“[Jesus] was in the wilderness forty days, being tempted” (Mark 1:13) is a strange way for Jesus to begin his mission into the world – don’t you think? All three of the synoptic gospels agree and include an account of Jesus being baptized and then being tempted (or tested) in the wilderness prior to beginning his ministry with the calling of his disciples. Like Jesus’ baptism, Christians struggle with trying to understand why Jesus needed to enter into a specific time of temptation?
The world as we know it today begins in the Garden of Eden with a carefully crafted temptation. “’You will not certainly die,’ the serpent said to the woman. ‘For God knows that when you eat from it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil’” (Genesis 3:4-5). Soon afterwards, the first children born of mankind appear on the earth. “If you do not do what is right, sin is crouching at your door; it desires to have you, but you must rule over it” (Genesis 4:7) warns the Lord. Cain succumbs to the allure of sin and kills his brother Abel. Temptation, testing, struggle against the allure and desire of sin has been with us for a long time.
“Sin is crouching at your door; it desires to have you, but you must rule over it” (Genesis 4:7) is important for us to remember and understand in its proper context. The work of the cross is a gift from God which deals with the original Sin of mankind, which begins with Adam and Eve, and it is the Sin that separates us unholy sinners from a holy and righteous God. When John identifies Jesus as “the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29) he is prophetically declaring that God’s salvific work on the cross is for the purpose of reuniting all people (not only some), but all people to the Father as “God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ” (2 Corinthians 5:19). Original or Hereditary Sin is passed down through the generations of mankind which have been birthed from Adam and Eve; Cain and Seth and their offspring, and this is the Sin which Jesus deals with on the cross. “God made him who had no sin to be sin for us” (2 Corinthians 5:21) describes these two aspects of sin: original and behavioural. When Jesus was born of a human woman, he inherited the hereditary Sin of the first man Adam while Jesus demonstrates today that the warning to Cain is humanly possible. Behavioural sin is the resulting things humans do or don’t do because of the influence of original sin and the daily temptations to sin as we choose between good and evil. A fully human Jesus resisted the wilderness temptations.
This is good news for us in that resisting the allure, testing and temptation is something that Jesus demonstrates is humanly possible. Jesus teaches us in his forty days of temptation and fasting that it is possible for us to choose to do good rather than to do evil confirming the words spoken to Cain that “Sin is crouching at your door; it desires to have you, but you must rule over it” (Genesis 4:7). But nobody ever said that it would be easy resisting the allure and attraction of sin.
When you read through the accounts of Paul’s life you will discover that he was dealing with his own challenges and temptations. Paul had a temper. When he and Barnabas are being followed by a fortune-teller Paul “became so annoyed” (Acts 16:18) that he turned around and told the spirit to come out of her and when Barnabas wanted to take John-Mark on their second missionary journey, Paul opposed it “because he [Mark] had deserted them” (Acts 15:38) as Paul and Barnabas ended up going their own separate ways. Paul appears to struggle with a temptation towards pride as he describes the thorn in his flesh as “to keep me from becoming conceited.” (2 Corinthians 12:7).
We know that Simon Peter also dealt with various temptations in his life. “Peter came to Jesus and asked, ‘Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother who sins against me” (Matthew 18:21)? Peter was obviously looking for a loop-hole to allow him to hold a grudge and not forgive an infraction which had been done against him. Peter’s impulsive attitude got him into hot water more than once. After predicting his death and resurrection “Peter took him [Jesus] aside and began to rebuke him” (Mark 8:32). And we can’t forget the greatest trial of Peter life, after boasting before his brothers “Peter insisted emphatically, ‘even if I have to die with you, I will never disown you.” (Mark 14:31). We all know what happened three times when push came to shove.
Many people today are struggling with trials, temptations, testing and the allures of sin. Some struggle with keeping the whole law as described in the Ten Commandments while Jesus warns “that anyone who is angry with a brother or sister will be subject to judgment ... And anyone who says, ‘You fool!’ will be in danger of the fire of hell” (Matthew 5:22). The apostle John is clear in saying that “all wrongdoing is sin” (1 John 5:17) and James writes that “if anyone, then, knows the good they ought to do and doesn’t do it, it is sin for them” (James 4:17).
