in their hometown, Nazareth in Galilee—some distance from the Judean Hill Country. After his early migrations, Jesus seems to have had a fairly standard upbringing.

John, on the other hand, seems to have had a highly unusual one.

Most of us know John the Baptist as the man who appeared from the wilderness blazing with warnings and kingdom announcements and baptizing people in the Jordan River as a sign of repentance, cleansing, and renewal. As an ascetic, the post-wilderness John was a recognized but controversial type in his own time and an almost incomprehensible one in ours.

Long before that day, however, he underwent a profound spiritual formation in the wilderness of Judea.

To be continued …


This is Part 171 in a series on the Gospel of Matthew, which you can access here. Unless otherwise marked, quotes are from the Holman Christian Standard Bible.


Photo by Arto Marttinen on Unsplash




One response to “A Voice in the Wilderness (Refiner’s Fire, Pt 13)”

  1. […] Part 171: A Voice in the Wilderness (Refiner’s Fire, Pt 13) (Matthew 11:1-19) […]

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