How did he get to be a wilderness-dweller? Had he lived in a more sophisticated society near Jerusalem and then forsaken it in disgust to become a recluse?
Or, had he once been a member of the Essenes sect that had its own rigorous rules about how members should live? And had he gone one step beyond them to live virtually on his own in the Judean desert?
Or was he in the wilderness just to live out the Nazirite lifestyle that the angel, Gabriel, had prescribed in his prophecy to his father, Zechariah — “no wine or strong drinks”?
These answers are not found in the Bible, nor are they compelling.
There is another explanation handed down by tradition that appeals to me even though it, too, is not in the Bible. It is that John’s father, Zechariah, was murdered by Herod the Great, and his widow, Elizabeth, and young son, John, had fled into the wilderness to escape. If so, John had been a wilderness dweller — by God’s provident design — almost all his life.
Whether or not the legend is true, the sparse wilderness life had prepared John the Baptist for his mission as the herald to get the nation of Israel ready for the Messiah’s appearing.
Back then, when a royal figure from Assyria was to make a trip into his kingdom the herald went ahead and called for the road to be prepared. That meant leveling high points along the way, filling ditches and getting rid of every unworthy impediment.
“In the desert prepare / the way for the Lord; / make straight in the wilderness / a highway for our God. / Every valley shall be raised up, / Every mountain and hill made low; / the rough ground shall become level, / the rugged places a plain (Isa. 40:3,4).
John’s message in heralding Jesus’ coming was, “Clear the road of everything unworthy of royalty, every obstacle, because our long expected King is coming — the Messiah!” His words fill us with joyful expectation to the very present.
But John was finally imprisoned by Herod Antipas for telling him the truth about his lawless marital practices and holding him to God’s moral norms. It was during that imprisonment that Jesus spoke to the people about John with great approval.
Jesus said of him: “I tell you, among those born among women there is no one greater than John (Luke 7:28a). But he added, “yet the one who is least in the kingdom of God is greater than he” (Luke 7:28b).
Earnest believers today are a part of that kingdom already forming (Matt. 11:11-130). The kingdom is now hidden from unbelieving eyes but will be fully revealed when the Messiah comes again in his glory. In the meantime we give hearty thanks for the ministry of John the Baptist that calls us even today to prepare for the our Lord’s return.