READ : Mark 1:12-13
The Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. And he was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels ministered to him.
Mark 1:12-13 rsv
In the Gospel according to Mark, we read of a number of persons who encounter Jesus during His public ministry. Strikingly, first to meet Him after His baptism in the river Jordan was one called Satan.
The word means literally, “adversary.” As a name or title, it seems to describe “the Adversary” or “the Enemy.” This personage appears frequently on the pages of the Old Testament as one opposed to God and His people, seeking to destroy the relationship between them. Satan is an accuser of God to Adam and Eve, and of Job and Joshua to God. He is malicious and destructive, but ultimately subject to God’s control, requiring divine permission to carry out his evil designs.
Satan has great power, however, and extraordinary cunning. He is a master of deception. He rules over a kingdom of evil, with underlings who carry out his plans. He is the prince of this world, gaining entrance and power wherever people turn away from God. He is an unseen ruler from whose control human beings are totally unable to free themselves.
Mark expressly mentions that Jesus is led by the Holy Spirit into encountering this Adversary. The Spirit has come upon Him with special fullness at His baptism, and now directs Him toward the wilderness. Jesus, as the obedient Son, follows God’s leading. The Spirit makes it clear to Him that accepting His vocation as servant of the Lord leads directly to this encounter with the evil one.
Some of the translations read “the Spirit immediately drove Him into the wilderness.” The verb pictures a forceful act, but not one which Jesus in any way resists. He is under a sense of inner constraint, of moral compulsion. He knows that this encounter must take place if He is to fulfill His mission. He is “driven,” indeed, but by His own sense of divine destiny.
The setting is “the desert” or “the wilderness.” This seems to have been especially associated in those days with the demonic. Jesus goes there not because it is conducive to meditation and prayer, but because He is marching to confront the enemy. While others must avoid temptation as much as possible, Jesus must seek it out. He must go on the offensive, entering enemy-occupied territory, taking the battle to the foe.
This, for Mark, sets the tone for his entire gospel. According to the New Testament records, it was precisely to overcome the kingdom of Satan and to set people free from his thralldom that the Son of God became man. Remember the word from the First Letter of John: “To this end was the Son of God manifested, that he might destroy the works of the devil” (3:8 kjv). The gospel is the record of that dramatic conflict.
Mark sees all the aspects of Jesus’ ministry as so many assaults on this kingdom of evil. He casts out demons by His sovereign word, releasing the crazed and the bound. Evil spirits are compelled to recognize His authority, to obey His command. These exorcisms are done by the power of the Spirit, by the finger of God, as Jesus puts it. They testify that in Jesus, God’s saving rule is breaking into history, setting Satan’s captives free.
Jesus heals those who are afflicted by all kinds of illness. Even death must yield up its victims when He calls them to rise. The kingdom of darkness in Jesus’ ministry is being shaken to its foundations.
Whereas Satan accuses sinners before God, bent on their destruction, Jesus identifies Himself with these sinful people, seeking to save the lost. Now the Lord of life is about to face the prince of death. The light is invading the realm of darkness. What will happen?
The wilderness encounter we read about here in Mark’s gospel is like “Round One” of a fight, the first period of an athletic contest. Jesus goes there, we read, to be “tempted by Satan.” Mark’s language suggests that the temptation went on during all the forty days. The word translated “tempt” here means “to test” or “to prove” a person. Sometimes in the Old Testament it pictures God testing men, as God tested Abraham, for example; sometimes men putting God to the test. In each case the idea is, crudely put, “Let’s see what he will do, how he will react in this crisis situation. Let’s find out what he’s made of, what he’s really like. Let the test bring character to light.”
With Satan, however, testing is something different, something more. The aim is not to learn something, nor to give another person opportunity to display his mettle. Satan’s objective is thoroughly malicious. He wants to incite Jesus toward evil, wants to lead Him to sin. Everything he suggests is calculated to do harm. Everything he offers is poisoned bait. The “test” here is not a search for truth, but a determined effort to deceive and destroy.
Unlike Matthew and Luke, Mark does not describe the temptations in detail. But we get a glimpse later on in the gospel of what they must have been like.
It was just after Peter had made his great confession of faith. Jesus had asked the disciples, you remember, “Who do you say that I am?” Peter had responded “You are the Christ.” Speaking for all the rest of Jesus’ followers, he made the great confession. Then Jesus “began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer many things, and be rejected by the elders and the chief priests and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again” (Matt. 16:21, kjv). At this, Peter began to rebuke his Master, to call His words in question, to assure Him that these tragic events would never come to pass.
