Jesus is on the verge of beginning His ministry in and around the Galilee but there is one last thing He must accomplish. We saw in the last post how there is a consistent theme throughout the scriptures as it relates to how God brings peace and order out of chaos. This recipe, if you will, always ends with the humanity God entrusts with the peace and order failing to keep it. This time, however, Jesus Christ, the Prince of Peace, is going to accomplish what rebellious humanity couldn’t. He is going to be led into the wilderness to face the testing of a lifetime – how much does Jesus actually trust the Father? We will learn quite a bit from this experience, but let’s set the stage first. We don’t see Jesus being paraded in Jerusalem and set upon a luxurious chair to be mildly questioned, but rather Jesus is driven further into the wilderness by the Spirit of God. He’s alone. It’s desolate. He’s fasted 40 days – He’s hungry. Where humanity is concerned, Jesus is at a weak moment. This wilderness isn’t the location of this by accident, but indeed highlights the nature of where the way of the Lord is prepared. Christians often want God to prepare them in the comforts of their culture, religious or otherwise, yet, the way of the Lord is prepared in a desolate wilderness. There is a reason for this, as always! What does the wilderness mean to a Jew?
Certainly Israel’s history incorporates a nomadic period before getting into their promised land. This period was in the wilderness and this wilderness experience served a number of purposes for Israel. What we are going to find is that Jesus, as a type of Israel, is going to experience the exact same testings. So, if we look at the wilderness concept in the Bible, we will find quite a few lessons from it. I’m going to highlight 4 – Dependence, Isolation, Deliverance and Holiness.
In Exodus 15 and 16, Israel has just escaped Egypt by God’s hand and they are immediately faced with a test – will they trust God for their provision and will they trust that God has bigger things for them than worrying about where their next meal will come from? The wilderness was a stark contrast to what they had in Egypt and so much so that many of them wished they hadn’t left. Many would rather be fed with shackles around their feet than to risk trusting God in freedom. There is a sense of guarantee, but it’s a false guarantee. The only thing slavery guarantees is slavery. Yet, God brought Israel out for a little change of scenery because He wanted to see what was in Israel’s heart. Would Israel search their circumstances to find their provision, or, would they recognize their circumstance is immaterial to trusting the Father?
The wilderness eliminates all of the flashy lights and distractions of the big towns – it removes the golden statues and magnificent architecture of Egypt and exchanges that for dependence upon God.
In 1Kings 19, Elijah is running for his life as Jezebel is after his head for what he did to her precious prophets. Elijah is hiding in a cave out in the wilderness and is bemoaning how it is just him and only him who stands for God and no one else does. He is have some issues with what God had called him to do. He saw the fire fall against the prophets of Baal and seems to get extremely tunnel-visioned about how God operates (very much like John the Baptist). Elijah feels alone and isolated and it is in this isolation that God reveals a few things. First, he reveals the heart that Elijah is supposed to have. He has Elijah go out to the cave and he hears a strong wind, but the Lord wasn’t in the wind. He sees fire, but the Lord wasn’t in the wife. He feels the earthquake, but the Lord wasn’t in the earthquake. These big displays of God’s power, yet that wasn’t where God wanted Elijah’s heart. Elijah wanted God raining fire down at every turn (again, much like John the Baptist) but that isn’t where God’s heart was set. Finally, Elijah hears a still small voice and God was in the small voice. Elijah still doesn’t get it and begins to plead with still small voice that He is the only one who is on God’s side. God uses this moment to make a call to the bullpen. Elijah’s game was done. Elijah is to pass his mantle onto the new prophet, Elisha. Oh, and by the way, God points out to Elijah that he isn’t alone for God had reserved 7,000 who hadn’t bowed their knee to the image of Baal.
The wilderness is a place where God can isolate you to work on you, test you and prepare you. It is a place where you can get away from the distractions of life and do business with the still small voice. Throughout the gospels, we will see Jesus often going off by Himself – He understood the benefit and importance of wilderness isolation as it relates to what God does to your heart. Just as Elijah had to pass the mantle to Elisha, so too will John the Baptist pass the mantle, as it were, to Jesus.
