September 4 “Wilderness”


There was more than one wilderness in those days.
There was the barren wasteland through which the Jordan River flowed and there was a spiritual wilderness where the hearts of the leaders of the nation made their homes.

The Wilderness of Judea
This was the abandoned, uncultivated region East of Jerusalem stretching all the way to the Dead Sea. Although the Jordan flowed through this region, it retained its desert character with no fertile lands beyond the banks of the stream. It was poor ground for grazing so the land was given over to beasts of the wild and scavengers on the wing. Here John the Baptist preached his call to preparation for Messiah. Here was his pulpit found, his platform, and the fashion of the wilderness—a belt of camel’s hair—was his only vestment.

The Wilderness of a Vacant Religion
Why did the crowds leave their comfortable country homes and city dwellings to travel to a wasteland to hear this strange man and his discomfiting message? The answer is found in the other wilderness, the spiritual wilderness of an apostate religion. A new Temple was under construction to replace the one Zerubbabel had constructed to replace the one King Solomon built centuries before. The whispered scandal was that the Holy of Holies, the heart of any Temple where Jehovah was to be worshipped, was empty. The room was there and the heavy veil intended to shield the Ark of the Covenant from an unholy humanity, but the Ark itself was missing, captured long ago by enemies. Its location is a mystery to this day.

The empty Holy of Holies is the perfect representation of the state of the relationship of God with His Chosen People in the time of Jesus. Because of conquering nations, the leadership had become more political than spiritual. The highest councils and appointed leaders were engaged in the impossible task of maintaining the traditions of Israel and submitting to the Romans. Since the Jewish religion was monotheistic, demanding that only Jehovah was to be worshiped, the people and polytheistic Romans were on a collision course.

The only Spirituality remaining was highly personal, a remnant of faithful worshipers continuing to seek the Kingdom of God, putting their hopes in the promised Messiah. These are the ones who made the trek into the Wilderness of Judea to hear the Man of God and his message for their generation. They followed John into the waters of repentance and baptism.

A Delegation in the Wilderness
The apostate leaders from Jerusalem were wary of any prophet who threatened the delegate balance of life as a Roman province. They quizzed John, there in the wilderness, and he did not pretend to be more than he was, the Forerunner, not the Messiah. In this capacity, John proclaimed his message. Get ready, Messiah is coming!

“I baptize with water, but there stands One among you whom you do not know.”

A ripple of fear ran through the delegation. Heads turned as security agents hidden in the crowd began to search for the One of whom John spoke. Laughing, John continued,

It is He who, coming after me, is preferred before me,
whose sandal strap I am not worthy to loose.”

Still laughing, John welcomed the next repentant sinner into the waters of the Jordan.

John 1: 19-28

Now this is the testimony of John, when the Jews sent priests and Levites from Jerusalem to ask him, “Who are you?” He confessed, and did not deny, but confessed, “I am not the Christ.” And they asked him, “What then? Are you Elijah?” He said, “I am not.” “Are you the Prophet?” And he answered, “No.” Then they said to him, “Who are you, that we may give an answer to those who sent us? What do you say about yourself?” He said: “I am ‘The voice of one crying in the wilderness: ‘Make straight the way of the Lord,”‘ as the prophet Isaiah said.” Now those who were sent were from the Pharisees. And they asked him, saying, “Why then do you baptize if you are not the Christ, nor Elijah, nor the Prophet?” John answered them, saying, “I baptize with water, but there stands One among you whom you do not know. It is He who, coming after me, is preferred before me, whose sandal strap I am not worthy to loose.” These things were done in Bethabara beyond the Jordan, where John was baptizing.

Lord Jesus, repentance is one of the things that makes grace really, really amazing. I understand that repentance is more than mere sorrow. Repentance involves a deep sorrow rooted not in regret for getting caught, but a true hatred for the sin itself. Repentance means to completely reverse course, forsaking the sin. It is the pathway out of the wilderness. This painful task is met with Your smile, not Your frown. May I ever pursue actions and thoughts that make You smile. Amen.

Just as I Am

Words: Charlotte Elliot; Music: William B. Bradbury

1. Just as I am, without one plea,
but that thy blood was shed for me,
and that thou bidd’st me come to thee,
O Lamb of God, I come, I come.

2. Just as I am, and waiting not
to rid my soul of one dark blot,
to thee, whose blood can cleanse each spot,
O Lamb of God, I come, I come.

3. Just as I am, though tossed about
with many a conflict, many a doubt,
fightings and fears within, without,
O Lamb of God, I come, I come.

4. Just as I am, thou wilt receive,
wilt welcome, pardon, cleanse, relieve;
because thy promise I believe,
O Lamb of God, I come, I come.

Semper Reformanda!
Stephen Phifer

© 2018 Stephen R. Phifer All Rights Reserved

TheJesusStory devotions are also found at

June 8 “Prepare!”


Major events require intense preparation. That was the job of John the Baptist.
Dr. Luke sets the Jesus story in a historical context, one that was familiar to his first-century readers. He gives the details down to the exact year when all the preparations of childhood and youth ended for John and Jesus.

