Our passage this week is the temptation of Jesus recorded in Mark 1:12-13. Like so many things in Mark, this passage seems highly abbreviated when compared to the other synoptic gospel accounts. Matthew and Luke add details of the temptation that have become the center of many sermons and lessons. As a result, some of Mark’s version has been obscured.
The most striking thing about this passage is the verb ekballo used by Mark to indicate how the Holy Spirit drove Jesus into the desert. Mark uses this verb 17 times, often in the context of exorcisms. The force of the verb is not captured by the NIV’s “sent”. Better is the NASB “impelled.” We are not to think that Jesus is reluctant to experience this chapter of his life, but to see the strong hand of the Spirit leading Jesus in his ministry. The Spirit of the Lord is truly “upon” him (Luke 4:18). We read of similar strong directions by the Spirit in the Old Testament (I Kings 18:12, 2 Kings 2:16, Ezek 3:12, 14 ff, 8:3, 11:24, Acts 8:39 ff.) John’s gospel records many statements of Jesus explaining that he is in the world to do and say exactly what he is directed by the Father. We are not to think of Jesus as a puppet, but we are also not to think of the Holy Spirit as anyone less than the sovereign God! God’s Spirit is the mightiest of powers and we should expect strong leadership of the Holy Spirit in those things that are in the plan and purpose of God.
The experience of Jesus as a Spirit-filled and Spirit led human being is important for Christians. In order to keep a real doctrine of the humanity of Christ, we must confess that the Spirit’s work in and through Jesus is not substantially different than in the life of the believer. The difference is in Christ’s sinlessness and divinity, but not in his human nature. In this sense, those current liberal scholars who say we have ignored the spiritual experience of Jesus while emphasizing the doctrine of Christ are at least half right. We should not be afraid to study how Jesus experienced God. God will lead us as surely as he led Jesus. As we affirm that, let us remember where that leadership took him- to the cross.
Jesus goes into the desert “immediately” after the baptism. There is something of a pattern here for all Christians. First,there is the place of obedience. Then there is the blessing of assurance that I am God’s child. Then there is the driving out into the place of temptation and testing. This is as much God’s work as the blessing at baptism. Mark is clearly telling his readers that their testings and temptations are part of their experience as God’s children. Jesus went by that same road. We should beware of any version of Christianity that speaks of uninterrupted bliss without God-sent experiences of testing and temptation. In the desert Satan was the instrument of temptation, but the author of the experience was God. C.S. Lewis observed in The Screwtape Letters that God will not let a new believer live on the mountaintop, but will drive him/her into the valley in order to develop faith and strength that is not addicted to some emotional state, but dependent on God.
The desert is a familiar motif in the Bible as a whole. In the Old Testament, the desert was the experience between deliverance from Egypt and the conquest of the Promised Land. It was a place of cleansing and purification through testing and often painful trial. The Prophets looked back at the desert as the time of Israel’s true “romance” with God; the time when God prepared his people to be his covenant bride. Holy men often retreated to the desert as a place where God could be found apart from distraction. But the desert was also seen as a habitation of demons. From the very beginning, Jesus path is not only to heavenly glory, but a road of conflict with evil.
Mark omits the fasting of Jesus and the nature of the temptations, but he is clear that this was not a physical test but a spiritual battle. Jesus was tempted by Satan himself. This encounter between Jesus and the arch fiend has to be one of the most fascinating moments in the entire Bible. Even the other synoptic Gospels treatment is surely not exhaustive. The Bible tells us in Hebrews 2:18 “Because he himself suffered when he was tempted, he is able to help those who are being tempted.” In Hebrews 4:15 ” For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are–yet was without sin.” These verses describe the entire incarnation, but the focused temptation of Jesus is also in mind. I must firmly reject that interpretation of the temptation which says Jesus could not have sinned. The writers of scripture want us to see this as real battle. The victor is the almighty Son, but in this time he is weak and weary like we are, yet he has resisted and shown us how to resist. (Eph 6:10ff) His victory over every kind of temptation is a hope to every person who prays out of their own existential struggle. “Nobody understands me like Jesus” is the truth.