Sarah devises a scheme to have Abraham essentially rape her handmaid in order to help God out in fulfilling the promise of a seed. Once Hagar has her son, Ishmael, Sarah gets mad that the plan worked and she encourages Abraham to send Hagar and Ishmael out into the wilderness, away from the comfort and safety of Abraham’s family. Abraham fixes them up a plate of food and sends them on their way. (As a side note, Abraham and Sarah sound like real upstanding human beings! But, this is the point of the story – God partners with imperfection to bring about the ultimate perfection, Abraham’s greater Son, Jesus Christ). God comes to Hagar and Ishmael in the wilderness and provides deliverance from the dangers that exist in the wilderness. God heard her cry and God answers and rescues her from the injustice.
The wilderness is where we can often find God’s greatest expressions of deliverance – and not just deliverance from the wilderness, but more often than not, deliverance through it. Jesus will find deliverance through the wilderness, not from it.
In Exodus 3, Moses is led into the mountain in the wilderness where he encounters a burning bush that isn’t consumed. Within this bush is a divine council come down to Moses. Jehovah is there – but so is someone else (Jesus Christ). The angel of the Lord and God Himself are both present. God says that He has heard the cry of Israel in their affliction in Egypt – once again, a God who hears the cry of oppression and injustice. Moses is told to take his shoes off because of the holiness of the ground he stood on in the presence of this bush. In Exodus 19, we find a similar account after the Exodus when Moses is called up to the mountain to receive the law. Likewise, a divine council is present and this time includes angels – messengers of the heavenly host. This is quite a scene, but in both instances, Moses is brought face to face with the utter uniqueness of the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. This utter uniqueness is His holiness – it is what makes Him distinct from all other gods that exist and/or are worshiped by mankind. His holiness isn’t a statement of His sinlessness, although it would include it, but is a statement that extends in all directions of His character that makes Him stand apart from other gods.
Exodus 15:11 Who is like unto thee, O LORD, among the gods? who is like thee, glorious in holiness, fearful in praises, doing wonders?
Exodus18:10 And Jethro said, Blessed be the LORD, who hath delivered you out of the hand of the Egyptians, and out of the hand of Pharaoh, who hath delivered the people from under the hand of the Egyptians. 18:11 Now I know that the LORD is greater than all gods: for in the thing wherein they dealt proudly he was above them.
In fact, the plagues of Egypt, culminating in the final plague with the destroyer of the first born in Egypt, was a showdown between God and the gods of Egypt.
Exodus 12:12 For I will pass through the land of Egypt this night, and will smite all the firstborn in the land of Egypt, both man and beast; and against all the gods of Egypt I will execute judgment: I am the LORD.
The wilderness experience works to temper one’s heart towards reverencing the holiness that is our God. It will be the place where Jesus’ heart is revealed of His complete reverence and trust for His Father.
There are certainly other lessons we could learn from time spent in the wilderness, but I highlight these as examples of the importance the wilderness has played in Israel’s story. The wilderness, with its mystery, triumphs and dangers, is the place where God gets down to business with you. God uses the desolation of the wilderness – its emptiness – to drive you to emptiness of self, to solely rely upon Him. The wilderness equips you to be about the Father’s business. The wilderness serves as a reminder of the ‘wild and waste’ chaos that God brings peace and order to. For you to be part of God’s restoration efforts, expect God to bring you out to the wilderness to be tested.
In Matthew 4, we find Jesus going through this very thing. He is being led by the Spirit of God – not lured out by Satan – but the Spirit of God is driving Jesus out into the wilderness. Matthew records that the devil was the tempter. The idea is that the adversary of God is providing the temptation and testing. Satan is actually the Hebrew word. We have taken it in English to be a specific name for a specific being, but the idea of satan is simply an adversary or an opponent. It is term of job duty or character, not a name. There are instances in the Old Testament were folks are called satan and it is translated as adversary–because that’s what it means. Hadad the Edomite is called a satan in 1Kings 11:14. David is called a satan in 1Samuel 19:4. Even the Angel of the Lord is called a satan in Numbers 22:22 (again, look for the word ‘adversary’.) This term is also used to describe a particular being who seems to have the divine role of accusation in God’s council (i.e. Job 1, Job 2, 1Chronicles 21, etc.) I’m not going to get into this council idea here, but there is certainly more going on in the unseen realm than we might care to admit.
The origin of the accuser is not given in the Bible. It simply is just not. Folks may run to Isaiah 14 or Ezekiel 28 and try to create a narrative about the accuser’s origins, but the reality is, the Bible never explains its origins. This is frustrating for many readers because we want answers like this, but the Bible isn’t interested in meeting our demands on this. The Bible isn’t all that interested in explaining the origins of evil or the accuser, but is very interested in how God deals with its presence and how that ought to influence our lives. Suffice it to say, the opponent of God is in the wilderness ready to tempt Jesus to break trust with His Father.
