Jesus in the Wilderness

Jesus began his ministry following his encounter with John the Baptist. The four Gospels are unanimous about that, and it’s an easy story to understand. But the next story, whilst familiar, is much harder to comprehend. We are presented with a picture of God incarnate in a head-to-head debate with the Devil. What’s happening here?

The temptation of Jesus seems fanciful, until we erase the medieval cartoon of a devil with horns and tail. That image simply isn’t biblical.  Satan is not described in the passages concerned[1].  Think, rather, what history shows happens to people when they realise that they have power.  Sadly, the outcome is often unpleasant.  Even in democracies it’s often the case that a leader who survives more than a single term of office becomes over-confident. But rulers who believe they have unlimited power invariably become despots, or even tyrants.

In the story of Jesus in the wilderness, we encounter a man who has just realised that he has potentially infinite power. Jesus, the carpenter of Nazareth, probably had a strong sense of calling.  Indeed, we know from some Gospel accounts, that he was aware of that in some senses even during his childhood.  But, as he came up from the water of baptism, a voice from the sky announced, “This is my Son”.  What?  I’m the Son of God? That, surely, is a temptation to become carried away by the sense of power.

 His battle of choices is totally credible.  Imagine the inner questions:

  1. Why should I go hungry when I could turn any of these stones into a nourishing loaf of bread?
  2. Why should I live humbly when I could rise above the nations and assume imperial power?
  3. Why should I trudge through three years of preaching and performing little miracles in obscure villages when I could put on a convincing display in the most prominent building of the capital city?

You don’t need a demon in red tights to plant such typically human ideas!  Where do you suppose that the concept of devils as scary monsters came from?  Not from the Bible, but from popular culture and from pictures based on those folk stories. And where did those stories originate?  From paganism, animism, and other prehistoric religions.  They are deep rooted ideas but lead us to trivialise the spiritual powers that can speak right into our minds, capitalising on our individual vulnerabilities.

When Jesus chose to be human, he took a huge risk. He placed himself in a weak position.  Without any need for a specially qualified tempter, he subjected himself to temptations that, as Paul observed, are “common to man[2].  Overcoming such temptations was an amazing achievement of the man, Christ Jesus.  But how did he do it?  Well, that’s where the story of the Temptation in the Wilderness proves so helpful.  One at a time, the man, Christ Jesus, dealt with the temptations by using Scripture.  He didn’t call down legions of angels.  He didn’t go in for a hand-to-hand battle (as it were) using spiritual resources that we don’t have. He didn’t invoke powers that are unavailable to us.  He used resources that are available to every Christian.   If he could do it, so can we.

Take courage from what James says about satanic temptation.  He said, “Resist the devil, and he will flee from you[3]. But, if that doesn’t encourage you enough, read my earlier blog, “Overcoming Temptation”. Keep safe!

© Derrick Phillips 2022

[1] Matthew 4:1-11, Mark 1:12-13, Luke 4:1-13
[2] 1 Corinthians 10:13[3] James 4:7 (NIV)

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