- Vol. 16
A place of testing, encounter, and renewal
What motivated Jesus to spend 40 days and nights of solitude, prayer, and fasting in the Judean wilderness? This desert landscape was largely uninhabitable and was full of dangers for anyone who dared to venture in it for long. Danger from scorching heat by day and extreme cold by night, danger from wild animals and scorpions, plus the scarcity of food and water.
For God’s chosen people Israel and many of their leaders, the desert was a place of testing, encounter, and renewal. When the Israelites were freed from slavery in Egypt, they wandered 40 years in the wilderness. This was seen as a time of purification and preparation for entry into the promised land. Moses went to the mountain of the Lord in the Sinai wilderness and stayed there for 40 days and nights in prayer and fasting (Exodus 24:18). Elijah, after he was fed with bread from heaven, journeyed through the wilderness without any food for 40 days to the mountain of God (1 Kings 19:8). Jesus was without any food in the wilderness for 40 days to prepare himself for the mission that the Father had sent him to accomplish.
Why did Jesus choose such a barren, lonely place for an
intense and long period of prayer and fasting? Matthew,
Mark, and Luke tell us in their gospel accounts that
Jesus was led by the Holy Spirit into the wilderness.
Mark states it most emphatically: “The Spirit
immediately drove him out into the wilderness” (Mark 1:12).
What compelled Jesus to seek solitude, away from his
family and friends, for such a lengthy period? Was it simply
to test himself and prepare for his mission? Or was he
also allowing himself to be tempted by Satan? The word tempt
in English usually means to entice someone to do what is
wrong or forbidden. The scriptural word used here also
means to test in the sense of proving and
purifying someone to see if they are ready for the task
at hand. We test airline pilots to make sure that they
are fit to fly under all conditions, including times of
adverse turbulence and poor visibility. Likewise God
tests his servants to see if they are fit and ready to
be used by him.
On many occasions God tested Abraham to prove his faith and to strengthen his hope in God’s promises. Abraham obeyed willingly even when God asked him to sacrifice Isaac, the son of promise. When the Israelites were sorely tested in Egypt for more than 400 years, they did not forget God. They kept God's word and remembered his promise to bring them freedom from their enemies.
Jesus was tempted like us
When Satan tempts Jesus to turn stones into bread, Jesus replies with the words of Scripture, “Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God” (quote from Deuteronomy 8:3; see also Matthew 4:4). Jerome, the great bible scholar who lived near the Judean desert (347-420 AD), comments on this passage:
The Lord responded in this way, for it was his purpose to overcome the devil with humility and not with power. ...the Savior’s very response indicates that it was as man that he was tempted: “Not by bread alone shall man live, but by every word that comes forth from the mouth of God.” So if anyone does not feed upon God’s Word, that one will not live.Where did Jesus find the strength to survive the desert's harsh conditions and the tempter's seduction? He fed on God's word and found strength in doing his Father's will. Satan will surely tempt us and he will try his best to get us to choose our will over God's will. If he can’t make us renounce our faith or sin mortally, he will then try to get us to make choices that will lead us, little by little, away from what God wants for us.
Jesus was tempted like us and he overcame sin not by his own human effort but by the grace and strength which his Father gave to him. He had to renounce his will for the will of his Father. He succeeded because he wanted to please his Father and he trusted that his Father would give him the strength to overcome the obstacles that stood in the way. Luke says that Jesus was “full of the Holy Spirit” (Luke 4:1). When tempted by the devil Jesus did not try to fight his adversary on his own human strength alone. He relied on the power which the Spirit gave him. Jesus came to overthrow the evil one who held us captive to sin and fear of death (Hebrews 2:14). His obedience to his Father’s will and his willingness to embrace the cross reversed the curse of Adam’s disobedience. His victory over sin and death won for us not only pardon for our sins but adoption as sons and daughters of God.
The Lord gives grace to the humble
“Lord Jesus, your word is life and joy for me. Fill me with your Holy Spirit that I may have the strength and courage to embrace your will in all things and to renounce whatever is contrary to it.”