Matthew 4:1 Then was Jesus led up of the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted of the devil. 4:2 And when he had fasted forty days and forty nights, he was afterward an hungred. 4:3 And when the tempter came to him, he said, If thou be the Son of God, command that these stones be made bread. 4:4 But he answered and said, It is written, Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceedeth out of the mouth of God. 4:5 Then the devil taketh him up into the holy city, and setteth him on a pinnacle of the temple, 4:6 And saith unto him, If thou be the Son of God, cast thyself down: for it is written, He shall give his angels charge concerning thee: and in their hands they shall bear thee up, lest at any time thou dash thy foot against a stone. 4:7 Jesus said unto him, It is written again, Thou shalt not tempt the Lord thy God. 4:8 Again, the devil taketh him up into an exceeding high mountain, and sheweth him all the kingdoms of the world, and the glory of them; 4:9 And saith unto him, All these things will I give thee, if thou wilt fall down and worship me. 4:10 Then saith Jesus unto him, Get thee hence, Satan: for it is written, Thou shalt worship the Lord thy God, and him only shalt thou serve. 4:11 Then the devil leaveth him, and, behold, angels came and ministered unto him.
We’ve seen in previous posts how Jesus operates a the Servant of Isaiah chapters 40 through 54. In Isaiah, the servant is Jacob/Israel, yet, many times Jesus does or say things that demonstrate the true nature of this servant – highlight what Jacob/Israel was supposed to be. In like manner, we see Jesus experiencing the exact same scenario as Israel did – a period of time counted by 40 where food becomes a primary testing ground. Note the author’s words in Deuteronomy,
Deuteronomy 8:1 All the commandments which I command thee this day shall ye observe to do, that ye may live, and multiply, and go in and possess the land which the LORD sware unto your fathers. 8:2 And thou shalt remember all the way which the LORD thy God led thee these forty years in the wilderness, to humble thee, and to prove thee, to know what was in thine heart, whether thou wouldest keep his commandments, or no. 8:3 And he humbled thee, and suffered thee to hunger, and fed thee with manna, which thou knewest not, neither did thy fathers know; that he might make thee know that man doth not live by bread only, but by every word that proceedeth out of the mouth of the LORD doth man live.
Israel was led out into the wilderness so that God would test them – to prove them – to expose what was in their hearts. Would they trust God, or not? He met their need of food, but not with what they were expecting, but with bread from heaven – manna. It was a substance they weren’t expecting and it was to teach them that they won’t live by (simple/regular) bread alone, but by every word that proceeds out of the mouth of God – for by the word of God, He decree this manna to be so. God brought divine provision to Israel, now, would Israel trust God? This is where we find Jesus.
Test: Matthew 4:3 And when the tempter came to him, he said, If thou be the Son of God, command that these stones be made bread.
Just as Israel spent time in the wilderness and faced hunger, so too Christ finds Himself in this very same scenario. The tester’s tactics undermine Jesus’ identity by attempting to get Jesus to focus on His circumstances. “If you’re really the Son of God…” is the attitude of the tester. The tester believes the isolation of the wilderness and the hunger Jesus faced is certainly no way that He should be living if He truly is God’s Son. He questioning Jesus’ value and worth, but does Jesus look past His circumstance to understand what the Father really thinks about Him?
Response: Matthew 4:4 But he answered and said, It is written, Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceedeth out of the mouth of God.
Jesus absolutely looks beyond the circumstance. He doesn’t look at His hunger as what God thinks about Him, but understands that man also lives by what God says about them – every word that proceeds out of the mouth of God. Jesus trusts what the Father believes about Him – that the Father is well pleased with His Son.
Test: Matthew 4:5 Then the devil taketh him up into the holy city, and setteth him on a pinnacle of the temple, 4:6 And saith unto him, If thou be the Son of God, cast thyself down: for it is written, He shall give his angels charge concerning thee: and in their hands they shall bear thee up, lest at any time thou dash thy foot against a stone.
The tester is still trying to undermine Jesus’ identity, but now is trying to allure Him to test the Father’s faithfulness by quoting scripture to Jesus. This is a usual tactic of the tester as he tripped up Eve by misquoting what God said. Satan conveniently leaves out some important details from passage he’s quoting, from Psalm 91. Psalm 91 is a poem about trust and faith. The one who makes the Lord his refuge is protected by the Lord. The one who cries out to the Lord will find deliverance. It is a poem where trust triumphs over circumstance. However, the tester wants Jesus to put the Father in His service.
