Tag Archive: wilderness


After being baptized by John, “Then was Jesus led up of the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted of the devil. / And when he had fasted forty days and forty nights, he was afterward an hungered.”—Matthew 4:1-2.

Of the Spirit is an important phrase. He didn’t eat for 40 days. Fasting for spiritual purposes can result in a vision, a trip to the spirit world—which exists alongside the more obvious physical one, and, like dreams, can be metaphorical, literal, or both.

The devil might not be a proper name, since it isn’t capitalized. This could mean that Satan was never really there, only part of Jesus’ vision. What tempted Jesus, then, might not have been another person, but himself.

First Temptation
“And when the tempter came to him, he said, If thou be the Son of God, command that these stones be made bread. / But he answered and said, it is written, Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceedeth out of the mouth of God.”—Matthew 4:3-4.

If thou be the Son of God….

The devil used this implication twice during his three temptations. He didn’t say since, but if. Did Jesus doubt himself; doubt that he was the Son of God?

Before I begin a new project (like these essays, for example), I have to overcome my doubts. The Israelites had to endure 40 years in the wilderness. We all have to stand strong enough to survive the desert, but weak enough to accept our vulnerability, and not tempt fate.

It is perfectly natural to doubt yourself; it’s not a bad thing. That’s one of the differences between the absolute nature of faith in the Old Testament, and the more flexible, realistic understanding of it provided by Jesus. Doubt allows us to change.

If the Son of God can suffer doubt, then we are far from immune to its influence.

If we can accept our weaknesses, then we can overcome them.

Command that these stones be made bread.

Besides the implied temptation to doubt his own identity, Jesus was further tempted to end his fast. The wording is a trap. Jesus is the Son of God; that answers the first part of the implication (an if/then statement). Logically, he should then turn the stones to bread. He was fully capable, after all.

“And he commanded the multitude to sit down on the grass, and took the five loaves, and the two fishes, and looking up to heaven, he blessed, and brake, and gave the loaves to his disciples, and the disciples to the multitude.”—Matthew 14:19.

If he could create enough bread to feed 5,000 people, then he could’ve easily fed himself.

This brings up an interesting point. Jesus eventually does everything the devil tempted him to do. But it’s when he does it, and why, that’s important. Feeding himself would’ve broken his connection to God, ending the vision. But when he fed the five thousand, it was for their sake. He used his abilities for the good of others, not himself.

“But he answered and said, it is written, Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceedeth out of the mouth of God.”—Matthew 4:4.

Jesus answered all of the devil’s temptations by quoting scripture, Deuteronomy, to be precise.

“And he humbleth thee, and suffered thee to hunger, and fed thee with manna, which thou knewest not, neither did thy fathers know; that he might make thee know that man doth not live by bread only, but by every word that proceedeth out of the mouth of the Lord doth man live.”—Deuteronomy 8:3.

Only and alone are important qualifiers to consider. Of course we need bread. Our bodies require nourishment. But there is spiritual food, and then there is the physical kind. The devil—whether he was Jesus’ internal doubt, or an external, corporeal being—wanted Jesus to forsake the spiritual, to insure physical comfort.

That’s how we begin to lose our spirituality: Real life consumes all our thoughts, and time, until we are so full on bread that there’s no room for love.

Second Temptation
“Then the devil taketh him up into the holy city, and setteth him on a pinnacle of the temple, / And saith unto him, If thou be the Son of God, cast thyself down: for it is written, He shall give his angels charge concerning thee: and in their hands they shall bear thee up, lest at any time thou dash thy foot against a stone. / Jesus said unto him, It is written again, Thou shalt not tempt the Lord thy God.”—Matthew 4:5-7.

Cast thyself down.

This is an extraordinary line. Is Jesus suicidal? Keep in mind, the devil is still in lower case, implying that he is not a separate, actual person, but the manifestation of Jesus’ darkest thoughts. Suicide is the ultimate expression of doubting yourself. But maybe that’s taking the metaphor too literally, so to speak.

Maybe Jesus looked at the stones and wondered how he’d react if they were loaves of bread. And maybe he felt like he was dying of hunger. Temptation can be subtle: brief flashes of emotion and doubt.

Again, the devil tries to trap Jesus with an if/then statement, one that is heavily loaded, since Satan, himself, was cast down. But the devil throws a curve by quoting scripture.

“Because thou hast made the Lord, which is my refuge, even the most High, thy habitation; There shall be no evil befall thee, neither shall any plague come nigh thy dwelling. / For he shall give his angels charge over thee, to keep thee in all thy ways. / They shall bear thee up in their hands, lest thou dash thy foot against a stone.”—Psalm 91:9-12.

Since Jesus is the Son of God, if he tried to kill himself, then the angels would prevent it; that’s the devil’s point. Let us not forget that Jesus did sacrifice himself; he went willingly to the cross.

“I am the good shepherd; the good shepherd giveth his life for the sheep.”—John 10:11.

Like using his power to create bread out of thin air, what’s important here is why and when. Sacrificing himself for the good of others is a far cry from frivolously jumping off a great height, just to prove what Jesus already knew.

There is worthwhile doubt, and then there is frivolous doubt.

He answered this temptation by quoting Deuteronomy again:

“Ye shall not go after other gods, of the gods of the people which are round about you; / (For the Lord thy God is a jealous God among you) lest the anger of the Lord thy God be kindled against thee, and destroy thee from off the face of the earth. / Ye shall not tempt the Lord your God, as ye tempted him in Massah.”—Deuteronomy 6:14-16.

The Israelites “tempted” God by doubting Him. While this could be interpreted as tempting God’s wrath (which they certainly did), I also see this as putting God to the test—and by “God,” keep in mind, I mean love.

