1. A Voice in the Wilderness

Men Called Him Master
Elwyn Allen Smith
Scriptures Referenced in This Article:
          (Follow the Scripture links if you want to study the Scriptures for yourself.)
Mt. 3:1-6 π Mt. 3:7-8 π Mt. 3:9-10 π Mt. 3:11 π Mt. 3:12 π Mt. 3:13-17 π Mk. 1:4-6 π Lk. 3:6 π Lk. 3:8-9; 2nd π Lk. 3:10-14 π Jn. 1:19-27 π Jn. 1:32-34

"Andrew! The baskets are slipping!" Two men on foot were driving heavily loaded donkeys ahead of them. Across the back of Andrew's tiny beast hung two huge baskets. One slanted crazily forward.

"It ought to hold until we get to the top," answered Andrew. He looked critically at the load and then at the path ahead. They were climbing the bank of a wide gully cut by the floods that rushed down from the barren hills into the valley of the Jordan River every spring. Andrew shouted a command and the donkeys climbed slowly upward. At the top the men stopped to catch their breath.

"John," exclaimed Andrew in disgust, "I have tightened this thing on every hill between Galilee and Judea!" He worked impatiently at the knotted ropes that bound the baskets on the donkey's back. John was not listening. He was gazing at the scene before them.

Torrents of muddy water poured through the gully during the season of rains. Now the clay in the bottom was dry and cracked. Under the hoofs of the animals it was as hard as stone. John pushed his damp hair back from his forehead. His home province, with its green hillsides surrounding the cool Lake of Galilee, was very different from this burnt, rocky land of Judea, which lay southwest of where they stood. The gully carried a sluggish stream of heated air up from the valley; he could feel the damp warmth on his skin. Even on the hilltop there was no cooling breeze.

Andrew wiped his face with a dusty sleeve and left a dirty streak above his brows. "There!" he exclaimed. "These baskets ought to stay on now." The rope was drawn tightly around the belly of the donkey.

"We should be at Bethany soon," remarked John.

Andrew struck the donkey with his whip and said gruffly, "Come on!" as though the animal had shaken its load loose on purpose. The little caravan started again, Andrew in the lead.

The road was built on the slope of the hills which closed in the plain of the Jordan. Stretching far to the west the men could see fields of ripe grain. The heat of early summer had come quickly this year and now threatened to destroy the crop. Farmers were hard at work cutting the wheat and threshing out the grain on platforms of earth pressed smooth as stone.

"Are you sure that John the Baptizer is still at Bethany?" called Andrew over his shoulder. John did not answer. After a moment, Andrew added, "Perhaps he has gone to some other place to preach." Still there was no reply. Irritated, Andrew turned. John had dropped behind and was walking with a stranger. Where had this traveler come from? He must have been moving fast to overtake them so swiftly. His robe was hitched high at the waist for easier walking. Andrew slowed and waited for the men.

"Could you tell us, friend, where John the Prophet is baptizing?" John was saying.

The traveler smiled. "I hear he is at Bethany on the Jordan, near Jericho. Do you want to hear him?"

"We are his disciples," responded John proudly; then he bit his lip. Andrew was frowning at him. It was dangerous to say a thing like that! John looked at the stranger narrowly. He was from Galilee; his broad accent showed that. John glanced at Andrew. Surely a Galilean was safe! "The Prophet says that Israel will soon be free," ventured John. It was a test question. The stranger smiled as though he agreed, and Andrew asked enthusiastically: "Do you believe him? He says that God will overthrow the Romans soon!"

"How does John the Baptizer think all this will happen?" asked the Galilean traveler.

Andrew did not reply for a long while. Finally he said: "The Prophet tells us that we cannot set ourselves free without God's help. He says that if we had been willing to change our ways, God would have rescued us long ago. Therefore we must get rid of sin and pride and take our stand on God's side. When we do that, great things will happen!" He looked directly at his fellow traveler. "Do you believe this?"

The stranger's answer was clear. "John speaks the truth."