Paul provides us with lists of the acts of the sinful nature as he saw them in the first century. But if we try to compile a complete list of sins, we will find ourselves getting buried under the guilt of our own failures because we will discover we have sinned far more often than we realized possible “for all who rely on the works of the law are under a curse, as it is written: ‘Cursed is everyone who does not continue to do everything written in the Book of the Law’. Clearly no one who relies on the law is justified before God” (Galatians 3:10-11) writes Paul.
Cain is told to resist the allure of sin. Along with Cain and his brother Seth the descendants and Adam lived and died – with one strange exception which will remain a mystery. “Enoch walked faithfully with God 300 years and had other sons and daughters. Altogether, Enoch lived a total of 365 years. Enoch walked faithfully with God; then he was no more, because God took him away” (Genesis 5:22-24) implying that he avoided the curse of sin – which is death. In today’s lesson, a very human Jesus demonstrates that it is possible to walk faithfully with God and not be tempted by the allure of sin. And, if we think about it, we can think of people who have come close to living what we might call an almost perfect life. ‘Almost’ is the operative word that differentiates between us and Jesus – for his was a perfectly lived sinless life. Because you and I are not perfect and since we can never fully obey and keep God’s Law perfectly, we need somebody who can. Paul confirms this need a few verses later in his letter to the Galatians as he writes “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us, for it is written: “Cursed is everyone who is hung on a pole” (Galatians 3:13) because “the law was our guardian until Christ came that we might be justified by faith” (Galatians 3:24).
This brings us back to that very challenging and personal question. What are you struggling with, what are the trials, temptations, testing and the allures of sin that are crouching at your door and drawing you away from God? After his baptism, “the Spirit sent him [Jesus] out into the wilderness, and he was in the wilderness forty days, being tempted” (Mark 1:12-13). What might your post-baptismal wilderness look like? As a baptized child of God, you entered the wilderness of the world where you have been tempted for forty, sixty, eighty or more years. You may have experienced financial problems, marital difficulties, and relational disagreements with family, children and friends. School, work and possibly church may have tempted you to follow the ways of the world rather than the ways of God. Sickness, worry, grief, isolation causes some to reject God. I can mention any number of things that have tested and tried your faith - temptations and sins, some we keep buried deep out of sight, those things that weigh heavy on our soul and hearts.
And this is what makes the life events of Jesus’ life so meaningful to us today – because our God was and is one of us. God began life on earth as a mortal human baby in a stable in Bethlehem. He begins his ministry by submitting John’s “baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins” (Mark 1:4) after which “he was in the wilderness forty days, being tempted” (Mark 1:13). According to the apostle, “he had to be made like them, fully human in every way, in order that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in service to God'' (Hebrews 2:17). Jesus is the one person with whom we can share everything, to whom we can speak with about those burdens that weigh heavy on our hearts, those allures of the world that tempt us, that draw us away from God because Jesus knows all about them. Jesus became one of us “in every way”. Jesus went through every possible temptation that we may go through. In fact, he was under a far heavier attack from the forces of evil than anyone of us will ever be. Jesus can truly empathize with us.
Jesus began his ministry in the wilderness being tempted by Satan. Mark spends only two sentences on what was a crucial forty-day experience in Jesus’ ministry. Matthew and Luke describe how Satan attempted to railroad Jesus’ sinlessness by tempting him with the allures of the world but Jesus was determined to remain faithful to the mission he had received from his Father. Satan did not give up easily, beginning with Peter’s rebuke of Jesus’ mission, Judas Iscariot’s betrayal and the final temptation, in a different garden this time, as Satan was whispering in Jesus’ ear to choose life rather than death on the cross. Jesus stayed faithful to the bitter end. He defied even the toughest temptations. Not only did he resist the most powerful temptations, that were ‘crouching at your door’ Jesus faced the excruciating suffering of death on a cross for you and me. He did not back out. He did not resist. He bore the humiliation, the shame, the weight of all human sin on the cross. He did not deserve it – but he did it to save people like you and me.
