As soon as Jesus was baptized, he went up out of the water. At that moment heaven was opened, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. And a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, whom I love. With him I am well pleased.”
Then Jesus was led by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. (Matt 3:16-17; 4:1)
Heaven was opened when Jesus was baptized. The Holy Spirit came on Him visibly. His Father was well-pleased with the man he affirmed as His beloved Son.
What an unparalleled launch into ministry! What anticipation must have surrounded Him by the followers who shared that moment. Where would his first steps take Him? How would He lead? Where would He show His power?
Probably not a single person who witnessed Jesus’ baptism would have guessed the answer. The first place the Spirit led Jesus was into the wilderness. Not for a short visit, but for 40 long days and cold nights. No food, no shelter. Just loads of time to think, between the increasingly sharp hunger pangs. The optimal conditions for temptation were in place: isolation, discomfort, deprivation and desolation as far as the eye could see.
Why this extreme test at the front end of His ministry? It was preparation for the trial that was to come, and an example for us.
How did what Jesus experienced in the wilderness prepare Him for His mission?
First, Jesus verified the nature of His hunger. What was His most basic need, food for His stomach or food for His Spirit? He would later tell his disciples, “I have food to eat that you know nothing about. . . . My food is to do the will of him who sent me and finish his work.” (John 4:32, 34) On another occasion, Jesus told a crowd, “Do not work for food that spoils, but for food that endures to eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you. . . . I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never go hungry . . . ” (John 6:27, 35)
Jesus was the bread of life because He fed on every morsel of God’s Word, and depended on God for his sustenance. The 40-day fast from food was far from easy. The fast from the sustaining presence of His Father that He would endure on the cross would be infinitely more painful.
Second, Jesus resisted the temptation to make this a test for God and not Himself. Satan was there, posing as a sympathetic friend, trying to infuse doubt and discouragement. I can see him now, looking pained and saying, “If God really loved you, He wouldn’t do this to you. Sending you here makes you look like a total loser. I can help you succeed, big time.” Satan urged Jesus to glorify Himself, when His mission from God was ultimately to experience complete humiliation for our sakes.
Satan’s final temptation was for Jesus to bypass the pain and privation inherent in God’s plan, exchanging it for the power he could give Him; to save Himself instead of us. The devil’s purpose was to entice Jesus to love the world instead of the people in it; to seize the world instead of saving it.
What lessons are there for me when I find myself between a rock and a hard place, when I need bread but only have stones? When I’m feeling isolated, empty, deprived of comfort, desolated? I can’t tell the stones to become bread, so what can I do?
- I can climb — crawl if I have to — up onto that Rock and stand on it. There are no conditions in which I can’t choose to be in His presence; He is my comfort and strength. All the food I need is in the Word of God and the Son of God, the bread of life.
- I can be aware that Satan is itching to get my ear and feed me lies. His goal is to lead me to question God’s goodness, to blame God, to take an “easy” way out that will pull me into Satan’s clutches. He wants to lead me into the swamp of negative emotions — anger, retaliation, self-pity. I can tell him to get lost, and resolve to listen to God instead.
- I can remember that God works all things together for good for those who love Him and are called according to His purpose (Rom 8:28). Whether I see the good or the purpose in the hard place at hand, I can rest in that assurance. He will never leave me or forsake me. If there is distance between us, it’s because I’ve moved away, not Him.
What can I do?
I can tell those stones what I have come to know in the other wildernesses I’ve travelled:
When Jesus is all I have, Jesus is all I need.