Wilderness, Temptation and the Spirit

SYNOPSIS - The Spirit of God drove Jesus into the Wilderness to be tested; he succeeded where Israel had failedMark 1:9-13

Desert - Photo by Dekeister Leopold on Unsplash
The first appearance of Jesus in the gospel of Mark is at his baptism in the River Jordan. The passage identifies him with his hometown, Nazareth, a small village in Galilee and one of no significance. However, its very insignificance plays an important role in the narrative - Jesus is a Messiah who does not fit any of the popular messianic expectations. (Photo by Dekeister Leopold on Unsplash).

"In those days” - At the time when John the Baptist was baptizing suppliants in the Jordan. Rather than recount the details of his baptism, the paragraph stresses the events that followed it. This includes the opening of heaven, the divine voice, the descent of the Spirit, and the temptation in the wilderness.

Israel failed its test during its forty-year sojourn in the wilderness. In contrast, Jesus overcame all the temptations Satan threw at him during his forty days in the wilderness.
  • (Mark 1:9-13) - “And it came to pass in those days that Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was immersed into the Jordan by John; And straightway, as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens rending asunder and the Spirit as a dove descending unto him; and a voice came out of the heavens — Thou art my Son, the Beloved — In thee I delight. And straightway the Spirit urgeth him forth into the wilderness; and he was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan, and was with the wild beasts — and the messengers were ministering unto him” – (The Emphasized Bible).
At his baptism, John “saw the heavens being rent asunder” and the Spirit descend “like a dove” on Jesus. “Rent asunder” translates a Greek verb, schizō, meaning, to “split, rip open, tear apart; to rend asunder” (Strong’s - #G4977). The same verb occurs only once more in Mark after the death of Jesus when the veil of the Temple “was rent” in two. The verbal link is deliberate:
  • (Mark 15:36-39) – “But Jesus, sending out a loud voice, ceased to breathe. And the veil of the Temple was rent into two from top to bottom. Now the centurion who was standing near, out over against him, seeing that thus he ceased to breathe, said—Truly, this man was God’s son!” - (From the Emphasized Bible).
The rending of the heavens demonstrated that the arrival of the Son of God was an event of cosmic significance. Heaven, the realm of God, was opened and made accessible to humanity. The rending of the Temple’s veil at his later death makes a similar point.

It was Jesus who saw the Spirit descend “like a dove” and heard the heavenly voice. That he saw the Spirit and heard the voice demonstrate this was an actual event, not a mystical or visionary experience.

Baptism of Jesus
The preposition applied to the descent of the Spirit stresses movement “into” or “onto” something (eis). Perhaps the Spirit entered Jesus at this point, although the verb and preposition more probably indicate that the Spirit came to rest upon him.

The gospel account employs a simile - The descent of the Spirit was “like” that of a dove. It does not say the Spirit was a dove or shaped like a dove; instead, its gentle descent was analogous to the flight of a dove.

Jesus heard the voice acknowledge him as “Son.” The voice of God is heard only one more time in the gospel of Mark where its makes a similar declaration. The heavenly voice combined words from two Old Testament passages:
  • (Psalm 2:7) - “I will surely tell of the decree of Yahweh: he said to me, You are my Son, today, I have begotten you.”
  • (Isaiah 42:1) - “Behold, my servant whom I uphold; my chosen one in whom my soul delights. I have put my Spirit upon him; he will bring forth justice to the nations.”
  • (Mark 9:7) – “And there came a cloud, overshadowing them, and there came a voice out of the cloud—This is my Son, the Beloved, Be hearkening unto him.
Both Old Testament passages are messianic. By combining them, Mark defines the identity and mission of Jesus - He is God’s “Son” and the ‘Suffering Servant’ from the book of Isaiah. Unjust suffering characterized his messianic calling and sonship.

The descent of the Spirit signified the installment and equipping of Jesus for his messianic role. The heavenly voice demonstrated the divine approval of him for this mission, not just because of who or what he was but, even more importantly, because of his submission to the baptism of John - He began his mission with an act of obedience to God.

The Spirit “drove” Jesus “out” into the wilderness. “Drive out” translates a strong Greek verb, ekballō, the same verb used later when Jesus “cast out” or “drove out” demons. Here, it is in the present tense, signifying ongoing or continuous action. In other words, the Spirit was “driving” him relentlessly into the wilderness. This was a compulsion he could not ignore - (Mark 1:34-39).

Jesus was driven into the wilderness “immediately” after the descent of the Spirit, and for the express purpose of being tempted by Satan. He accomplished something in accord with the plan of God by confronting the Devil. The only details provided in the gospel of Mark are the length of the Temptation (forty days), the tempter’s identity (Satan), that Jesus was with “wild animals,” and angels ministered to him.

Satan” is a transliteration of a Hebrew word meaning “adversary.” The Greek verb rendered “tempted” is another one in a present tense - ongoing action. The temptation occurred over some length of time - The context suggests it occurred over much of the time he spent in the wilderness.
A forty-day period is another echo from the story of ancient Israel - The forty days that Moses spent on Mount Sinai, and the forty-year sojourn of Israel in the wilderness. Israel failed its wilderness test. The Messiah succeeded precisely where Israel failed most miserably - (Exodus 24:18).
The text does not explain the significance of the “wild beasts,” a feature not mentioned in the parallel accounts in Matthew or Luke. The reference to the “wild beasts” may allude to a passage from the book of Isaiah. If so, the presence of the “beasts” would provide further confirmation that Jesus was the promised Messiah:
  • (Isaiah 43:19-20) – “Behold me! doing a new thing, Now shall it spring forth, Will ye not take note thereof? Surely, I will set, In the desert a way, In a desolate land rivers: The wild beast of the field shall honour me, Jackals and ostriches, Because I have given — In the desert waters, Rivers in desolate land, To give drink unto my people, my chosen” – (The Emphasized Bible).
The passage does not state explicitly whether Jesus overcame the Devil at this point, although it infers it. This is an example of the use of understatement in this gospel – ‘Mark’ expects us to draw the correct conclusion - Jesus overcame the Devil. However, his victory over the “strong man” would not become clear until his first encounter with demons - (Mark 1:23-28).




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