The Slow Becoming of John the Baptist (Refiner’s Fire, Pt 14)

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.


Luke, who tells John’s story with the most detail, does not specify at what age John left normal society and went into the Judean Desert, but he seems to have been young. Luke simply says, “The child grew up and became spiritually strong, and he was in the wilderness until the day of his public appearance to Israel” (Luke 1:80). Some have speculated that John lived for a while in an ascetic religious community—perhaps Qumran or somewhere like it. Or he may simply have lived alone.

Either way, John could hardly have picked a more forbidding place in which to find his spiritual footing. Lying between Jerusalem and the Dead Sea and bordered on the south by the Negev, the Judean Desert is solitary and otherworldly to this day—a dramatic landscape of deep canyons and ravines, hills and escarpments, sheer cliffs, caves, and lonely mountaintops.

Hot during the day, cold and windy at night, with few edible plants and even fewer reliable water sources, it is not a hospitable place for human habitation.

Yet, even in John’s day the wilderness had an ancient reputation as a place where prophets and seekers might encounter God.

Many of Israel’s most significant encounters had taken place not in the cities but in the desert places of the Judean wilderness and the Negev. Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob all encountered God in the wilderness while they wandered as nomads. It was in the wilderness that Moses first met Yahweh in the burning bush; and later, he was in the wilderness again when he went up on a mountain, saw the visible glory of God, and received the law. In the wilderness, God tabernacled with his people and appeared to them in cloud and fire; it was in the wilderness that he covenanted with them and constituted them as a people.

It was in the wilderness that David pastured his sheep as a young shepherd, meditated on God’s law, and received an inner revelation of God’s glory, presence, and grace that remains unparalleled even today—and as a young man fleeing from Saul, he took refuge in the caves of the same Judean Desert where John matured from boy to prophet.

Perhaps most importantly, Elijah fled to the wilderness when his life was threatened by Jezebel and her husband Ahab, and it was in the wilderness that he heard God speak in a “still, small voice” —one of the most profound and mysterious moments in all of Old Testament history.

The Journey to Conviction

Whenever it was that John entered the wilderness, he embraced its harsh conditions and was shaped by them. In many ways, John’s entire life was a fast—both by his choice and by God’s command given through Gabriel. The angel’s declaration that John would never drink beer or wine indicated that he was to be specially consecrated as a lifelong Nazirite before his birth, meaning that he would be bound by a specific set of vows that were a part of Israelite religious culture.

Nazirite vows, which are found in Numbers 6, could be entered into by anyone, man or woman, and were usually temporary. They were characterized by various forms of abstinence for the sake of setting oneself apart to seek God: a Nazirite vowed not to drink alcohol or eat or drink anything that derived from grapevines; cut his or her hair; or touch anything dead or unclean until the time of consecration had ended.

God himself consecrated several of his prophets as Nazirites for life prior to their birth, most notably Samuel and Samson. Consecrations of this kind were rare but always significant: they meant that God had chosen this child to be his servant as he acted in Israel. It also seemed to be connected, in some way, to John’s pre-birth baptism with the Holy Spirit.

To be set apart as a lifelong Nazirite meant that John was excluded from full participation in many communal gatherings. He couldn’t celebrate a wedding with the customary drinking of wine or mourn a dead relative at a funeral. His long, uncut hair would have marked him visually as a man set apart from the ordinary concerns of hygiene and social acceptance.

He was a living, breathing reminder that this life is not all there is, and that the call to worship God demanded one’s whole life. But John was also set apart in another way: he was a Levite, specifically descended from the priestly line. His father Zechariah served in the temple, and generations before him had done the same.

Long ago, God had called the Levites to be his priests and temple servants, acting as a liaison between God and the people of Israel. They were the set-apart tribe within a set-apart people.

As part of this special vocation, the tribe of Levi paid a high price and received a higher reward: they were the only tribe out of Israel’s twelve tribes not to be given a land inheritance by God. Instead, they were to live among the other tribes, teaching and serving God. They fulfilled temple service in Jerusalem on a rotation. And instead of land, they were to inherit God himself.

Since the Levites did not have a tribal allotment of their own where they could plant and build, they lacked the resources the other tribes had. Although they did have a few cities and fields among the other tribes, they were also supported by the tithes of the nation. In this way, their living was tied to the temple and the tithe; and as such, they were a barometer for the spiritual health of Israel. Whenever the people ceased to honor God with their tithes and sacrifices, the Levites lost their ability to continue serving and had to retreat to full-time agricultural and merchant work in order to survive.

As far as we can tell, John did not serve in the temple or fulfill the usual Levitical tasks. Instead, he was set apart in special consecration in the wilderness, where he was to hear from God and lead the people to repentance in preparation for Yahweh’s return.

On an individual scale, he fulfilled the calling of his entire tribe—to trade in earthly benefits for a heavenly inheritance and call the nation of Israel back to a holy life before God.

As John sought God in the desert, he must have had these callings-from-birth in mind. Through no choice of his own, he had been born into the Levitical priesthood and consecrated in Nazirite vows. Both these ideas, of vocation and consecration, must have played into his personal sense of purpose.

Certainly, he embraced them. As an ascetic, he went far beyond the usual constraints of a Nazirite. His rough clothing of camel’s hair, diet of locusts and wild honey, and presumed celibacy were not a normal part of Nazirite consecration! He seems to have leaned into the idea that he was different from others and that God intended him to live his life “outside the camp” in a sense.

And as he spent his days in the wilderness, that conviction began to grow and take a definite shape.

To be continued …


This is Part 172 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 Eric Muhr on Unsplash




3 responses to “The Slow Becoming of John the Baptist (Refiner’s Fire, Pt 14)”

  1. […] Part 172: The Slow Becoming of John the Baptist (Refiner’s Fire, Pt 14) (Matthew 11:1-19) […]

  2. Bob Emery Avatar
    Bob Emery

    Great writing and content, as usual. Look forward to the next installment!

    1. Rachel Avatar

      Thanks, Bob! Means a lot coming from you!

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