THE TESTING TIME
And immediately the Spirit thrust him into the wilderness. He was in the wilderness forty days, and all the time he was being tested by Satan. The wild beasts were his companions, and the angels were helping him.
No sooner was the glory of the hour of the Baptism over than there came the battle of the temptations. One thing stands out here in such a vivid way that we cannot miss it. It was the Spirit who thrust Jesus out into the wilderness for the testing time. The very Spirit who came upon him at his baptism now drove him out for his test.
In this life it is impossible to escape the assault of temptation; but one thing is sure–temptations are not sent to us to make us fall; they are sent to strengthen the nerve and the sinew of our minds and hearts and souls. They are not meant for our ruin, but for our good. They are meant to be tests from which we emerge better warriors and athletes of God.
Suppose a lad is a football player; suppose he is doing well in the second team and showing real signs of promise, what will the team manager do? He certainly will not send him out to play for the third team in which he could walk through the game and never break sweat; he will send him out to play for the first team where he will be tested as he never was before and have the chance to prove himself. That is what temptation is meant to do–to enable us to prove our manhood and to emerge the stronger for the fight.
Forty days is a phrase which is not to be taken literally. It is the regular Hebrew phrase for a considerable time. Moses was said to be on the mountain with God for forty days (Exo.24:18); it was for forty days that Elijah went in the strength of the meal the angel gave him (1Kgs.19:8). Just as we use the phrase ten days or so, so the Hebrews used the phrase forty days, not literally but simply to mean a fair length of time.
It was Satan who tempted Jesus. The development of the conception of Satan is very interesting.
The word Satan in Hebrew simply means an adversary; and in the Old Testament it is so used of ordinary human adversaries and opponents again and again. The angel of the Lord is the satan who stands in Balaam’s way (Num.22:22); the Philistines fear that David may turn out to be their satan (1Sam.29:4); David regards Abishai as his satan (2Sam.19:22); Solomon declares that God has given him such peace and prosperity that he has no satan left to oppose him (1Kgs.5:4). The word began by meaning an adversary in the widest sense of the term.
But it takes a step on the downward path; it begins to mean one who pleads a case against a person. It is in this sense that it is used in the first chapter of Job. In that chapter Satan is no less than one of the sons of God (Jb.1:6); but his particular task was to consider men (Jb.1:7) and to search for some case that could be pleaded against them in the presence of God. He was the accuser of men before God. The word is so used in Jb.2:2 and Zech.3:2. The task of Satan was to say everything that could be said against a man.
The other title of Satan is the Devil; the word devil comes from the Greek diabolos (GSN1228), which literally means a slanderer. It is a small step from the thought of one who searches for everything that can be said against a man to the thought of one who deliberately and maliciously slanders man in the presence of God. But in the Old Testament Satan is still an emissary of God and not yet the malignant, supreme enemy of God. He is the adversary of man.
But now the word takes the last step on its downward course. Through their captivity the Jews learned something of Persian thought. Persian thought is based on the conception that in this universe there are two powers, a power of the light and a power of the dark, Ormuzd and Ahriman; the whole universe is a battle-ground between them and man must choose his side in that cosmic conflict. In point of fact that is precisely what life looks like and feels like. To put it in a word, in this world there is God and Gods Adversary. It was almost inevitable that Satan should come to be regarded as The Adversary par excellence. That is what his name means; that is what he always was to man; Satan becomes the essence of everything that is against God.
When we turn to the New Testament we find that it is the Devil or Satan who is behind human disease and suffering (Lk.13:16); it is Satan who seduces Judas (Lk.22:3); it is the devil whom we must fight (1Pet.5:8-9; Jas.4:7); it is the devil whose power is being broken by the work of Christ (Lk.10:1-19); it is the devil who is destined for final destruction (Matt.25:41). Satan is the power which is against God.
Here we have the whole essence of the Temptation story. Jesus had to decide how he was to do his work. He was conscious of a tremendous task and he was also conscious of tremendous powers. God was saying to him, “Take my love to men; love them till you die for them; conquer them by this unconquerable love even if you finish up upon a cross.” Satan was saying to Jesus, “Use your power to blast men; obliterate your enemies; win the world by might and power and bloodshed.” God said to Jesus, “Set up a reign of love.” Satan said to Jesus, “Set up a dictatorship of force.” Jesus had to choose that day between the way of God and the way of the Adversary of God.
Mark’s brief story of the Temptations finishes with two vivid touches.
(i) The beasts were his companions. In the desert there roamed the leopard, the bear, the wild boar and the jackal. This is usually taken to be a vivid detail that adds to the grim terror of the scene. But perhaps it is not so. Perhaps this is a lovely thing, for perhaps it means that the beasts were Jesus’ friends. Amidst the dreams of the golden age when the Messiah would come, the Jews dreamed of a day when the enmity between man and the beasts would no longer exist. “I will make for you a covenant on that day with the beasts of the field, the birds of the air, and the creeping things of the ground.” (Hos.2:18.) “The wolf shall dwell with the lamb and the leopard shall lie down with the kid…. The sucking child shall play over the hole of the asp, and the weaned child shall put his hand on the adder’s den; they shall not hurt or destroy in all my holy mountain.” (Isa.11:6-9.) In later days St. Francis preached to the beasts; and it may be that here we have a first foretaste of the loveliness when man and the beasts shall be at peace. It may be that here we see a picture in which the beasts recognized, before men did, their friend and their king.
(ii) The angels were helping him. There are ever the divine reinforcements in the hour of trial. When Elisha and his servant were shut up in Dothan with their enemies pressing in upon them and no apparent way of escape, Elisha opened the young man’s eyes and all around he saw the horses and the chariots of fire which belonged to God. (2Kgs.6:17.) Jesus was not left to fight his battle alone–and neither are we.
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