The Gospel of Mark is giving us pictures of who Jesus is so that we will believe and follow him. In Mark 1:9-11 we see the baptism of Jesus pictured as his coronation. Jesus is declared the Beloved Son, the Savior, and the King in the baptism event. Following the declaration of Jesus as God’s Son and the inauguration of his public ministry, Jesus is not treated to a royal reception or celebration. Instead, Jesus is appointed by the Spirit for a much different task: a meeting with Satan in the wilderness.
This encounter with Satan is a theme in Mark’s gospel. There are various conflicts recorded in this gospel including with Satan, demons, nature, Jewish leaders, and even the disciples. The picture is of Jesus as king establishing his kingdom to the resistance of much of the physical and spiritual world (cf. Psalm 2). Thus, the temptation of Jesus is not presented as a series of unfortunate events. God is leading Jesus into the wilderness. Again, we are tempted by the brevity of the account to run to Matthew’s gospel which gives a far fuller description of the temptation of Jesus. In Matthew’s gospel we read about the three temptations, what those temptations were, and how Jesus handled those temptations. Clearly, this is not the point of emphasis for Mark since he records none of these details.
Before we get into the details of the temptation of Jesus as recorded by Mark, we need to look at the literary form of this account to see Mark’s message. You will notice that Jesus must go into the wilderness after his baptism. In fact, Mark underscores the wilderness twice in two sentences. Jesus is mirroring the exodus experience of Israel. Israel passes through the sea and then goes into the wilderness for a testing experience. Jesus now passes through the waters of the Jordan in baptism and then is driven into the wilderness for a testing experience. So with these things in mind, let us consider what we are told by Mark about the trials of Jesus.
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 ESV)
40 Days In The Wilderness
The first point that is made to us is that Jesus was in the wilderness for 40 days. These 40 days are not a random number. Israel was in the wilderness after crossing the Red Sea for 40 years (Deuteronomy 8:2). Moses was on Mount Sinai for 40 days and nights (Exodus 34:28). Elijah was led for 40 days and nights to Mount Sinai (Horeb) (1 Kings 19:8). In each of these instances the wilderness was the proving ground, a test of faithfulness, and a promise of deliverance. Israel is in the wilderness as a test of faithfulness while the promise of deliverance is available if they are obedient to the Lord. Moses is on the mountain for 40 days while Israel is tested for their faithfulness, in which they fail with the golden calf, and the promise of deliverance is made by the Lord. Elijah was tested in dealing with the evil King Ahab and the false prophets of Baal and the promise of deliverance is made to Elijah. Israel was proven not to be God’s son in the wilderness when they rebelled against the ways of God and are destroyed. Jesus is declared by the Father to be the Beloved Son and the one in whom God is well-pleased. Is this going to be the case? So Jesus is in the wilderness for 40 days. The wilderness is the proving ground. The wilderness is the place of testing. This is why Israel was in the wilderness on the way to the promised land. This is why Jesus is in the wilderness at the start of his ministry. The Father said that this is the Beloved Son and in him he is delighted. Will that continue to be the case?
Second, Jesus is not merely tempted. Jesus is tempted by Satan. The scriptures present Satan as a very real individual. In our culture, we think of Satan as merely a personification of evil. We think of Satan as nothing more than superstition. But Satan is presented as an evil personal spiritual being. The name Satan means “the adversary.” This spiritual being is the adversary of God, the adversary of good, and the adversary of every person who attempts to submit to God. The book of Revelation calls Satan “the devil” and “the deceiver of the whole world” (Revelation 12:9). The devil is not a mythological idea or merely a representation of evil. Listen to a couple more scriptures:
Whoever makes a practice of sinning is of the devil, for the devil has been sinning from the beginning. The reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the works of the devil. (1 John 3:8 ESV)
Be sober-minded; be watchful. Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour. (1 Peter 5:8 ESV)
What is portrayed for us is the conflict of two kingdoms and two rulers. Jesus, the king and ruler over heaven and earth who has come against Satan, the prince of the power of air and ruler of darkness. Friends, there is a spiritual battle and a war was fought against light and darkness. These are not just pictures of good versus evil. No, this is a conflict between God and his Anointed, the Christ, and every spiritual being and human that refuses to submit to God and his Anointed.
