The Temptations of Jesus
6 – The Temptations of Jesus in Mark’s Gospel
“And immediately the Spirit drove Jesus out into the wilderness, and he was in the wilderness for forty days, being tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild animals and the angels ministered unto him.”
What a crowd in such a lonely place: Jesus, the Spirit, Satan, the animals and the angels!
This word is used 47 times in Mark. It describes action that is fast paced as though the event about to be described follows right on the heals of the last event noted. The high moment of his Baptism is followed immediately by the low moment of temptation. It is similar to Elijah’s triumph over Ahab which is followed immediately by flight from Ahab’s wife Jezebel and depression.
New converts in early Christianity upon their baptism were slapped on the face, with the words “Endure hardness as a good soldier of Jesus Christ” as an antidote to the temptations to pride or complacency. Now that a baptismal candidate has placed him or herself alongside Jesus Christ, they have entered the danger zone.
“Blessed is he who endures temptation, when he has stood the test, he will win the crown of life, which God has promised to those who love him.” James 1:12. “There is a law written in the universe,” says William Barclay: “No one shall be crowned until he has conquered & won.”
“After you have suffered awhile, the God of all grace will himself perfect, establish, strengthen and settle you.” I Peter 5:10
“Count it nothing but joy when you are tempted because the testing of your faith produces endurance, and let endurance have its full effect, so that you may be mature and complete, lacking nothing.” James 1:3-4
The Spirit Drove
Whereas Matthew say that Jesus was “led by the Spirit into the wilderness” (4:1) and Luke says Jesus was “led by the Spirit while in the wilderness” (4:1) Mark sets a very different tone. He writes, “The Spirit drove him out into the wilderness. But drove might be too mild a word to translate the Greek word. It is the word ekballen, which can be translated “drove, or cast, or threw, or sent”. The word bears the meaning of a violent propulsion. This same word that is used 17 times in Mark. It is used 11 times for casting out demons. It is used for “tearing out one’s eye and throwing it away” (9:47), and used in the cleansing of the temple when Jesus drove out the people buying and selling in the temple (11:15), and when the evil tenants threw the heir out of the vineyard (12:8). It is as though the Holy Spirit grabbed Jesus by the scruff of his neck and the seat of his pants and threw him into this strange encounter. It may be that Matthew and Luke, when it is their turn to tell the story, erases that image and is content to let the Holy Spirit lead him rather than catapult him.
But it must be noted that it was the Holy Spirit who drove Jesus, not another. In Mark, the subject usually follows the verb. Here one is of the few times that Mark reverses the word order to put the Spirit in the dominant position for emphasis. It was the Holy Spirit himself who propelled Jesus into the wilderness. This was God’s doing, and it is marvelous in our sight.
Why would God do this? If we are to pray, “Lead us not into temptation…” why does the Spirit do this to Jesus? Perhaps for several reasons.
1. Perhaps God wants his Son to take the offensive against temptation, and not just be on the defense. The contest has begun in earnest. Jesus is being sent to be God’s challenger of evil, as was Job.
2. Perhaps he is being tested to further mature his character. Remember before this event Luke tells us of his early childhood, “he grew and became strong, filled with wisdom; and the favour of God was upon him” (2:40) and then 12 years later repeats the thought, “And Jesus increased in wisdom and stature and in favour with God and man.” (2:52) Perhaps this event is part of the maturing of the man. The Spirit may be adding to Jesus’ earlier education in the refining of moral character.
3. The Spirit drove him – perhaps without Jesus’ permission or understanding. Perhaps even against his wishes and his will. Was he learning submission as in Gethsemane, when the will of God went against the self interest of the Son?