What Jesus did is something that is very difficult for the limited mind of humanity to sufficiently grasp. It wasn’t about forty days of temptation in the wilderness. That was only a sample of what was coming. The full measure of what Jesus did was to encompass in himself the whole sinfulness of humanity from the beginning (Adam and Eve) until the eschaton and the last human living on this earth. Jesus stayed faithful to his mission to provide salvation to all humanity, through temptation, rejection and suffering to the bitter end – to his death on the cross. And this is precisely why Jesus identifies with our temptations and our suffering, our desires and our fears. That is why Jesus can empathize with us in our wilderness and why he is able to help us.
It begins with Christmas and the incarnation as our God became “fully human in every way”. “He had to be made like them, fully human in every way” (Hebrews 2:17). We remind ourselves of this biblical truth every time we recite the Athanasian Creed saying “For this is the true faith that we believe and confess that our Lord Jesus Christ, God’s Son is both God and man”. Martin Luther further confirms this great mystery with his explanation to the second article of the Apostles’ Creed saying “I believe that Jesus Christ, true God, begotten of the Father in eternity, and also true human being, born of the Virgin Mary, is my Lord.” No matter how you say it the ‘hypostatic union’ of Christ is something that is hard to grasp and explain. We want to divide Jesus mathematically by saying that he was 50% human and 50% divine but the Bible says otherwise. Some people want to make Jesus 99.99 % pure human which again doesn’t agree with the Word of God. So, what does the Bible say. The letter to the Hebrews says that he was ‘fully human’. “For this reason, he had to be made like them, fully human in every way” (Hebrews 2:17) writes the apostle. But then, in the first chapter he writes that Jesus is ‘fully God’ as “the Son is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being, sustaining all things by his powerful word” (Hebrews 1:3) which means that Jesus was 100% human and at the same time 100% divine.
What you end up with is the great mystery which says that one plus one equals one and in reality, we are not going to resolve this question in a twenty-minute sermon when in fact, it might take a lifetime to even begin to scratch the surface of the ‘hypostatic union’ or even the Trinity – One God in three persons or the theme of my research dissertation about the Real Presence of Christ in His church. But maybe, Paul can help us begin to scratch the surface towards an understanding of Jesus’ life in ministry as it applies to our lives and calling as his disciples.
“In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus: Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death - even death on a cross! Therefore, God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (Philippians 2:5-11).
Paul is crystal clear. The incarnation is not about God putting on a human disguise or masquerading or pretending or acting as if he were human. Docetism in the first century and today believes that Jesus was only in the appearance of God and that on the cross the divine portion left the human portion behind to die alone on the cross. If Jesus was not fully human then the forty-day wilderness temptation would be nothing more than a sham – a deception. It’s hard to imagine Satan going along with a game of temptation against God where he has no chance to win. But, the temptations from the wilderness to the cross were very real to Jesus because his humanity was also very real. Jesus “emptied himself”, says Paul which means he put aside his divinity.
Throughout his human life, Jesus remained fully God, while at the same time being absolutely and fully human in body, mind and emotions. Jesus grew from infancy, through childhood, to adolescence, into young adulthood and into maturity before venturing out at the age of thirty. Jesus became like us, “fully human in every way, in order that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in service to God, and that he might make atonement for the sins of the people” (Hebrews 2:17). Because Jesus was both fully human and fully God, he could in his very nature represent humanity to God and God to humanity. According to the apostle Jesus is both the supreme High Priest and the supreme sacrifice to atone for our sins “Because” (now pay close attention to this “Because he [Jesus] himself suffered when he was tempted, he is able to help those who are being tempted” (Hebrews 2:18).
When sin is crouching at the door, when we feel weak, when temptations, trials, testing and the allures of sin come our way, (and we know they will) we also know that Jesus has been there before us. Jesus knows the mighty power of Satan’s temptations. But Jesus resisted. Therefore, we can come to him for help: for strength and wisdom because the “Real Presence of Christ” is present now in the communion of saints in order to assist in our fight against whatever entices us to compromise our calling as disciples of Jesus for some short-term benefit, or pleasure or convenience. Jesus has gone through it all and as our great high priest he has endured every temptation. Jesus calls to us, when the voice of sin is crouching at the door of our soul, saying “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest” (Matthew 11:28).
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