Then Jesus was led by the Spirit into the desert to be tempted by the devil. (Matthew 4.1)
Since time immemorial, humans have created myths about the quest for understanding as odysseys through hostile territories. Gilgamesh wanders to the ends of the earth. Ulysses sails treacherous seas in search of a home. Beowulf follows the dragon into its lair. Dorothy overcomes extraordinary opposition in the land of Oz. Luke Skywalker invades the Death Star to defeat Darth Vader. These epics reflect a similar dynamic in legends of great spiritual leaders like Buddha, Jesus, Mohammed, and other mystics who voluntarily separate themselves from life’s comforts to seek revelation and truth. The prominence (and durability) of this paradigm in myth and legend validates the importance of stepping away from the everyday in search of the uncommon. And while many of the tales present this phenomenon as happenstance—picturing their heroes as innocents who collide with fate—Matthew 4.1 tells us why Jesus goes into the wilderness. But its reasons aren’t exactly clear at first.
He is “led by the Spirit into the desert to be tempted by the devil.” The former English teacher in me wants to grab his red pen and tear that sentence apart, because it’s a nightmare of ambiguity. It can be read in one of several ways. The Spirit sends Jesus into the desert for the sole purpose of confronting the tempter. The Spirit leads Him into the desert, where it just so happens the tempter lay in wait. The Spirit chooses the desert as the site where Jesus will be tempted. However we tilt it, though, there’s a peculiar strain of supernatural collusion running through it—a sense that the Spirit and the tempter somehow are in cahoots on this. “I’ll get Him there,” the Spirit says, and the tempter agrees, “Once He’s there, I’ll do the dirty work.” If this is the case, we must ask why. It’s unwise to assume their motives are the same, based on Paul’s questions in 2 Corinthians 6.14: “What do righteousness and wickedness have in common? Or what fellowship can light have with darkness?”
It’s apparent by what transpires in the wild that the devil intends to destroy Jesus’s faith and confidence. Knowing this illuminates the Spirit’s motives, which are the direct opposite. It sends Jesus into the desert to strengthen His faith and confidence. Remember: He enters the desert relatively soon after John baptizes Him and God openly declares Jesus is His Son. Saving the world from sin is a task of unparalleled enormity—a job description that comes with an “experience required” caveat. The Spirit leads Jesus into the wilderness to gain human experience, to know the torment of temptation, and most important, to learn temptation can be defeated. Yes, Jesus exits the desert in resounding triumph. But He gives us clear indication His success doesn’t completely erase the bitterness of the ordeal. In fact, He implies it’s an experience we should ask to escape. In His first sermon following his desert odyssey, He teaches us to pray, “Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from the evil one.” (Matthew 6.13)
Thus, we pray as Christ taught, word-for-word—many of us daily, and some of us several times a day. So why does God lead us into temptation? The answer is nested earlier in the Prayer: “Your kingdom come, your will be done.” (v10) We enter temptation by divine will in order to discover the truth of God’s kingdom. Look at Christ’s temptations. The evil one taunts Him to satisfy physical cravings by turning stones to bread. It taunts Him to prove He’s God’s Son by jumping off a cliff and trusting angels to save His life. It whets His human desire for status by offering Him the world’s kingdoms and power. In every test, Jesus refuses to yield by citing God’s will for His life. “I don’t live by bread alone.” “I will not question God.” “I won’t worship anything but God.”
Lent is a self-imposed desert sojourn. Yet it’s being voluntary doesn’t negate the fact that each of us is led into the wilderness to be tempted. It’s supposed to be tough. We’re supposed to undergo moments of weakness and fatigue. We’re supposed to face fear and tough decisions. This is because we’re supposed to leave the wilderness with deeper experience and understanding. What’s more, wisdom we gain in the wilderness teaches how to deal with temptation at home. In Jesus’s case, flash forward to Palm Sunday. Are the crowds proclaiming Him king any different than the devil offering the kingdoms of the world? Not really. Knowing what He faces on the other side of Jerusalem’s walls, would it not be easier for Jesus to accept their praise as a popular coronation? Most definitely. Yet having overcome desert temptation, He’s able to recognize temptation in the town. He’s already grappled with choosing God’s will over worldly want. The strength to face Calvary has been in Him since those lonely desert days.
Following the Spirit’s lead into the wilderness enables us to follow Christ to the cross. Hebrews takes it one step further, saying Christ’s battles with His flesh and spirit open the door for us to receive grace, confidence, and strength for our battles. “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are—yet was without sin. Let us then approach the throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need.” (Hebrews 4.15-16) It’s God’s will we face temptation—not to test us, but to teach us. The tempter will present offers we’ll struggle to refuse, until we recall what we’re really looking for. We’re led into the desert to be tempted, but the real reason for our journey is finding grace to help us in our time of need.We’re led into the desert to be tempted, but finding grace is our real purpose for being there.
(Next: Desert Springs)