Why do the nations rage and the peoples plot in vain? The kings of the earth set themselves, and the rulers take counsel together, against the Lord and against his Anointed, saying, “Let us burst their bonds apart and cast away their cords from us.” (Psalm 2:1–3 ESV)
This is what is happening at this moment. As God’s adversary, Satan is trying to subvert God’s reign through his Beloved Son. This is what we just read in 1 John 3:8. Jesus has come to destroy the rule and power of the devil. The devil therefore must subvert this attempt. The wilderness is the proving ground as Satan goes on the offensive against the Lord and his Anointed. Satan is real. The conflict is real. What hangs in the balance is our eternity.
He Was With The Wild Beasts
Now this is a detail that is not expressed in the other gospel accounts. Why does Mark give us this detail? We have learned to pay attention to the details in the scriptures, and particularly those details that are not found in the gospels when we study the gospels. The wild beasts are a portrayal of another element of danger. There is nothing positive about being among wild beasts. This is a picture of danger. However, Jesus is able to be among the wild beasts without harmful consequence. This idea may seem small to us but this is what Isaiah prophesied about his coming.
Thus says the Lord, who makes a way in the sea, a path in the mighty waters, who brings forth chariot and horse, army and warrior; they lie down, they cannot rise, they are extinguished, quenched like a wick: “Remember not the former things, nor consider the things of old. Behold, I am doing a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it? I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert. The wild beasts will honor me, the jackals and the ostriches, for I give water in the wilderness, rivers in the desert, to give drink to my chosen people, the people whom I formed for myself that they might declare my praise.” (Isaiah 43:16–21 ESV)
Notice that Isaiah again presents an image of the new exodus. The Lord who performed the exodus is going to do a new thing. The Lord will come and make a way through the wilderness. Wild beasts will honor the Lord and he will give water to the thirsty and in thirsty places so that we would declare his praise. Jesus having a peaceful co-existence with the wild animals is seen as signaling the dawn of the new exodus and the arrival of God himself.
Continually Served By Angels
Finally, we are told that Jesus was served by angels. This confirms the success of Jesus in the wilderness against the temptations of Satan. But Mark is saying a little bit more. The Greek is in the imperfect tense indicating that the angels were serving Jesus throughout the 40 days in the wilderness. This is reflected in most translations. “The angels were ministering to him” (1:13 ESV). God was not only with Jesus at the end of the ordeal but throughout the whole ordeal. Throughout the whole ordeal Jesus is showing himself to be the Beloved Son whom the Father loves and Jesus succeeds against Satan because he has come to destroy the works of the devil.
So what is the message of the trials and temptations of Jesus in the wilderness? Turn to Hebrews 2:14-18. We will be begin with verses 14-15.
Since the children have flesh and blood, he too shared in their humanity so that by his death he might break the power of him who holds the power of death—that is, the devil— and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death. (Hebrews 2:14–15 NIV)
First, we continue to see a picture of who Jesus is. Jesus is victorious over Satan so that we can be set free from our sins. The reason Jesus came, became human, and “shared in the same things” was so that he might destroy the one who has power over death, which is Satan. This is the beginning of the end for Satan. Jesus has come and succeeds against the temptations of Satan so that we could be set free from our sins. Jesus came to rescue us and we are witnessing that rescue in the wilderness.
Second, let’s read the rest of this passage and see what it means for us.
For surely it is not angels he helps, but Abraham’s descendants. For this reason he had to be made like them, fully human in every way, in order that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in service to God, and that he might make atonement for the sins of the people. Because he himself suffered when he was tempted, he is able to help those who are being tempted. (Hebrews 2:16–18 NIV)
Listen to those final words. “Because he himself suffered when he was tempted, he is able to help those who are being tempted.” There is a template that is being given to us when Jesus is in the wilderness. While Jesus is in the wilderness, God was with him. The angels were serving him and ministering him throughout that time. When Israel was in the wilderness, God was with them, caring for them all along the way. So also with us, is the point that the writer of Hebrews makes. While we are in the wilderness on our way to the promised land of heaven, enduring trials and suffering temptations, Jesus is able to help us and God remains with us. We have not been left alone. Our help is not only that we have been set free from sins. Our help continues to this very day as God is with us so that we can resist the devil and be able to stand against his attacks.
Put on the whole armor of God, that you may be able to stand against the schemes of the devil. (Ephesians 6:11 ESV)
Because Jesus stood against Satan and defeated him, we can stand by the power of God against Satan and be victorious.