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Sermon text: Mark 1:12–13

Immediately the Spirit drove Him into the wilderness. And He was there in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan, and was with the wild beasts; and the angels ministered to Him.

Have you ever gone through a season of trial and temptation? I know you have. How did you react? What were your thoughts, your doubts, your struggles, your fears? Did you pass your trials perfectly? Of course you didn’t. We might, with the help of God, pass our trials satisfactorily, but none of can say that we have passed our trials perfectly. Much of the time, however, our performance is not even worthy of being considered ‘satisfactory.’

Peter went through a time of temptation, and he denied three times that he knew the Lord. But the Lord had previously told him that He prayed for him to secure his repentance and restoration. Peter persevered because of Christ’s grace. We too can find strength and help to press on by drawing from the grace of Christ. He was tempted in order to give us power over our temptations. Today we are looking at the temptation of Christ. Consider first of all…

I. God’s Purpose in Temptation

Mark 1:12 says, “Immediately the Spirit drove Him into the wilderness.” The language is strong. Jesus was baptized, anointed with the Spirit, and “immediately the Spirit” did not just give the Lord a gentle impression that He should go to the wilderness, but “drove Him.”

This word is unique to Mark’s account of Christ’s temptation. The Greek word here is ἐκβάλλω. It means to drive out, to expel, to send by the exertion of an influence extraneous to the one sent, or even to remove.[i] It’s often used in the Gospels to refer to casting out demons.[ii] It’s the word used when Jesus drove out the moneychangers from the temple.[iii] Why such a strong word? Because the Spirit is treating Jesus as our Substitute.

Under the Law, lepers for instance had to abide outside the camp (Lev. 13:45–46). Transgressors would be stoned outside the camp (Num. 15:35). The bodies of sacrificial animals were burned outside the camp (Heb. 13:11). Jesus identified with sinners in His baptism, now He must undergo a season of testing outside the camp. He is like the scapegoat of Numbers 16, sent out into the wilderness as the bearer of our sin.

Of course, Jesus was most willing to go, but the Spirit also compelled Him because His temptation was necessary for our salvation. This was a premonition of the more severe temptation He would face as He approached the dark night leading up to the death of the cross. Now, at least four points need to be made about this.

First, note God’s purpose in Christ’s temptations. The Spirit who drove Jesus into the wilderness to be tempted is none other than the Holy Spirit of God, the third Person of the Godhead. And in the works of the Trinity, the work of each Person is undivided from that of the Others.[iv] Therefore, as the work of the Son is attributed to God the Trinity, so also the work of the Spirit is equally the work of God. Yet there is a distinction of operations in relation to each divine Person that corresponds to the order of Persons in the Godhead. As John Owen said, “in every divine act, the authority of the Father, the love and wisdom of the Son, with the immediate efficacy and power of the Holy Ghost, are to be considered.”[v]

And here we see that distinction in our text. The Father wills the Son to suffer temptation, the Son in His humanity willingly undergoes temptation, and the Spirit drives the Son into the wilderness to be tempted, even as the same Spirit empowers Him to withstand temptation. The Spirit who drove Him also upheld Him. So what I’m getting at is this: the will of the Father is fleshed out by the Son and brought to pass by the operation of the Spirit. The Spirit drives Jesus into the wilderness as the Spirit of God carrying out the will and purpose of God. It was because Jesus was in the perfect will of God that such fiery trials came upon Him.

The devil was not one-upping God by assaulting Christ with temptation. Christ was tempted only according to the sovereign will of the Father. Martin Luther said that the devil is “God’s devil,” because the devil can’t do anything that he doesn’t have permission to do. And although Satan always tries to thwart the divine purpose, in so doing, he ultimately only fulfills the purposes of God. The Lord said in Isaiah 54:16, “Behold, I have created the blacksmith who blows the coals in the fire, who brings forth an instrument for his work; and I have created the spoiler to destroy,” and then He says, “No weapon formed against you shall prosper” (v. 17). Satan’s weapons could not prosper against Christ; they were instruments in the hand of the sovereign God who was working out His all-wise plan and purpose.