I have long loved John Wesley’s Covenant Service. He writes these words of counsel:
“Christ has many services to be done; some are easy, others are difficult; some bring honor, others bring reproach; some are suitable to our natural inclinations, and temporal interests, others are contrary to both. In some we may please Christ and please ourselves; in others we cannot please Christ except by denying ourselves. Yet the power to do all these things is assuredly given us in Christ, who strengthens us…
Then Wesley guides us in our praying by putting words into our mouths:
“I am no longer my own, but Yours. Put me to what You will, rank me with whom You will; put me to doing, put me to suffering; let me be employed for You or laid aside for You, exalted for You or brought low for You; let me be full, let me be empty; let me have all things, let me have nothing; I freely and heartily yield all things to Your pleasure and disposal…”
But, whatever the reasons God had in mind for his Son, Jesus did not rush into temptation as a berserker. He had no martyr-wish for self-inflicted pain. He did not put himself into temptation. Charles Williams, in his book on Church History, Descent of the Dove, describes the early practice of some Christians sleeping in the same bed with their betrothed, and not yielding to the temptation to make love. They thought it helped in the creation of strong Spartan Saints. Not Jesus. He was driven/led by God’s Spirit to the event. A temptation premeditated is a sport, a game; not the same as being blind-sided by a temptation not even seen to be a temptation.
But back to the word “Drove” In Genesis 3:24 in the Septuagint (The Greek version of the Old Testament) reads, God “drove out the man from the Garden of Eden.” From garden into wilderness. Cast them out. They became outcasts. We now see the beginnings of the grand reversal. The Spirit cast Jesus into the wilderness to face the temptations wherein Adam & Eve failed, to begin the journey of turning the wilderness into a garden again. Paradise lost into paradise regained.
The Holy Spirit does not do the testing. He leaves that to another. Paul says to the Corinthians, “Turn the offender over to the Devil that he might learn not to blaspheme.” There is a purification that comes from the presence of the Holy Spirit. There is a purification that comes from the Word of God. There is a purification that comes from obeying the truth. But there is a purification that comes from being turned over to suffering. Peter says, “Let suffering have its perfect work that you might be complete, lacking nothing.” And so the Spirit lead Jesus into enemy territory to suffer awhile.
Into the Wilderness
This was probably The Wilderness of Judea near to where John was baptizing. This region lies west of the Jordan and the Dead Sea. The Greek word is “eremos” which means, “a desolate place” It was 35 miles long, 15 miles wide. Sir George Adam Smith describes it this way: “It is an area of yellow sand made of crumbling limestone and scattered shingle. It is an area of contorted strata where the ridges run in all directions as if they were warped and twisted. The hills are like dust heaps; the limestone is blistered and peeling; rocks are bare and jagged; often the very ground sounds hollow when the footfall or the horse’s hoof falls upon it. It glows and shimmers with heat like some vast furnace. It runs straight out to the Dead Sea, and then comes a drop of 1200 feet, a drop of limestone, flint and mart, through crags and corries and precipices down to the Dead Sea. In that wilderness Jesus could be more alone than anywhere else in Palestine.” (See William Barclay’s Commentary on Matthew.)
In ancient folklore it was the home of evil spirits, the place of the evil one where Lilith and Azazel dwelt and where the scapegoat was sent to its death. (Leviticus 16:10)
In Luke 8:29 the Demoniac of the Gadarenes is driven into the wilderness by his evil spirits. In Matthew 12:43-45 and Luke 11:24-26 the unclean spirits who are cast out wander in the “waterless places”, that is, the wilderness. There is little in this wilderness to remind anyone of God, as there might be near a sylvan stream, by an ocean, in a bluebell-covered glade, or near majestic mountains. What a contrast to Eden the intended home of God and humanity! A wilderness is home to neither.
The word “wilderness” reminds us of that world East of Eden, and the Wilderness of Sinai, the wilderness of the 40-year wandering. In the Old Testament it not a place of prayer, but a place of difficulty.
