A Temptation Like No Other
Grace, mercy and peace be unto you from God, our Father, and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.
Every year the Gospel reading for the first Sunday in Lent focuses on the forty-day Temptation of Jesus by Satan in the wilderness. In our historic one-year lectionary we get to hear St. Matthew's account of the temptation year in and year out. St. Matthew shows in great detail how Jesus defeats Satan's temptations. But this year I want to turn to the Gospel of St. Mark and get a higher-level view of the temptation of Jesus and see how it fits together with His Baptism, His Transfiguration, His crucifixion, and with the Gospel He came to proclaim. Here are the first 15 verses of Mark's Gospel:
The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. As it is written in Isaiah the prophet, "Behold, I send my messenger before your face, who will prepare your way, the voice of one crying in the wilderness: 'Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight,' " John appeared, baptizing in the wilderness and proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. And all the country of Judea and all Jerusalem were going out to him and were being baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. Now John was clothed with camel's hair and wore a leather belt around his waist and ate locusts and wild honey. And he preached, saying, "After me comes he who is mightier than I, the strap of whose sandals I am not worthy to stoop down and untie. I have baptized you with water, but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit." In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. And when he came up out of the water, immediately he saw the heavens being torn open and the Spirit descending on him like a dove. And a voice came from heaven, "You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased." The Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. And he was in the wilderness forty days, being tempted by Satan. And he was with the wild animals, and the angels were ministering to him. Now after John was arrested, Jesus came into Galilee, proclaiming the gospel of God, and saying, "The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel."
In the first verse of St. Mark's Gospel, he announces: "The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God" (Mark 1:1). Clearly the Gospel is about Jesus Christ, and that Gospel is from Him as well, and He is identified off the bat as the Son of God. What this means comes out more fully in Jesus' Baptism, when God the Father says to Him, "You are My beloved Son; with You I am well pleased" (Mark 1:11).
A key word from the Father is "beloved." This word can also be translated "one and only," similar to the word St. John uses when he says that God gave His "only-begotten" or "entirely unique" Son to save the world. The phrase "beloved Son" only comes up two other times in Mark's Gospel, so there must be a connection between each instance where St. Mark employs it: after Jesus' Baptism, the next time "beloved Son" is used is at the Transfiguration, where the divinity of Jesus is shown and the Father says to Peter, James, and John, "This is My beloved Son; listen to Him." So there is no doubt that the phrase "Son of God" in Mark 1:1 means Jesus isn't just any old human child of God. While He is fully a man, He also is the unique, only-begotten Son of God: God the Son, the second Person of the Trinity.
At the Transfiguration, after the vision is over, Jesus tells the disciples something astounding: He predicts that the beloved, only-begotten Son of God will die and rise. This is clear also from St. Mark's only other use of the phrase "beloved son" in a parable Jesus tells. There was a man who owned a vineyard and leased it to some ungrateful tenants who would not pay their rent and who beat up and killed the owner's collection agents. Finally the vineyard owner decided to send his "beloved son" to them, thinking, "They will respect my son." But what do they do? They killed him, too and threw his body out of the vineyard. This parable represents God the Father sending His Son, with the Jews rejecting and killing Him. And as His Baptism and Transfiguration show, this beloved Son who dies is none other than God Himself.
But He is also truly a man, and in our Gospel reading He goes down into the Jordan to be baptized by John the Baptist, and then comes back up out of the water to be anointed with the Holy Spirit. The background for Jesus' Baptism is that John had come on the scene, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, and all the people of Judea and Jerusalem had been going out to John to be baptized, while confessing their sins. St. Mark tells us that they all went down into the Jordan confessing their sins, but he does not mention that they come back out of the water (although surely they did). Yet of Jesus we are specifically told that He came out up of the water. What could this mean?
Through several details, St. Mark presents Jesus as unique, not with the rest of the crowd at the Jordan. Instead of coming from Judea and Jerusalem like all the rest, Jesus came from Galilee, land of the Gentiles, to be baptized by John. And at the Jordan He is not confessing His own sins like everyone else (because He had none), yet He goes down into the water to receive baptism intended for sinners. All the other sinners had left their sins in that water, but now Jesus comes out of the Jordan bearing all of the sins of the people, and receiving this message from God the Father: "You are My beloved Son; with You I am well pleased." Then he receives the Holy Spirit in the form of a dove.This whole scene is the fulfillment of several themes in the Old Testament, particularly from Isaiah 42 and 53, where God's Servant is said to bear the Holy Spirit and do the following things: "The righteous one, my servant, [shall] make many to be accounted righteous, and he shall bear their iniquities" (Isaiah 53:11). "The Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all" (Isaiah 53:6). "He was wounded for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his stripes we are healed" (Isaiah 53:5).
The fulfillment of those prophecies began there in the Jordan, where the sinless Son of God identified Himself as the substitute for all sinners, and He would complete our redemption from sin, death, and hell through His suffering, death, and resurrection—all for our salvation from the guilt of sin.
