“Would that you be at my feet” the Devil says to our Lord, “and all of this be yours.” [Luke 4:7] All of this… including a most impotent path among men.
The story of Jesus being led into the wilderness to be tempted by Satan is a fascinating scene in many respects. Three of the four gospels give an account of this epic confrontation, yet nowhere in the gospels are we let on to Jesus actually relaying his experience to any follower, friend, or family member. Now he certainly may have; we know a great many matters among Jesus and his companions are not included in scripture—”For if every one of them were written down, the whole world would not have room enough for the books that would be written.” (Jn 21:25) Either way, we are left to speculate on this point.
Still, we are not looking in on the ministry of miracles here or the teaching of kingdom principles. This is something entirely different; a scene so crucial to the drama of the rising early church that two different authors give testimony that the Devil’s assault on our Lord was so taxing He had to be tended to by angels. Yet there is no further comment of it anywhere. Seems odd. Is there not some lesson to be learned here? some precept for us to take home? some parable for us to marvel at? If ever there was, it doesn’t come from Christ’s lips.
Then there is something of the story’s setting. Besides the two principle characters of good and evil (the Son of God vs the Prince of the earth) the entire backdrop of the occasion is isolation. No other persons are present. No disciples. No crowds. No sinners. No one. Not one other person is led into temptation the way Jesus is or even has indication that such tantalizing is well underway in the desert hills above John’s baptizing. “The Word who became flesh to dwell among us” (Jn 1:14) is here led away from us, in fact driven away, into fasting, abiding, enduring, and finally emptying. He is alone and apart; the Devil at his ear.
And what brings us to this point in the story anyway? Or rather who? The Holy Spirit’s leading here is not just curious, it’s nearly contradictory. Hardly a surprise that the Father’s affirmation “this is my Son” (Mt 3:17) and the Spirit’s confirmation “resting on him” (Mt 3:16) should be tested and tried. But what is surprising, even conflicting, is that the Holy Spirit allows for the very thing he inspires us to pray against—”lead us not into temptation” pleas our Lord, “but deliver us from the evil one.” (Mt 6:13) I am at a loss. Are some prayers not answered? some mysteries never revealed? Perhaps no more at a loss than the gospel writer himself in having included this detail as he believed it happened, and that it happened just this way. Every loose end in this life neatly tied up is the first thing to be put to death.
For several weeks now I’ve been revisiting Jesus’ wilderness encounter through the lens of every story that comes after it—the call of the disciples, the sermon on the mount, the healing of Simon’s mother-in-law, the parable of the sower, the freeing of the demoniac, the woman with the issue of blood, Christ’s transfiguration. The more I retrace our savior’s steps the less confident I am in what is really going on, what it all actually means, what Jesus is truly up against, and what we too must face in following him. Any number of commentaries and whatever the internet has to offer eagerly boil three temptations down to XYZ, followed by a prescription formula to avoid XYZ. It all seems quite reasonable and practical, yet somehow not able to satisfy the ever-so-subtle notion that God as a man is slowly putting himself to death as he ministers healing across Palestine. “For the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.” (Mark 10:45)
Though we know Christ emerges victorious in the end, dying begins in the wilderness. One seaside crowd after another thereafter is preyed upon by the same deception, temptation, choice, faith and surrender as was Messiah. Though we know Christ emerges victorious in the end, should we not also acknowledge all the familiar roadside markers leading out of the desert along this ancient path, all the recurring signposts winding up from the shores of the Jordan toward the cross of Calvary. How often we do not. That great and terrible temptation embodied in our Adversary… the rather reasonable and practical invitation for us to hold onto self, onto life itself, to shortcut the route of faith, and by our own incredible efforts climb the sky to God.
“Command these stones to become bread” (Lk 4:3) is how harmless it all seems. But Jesus does not command stones to become bread. The only begotten of God from whom all life flows understands that bread does not come from stones. It doesn’t come from power ministry or miraculous tricks. Bread comes from seed; it always has. Bread comes from seed that falls out of heaven to the earth and is crushed underfoot and buried into winter so as to rise up again in the Spring. Bread comes from a thoughtful scattering of patience, endurance and faith, as does everything else that lines the road the leads to life. And a narrow road it is for us all, steep, winding, and rarely traveled. The walk becomes a climb soon enough. Soon enough we are all stopping every so many steps to catch our breath and count the cost. What will it be? My life for his? His life for mine? “If it is you before me, Satan; get me! Resurrection is up around the bend. Mine eyes are ever fixed upward.”
There is tremendous power to heal and free in the depths of the gospel. In both the proclamation of the word in worship and the message of the word in preaching, there is ample opportunity for us to apportion the words of Jesus in our own life, to entrust our own needs and wants into the care of the Lord, to ultimately “deny ourselves and carry our own cross” in every day affairs. This is difficult work no doubt. But it is good work. The kind of labor that will not disappoint and render you without hope. The kind of labor that will inspire you to invite the wisdom and correction of God. Our own needs and wants and desires are only but a season and they will never really settle our soul. What will settle us and give us the peace that only God gives is our willful conscious choice to follow Jesus in obedient faith. In some certain way, in some certain area, God may be asking you to die in the wilderness before you emerge victorious, before his tending angels come to your aid, when only his words arise in your heart. This is what we’re up against. Yet don’t be afraid. You will not be consumed. You will remain and grow and thrive.