Note: This commentary is based on the Seventh-day Adventist Sabbath School Quarterly, First Quarter 2016, Lesson 6: “Victory in the Wilderness.” Please read Matthew 4:1-11; Mark 1:12-13; Luke 4:1-13.
Approaching familiar biblical stories with a fresh pair of eyes can be challenging. The episode of Jesus retreating to the desert after his baptism is certainly no exception. In these cases, it is not just what the text is talking about that matters. It is also important to be clear on what is not going on. I would like to begin with the latter.
What is Not Said
First, we must acknowledge that Jesus’ sojourn to the desert was not unique. Jesus wasn’t the first person to inhabit such places, if only for forty days. Moses, Elijah, David, and John the Baptist were all fellow “desert dwellers,” which indicates that he was simply following in the tradition of the great Jewish luminaries. What sets Jesus’ experience apart from the others, however, is the meaning attributed to it by the gospel authors. Many biblical scholars concur that his wilderness experience is an allusion to that of the children of Israel as recorded in the books of Moses. But where they failed, Jesus succeeded.
Second, to refer to this story as the temptation of Jesus could be misleading. All of the synoptic gospel authors declare that it was the Spirit who drove Jesus into the wilderness. And the Spirit does not tempt anyone to violate the laws of God. If we assume, as the text indicates, the initiative was with God, then “the whole emphasis of the story is on the testing of Jesus’ reaction to his Messianic vocation as Son of God.” Thus, according to one exegete, the verb translated as “tempt” in Matthew’s account (4:1, 3) occurs over thirty times in the New Testament, but in only two of those instances does it indicate tempting to do wrong (see 1 Corinthians 7:5; James 1:13-14).
Third, the temptations from the devil that befell Jesus were not of the typical variety that we, as mere mortals, must endure. To parallel the grounds upon which the devil sought victory over Jesus, with the barrage of temptations his followers withstand, is a distortion of reality. This certainly does not mean that we have one “who cannot sympathize with our weaknesses” (Hebrews 4:15, NASB). On the contrary, we have one who was tempted in more ways than we’ll ever know. In this instance, the gospel authors seem to move beyond the passage in Hebrews that declares Jesus as one who was “in all points tempted like as we are” (Hebrew 4:15, KJV). Jesus was tempted as a man, but also as a God-man, and it was the unique combination of both that we see as the grounds for attack.
Finally, the victory Jesus gained did not mean that the enemy of souls was vanquished for good, and that Jesus had now taken this world back from the dominion of Satan. Instead, the tempter would return again and again manifesting himself in a variety of contexts as deemed opportune (Luke 4:13). Evil, pain, suffering, and injustice are still woven into the fabric of the human experience despite the fact the enemy had to retreat on this occasion with his proverbial tale between his legs. As the angels ministered to Jesus at the end of the narrative, you can almost hear the devil’s voice echo off the desert canyon walls, “This isn’t over!”
Geography, Myths, and Paradise
We have talked about what the story is not saying. But what is it saying? What can we learn from this captivating account?
If I could encapsulate in one word the take-away message for me of Jesus’ “victory in the wilderness,” it would be this: struggle. This story normalizes struggle. For the believer, especially, struggle is necessary and even healthy in the spiritual life because “the fallenness of the world imposes it (e.g., physical sickness, mental anguish, death of a loved one), discipleship requires it (e.g., self-sacrifice) and believers must choose to face it. We therefore cannot escape struggle, nor should we try.” Like it or not, as the Sabbath School quarterly emphasizes, we are caught amidst a cosmic struggle between Christ and Satan. This earth is the battlefield and we are the prize.
This story depicts a struggle, which is first literal and second metaphorical. When scripture says Jesus was driven into the desert and was tempted by the enemy of souls, he went to a very real geographical locale. It was beautiful and lonely. It was barren and bereft of the comforts of home—no food, little if any water, and shelter was scarce. To be sure, the one thing we must not do is prematurely mythologize the desert before we acknowledge that most of Jesus’ energy was “absorbed in the onerous task of staying alive.”
The harsh realities of desert survival laid the foundation for the spiritual battle that ensued between Christ and Satan. The text reads how the enemy approached Jesus at the conclusion of his forty days, when he was the weakest both physically and mentally. Naturally, the first temptation to come Jesus’ way was regarding the one thing his body needed most—bread.
Just as the desert is a real place, we must also concede that in the Christian imagination it has become a mythologized place, home to the devil and his underlings. The unfolding story of the Church is rife with such imagery. One prime example of this can be seen in the life of Antony of Egypt—the most famous of the desert Christians. Seeking to live a more seamless life of discipleship, he heard the words of Jesus “go, sell all your possessions” (Matthew 19:21), and immediately exchanged a life of ease and material wealth for an austere lifestyle enveloped by the severity of the desert. In The Life of Antony by Athanasius, we read about a man who went to the desert to battle the devil but through a struggle with geography and metaphor, ended up finding a deeper relationship with God.
Jesus: Desert Ascetic
Jesus’ forty days in the desert was what one might call ascetic. As a single man, no stranger to poverty, he fasted, prayed, meditated on scripture, and contemplated his mission in solitude and silence. These were his weapons of choice in this type of warfare. But to what end? According to Douglas Burton-Christie, the desert is not only geographical and mythological; it is also “paradisal”—the place where the follower of Jesus is drawn in order “to discover and create a new Eden.” Jesus gives us a glimpse of the inescapability of struggle in human and cosmic affairs, but it is only through those struggles that we will realize the hope of victory.
G. K. Chesterton, a master of the epigram, once wrote: “The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting; it has been found difficult and left untried.” Indeed, to truly follow Christ in any age has never been easy; it requires sacrifice and struggle, truths we’d rather not embrace. While most of us will never become desert saints, nor will we go toe-to-toe with the devil, we do have our own places of struggle. These are real places involving real people in real lives. But our struggles are also about confronting the enemy within, a more intangible foe we attempt to hush in our pursuit of the superlatives. What is needed is what is always been available, the desert—a place of quiet where we are stripped down to only the essentials, laid bare before God, and challenged to the core of our being to remain faithful. Solitude or quiet can be sought even in the midst of activity; what’s important is not how one gets there but that one does go. So for those willing, and as the Spirit leads, bring on the desert!
Erik C. Carter, DMin, PhD, is the newest member to join the faculty of the Loma Linda University School of Religion, where he teaches full-time.
R. T. France, Matthew: An Introduction and Commentary (Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 1985), 96.
Gerald L. Sittser, Water from a Deep Well: Christian Spirituality from Early Martyrs to Modern Missionaries (Downers Grove: IVP, 2007), 74.
Belden C. Lane, The Solace of Fierce Landscapes: Exploring Desert and Mountain Spirituality (New York: Oxford, 1998), 161.
Athanasius, The Life of Antony and The Letter to Marcellinus, trans. Robert C. Gregg (Mahwah, NJ: Paulist, 1980).
See Ellen G. White, The Desire of Ages (Mountain View: Pacific Press, 1940), 114.
Douglas Burton-Christie, “Desert,” in The New Westminster Dictionary of Christian Spirituality, ed. Philip Sheldrake (Louisville: WJK, 2005), 230.
G. K. Chesterton, “Quotations of G. K. Chesterton,” The American Chesterton Society, http://www.chesterton.org/quotations-of-g-k-chesterton/ (accessed January 29, 2016).