The Wilderness of Judea
During a trip to Israel in March of 1999, I had opportunity to travel by bus from Jerusalem, along the Dead Sea, all the way south to Massada. That day I had the opportunity to put my hand in the mineral saturated water of the Dead Sea. I ascended via cable car the face of the mountain upon which the ruins of Herod's great fortress (Massada) sits. I had opportunity to see the caves of Qumran, where the Dead Sea Scrolls were stored by the sect of the Essenes, and eventually discovered (according to the most reliable sources) by a Bedouin shepherd boy in the 1940's. I saw the ruins of Jericho, and traversed the "Jericho Road" on the way back to Jerusalem. All of these places impressed me deeply. However, I think the most impressive aspect of that day was the miles and miles of unending desolation that we traversed by bus. I looked at that landscape, and was able to understand better what our Lord must have gone through as He "was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil" (Matthew 4:1).
"In those days John the Baptist came preaching in the wilderness of Judea, and saying, 'Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand!' For this is he who was spoken of by the prophet Isaiah, saying: 'The voice of one crying in the wilderness: "Prepare the way of the LORD; Make His paths straight."' And John himself was clothed in camel's hair, with a leather belt around his waist; and his food was locusts and wild honey" (Matthew 3:2-4).
John the Baptist was a rugged and severe man. His personal appearance and demeanor mirrored that of the land from which he came. Much like the prophets of old, his was a message of repentance. When he saw the insincere Pharisees and Sadducees approach, he did not in any way spare their feelings as he called them to repentance. He said, "Brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Therefore bear fruits worthy of repentance, and do not think to say to yourselves, 'We have Abraham as our father.' For I say to you that God is able to raise up children to Abraham from these stones. And even now the ax is laid to the root of the trees. Therefore every tree which does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. I indeed baptize you with water unto repentance, but He who is coming after me is mightier than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fan is in His hand, and He will thoroughly clean out His threshing floor, and gather His wheat into the barn; but He will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire" (Matthew 3:4-12). His example serves us well as we attempt to confront the leaven of false teaching and hypocrisy in our time.
The wilderness of Judea was the site of Jesus' temptation by the Devil. Matthew records this in chapter four, verses 1-11, "Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. And when He had fasted forty days and forty nights, afterward He was hungry. Now when the tempter came to Him, he said, 'If You are the Son of God, command that these stones become bread.' But He answered and said, 'It is written, "Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God."' Then the devil took Him up into the holy city, set Him on the pinnacle of the temple, and said to Him, 'If You are the Son of God, throw Yourself down. For it is written: "He shall give His angels charge over you," and, "In their hands they shall bear you up, Lest you dash your foot against a stone."' Jesus said to him, 'It is written again, "You shall not tempt the LORD your God."' Again, the devil took Him up on an exceedingly high mountain, and showed Him all the kingdoms of the world and their glory. And he said to Him, 'All these things I will give You if You will fall down and worship me.' Then Jesus said to him, 'Away with you, Satan! For it is written, "You shall worship the LORD your God, and Him only you shall serve."' Then the devil left Him, and behold, angels came and ministered to Him."
Jesus must have suffered immensely during his fast. Not only was He deprived of food and water for 40 days and 40 nights, but He also wandered about, on foot, in some of the most desolate and harsh country on earth. And yet, He resisted the devil. He serves as our perfect example, and a worthy sacrifice for sin. "For we do not have a High Priest who cannot sympathize with our weaknesses, but was in all points tempted as we are, yet without sin. Let us therefore come boldly to the throne of grace, that we may obtain mercy and find grace to help in time of need" (Hebrews 4:15-16).
The entire land of Israel is beautiful. Each area of the country arrests your attention in its own way. You have the coastal towns, which overlook the beautiful blue waters of the Mediterranean Sea. You have the verdant hills of Galilee. You have Mt. Hermon, and the volcanic soil of the North, contrasted with the Negev desert to the South. You have the pure headwaters of the Jordan, issuing from springs at Caesarea Philippi, and you have the Dead Sea, 1,400 ft. below sea level, and so saturated with salt, potash, magnesium, calcium chlorides and bromide (the concentration is 25% solids, in contrast to sea water at 5%) that it is unable to sustain any life whatsoever. Even this lifeless sea is strikingly beautiful, and is famous for the medicinal qualities of its water.
Unfortunately, the country is spoiled by tourism. This is a bit of a "Catch-22", for as you go from place to place you find yourself wanting everyone else to go away so that you can be alone. Alone at the Garden Tomb, alone in the Garden of Gethsemene, alone in the little village of Capernaum. In contrast to the hustle and bustle of the crowds in Jerusalem, however, you can stand at the Northern Palace Villa atop Massada, look out at the miles of desolate Wilderness, and you can visualize the loneliness and suffering of our Lord as His great war with the Devil was fought and won. "Then the devil left Him, and behold, angels came and ministered to Him."
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