Suddenly they heard the thunder of galloping hoofs. A band of horsemen was bearing down on them. Helmets and spears glinted in the brilliant sunlight. Andrew and John shouted at the donkeys, but one of them moved slowly. Desperately John whipped the animal. The donkey leaped. A rope snapped and one of the heavy baskets dropped to the ground.

The three men heard a soldier curse them. They could hardly see each other for the thick dust. The basket lay trampled in the dirt; salted fish were scattered all over the road. Andrew kicked the ruined basket into the ditch. "May God soon burn Rome and all her soldiers! This land belongs to us!" He ran a few steps as if to overtake the riders and shook his fist. "God will strike you!" he shouted. The stranger was helping John put what was left of the fish in the other three baskets.

Andrew turned to them. "I have seen whole armies of Romans march through fields of ripe wheat! I have seen our towns burned by these destroyers! They have killed thousands of our people! We have seen even our own friends killed by these murderers!"

The man answered quietly: "I know what they have done. But hating them will not help." Andrew was taken by surprise.

"We have been oppressed before," continued the stranger. "God has sent John to us now, just as He has always sent prophets to tell us what we should do."

"What should we do?

"Just as you said yourself, we must repent of our sin," replied the traveler. "God can do very little until He finds men who are willing to obey Him." Andrew had nothing to say.

"There is a well not far ahead," remarked John. "We must water the animals." Under a dusty palm over the next hill they found the well. The stranger drew water for the donkeys and they drank noisily. Then He drew water for the men. They had no sooner finished than Andrew urged: "Let's hurry. We are not far from the place where John is baptizing."

The road led down the slope and across the plain toward the river, which had cut a deep gorge. At the edge the men paused to look. A hundred feet below flowed the Jordan. It seemed sluggish now; but in the rainy season it was swift and treacherous. The water was yellow and gray and only a few shrubs clung to the banks. A short distance away the river turned and disappeared behind the opposite cliff.

"The crossing is below that bend," explained John to the stranger. "The Prophet should be there." He gave his donkey a cut with the whip, and the stolid animal moved faster. A few minutes later he cried out: "There! See down there?" People were gathered at the edge of the river. It did not take the men long to reach the gully through which the road descended to the river. The fishermen tied their donkeys with the other animals that stood tethered to bushes and small trees. In their haste they forgot their companion.

"Do you see the Prophet?" inquired Andrew, looking eagerly about. John jerked at his sleeve.

"There! By that rock on the bank!" They climbed up the slope where they could see.

John could not tell why he felt the way he did. It might have been the appearance of John the Baptizer. He wore a rough camel-hair tunic and a leather belt. None of the people who were there for the first time had ever seen such a man before. He was very thin. His skin was tanned brown and his hair and beard were long. Like the poorest people in Palestine, he lived on grasshoppers and wild honey. Just then John the Baptizer spoke. He looked old, but his voice showed that he was young and strong.

"It is time you begin to show some sign that you are God's chosen people," he cried out. "But you are just like your ancestors - you pay no attention to God. You don't listen to the prophets. God is not going to wait much longer. The time has come to repent! The Kingdom of Heaven is near!" ( Mt. 3:1-6 , Mk. 1:4-6; top )

The crowd stirred. What was this? Could it be true that the end of the world was coming soon?

"Isaiah the Prophet said, 'Everyone shall see the saving power of God,'" continued the Baptizer. ( Lk. 3:6 ) "God is getting ready to clean off His threshing platform. He will gather His wheat into His storehouse, but He will burn the straw in fire that never dies down! Let every one of you get ready for the coming of the Lord!" ( Mt. 3:12; top )

Near the front edge of the crowd a priest stood up. "How do you dare talk this way?" he demanded. "Who are you - the Messiah?"

"No, I am not the Messiah," replied the Prophet.

"Then who are you? The Prophet Elijah?"

"I am not Elijah."

"Are you Moses come back to us?"