But John the Baptizer sees his role as the announcer of the new age described in Isaiah 40. This redemption will begin with the Good News being proclaimed, beginning in the wilderness. The wilderness is the place where Israel found its identity as a people under Moses, and where the beginning point was for the New beginning after the long exile in Babylon. Isaiah 35 reads,
“The wilderness and the solitary place will be glad and the desert shall rejoice and blossom abundantly and rejoice with joy and singing… waters shall break forth in the wilderness, and streams in the desert; the burning sand shall become a pool, and the thirsty ground springs of water. The haunt of jackals shall become a pond. and grass shall become reeds and rushes.”
Both John & Jesus begin their inaugural days there. The game is afoot, the dream is about to be implemented, and it begins with an event that will transform a wilderness.
Jesus spent 40 days in this wilderness. Such a note brings to our minds Moses, (Exodus 24:18, 34:28) and Elijah (I Kings 19:8) who also fasted 40 days. These two characters from Israel’s past will join Jesus on another mountain, the mountain of transfiguration. It is from this mention of 40 days that the church has chosen to also fast for 40 days during the Lenten season.
We are not sure whether Jesus was tempted during the entire 40 days or whether the temptations came only after he had depleted himself by 40 days of fasting. Mark uses the imperfect tense of continual action when he writes, “being tempted by Satan.”
Inward or outward temptation?
The question has also been raised about whether the temptations came from without or from within Jesus. Did Satan stand beside Jesus, or sit on an adjacent rock, and converse with Jesus under that mid-eastern sun. Or did the suggestions come directly to the mind from the invisible presence of an invisible spirit? In the painting by William Dyce entitled “The Temptation in the Wilderness” all we see is a barren landscape, with Jesus in the foreground, clasping his hands together, with an intense look upon his face and figure. There is no one else in the painting. The struggle goes on within himself.
In Matt & Luke, the impossibly-high mountain, or the lifting up to the temple pinnacle, seems to be in hallucination & vision. The temptations are visions and voices within his mind. These temptations are the inward struggles of a good man.
Remember Paul’s similar experience in II Corinthians 12:2 where he had a vision and confessed that he was not sure whether it was an “in the body or out of body” experience.
At no time is the devil pictured. We only hear his suggestive words. He is the deceiver, not a thug who does violence in the perpetration of foul deeds.
It is difficult to tell the voice of Satan from the voice of God, or one’s own imaginations or thoughts. It is only after having listened more carefully that we can sense, it is the voice of an enemy.
By the way, the doctrine of the devil can be a great comfort. Sometimes we feel the urgings to evil so strongly, we may sense that we are schizophrenic and begin to doubt our sanity, and fear ourselves to be a Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde. But Christian theology insists that many of the thoughts that come to us, are from an outsider and an alien, though spoken from within our own minds. How else would Satan approach any of us? Horned & tailed, red and fierce? I don’t think so.
He approaches us more in the garb of our best friend, or a colleague. Jesus recognized the very enemy of humanity in one of the men he was closest to; in the very person he had just tagged to lead the church into its future. “You are Petros and upon this Petra I will build my church and the gates of hell don’t have a prayer!” In Peter he has recognized evil at its most insidious. Jesus ripped off the disguise with verbal violence. He knew Peter was not demonic, or demon possessed, but he knew that the voice of the enemy can speak through the best of friends.
With the Wild Animals
The animals occur only in Mark’s version of the temptation story. It is an intriguing note considering Mark’s brevity.
What are they doing in the story? We have at least Three choices:
1. The animals were simply the furnishings of a wilderness setting. It was just an idle observation, that he was with no other human beings, just with the wild creatures of the countryside.
2. Does this describe a threatening event, where Satan and the ferocious beasts are allied against him? Are these wild predatory animals such as the “Lions and Tigers and Bears” from Wizard of Oz? Is Jesus surrounded for 40 days by salivating carnivores? Early Christians who were being thrown to the wild beasts in Roman amphitheatres would have had reason to read the animals as ferocious killers.