Second, Jesus suffered temptation as our Mediator, as the last Adam. Mark 1:13 says, “And He was there in the wilderness forty days, [being] tempted.” Forty is a number that in biblical history speaks of the fullness of a period of trial or temptation. Israel was tempted in the wilderness for 40 years. Israel had been baptized into Moses in the Red Sea and coming out the other side they spent 40 years in the wilderness being tested. Christ is the True Israel who after His baptism, retraces their steps and repeats the pattern. Moses and Elijah both spent 40 days fasting in the wilderness (Exod. 34:28; 1 Kings 19:8). Here is the Greater Moses, the One who fulfills the Law and the Prophets, who repeats the pattern but in a much-intensified way.

But most of all, Christ is the last Adam who came to undo what Adam did. Adam sinned in a lush paradise, surrounded by abundance; Christ resisted sin in a harsh wilderness, surrounded by scarcity and danger. Christ’s temptations therefore have a substitutionary purpose and redeeming effect, for He was tempted as the head of His covenant people. Hebrews 2:10–11 says, “For it was fitting for Him, for whom are all things and by whom are all things, in bringing many sons to glory, to make the captain of their salvation perfect through sufferings. For both He who sanctifies and those who are being sanctified are all of one, for which reason He is not ashamed to call them brethren.” He suffered temptation in our human nature, in order to sanctify us in our human nature and reconcile us to God. He had no sin that needed to be purged, but in His humanity, He needed to be matured and perfected so that His perfect righteousness could be accredited to His people.

Third, God has a purpose for us in our temptations. His purpose for Christ was unique in its redemptive purpose. But there is also common ground with us. Our own temptations were also contemplated within the eternal purpose of God, and are no less a part of His sovereign and all-wise plan. They are part of the “all things [that] work together for good to those who love God” (Rom. 8:28).

Christ experienced a distinct season of trial, and believers also go through seasons of trial. We sometimes have to concourse through the valley of the shadow of death. The divine wisdom appoints for some of His children dark seasons of trial so dark that it’s like the darkness that came upon Egypt, a darkness that can be felt (Exod. 10:21). Some of the old theologians would call it “the dark night of the soul.” The psalmists often complained of their darkness and despair as they cried out to God. Asaph said, “O God, why have You cast us off forever?” (Ps. 74:1.) David said in Psalm 42:6, “O my God, my soul is cast down within me.” The sons of Korah complained bitterly in Psalm 88,

“For my soul is full of troubles, and my life draws near to the grave. I am counted with those who go down to the pit; I am like a man who has no strength, adrift among the dead, like the slain who lie in the grave, whom You remember no more, and who are cut off from Your hand. You have laid me in the lowest pit, in darkness, in the depths. Your wrath lies heavy upon me, and You have afflicted me with all Your waves” (vv. 3–7).

David, Asaph, and the Sons of Korah all had similar experiences with wilderness seasons.

The Westminster theologians did too at the height of the Cromwellian revolution in England, during the glory days of Reformed theology in England. Listen to what they wrote about wilderness trials and God’s purpose in the Westminster Confession of Faith 5:5:

“The most wise, righteous, and gracious God, doth oftentimes leave for a season his own children to manifold temptations, and the corruption of their own hearts, to chastise them for their former sins, or to discover unto them the hidden strength of corruption, and deceitfulness of their hearts, that they may be humbled; and to raise them to a more close and constant dependence for their support upon himself, and to make them more watchful against all future occasions of sin, and for sundry other just and holy ends.”[vi]

When we go through these seasons, we need to remember God’s purpose in our trials. When you’re in your wilderness seasons, remember God’s purposes. Trials are meant to mature you in faith and obedience; to give you vital experience and work in you proven character; to humble you and show you your weakness and dependence on His grace; to expose your remaining sin and refine you from it; and to store up for you an even greater eternal reward. That’s why Paul said, “For our light affliction, which is but for a moment, is working for us a far more exceeding and eternal weight of glory, while we do not look at the things which are seen, but at the things which are not seen. For the things which are seen are temporary, but the things which are not seen are eternal” (2 Cor. 4:17–18).

