Summary: What can we learn from the very brief account of the temptation of Jesus in the wilderness left us by the Gospel of Mark?
With the Wild Beasts: An Exposition of Mark 1:9-15
We have now come to the First Sunday of Lent which is a forty-day season of reflection and repentance. During this time, we remember that Jesus was tempted for forty days by Satan in the Judaean wilderness. In turn, the time that Jesus spent in the wilderness makes us think of the forty years the children of Israel. We remember the temptation of Jesus today on the first Sunday of Lent.
The selected Gospel for this year is the Gospel of Mark. This presents some challenges as the account Mark gives is very brief. Both Matthew and Luke give details of what these temptations were. Another problem is that the Lectionary has gone back and forth in its text selections this year from Mark. The texts began in Advent with 1:1-8. We then went to the Baptism of Jesus. We then skipped over the Temptation to do the rest of the first chapter. Then we skipped last Sunday to the 9th chapter of Mark for the Transfiguration and now back to chapter 1 this morning. Next week we will skip to chapter 8. This makes it hard to keep continuity. In addition to this, the first few verses of this passage were already covered in the Baptism of Jesus and the last verses in the calling of the fishermen. In-between are these few short verses about the Temptation. How does this missing piece of the puzzle fit in to the Gospel of Mark as a whole?
One of the connections is that the Baptism of our Lord was immediately followed by the Temptation. Jesus had just been baptized by John. The Spirit had come down upon Him like a dove which is a symbol of peace. This was followed by the words of affirmation by the Father. The Father was pleased with the Son.
Then the text makes an abrupt turn. The Greek says that the Spirit immediately thrusts Him out into the Wilderness. The Greek word, ekballo, is used forcefully in the Gospel of Mark. It is associated with Jesus casting out demons, for example. It is also used in Jesus’ curtly dismissing the leper he had just cleansed: “He bristled with anger and threw him out.”( Mark 1:43) So it seems strange that it is used here for the Spirit casting out Jesus into the Wilderness. The present tense of the verb makes this more vivid as well as the use of “immediately.” Immediately after the Spirit had gracefully descended upon Jesus, the Spirit drives Him into the wilderness. The same Father who had approved of His Son then puts the Son out into the heat and barrenness of the desert. So why did this happen? It hardly seem like approval having just commended the Son to send Him into the harshest of time-outs. But this was all part of God’s plan. Ultimately, we will see that God approved of Jesus as much in the wilderness as His eternal glory.
Mark simply mentions that he spent forty days in the wilderness being tempted by Satan. The vivid pictures of the temptation itself are not mentioned. But the other gospels said that during these forty days, Jesus had nothing to eat or drink. One can think of how awful even the attempt of such would be in today’s air-conditioned society. How awful would it be in the scorching hot desert. When the gospel said He was hungry, He was desperate.
However, Mark has one detail which is not mentioned in Matthew or Luke. It says, “He was with the wild beasts.” In a way, we can look at this detail and wonder why Mark mentions it. Of course, if one is in the wilderness, one will be with wild beasts. Commentators suggest that Mark was the son of a Roman soldier and a Jewish woman. The Gospel also contains some Latin (Roman) words. There is a mention of a Bar-Timaeus, a name which seems to have been familiar to Rome. The confession of the Roman Centurion of Jesus being the Son of God is another Roman theme. As a result, these commentators see a connection between Mark and Rome, in particular the Roman-Christians. When one looks at the time of Emperor Nero and afterward that Christians were arrested, tried, and then thrown to the wild beasts in the arena. Was Jesus showing solidarity with them? The problem is that Mark seems to have been written before these persecutions.
Another approach to the wild beasts is to go back to creation itself. The original creation placed Adam and Eve in the garden. There were no wild beasts there as all animals were obedient to Adam. Beasts did not attack humans until after the Fall. Part of the curse is that the overlordship given by God to Adam and Eve lost its absolute quality. Weeds and thorns would reduce and threaten the crops. Animals would rebel against the humans and even kill them. Humankind had lost control of creation. This is why there are deserts and wild places. This is why there are wild beasts. But the new Adam now lives with the wild beasts who do him no harm. There is a promise for us here that one day we shall be free from the curse which leads us all on the sorrowful road of death.