Outward Bound and wilderness therapy programs today view the wilderness as a good location for self-improvement and behavior modification. Time spent in the wilderness engaged in challenging activities and separated from the distractions of modern life can have positive outcomes. Similarly, in the Bible, the wilderness functions as a place of both testing and revelation.
For the Israelites traveling to the land of Canaan, the wilderness serves as a place of testing. Abraham, Hagar, Moses, and Elijah all encounter God in wilderness settings. Jesus, too, is tested in the wilderness (Matthew 4:4), receives revelation there (Mark 1:9-11), and goes to the wilderness to pray (Luke 5:16) and to be alone (Luke 4:42).
Is it “wilderness” or “desert”? Some English versions (for example, CEV and GNT) refer to “desert,” rather than “wilderness” (as in NIV and NRSV). Wilderness refers to a region that has sparse vegetation and is mostly uninhabited. A desert is an area that is sparsely vegetated because it receives little rainfall. Deserts are usually also wilderness areas, but a wilderness does not necessarily have to be a desert. In most cases in the Bible, the context suggests that the key characteristic is sparse population, rather than minimal rainfall, although the two factors are closely related.
John’s Feast Day
In the Roman Catholic tradition, all saints are remembered with prayers on their feast days. John the Baptist’s feast day is June 24. Brethren traditionally do not observe feast days, but John the Baptist is a man we Brethren can appreciate. John witnessed to Jesus as the Lamb of God, but he was a prophet in his own right, bringing a message that we need to “walk the walk” and not only “talk the talk.”
One man frequently associated with wilderness living is the individual we know as John the Baptist (or John the Baptizer). Luke portrays John as a prophet who receives a communication from God in the wilderness: “The word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness” (Luke 3:2b).
John is a prophet, but he also fulfills prophecy found in the book of Isaiah. John is “the voice of one crying out in the wilderness” (Isaiah 40:3). (Interestingly, Luke punctuates Isaiah’s prophetic message differently, locating the voice in the wilderness. Compare Isaiah 40:3 and Luke 3:4 to see the difference.)
When John says in Luke 3:8, “Bear fruits worthy of repentance. Do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham,” he connects Israel’s story to the story of Jesus. Like the prophets of Israel and Judah, John announces that religious activity and biological connections do not automatically make one a follower of God.
Centuries before John, the prophet Amos had announced that God wants people to demonstrate justice and righteousness in their daily lives (Amos 5:21-24), and God either doesn’t want religious activity or wants religious activity to be accompanied by just and righteous living. Later, in Judah, Jeremiah had something similar to say (Jeremiah 7).
John’s message to his fellow Jews should resonate among Anabaptists, for whom it is not enough to be born into a covenantal community. Each person must decide for himself or herself if and when to commit publicly to follow Jesus.
In Luke 3:10-14, John issues a call to ethical reform. Three distinct groups ask, “What should we do?” First, John instructs the crowds, “Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.”
Second, John speaks to tax collectors, saying to them, “Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you” (Luke 3:13). Tax collectors were not well liked in New Testament times, because they collected tolls, tariffs, and custom fees for the Roman rulers who occupied the country. They could easily abuse their position and charge more than the Romans required— keeping that little extra something for themselves.
Third, John replies to the soldiers, who were probably local mercenaries working for the Roman or Roman-appointed rulers. He instructs the soldiers, “Do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusation, and be satisfied with your wages” (Luke 3:14). As local mercenaries in the employ of Roman rulers, soldiers had power that they could wield over people through threats and false accusations.
What does John say to us today? In an age of overconsumption, many of us have more than we need. John calls us to share what we have with those who do not have enough. In an age dominated by greed, John tells us not to seek our own financial security on the backs of others. In an age when people use any means they can to achieve power, status, and wealth, John warns us not to abuse power and to be satisfied with what we earn.
Finally, when some of the crowd speculates that John might be the Messiah they hope for, John turns the attention away from himself to point to one more powerful than he. The prophet brings a message, but he is not equal to the message.
In her recent book Seizing the Nonviolent Moments: Reflections on the Spirituality of Nonviolence through the Lens of Scripture, Nancy Small advocates wilderness time. She writes that “the spirituality of nonviolence calls us into the wilderness.” Just as John was called into the wilderness, Small seems to suggest that we, too, enter the wilderness whenever we challenge assumptions that guide our society. For example, when we live simply in a society of overconsumption or when we advocate reconciliation in a society that demands retaliation, we enter the wilderness. She also suggests that wilderness time is not a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, but a way of life.
The painting that illustrates this Bible study is a late 15th-century work by Geertgen tot Sint Jans, titled St. John the Baptist in the Wilderness. John looks pensive. To us, his posture might suggest sorrow, melancholy, or even a depressive state. A 15th-century audience would more likely identify John’s posture as one of deep contemplation. John has gone out into the wilderness to receive divine revelation. Although without human companions in this wilderness, John has the Lamb of God by his side. This painting might have served its owners as a devotional painting, one that encouraged their own prayer and meditation as they looked upon John’s contemplation.
Nancy Small identifies the wilderness as a place of testing. Will we accept the norms and priorities of our culture or will we follow the teachings of Jesus? Wilderness is also where we can go to receive revelation. As it did for both John and Jesus, wilderness time offers opportunity for solitude, prayer, and the possibility of an encounter with the divine.
Nancy Small, Seizing the Nonviolent Moments: Reflections on the Spirituality of Nonviolence through the Lens of Scripture (Eugene, Ore.: Cascade Books, 2015). Nancy Small is a hospice chaplain, spiritual director, and an ambassador of peace with Pax Christi USA.
Christina Bucher is professor of religion at Elizabethtown (Pa.) College.