We must also never forget that our trials are only a fraction of what Christ endured for us out of love. We can draw strength from the boundless resources of Christ, even when we’re at our weakest, indeed, especially when we’re at our weakest. We should follow the example of our Lord who even when He was forsaken of the Father on the cross, still trusted God and clung to the promises. R.C. Sproul said,

“Some Christian people seem only as zealous as the strength of the memory of their last religious experience. But there are times when we are called upon to live for Christ when we don’t feel like it, when we don’t have an overwhelming sense of his presence. Every Christian knows what it means to go through the ‘dark night of the soul’. That is when we discover what our faith and memories are made of.”[vii]

Also keep in mind that God’s has a good purpose in your trials, and He will use them for good, in spite of Satan’s evil intentions. Satan tempts us for evil purposes, but God tests us for good and holy purposes. Satan tempted to try to make Jesus fall, but the Father tested Him to mature, approve, and affirm Him as the Victor and Divine Warrior. Remember that the Lord Jesus was the only One who could ever face Satan so directly and came out untainted. Satan’s temptations and God’s tests merged into one in experience, but their motives and ends were far different.

Satan couldn’t touch Job without God’s permission. James 5:14 says, “You have heard of the perseverance of Job and seen the end intended by the Lord—that the Lord is very compassionate and merciful.” You have seen the end intended by the Lord; in other words, there is divine purpose behind the temptations that God’s people suffer, and it is for good.

II. Satan’s Attacks in Temptation

Mark 1:13 says, “And He was there in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan.” Matthew and Luke recount three major temptations toward the end of this period. In each of those three Satan appeared personally to tempt the Lord. But Mark’s language suggests that the temptations Jesus suffered from Satanic assault were ongoing throughout the whole 40 days. I think Matthew and Luke record three because those three summarize temptation in its fullness, as the desire of the flesh, the desire of the eyes, and the pride of life. Also, to place Christ’s temptations in parallel with Adam and Eve’s fall. Adam ate forbidden fruit in paradise, Christ refused to eat bread in the wilderness. Adam bowed down to the serpent’s will, but Christ refused to bow down. Adam wanted to be like God, but Jesus refused to prove He was the Son of God by putting the Lord His God to the test. But also, in Hebraic thought, a threefold repetition was the way to emphasize something to the fullest degree. Christ was tempted to the uttermost, yet never succumbed to a single temptation. And you have to think, all the powers of hell were mobilized in assault of this Man!

Mark tells us that Jesus was “tempted by Satan.” Satan is a fallen angel, astute, shrewd, cunning, of superior intelligence than the intellect of man. He knows what the Bible says inside and out. He has watched and studied human nature since the beginning. He knows human weakness, human psychology, human habits, human propensities. He studies our weakness to prey upon our weakness and to steal, kill, and destroy (John 10:10). He takes advantage of vulnerabilities to pierce the souls of men with eternal sorrows.

So here he is in the wilderness seeking to prey upon any perceived weakness in Christ. He knows that Christ is the Holy One of Israel, for even the demons underneath Satan would confess that. Satan knows that He’s not going to get Jesus to succumb to some cheap thrill or base vice. So he’s shrewd and deceptive. Matthew and Luke tell us that he tried to deceive the Lord by twisting the Word of God, contrary to the intention of the text. That was Satan’s ploy in the Garden, to cast doubt on the faithfulness of God’s Word, and to twist the meaning of it contrary to God’s intention. But every time, Jesus would respond with, “It is written,”[viii] followed by a wise application of the true meaning of God’s Word.

God’s Word is a mighty weapon to cast down the strongholds of Satan. Martin Luther celebrated this in his famous hymn, “A Mighty Fortress”:

“The prince of darkness grim,
we tremble not for him;
his rage we can endure,
for lo! his doom is sure;
one little word shall fell him.”

