THE WATER FROM HIS BAPTISM in the Jordan River evaporated quickly in the dry and hot Judean desert air as Jesus climbed the barren hills.
Was He on His way to where the action was – to crowded urban Jerusalem, where the temple and palaces were? Or was He oﬀ to the gentle rolling hills, to the familiar territory of His Galilee where the sea and the familiar little towns were? Surprisingly, neither of these places, for He was oﬀ to the desert, the barren and wild places – but for what purpose?
The way Scripture puts it, there was a certain measure of compulsion in the way Jesus directed His footsteps towards the lonely hills in the desert. Matthew says that He “was led by the Spirit” while Mark uses more stark language: “At once the Spirit sent him out into the desert.” (Mt. 4:1; Mk. 1:12).
It was as if Jesus had the weight of history on His shoulders. This was at least the third take of a familiar scene. The first time was when the ancient Israelites stepped on the moist seabed of the Red Sea as they walked nervously from shore to shore, mindful of the walls of water on either side of their strangely created path. Their moist sandals stepped onto the dry desert sand – from a miracle into a mess, for though God showed His strong hand to assure them of His presence and His providence, they sinned against God, giving in to their rebellious passions. They wandered around the desert dunes and hills for 40 long years. A whole generation spent its lifetime in disobedient failure and expired in the lifeless desert.
The second similar scene was when the new generation of Israelites (miraculously) crossed the River Jordan under the leadership of Joshua to claim the Promised Land. They walked through the desert with eyes on the rich oasis of Jericho before them. Jericho fell in an exhilarating moment of faith, but the story after that was a mixture of success and failure, of faith and unfaithfulness. The book of Judges tells the sordid story of how low a people who were led by the living God could fall.
This time, Jesus, as the new Israelite, set foot on the desert sand to carve a new history. The backdrop was very familiar, just as some of the details. Jesus fasted and was tempted by Satan for 40 days, each day perhaps representing a year spent by the Israelites wandering in the desert.
“ The marketplace and the media can whisper tempting alternatives to our identity in Christ. Worse are the temptations in church.”
Satan was there to tempt Jesus and he did his best to have the old history repeated.
The basic thrust of Satan’s temptation was to make Jesus accept a distorted identity.
Jesus had just been baptised in the Jordan, when the Father’s voice declared “You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.” (Mk. 1:11). As Jesus climbed the hills, His heart must have echoed with those words. Perhaps He could hear the words quietly echoing round the desert hills – “You are my Son, You are my Son …” Then suddenly Satan’s silky and sly voice interrupted: “If you are the Son of God, tell this stone to become bread.” (Mt. 4:3). How incredibly devious of Satan, for he did not attempt to directly challenge the identity of Jesus, but he suggested a cleverly distorted alternative. He tempted Jesus to stop talking to the Father and start talking to a stone! He uses the same tactic in every act of idolatry whether it is directed to stones, strategies or slogans.
Jesus, the One who said that His food was to do the will of the Father and to finish His work, (Jn. 4:34) refused to give ear to the diabolical suggestion and refuted it with Scripture. It is better to be hungry and obedient than to be satisfied but disobedient.
THE OTHER TWO Satanic temptations also tested the identity of Jesus. “If you are the Son of God,” began Satan in his second temptation (Mt. 4:6). is time, he invited Jesus to throw Himself down from the pinnacle of the temple, assuring Jesus that He would not be hurt. Instead He would create a great spectacle and win instant popularity. But Jesus had no interest in pain-free magic, for He was the Suﬀering Servant, not a celebrity. Satan also attempted to distract Jesus with a false and glitzy image of the world in order to make Him worship Satan, a creature of God. Jesus resolutely stood by His divine identity and refused to sell it for a devilish illusion.
Jesus changes the old script and shows the victorious way of the cross. Between His baptism and ministry was the wilderness of temptation, and Jesus shows all the danger that lies in our path. It is easy for us to quickly forget our baptismal identity and fall prey to Satan’s subtle temptations. The ancient Israelites forgot who they were, or rather whose they were, and spent a lifetime of pathetic wandering in the desert. They built an idol mascot for their desert trip, worshipped their bodies like the rest of the world, and idealised their lives of bondage in Egypt. They repeatedly forgot whose they were. Their children who entered the Promised Land did not fare any better.
We who follow Jesus are daily bombarded with suggestions to compromise our identity – whose we are. Appetites, the need for acceptance and to be popular, and the desire for comfort, success and wealth, all can lead us astray to live our distorted and destroyed identities. The marketplace and the media can whisper tempting alternatives to our identity in Christ. Worse are the temptations in church. They usually begin with “If you are a child of God, then …” and introduce all kinds of strange notions that lead into using God for our own agendas rather then fitting our lives into God’s plans. Or they can lead us into make-believe spiritual theme parks or fall in self-worship, if only for a few moments.
To remember whose we are, we must remain close to Jesus, and hide His word in our hearts that we may not sin. (Ps.119:11). We must stay alert lest we carelessly assume we are on an Exodus journey and lose our way. The deadly air of the world dries up the baptismal water quickly, unless our hearts remain filled with the Spirit.