In the Wilderness of Judea alone there were wild animals like leopards, bears, lynxes, wild boars, lions, wolves, and wild dogs. The wilderness was a place of scorpions, vipers, cobras and hyenas. These all occupied their own violent kingdoms, having fled away from the increasing human encroachment of the towns and villages. Here is a concentration of predators. (See Psalm 22:11-21, Ezekiel 34:5, 8, 25, Job 5:22)
Or are these animals of a gentler variety? Is Jesus seen as a St. Francis of Assisi, a friend of the animal world? For besides the creatures that threatened human existence, There were also the less threatening creatures present in that alien world, such as wild goats, wild donkeys, jackals, porcupines, hares, rats and mice, antelopes and gazelles. These too gathered in places where humans were substantially absent.
3. But there is a third and perhaps preferable explanation. Is Jesus the Second Adam taking his place as the Lord over his creation, as in Gen. 1:26-28? Psalm 8 reads, “You have made him a little lower than God and have placed under his feet all sheep and oxen and also the beasts of the fields and the birds of the air, and the fish of the sea.” Though this Psalm was speaking about humanity in general, it was applied by the early church to refer to the Son of Man, Jesus the Christ, in particular. Remember the coin in the fish’s mouth? The unbroken colt that let him ride?
Adam sinned and nature was cursed. The garden was exchanged for a wilderness. In Jesus the restoration has begun with the animals of the wilderness being part of the new Eden. Mark’s text reads, Jesus was “with” the wild animals. This is the language of intimacy. Immanuel “God is with us.” They were not against him so much as he was with them. It was not quite like Daniel in the Lion’s Den who was safe from the animals; so much as Jesus is among the animals and on their side.
Listen to the words of Job 5:22-23 spoken about the attitude of the rest of creation towards the man who is truly good:
“At destruction and famine you shall laugh!
You shall not fear the wild animals of the earth.
For you shall be in league with the stones of the field
And the wild creatures shall be at peace with you.”
Note the connection to fasting/famine, animals, and stones in this brief passage. Overtones of the temptations of Jesus!
The prophets dreamed of the Messianic Kingdom and described it in these terms: Hosea 2:18, “I will make for you a covenant on that day with the wild animals, the birds of the air, and the creeping things of the ground….“ Isaiah 11:6-9, “The wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid, the calf and the lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them.”
Mark seems to be more interested in the Paradise theme, while Matthew & Luke will give their focus to the Exodus theme.
Another question comes to the fore, are the angels and animals on opposite sides or the same side? John 1:11 says “He came to his own things, but his own people did not welcome him.”
After the immense struggle with both physical duress and spiritual struggle there is a need for Jesus to be restored. He refuses to feed himself by making bread out of stones, but angels are sent to serve him in his need. Matthew provides for us the sequence of events as the testing time comes to its close. “The Devil left him and then angels ministered to him.” The angels did not intervene during the fight with temptation, but after it was over they bring food, healing and peace. (4:11) It is also noteworthy that at the close of his ministry, as he prays and struggles with renewed temptation in the Garden of Gethsemane, angels come once more to strengthen him. (Luke 22:43-44)
So why this diverse menagerie of characters all in one place? How critical to the world’s story is Jesus overcoming his temptations? At his baptism Jesus is important enough for John the Baptist, the first prophet in centuries, to announce him, and for the voice of God sounding from the heavens to ordain him, and for the Holy Spirit to come visually upon him. But he is also important enough for Satan to pay a lot of attention to him, for the animals of creation to gather around him, and for angels to become his servants!
The denizens of heaven, earth and hell are gathered in this moment, while humanity slumbers, unaware of the great event. Not only is Jesus the crucial person but on these very moments hangs the destiny of the world. And I think the gospel writers, as they tell the story of these moments, want us to congregate in the wilderness along with beings celestial and terrestrial to share this pivotal moment in human history.
When Mark continues his gospel he has Jesus moving immediately to choose his first disciples and then begins to attack all that is satanic. (Mark 1:14-28) The redemption of the world is already underway!