I once had a lively e-mail correspondence with someone over a statement in Robert Hick’s book, The Masculine Journey, that those struggling with homosexuality could take hope that Jesus was tempted in all ways like we are yet without sin. Hicks was not implying that Jesus tempted to homosexual sin, but the temptation to sexual disobedience is, at its core, common to every person. I believe every person can look to Jesus as a friend who has struggled with the very essence of their personal struggles, no matter what they are. How else can we understand the meaning of the temptation and the pastoral application of Hebrews?
I cannot pass this passage without poking at least once at those who would deny the existence of Satan. While I accept that Jesus was a man of his time, I do not believe Satan is a cultural symbol, but an essential part of the Biblical portrayal of evil. The Bible’s picture of evil includes fallen humanity and a fallen creation, but there is more-there is a personal and diabolical dimension of evil that is not explainable by environment or heredity. Jesus believed in fallen creation and sinful people, but he also believed in the personal, intelligent and malicious enemy of God. (If you can find it, read a book by M.Scott Peck called People of The Lie. While I can’t endorse most of Peck’s work, this book’s psychiatric case for the existence of the devil is very good.)
Forty days or years is the standard amount of time for God to do his work in the lives of his chosen. We ought to beware of those who believe God can be manipulated by imitating 40-days of prayer or fasting. Such ascetic imitation may be impressive, but it is not the point of the passage. Jesus was in the wilderness long enough for God to prepare him for his destiny.
The reference to the animals has been controversial. Are they part of the temptation or are they there to minister to Jesus? The word “wild” probably indicates this is a threatening aspect of the temptation. Mark is showing us Jesus as the second Adam. The animals, who surrounded Adam in paradise, now surround the second Adam in temptation. Where Satan succeeded in defeating the first Adam, he is defeated by the second Adam. Read I Corinthians 15:22,45.
Angels appear throughout the Bible as ministering Spirits. The Synoptic birth accounts show that angels have been involved with Jesus from the very beginning. Mark gives us a glimpse into the presence of angels assisting Jesus in his time of testing. Luke has a similar story in Luke 2:43 as Jesus prays on the Mount of Olives. The book of Revelation is our best study of angels, showing that the angels are devoted to the worship of the Son of God. Mark is not trying to present Jesus as unique. The book of Acts makes it clear that angels are involved with the early Christians and are involved with us as well. Having said that, the Bible discourages interest in angels on the level we are seeing it today. Most cults and even many orthodox Christians cross the line in fascination with angels into something dangerously idolatrous. Much false information about angels is transmitted through the New Age movement and other spiritual counterfeits. We should be grateful for the ministry of angels, but not seek to invoke it or manipulate it. Angels do their business without our assistance or applause.
The temptation of Jesus is a precious truth for those of us who believe Jesus is the Word made flesh. It gives us confidence in our Lord, but it also gives us confidence that he can help us in our time of testing. Those who are not Christians will always listen to this part of scripture. The testing of Jesus makes him appealing to a world that has heard too many sermons that place Jesus above it all. While the sad portrayal of Jesus in The Last Temptation of Christ completly abandons the picture of Jesus in the Bible, it does show that this is a good place to start in showing what it means that God knows us as we are and still loves us.
1. Have you ever been taken from a time of great blessing to a time of great testing? Did you blame the devil or submit to God?
2. Why do we need the Holy Spirit to lead and direct us?
3. In The Last Temptation of Christ, Martin Scorcase showed Jesus wrestling with sexual desire. Is this blasphemous or accurate?
4. What temptation of your own does it help to know Jesus has experienced?
5. Why is there so much interest in the occult but such skepticism towards the existence of the Devil?
6. Many non-Christians believe Christians are never tempted. Where would they get such an impression?
7. How is Jesus the Second Adam?
8. What is the proper Christian attitude towards angels?
9. Without reference to the other Gospels, what sort of temptations would Satan have used on Jesus?
10. If Jesus defeated Satan in his temptation and at the cross, why do we still have to deal with him?
Recommended Resource: The Good News According to Mark by Eduard Schweizer. Everyone won’t appreciate his theology or ideas on inspiration, but this Swiss scholar makes more connections within scripture than anyone I have ever read. A great commentary for preachers.