Every time Jesus was tempted, one little word, one concise Scripture quote, felled the devil and caused him to flee! That Word has the same authority and power today!

Now we should clarify something about the nature of Christ’s temptation because this is a point at which much confusion pervades, and if we’re not careful, destructive heresies can be spawned. The doctrine of Christ is holy ground. We need more reverence, fear, and carefulness in approaching the doctrine of the Trinity and the doctrine of Christ than any other doctrine of the faith, because it is at these points that countless souls have made shipwreck of the faith. It is these doctrines that Satan has more aggressively assaulted than any other doctrines, because they are foundational to the faith.

So here’s what we need to have clarity about: Jesus suffered these temptations as a Man and not in His divine nature. In His divine nature, the Son of God was impeccable, which means He could not sin or be tempted. Hebrews 7:26 says, “For such a High Priest was fitting for us, who is holy, harmless, undefiled, separate from sinners.” And Jesus did say in John 10:30, “I and My Father are one,” that is, one is divine essence and nature. And God can’t be tempted. James 1:13–15 tells us, “Let no one say when he is tempted, “I am tempted by God”; for God cannot be tempted by evil, nor does He Himself tempt anyone. But each one is tempted when he is drawn away by his own desires and enticed.” So Jesus was tempted in His human nature, not in His divine nature.

But that by no means diminishes the reality of His temptations. He “was in all points tempted as we are, yet without sin” (Heb. 4:15). He was not only fully God, but also fully Man, and as Man, He had all the inherent weaknesses common to flesh and blood. Romans 8:3 says, “For what the law could not do in that it was weak through the flesh, God did by sending His own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh, on account of sin: He condemned sin in the flesh.” He fulfilled the law through obedience in spite of temptation to condemn sin. But notice what it says, that the Father sent the Son “in the likeness of sinful flesh,” yet without sin.

But how does this work? Donald Macleod explains it well:

“In one crucial respect Christ was not like us. He was not tempted by anything within himself. He was not dragged away by his own evil desire and enticed (Jas. 1:14). There was no law of sin in his members (Rom. 7:23). There was no predisposition to sin, no love of sin and no affinity with sin. The ‘prince of this world’ had no foot-hold on him (John 14:30).
            What, then, did the devil work on? Part of the answer is that although Jesus had no vices he did have sinless human weaknesses. He could be tempted (and clearly was) with hunger, through the fear of pain and through love for a friend. It is not a mark of fallenness to feel any of these, and yet each of them could generate strong pressure to deviate from the path prescribed for him.
            Jesus also had holy affections, feelings and longings which, in the course of his work, he had to thwart. Foremost among these was the longing for communion with God. Is it any wonder that in the Garden of Gethsemane the prospect of losing this communion almost overwhelmed him? He was not being called upon to mortify a lust. He was being called upon to frustrate the holiest aspiration of which man is capable. What he wanted and what his Father directed were in conflict. Hence the ‘loud cries and tears’ (Heb. 5:7).”[ix]

So the temptations were in some ways not like ours yet they were more intense. As Christ’s holy longings that were unfulfilled are more intense for what is right than our desires to sin are for what is wrong, so proportionately, His temptation was more severe and intense. No man has ever undergone temptation as intense as Christ’s, who resisted temptation to the point of sweating great drops of blood (Luke 22:44; Heb. 12:4). But He conquered! Hallelujah, what a Savior! (My next two points will be briefer.)

III. The Curse’s Effects in Temptation

Mark 1:13 goes on to say that Jesus “was with the wild beasts.” Now, why does he say Jesus was “with the wild beasts”? Matthew and Luke don’t say this. It is unique to Mark’s Gospel. Is it a superfluous detail? Not at all! In the Judean desert in that day, there were many more vicious beasts than there are today. Human populations had not extinguished or reduced the animal population yet like they have today. There were lions, bears, leopards, hyenas, jackals, wild boars, cobras and vipers, and scorpions. There are several things that enlighten Mark’s inclusion of this phrase: the Roman cultural context to which Mark was writing, the pagan context of the ancient world, and the Old Testament context from where he’s drawing his theology.