"Then who are you? The rulers in Jerusalem have sent me to find out. What have you to say for yourself?" Andrew and John glanced at each other. The rulers!

John the Baptizer called out boldly to the whole crowd, "I am a voice crying in the wilderness, 'Clear the way for the Lord!'"

The priest from Jerusalem interrupted again. "If you are not the Christ, nor Elijah, nor Moses, what right have you to baptize people?" The people stirred; they did not like this man.

"I baptize you with water for repentance, but He who is coming after me is mightier. I am not fit even to tie His sandal laces. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. You must repent!" ( Jn. 1:19-27 , Mt. 3:11; top )

A man broke away from the crowd and stepped uncertainly toward the Prophet. Words came from his lips as though it hurt him to speak. "I have forced money out of people. I am a tax-gatherer. What can I do?" Everyone there had been cheated by tax collectors.

"Turn your whole life back toward God. Never again force people to pay more money than is just."

Several other people had joined the tax collector. "What must I do?" asked a soldier.

"Never take money from people by force. Never blackmail. Be content with your pay." He looked at the group before him and said: "Let every man of you who owns two garments share with the person who has none at all. If you have food, share it too!" ( Lk. 3:10-14; top )

A whisper ran over the crowd. John had turned to some religious officials, Sadducees and Pharisees, who stood watching. "You nest of snakes! Who told you to flee from God's day of judgment? It is time you repented!" ( Mt. 3:7-8 , Lk. 3:8-9; top )

"How can he talk that way to Pharisees?" said Andrew. He could tell even from where he stood that the Pharisees felt the charge was unjust.

"Why should we repent?" asked one of them. "We are descended from Abraham himself. We were born to be God's chosen people!"

"God can make children of Abraham out of these rocks if he wants!" burst out the Prophet. "Instead of saying over and over again, 'Abraham is our ancestor,' you ought to live so that people will know that you have repented! The wood chopper is ready to destroy every tree that is not producing good fruit. Every bad tree he will cut down and throw into the fire!" ( Mt. 3:9-10 , Lk. 3:8-9; top ) John turned his back on them.

"Look!" whispered Andrew in excitement. "There is the stranger we met on the road!"

The Prophet had walked down into the water to begin baptizing those who were waiting on the shore, but now he stopped and turned toward the place where the Galilean was standing. He completely forgot the crowd. In the silence Andrew could hear him protesting.

"No! No! No!" The Prophet stepped back in awe. "I am not worthy to baptize You. You should baptize me!" The two fishermen could not hear the Galilean's reply, but they saw him walk down into the water, John the Baptizer leading. The people stood as though fascinated. Recalling the incident later on, Andrew and John realized that their tense concentration on the two men at the river had driven every other thought from their minds.

John was baptizing the stranger. As he came up from the river, the Galilean's face bore an expression of joy and praise which the fishermen remembered as long as they lived. Some power had come upon Him. ( Mt. 3:13-17; top )

"What happened, Andrew? What happened?"

Andrew did not hear; he was staring at the Galilean.

"Andrew!" John was insistent. "Something just happened. I don't understand. What was it?"

Andrew murmured. "He must be a prophet too."

The people were talking excitedly. Everyone felt as John and Andrew did. The Galilean had gone, and the Prophet was now baptizing the others who waited. Shadows were creeping into the gorge as evening approached. Groups started away toward the near-by towns.

"Did you hear what the Galilean said to John the Baptizer?" asked John. Without answering, Andrew started toward the knot of people near the Prophet, and John followed. Andrew asked a man beside him, "Did you hear what the Galilean said to the Prophet?"

"Yes," the man answered. "He said, 'Every man must take his stand on God's side.'" Before Andrew could say any more the Prophet spoke. He knew what the people were thinking.

"Upon the head of this Man of Galilee I saw the Spirit of God settle like a dove from the sky," he declared. "God has chosen Him to do His work!" ( Jn. 1:32-34; top )

Have You Ever Wondered? π 2. Fishers of Men
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