John the Baptist
While the high priests Annas and Caiaphas carried on business as usual at the Temple in Jerusalem, John received a word from the Lord in the wilderness. The contrast between the high priests and John could not have been more stark:

  • Regal robes, the finery of power compared with camel’s hair;
  • Solemn, well-rehearsed prayers echoing from marble walls rather than the ruined voice of single man reverberating from canyon walls;
  • A bland call to normalcy and un-rocked boats instead of an impassioned plea for repentance of sins and spiritual revolution; and
  • Worn out lectures falling on deaf ears against knife-like sermons that cut to the heart.

All through the region of Judea around the Jordan River crowds came to hear John. He was the fulfillment of the prophecy of Isaiah, a voice crying in the wilderness.

“Prepare the way of the Lord; Make His paths straight. Every valley shall be filled
And every mountain and hill brought low; The crooked places shall be made straight
And the rough ways smooth.”

Action was required from those who longed to be right with God. Sin had ruled the nation long enough. It was time for righteousness again. The hunger of the multitudes for the glory of the Lord drove people to the wilderness abandoning the Temple. They wanted to see the glory again and this was what Isaiah promised.

“And all flesh shall see the salvation of God…”

Works of Repentance
The nation did not need more words; more mercy was the need. Instead of more ritual, real power was needed. Instead of good intentions, works worthy of repentance were needed. John went into detail.

  • To be true sons of Abraham they must follow God as Abraham did.
  • The ax was already at the root of the fruitless tree.

When people asked what he meant, he became even more specific.

  • Be generous givers, not hoarding misers.
  • Tax collectors, do not skim off the excess for yourselves.
  • Soldiers, do your duty fairly with justice and not for bribes.

Lines of repentant sinners splashed through the Jordan at John’s hands.

John and Jesus
Many began to openly speculate if John was Messiah. John set them straight. His baptism was for repentance. The One to come would baptize with the Holy Spirit and with Fire. This holiness revival reached all the way to Herod and John was destined for prison. Before his arrest, Jesus came to him for baptism. John protested but Jesus prevailed. When Jesus came up out of the Jordan, the heavens opened and the Holy Spirit in the form of a dove descended upon Jesus. A voice from the sky declared His identity.

“You are My beloved Son; in You I am well pleased.”

The people who were prepared heard the voice. Those who refused to fill in their apathetic valleys, bring down their mountains of pride, straighten out their crooked methods and smooth out their careless, rough ways heard nothing but thunder on the winds of the wilderness.

Luke: 3:1-22

Now in the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar, Pontius Pilate being governor of Judea, Herod being tetrarch of Galilee, his brother Philip tetrarch of Iturea and the region of Trachonitis, and Lysanias tetrarch of Abilene, while Annas and Caiaphas were high priests, the word of God came to John the son of Zacharias in the wilderness. And he went into all the region around the Jordan, preaching a baptism of repentance for the remission of sins, as it is written in the book of the words of Isaiah the prophet, saying: “The voice of one crying in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord; Make His paths straight. Every valley shall be filled And every mountain and hill brought low; The crooked places shall be made straight And the rough ways smooth; And all flesh shall see the salvation of God.'”Then he said to the multitudes that came out to be baptized by him, “Brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Therefore bear fruits worthy of repentance, and do not begin 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.” So the people asked him, saying, “What shall we do then?” He answered and said to them, “He who has two tunics, let him give to him who has none; and he who has food, let him do likewise.” Then tax collectors also came to be baptized, and said to him, “Teacher, what shall we do?” And he said to them, “Collect no more than what is appointed for you.” Likewise the soldiers asked him, saying, “And what shall we do?” So he said to them, “Do not intimidate anyone or accuse falsely, and be content with your wages.” Now as the people were in expectation, and all reasoned in their hearts about John, whether he was the Christ or not, John answered, saying to all, “I indeed baptize you with water; but One mightier than I is coming, whose sandal strap I am not worthy to loose. 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 the wheat into His barn; but the chaff He will burn with unquenchable fire.” And with many other exhortations he preached to the people. But Herod the tetrarch, being rebuked by him concerning Herodias, his brother Philip’s wife, and for all the evils which Herod had done, also added this, above all, that he shut John up in prison. When all the people were baptized, it came to pass that Jesus also was baptized; and while He prayed, the heaven was opened. And the Holy Spirit descended in bodily form like a dove upon Him, and a voice came from heaven which said, “You are My beloved Son; in You I am well pleased.”

Lord Jesus, I want to live in a continual state of preparation. Keep my heart clean from sin. Fill in the valleys in my knowledge of the truth with holy facts. Blast away any stubborn boulders of pride in my life. Show me the crooked places so I can straighten them according to Your word. Give me the grace to smooth out my rough, careless ways. I want to witness it when Your glory is revealed to all mankind! I want to be prepared for what it is next! Amen.

Revive Us Again

Words: W.P. Mackay; Music: John. J. Husband

1 We praise thee, O God, for the Son of thy love,
For Jesus who died and is now gone above.

Hallelujah, Thine the glory!
Hallelujah, Amen!
Hallelujah, Thine the glory!
Revive us again.

2 We praise thee, O God, for thy Spirit of light,
Who has shown us our Savior and scattered our night.


3 All glory and praise to the Lamb that was slain,
Who has borne all our sins and has cleansed ev’ry stain.


4 Revive us again – fill each heart with thy love;
May each soul be rekindled with fire from above.


Semper Reformanda!
Stephen Phifer

© 2018 Stephen R. Phifer All Rights Reserved

TheJesusStory devotions are also found at