First, this would’ve immediately resonated with the Romans. They were accustomed to seeing men thrown to the wild beasts as a form of capital punishment. They saw gladiators fight wild beasts in their barbaric games. It was most often a death sentence. Christ was alone and exposed in the wilderness, with no resources other than the clothes on His back. Without armor, sword, or shield, he faced the beasts and emerged victorious. He’s the greatest Hero of all!

Second, considering the pagan context, the pagans worshiped demon-gods that took the form of beasts and animals. Many of their idols and depictions resembled vicious beasts. Paul alludes to this in Romans 1:22–23: “Professing to be wise, they became fools, and changed the glory of the incorruptible God into an image made like corruptible man—and birds and four-footed animals and creeping things.” Many believed that divine spirits inhabited these animals or reigned over these animals. Mark could be drawing from the natural world to allude to the spiritual world in a way the ancients would’ve understood. Jesus faced the divine spirits that the pagans worshiped. He confronted the demon-gods and powers of hell, was assaulted by them, but He triumphed over them.

Third, the Old Testament context provides the theology for Mark’s phrase. We’ve mentioned the parallel between Israel’s desert trials for 40 years and Christ’s for 40 days. Israel, you’ll recall, faced beasts in the desert too: fiery serpents that bit them with mortal venom (Num. 21). They sinned and provoked God’s wrath and curse. But Jesus didn’t suffer any mortal wound from the beasts because He didn’t sin. He “was with the wild beasts,” but He came out unscathed.

Samson once slew a lion with his bare hands. That was a picture of His strength from the anointing of the Spirit to slay the enemies of God’s people. Jesus is the greater Samson, anointed to defeat the armies of the devil.

David once said that he fought beasts in the wilderness; he slew a lion and a bear to protect His flock. First Samuel 17:34–36: “David said to Saul, ‘Your servant used to keep his father’s sheep, and when a lion or a bear came and took a lamb out of the flock, I went out after it and struck it, and delivered the lamb from its mouth; and when it arose against me, I caught it by its beard, and struck and killed it. Your servant has killed both lion and bear; and this uncircumcised Philistine will be like one of them, seeing he has defied the armies of the living God.’” David’s might to slay the lion and the bear was the precursor to his ability to slay Goliath. Jesus is the greater David who slew the ultimate Goliath, the devil. Jesus is the greater David who faced the beasts not just to protect His flock but to save His flock eternally.

So there are parallels with Israel, Samson, and David. But the ultimate background begins in Eden with Adam and Eve. They found themselves with a beast, and that beast caused all the destruction and woe that has befallen mankind. Genesis 3:1 says, “Now the serpent was more cunning than any beast of the field which the LORD God had made. And he said to the woman….” You know the rest of the story. Jesus conquered that beast!

And what was it that made the beasts to be at enmity with humans? The fall of man and the curse of God. That’s why when the Prophets depict God’s judgment on Babylon and Edom and Judah and other nations, they doom their cities to become a barren wilderness filled with wild beasts. Micah 1:3 says, “But Esau I have hated, and laid waste his mountains and his heritage for the jackals of the wilderness.” Job, when he was mourning said, “I am a brother of jackals, and a companion of ostriches” (Job 30:29). Job felt cursed of God.

And further, when Isaiah prophesies of the curse being lifted, he says in 65:25, “The wolf and the lamb shall feed together, the lion shall eat straw like the ox, and dust shall be the serpent’s food. They shall not hurt nor destroy in all My holy mountain,” Says the LORD.” And he says in Isaiah 11:8 that “the nursing child shall play by the cobra’s hole.”

