Mark’s account of the beginning of Jesus’ ministry is the briefest one of all the gospels. He begins his gospel with a little about John the Baptist, and introduces Jesus at his baptism. Like Matthew and Luke, he records the significant signs of the Dove and the Voice (John only refers to the Dove). All the gospels say that the Dove was the visible expression of the Holy Spirit coming upon Jesus, showing that the carpenter’s son was being anointed with power for the ministry he was beginning as the Messiah (the ‘anointed one’). The Voice confirmed that he was indeed God’s Son, and would have reminded Jesus of Psalm 2, which talks about God’s anointed and God’s word to him, ‘You are my son; today I have begotten you.’ It would also have been a reassurance to know that God was well pleased with him.
What happened next is entirely unexpected. Other gospels give the details. Mark just gives a summary: the Spirit took Jesus out into the wilderness; that he was there for forty days (‘forty days and forty nights’ was the time Moses was on Mount Sinai receiving the commandments, the people of Israel were ‘forty years’ in the wilderness, Elijah went for forty days and forty nights to mount Horeb (perhaps Mt Sinai) where he heard the ‘still small voice’ of God, so ‘forty’ was a significant number); that he was being tempted by Satan (Matthew and Luke say how); that he was with wild animals (a detail not recorded by the other gospel writers); and that angels came and ministered to him (Matthew says the same). All these statements are significant.
Jesus was anointed with power by the Spirit, and the Spirit immediately took him into the wilderness to be tested by the devil. The Spirit did not immediately take him to where his powers would be most useful, but into a hard, difficult situation. How could the loving Holy Spirit do that? In that situation Jesus would be tempted beyond what most people could resist. We learn from the other gospels that he was tempted to prove his place as God’s son, to use his powers to meet his natural needs and to prove to his people who he was, and he was tempted to take the easy route to a position as Lord of the whole earth. The alternative route led to the cross. What a choice! How could God allow his son to face such decisions? Not just ‘allow’ – the Spirit deliberately led him there! Perhaps it was to enable Jesus to grow to perfection – no human being is fully mature who has not faced problems. Perhaps… we don’t know. But if the Spirit led Jesus there, we must not be surprised if he leads his people into difficulties or dangers – while encouraging us to pray against such times (lead us not into temptation…).
Jesus was with the wild animals. Were they a danger to him, part of the test? Or was this a flashback to the garden of Eden, where heaven and earth were in full communion, and Adam and Eve dwelt in harmony with all nature? Certainly heaven touched earth to help Jesus, as angels came and ministered to him. We don’t know what exactly they did; but they did not help him to escape the temptations, nor the long period of fasting. The presence of the angels must have been a blessing. Even in the worst of times when Jesus felt utterly on his own, humanly speaking, he was given the reassurance that he was not alone, that messengers from his Father in heaven were with him and rooting for him, even while the devil did his worst. And so it is with us.
1) In what ways might Lent help us to identify with Jesus?
2) What helps us win victories over temptation and testing?