Response: Matthew 4:7 Jesus said unto him, It is written again, Thou shalt not tempt the Lord thy God.
Jesus quotes Deuteronomy 6:16 and proves to the tester that the relationship between the Father and the Son doesn’t work this way. The Son doesn’t get to tempt the Father to protect Him for frivolous reasons. Christ demonstrates that His identity as the Son of God doesn’t give Him carte blanche over the Father’s power; it gives Him access to it and the right to enjoy it, but not authority over it.
Test: Matthew 4:8 Again, the devil taketh him up into an exceeding high mountain, and sheweth him all the kingdoms of the world, and the glory of them; 4:9 And saith unto him, All these things will I give thee, if thou wilt fall down and worship me.
The tester changes his tactics here and doesn’t try to undermine Christ’s identity as the Son of God, but goes after His destiny. The tester believes he has material influence over the world and will willingly give the kingdoms of the world to Christ in exchange for Christ’s worship and allegiance to the tester. Does Jesus take the bait? Could Jesus accomplish His destiny apart from the Father’s plan by submitting to another’s?
Response: Matthew 4:10 Then saith Jesus unto him, Get thee hence, Satan: for it is written, Thou shalt worship the Lord thy God, and him only shalt thou serve.
Jesus doesn’t take the bait and in fact, He boldly dismisses the evil nature of the test and the tester. He recognizes it is completely contrary to the means the Father has already ordained to be the means Christ would accomplish His destiny. Christ doesn’t become the King of kings without His death, burial and resurrection. He trusts the Father with His destiny and doesn’t listen to the voice of evil that was encouraging Him to achieve His destiny through different means. Advice given that negates the Father’s purpose and wisdom is seen as completely evil to Christ. In fact, there is one other time when Christ has a similar reaction and it is in Matthew 16 when Peter rebukes Christ for telling them about how He was going to have to die and Jesus tells Peter, “Get thee behind me, Satan, for thou art an offence unto me.” Peter likewise wanted Christ to accomplish His destiny as Christ without yielding to the totality of the Father’s purpose. It is an evil of a suggestion coming from evil himself (Satan) or from one of your prominent disciples (Peter). It is evil to the highest degree to suggest that Jesus can achieve victory apart from the Father’s will.
Then, Jesus quotes Deuteronomy 6:13, but the real icing on the cake here is verse 11. Verse 11 isn’t just a quick way to conclude this little account. Verse 11 calls back to the quotation of Psalm 91.
Matthew 4:11 Then the devil leaveth him, and, behold, angels came and ministered unto him.
Psalm 91:9 Because thou hast made the LORD, which is my refuge, even the most High, thy habitation; 91:10 There shall no evil befall thee, neither shall any plague come nigh thy dwelling. 91:11 For he shall give his angels charge over thee, to keep thee in all thy ways. 91:12 They shall bear thee up in their hands, lest thou dash thy foot against a stone.
Satan tried to get Jesus to put the Father’s faithfulness to the test because after all, the Father would command His angels to keep the Son safe. Jesus blows this logic out of the water and after the final test, what happens? The One who had complete trust in the Father experienced Psalm 91:11 just as it says.
Being a disciple of Christ will likewise find us in the wilderness being tested. Sometimes the tester are those who we have spiritual equity with. We often assume testings come from the world’s perspective, but they can likewise be from within the very same pew you sit in during church. Are you ready for these tests? When someone attempts to undermine your identity in Christ by pointing to your circumstances, how do you respond? When someone tries to place a value or worth on your humanity based on your circumstances, how do you respond? Jesus responded by trust – He trusted the text; He trusted the Father. Do we know the text well enough to know when our testers are even misquoting scripture to us? When we go through tests, we can look back to Christ as the One who aced the test, not by cheating or cramming the night before, but by a life lived out of trust for the Father. For us, this may alter our lives – this may cost us our lives – but as Jesus has taught us – man doesn’t live by bread alone, but by every word that God speaks. Your worth isn’t limited to bread, but rests in the divine decree of the Father.
Jesus is now ready to enter His ministry. In our next post, we’ll see that John the Baptist has effectively passed the mantle to Christ; Christ calls His first disciples and the grand summary of what His ministry was known for.
Our story continues!…