What, then, is Mark getting at? He’s demonstrating that Christ faced the curse for us. The vicious beasts are emblematic of the curse in its effects. He faced the full effects of the curse. He bore the curse to lift it. He confronted the curse to overcome it. It’s curious how Psalm 22 depicts the crucifiers of our Lord as wild beasts, likening them to bulls and lions. “Many bulls have surrounded Me; Strong bulls of Bashan have encircled Me. They gape at Me with their mouths, Like a raging and roaring lion” (vv. 12–13). The Lord’s wilderness confrontations were a precursor and preparation to facing the worst beasts of all: men influenced by Satan.

And you know, the effects of the curse much add to our trials as well, brothers and sisters. God permits us to face the wild beasts too, the effects of the curse in all their ferocity. A world filled with chaos and enmity. Cancers, painful physical disabilities, psychological illnesses, plagues, bacterial infections, diseases, chronic pain, the loss of loved ones, wars, divisions, divorces—a world out of order and with death everywhere looming over us because of the enmity between man and the creation introduced by the Fall. We can rest assured that Christ overcame the curse so that the wolf will lie down with the lamb. The creation will cease to be at enmity with us, and we will have perfect dominion over it with the curse forever under our feet.

IV. God’s Help in Temptation

This is my conclusion. Mark 1:13 says, “and the angels ministered to Him.” Our Lord, in all His human weakness, in all His human frailty, received supernatural help to press on and endure. Jesus is, after all, the eternal Lord of hosts. The armies of heaven surround Him and serve Him, following His every order. But he did not call on them to rescue Him. Later He said, when faced with the last season of trial just before the cross, when He told Peter to put down His sword, “Or do you think that I cannot now pray to My Father, and He will provide Me with more than twelve legions of angels?” (Matt. 26:53). To pay for our sins, He had to face sin and temptation alone, without intervention from others that would deter the purpose of His suffering.

The angels ministered to Jesus in the wilderness, but not to rescue Him from His sufferings. Matthew 4:11 says the angels came after the devil departed. I think they rather strengthened His humanity in some supernatural way so that His humanity didn’t cave in and collapse under the weight of His trials, not to mention the severe hardships on His body (possible dehydration and starvation), after the season of trial was over.

The angels were serving the purpose of God. And God gave Him help so that the temptation would not be more than His finite humanity could literally bear. And God gives us help to, brethren. He has not left us alone. He might indeed dispatch His angels to help us just when there is no possible way we could otherwise endure. Hebrews 1:14 says they are “Are they not all ministering spirits sent forth to minister for those who will inherit salvation.”

But more often, God’s help for us in temptation comes in other forms. He has given us His Word, and with the Spirit’s sword we can withstand any foe. He has given us the weapon of prayer, which can pull down strongholds of sin and temptation. He has given us His Spirit, who graces us with supernatural influences so that we can overcome the flesh by the ability God provides. He has given us His promise in 1 Corinthians 10:13: “No temptation has overtaken you except such as is common to man; but God is faithful, who will not allow you to be tempted beyond what you are able, but with the temptation will also make the way of escape, that you may be able to bear it.”

 

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References:

[i] William Arndt et al., A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000), 299.

[ii] E.g., Matt. 7:22; 17:19.

[iii] Mark 11:15.

[iv] This doctrine is summarized by the Latin phrase, opera Trinitatis ad extra sunt indivisa. See Heinrich Heppe, Reformed Dogmatics, ed. Ernst Bizer, trans. G. T. Thomson (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2007), 115–119; Joel R. Beeke and Mark Jones, A Puritan Theology: Doctrine for Life (Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage Books, 2012), 91–93.

[v] John Owen, A Discourse on the Holy Spirit, in The Works of John Owen, ed. William H. Goold (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, n.d.), 3:162.

[vi] Westminster Assembly, The Westminster Confession of Faith: Edinburgh Edition (Philadelphia: William S. Young, 1851), 37–38.

[vii] R. C. Sproul, A Walk with God: An Exposition of Luke (Great Britain: Christian Focus Publications, 1999), 24.

[viii] Matthew 4:4, 7, 10.

[ix] Donald Mcleod, The Person of Christ, Contours of Christian Theology (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1998), 226.