The reaction of the Lord was swift and startling. “Get behind me, Satan! . . . for you are not on the side of God, but of men” (v. 23). Imagine that – He calls His disciple and friend “Satan”! What could he mean by that?
Jesus was not identifying Peter with the adversary, nor accusing him of being the devil in disguise. But He was certainly rejecting Peter’s counsel – out of hand. It did not express the wisdom of God but rather a shortsighted piece of human prudence. And because Peter was not listening to the Word of God through Jesus, but opposing his own opinion to it, he was unwittingly becoming a spokesman for Satan. Jesus wanted to wake His disciple up to that reality, to shake him from the foolish confidence that he, Peter, knew better than his Master.
What a sobering reminder for us! I may be, as Peter was, a genuine disciple of Jesus. I may hold the faith that He is Israel’s promised Messiah and God’s unique Son. I may see myself as a loyal disciple and believe that my intentions are the best in the world. But when I call in question God’s revealed Word, when I protest against the “hard sayings” of Jesus, I become the tempter’s mouthpiece. When I insist on looking at things from a merely human point of view, setting aside God’s counsel, I do not end by offering others good advice. I more likely am the devil’s dupe, putting a stumbling block in their way.
What did Jesus recognize here that put Him instantly on guard? What was the telltale sign that Satan was really behind Peter’s well-meaning counsel? It was the suggestion that Jesus should take an easier road.
He had been speaking of what lay ahead for Him. “The Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders and the chief priests and the scribes and be killed.” He faced a way of sorrow and pain, of shame and rejection. The rulers of His own people would judge Jesus unfit to live and have Him executed.
But, Jesus, says, it had to be so. The Son of Man “must” endure these things. That “must” was not submission to a blind fate grinding on inexorably. The necessity lay rather in the Father’s will, His mysterious saving purpose. All had been foretold in the Holy Scriptures. The Servant of the Lord must suffer on behalf of others. He must be wounded for their transgressions, bruised for their iniquities. He must bear their griefs and carry their sorrows. The Almighty will lay upon Him the iniquity of us all. Only so can the Father’s loving plan be accomplished. Only so can His banished ones be brought home.
For Peter to say “No, Lord!” was more than impertinence, worse that gross misunderstanding. It was an effort to turn Jesus away from the path of obedience, to have Him abandon His saving mission. It was Satan’s strategy in a nutshell: anything but the Cross.
It’s interesting to note how the three temptations described by Matthew and Luke all sound this note in some way. Remember how the Evil One tempted Jesus to turn the stones into bread? For Jesus in His hunger to do that would have been a self-chosen way out of difficulty, an easy road, a quick fix, an alternative to utter dependence on God. Again, the temptation to cast Himself down from the highest point of the temple, trusting that God would cause His angels to bear Him up. For Jesus to leap from the pinnacle of the temple and alight unharmed would have been a dazzling way to attract disciples. That would have won them quickly and painlessly. Again, the Evil One says “All these things will I give you, all the kingdoms of the world if you will fall down and worship me.” To worship Satan was advertised as a certain way to win the world without the Cross. “You can do everything, Jesus,” Satan seemed to whisper, “if You’ll only compromise a little bit, if You’ll only give up this madness of obeying God all the way to death.”
But He wouldn’t, and He didn’t. He refused to give in to the Tempter in the wilderness. He would not abandon the way of obedience. And the angels came to refresh Him after the ordeal.
He would not turn aside at Peter’s remonstrances. He kept right on going. Not Gethsemane’s bitter cup, not even the agonies on Golgotha – nothing would stop Him from seeing it through. And God vindicated Him on Easter.
Now Jesus is risen and reigning in glory unimaginable, Savior of the world, King of Kings, Lord of Lords. But it all began with that lonely struggle in the wilderness where He faced the worst disguised as the best, where He had the courage to meet the Tempter on His own ground and say for all of us, “No!”
What does He offer you and me today? Not an easy road, friends. Not a short cut to happiness. He invites us to follow Him on a way of obedience, ready to lose our lives for His sake. But He offers forgiveness through His death to free us from the past. Strength by His rising by the power of the Holy Spirit to face the tempter and say no. And best of all, His blessed companionship along the way. Jesus Christ is calling you now. What will you say to Him?
PRAYER: Father, we praise You for Jesus Christ who is our Savior and Master and example. We praise You that He resisted and overcame all the powers of evil for our sake, and that He, by His Spirit, grants us strength also to overcome. May every person sharing the message so trust in this risen, reigning, victorious Christ. Amen.