But sin is not the only problem we sinners need salvation from. We also need to be saved from the father of sin, Satan, and defeating this great enemy is not something we are equipped to do. So St. Mark shows that Jesus' first order of business after being identified as the Messiah is to go to battle against the devil. "The Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. And he was in the wilderness forty days, being tempted by Satan. And he was with the wild animals, and the angels were ministering to him" (Mark 1:13-14).
Matthew and Luke show Jesus defeating Satan, and using God's Word to do it, but in Mark we get no resolution to the conflict. Instead we see the Holy Spirit driving Jesus out into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil, where Jesus is threatened by the wild animals but is protected and helped by God's holy angels. Have you ever been close to a wild animal, with no protection? It can be truly terrifying. In the wilderness when Jesus was tempted, the wild animals also were real threats to Him, but they also were symbolic of the chaotic forces of darkness controlled by Satan and his minions. On the other hand, the angels are good spirits sent by God to protect His children and fight against demons and forces of darkness.
Here St. Mark is making the same point that St. Paul later did in Ephesians 6, when he describes the spiritual threats we face: "We do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places" (Ephesians 6:12).
One of the things we learn from Jesus' experience is that after Baptism, the Holy Spirit takes us out into the wilderness of this sinful world to be tempted by Satan and harassed by spiritual forces of evil. Through this process, our faith is tested and refined. Yet like Jesus, we can be confident that the Holy Spirit is always present to help us, and the holy angels are ever present to defend us. The Lord always answers our morning and evening prayer from the Catechism, "Let Your holy angel be with me, that the evil foe may have no power over me." And the Lord promises us in our Introit, Psalm 91: The Lord "will command His angels concerning you to guard you in all your ways." Just as God the Father saw Jesus through His temptations, so also will He today see us through. We confessed our confidence about this in our sermon hymn: "Though devils all the world should fill, all eager to devour us, we tremble not, we fear no ill, they shall not overpower us!" because "for us fights the Valiant One, whom God Himself elected...Jesus Christ."
But why doesn't St. Mark tell us about Jesus' victory over Satan's temptations in the wilderness, as Matthew and Luke do? This is because Jesus' battle against the devil is not only fought in the wilderness, but also at every point along the way for Jesus. Every time Jesus encountered demons and drove them out, He was dealing little defeats to Satan, and predicting His total victory over Satan in His death and resurrection. Jesus described this in Mark 3:27 when He said, "No one can enter a strong man's house and plunder his goods, unless he first binds the strong man. Then indeed he may plunder his house." As Jesus drove out demons, He was binding Satan and plundering his possessions by bringing people out of the kingdom of darkness and into the Kingdom of Light. This would happen decisively and finally through His death and resurrection, when He broke the power of Satan and freed us from slavery to sin, death, and hell.
But that did not happen without blood, sweat, tears, and temptations. Christ's victory was not automatic. It was a genuine struggle. He had to be tempted in every way that we are, yet remain without sin (Hebrews 4:15) so that later He could offer the perfect sacrifice to God and redeem us. The temptation of Jesus by Satan was not a one-time event, but continued throughout our Lord's life. Satan sought to turn Jesus away from His path to the cross and take the easy way out. One time, Satan even employed the chief apostle of Jesus, Peter. Recall how Peter tried to prevent Jesus from going to the cross, and [Jesus] rebuked Peter and said, "Get behind me, Satan! For you are not setting your mind on the things of God, but on the things of man" (Mark 8:31-33). Anything that gets in the way of Jesus going up to cross to die for your sins is actually Satan's hindrance, the devil's interference, and it must be pushed aside. So Jesus rebukes Peter, and one more temptation by Satan is crushed by Jesus.
No doubt, Satan was constantly attacking Jesus throughout His ministry, but then the greatest temptation came while Jesus hung on the cross, suffering under God's wrath against our sins. As we have begun our Lenten journey with Jesus toward the cross this week, let us take a look at our destination six weeks from now: St. Mark wrote, "Those who passed by [the cross] derided [Jesus], wagging their heads and saying, "Aha! You who would destroy the temple and rebuild it in three days, save yourself, and come down from the cross!" So also the chief priests with the scribes mocked him to one another, saying, "He saved others; he cannot save himself. Let the Christ, the King of Israel, come down now from the cross that we may see and believe."
The sharpest temptation Jesus faced was to desert the way of the cross, and to use His power as the Son of God to save Himself. But His love for you is so great that He brushes aside all the temptations of Satan and pushes right on to death for all of your sins, all the way until He cried out with a loud voice, "Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?" which means, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" There the Son of God was forsaken by God the Father for your sins, condemned to suffering the pains of hell in your place, and endured the wrath of God against your guilt. / But that is not the end of the story. Early on the third day Jesus was resurrected, but before He came out of the tomb, He descended in body and soul into hell, not to suffer, but to proclaim complete victory over Satan. Then the resurrected Jesus came out of the grave, to share the Good News of His victory over sin, death, and the devil through the preaching of the Gospel, so that now He says this to you: "The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel" (Mark 1:14-15). Your sins are answered for. Satan is defeated. "Repent and believe the Gospel." In the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
And the peace of God which surpasses all understanding will keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus unto life everlasting. Amen.