Would you test your spouse’s love by cheating on them?

Third Temptation
“Again, the devil taketh him up into an exceeding high mountain, and showeth him all the kingdoms of the world, and the glory of them; / And saith unto him, All these things will I give thee, if thou wilt fall down and worship me. / Then saith Jesus unto him, Get thee hence, Satan: for it is written, Thou shalt worship the Lord thy God, and him only shalt thou serve. / Then the devil leaveth him, and behold, angels came and ministered unto him.”—Matthew 4:8-11.

The devil changed his tactics here. He showed his cards, his real thoughts. And since his name is still in lower-case, it’s worth considering that these were Jesus’ thoughts.

If thou wilt fall down and worship me.

Did Jesus consider, even for a brief flash, that he could use his power to be king of the world, without going to the cross, without dying—an immortal despot? Power corrupts. And remember that Eve was tempted by this in the garden.

“For God doth know that in the day ye eat thereof, then your eyes shall be opened, and ye shall be as gods, knowing good and evil.”—Genesis 3:5.

Again, if Jesus can be tempted by these things, even momentarily, then we must accept that we are vulnerable too. If we can’t acknowledge our desire to exercise power over our lives, and that this compulsion is used, by definition, to the detriment of others, then we’ll never know love.

In other words, the temptation is for Jesus to love only himself, like the Prodigal Son.

To deny the temptation, Jesus quotes from Deuteronomy once again.

“Thou shalt fear the Lord thy God, and serve him, and shalt swear by his name.”—Deuteronomy 6:13.

The Bible also suggested this as a reference, and I like it a lot more:

“Now therefore fear the Lord, and serve him in sincerity and in truth: and put away the gods which your fathers served on the other side of the flood, and in Egypt; and serve ye the Lord.”—Joshua 24:14.

I like that phrase: on the other side of the flood. It reminds me of the Parable of the New Cloth, from my first essay—which is the thesis for all the others. In short: we need new understanding for new situations. The old understanding worked, on the other side of the flood.

The greatest temptation comes from within. It is subtle, beginning with feeding yourself, taking care of yourself. We have to look out for number one, to an extent. This is the obvious, truthful part of the devil’s if/then statements. Of course Jesus is the Son of God; of course we have to eat. The temptation is to take that to the extreme, to be so selfish that one would kill themselves, denying the world of their love; or that one would rule the world, making it so that everything was about them.

Peer pressure can’t hold a candle to self-pressure. We must accept our weaknesses, not deny their existence; but we can’t give in to them either. The only way to have the strength to survive your devil, your time in the wilderness, is to love your neighbor in the way that you would love yourself. When that happens, the devil inside becomes the Jesus inside, and a new covenant is born—between you and the love in your heart.

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The first step of a new journey continues the last step of the old. Jesus came to fulfil a covenant that began with Abraham, and was then passed on to Moses, and prophets like Isaiah and John the Baptist; it was an agreement, a relationship that evolved over centuries, even millennia.

This isn’t just the story of the Israelites, and the formation of their religion, it’s a metaphor for personal growth that applies to us today. Sometimes, when I’m too lazy, willfully ignorant, and afraid of change, my complacency makes me stumble; but I have to pick myself up again, despite being hurt and embarrassed. This is when we show our true selves: during times of extreme hardship.

This is our time in the wilderness.

“Now the Lord had said unto Abram, Get thee out of thy country, and from thy kindred, and from thy father’s house, unto a land that I will show thee: / And I will make of thee a great nation, and I will bless thee, and make thy name great; and thou shalt be a blessing: And I will bless them that bless thee, and curse him that curseth thee: and in thee shall all families of the earth be blessed.”—Genesis 12:1-3.

That first part sounds like a great deal, like what young adults might think when starting out on their own. If they have courage and faith, the Israelites were promised a paradise. But courage and faith are reactions; until we experience a personal apocalypse, we can’t know if we have those traits, which brings us to the catch in God’s covenant (or testament) with Abraham:

“And [God] said unto Abram, Know of a surety that thy seed shall be a stranger in a land that is not theirs, and shall serve them; and they shall afflict them four hundred years; / And also that nation, whom they shall serve, will I judge: and afterward shall they come out with great substance.”—Genesis 15:13-14.

That would’ve taken the wind right out of my sails. I really don’t know if I could’ve been as courageous as the hero Abraham. Courage and faith aren’t givens; we have to step up, sprinting after running for so long that our legs feel like rubber.

God was referring to the Israelites being enslaved by Egypt for 400 years. While Abraham wasn’t told who would enslave his people, he did know that it would be 400 years before they even began to settle the Promised Land; like Moses, he would never reach it.

“Now the sojourning of the children of Israel, who dwelt in Egypt, was four hundred and thirty years. / And it came to pass at the end of the four hundred and thirty years, even the selfsame day it came to pass, that all the hosts of the Lord went out from the land of Egypt.”—Exodus 12:40-41.

Abraham acted for God, a proxy doing the Lord’s work. There were others who would be the voice of God, like John the Baptist. God needed someone here, on Earth, to do His work. To continue this old covenant, He needed someone new to take over for Abraham.

“And when forty years were expired, there appeared to [Moses] in the wilderness of mount Sina an angel of the Lord in a flame of fire in a bush. / …Saying, I am the God of thy fathers, the God of Abraham, and the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob. Then Moses trembled, and durst not behold.”—Acts 7:30, 32.

We decide (or discover) who we are when we’re young. As our situation changes, we step up, accepting with humility that we are always learning and discovering new things about ourselves, or we fall. For me, I usually fall first, and then find my courage, reaffirm my faith, and sally forth. It might take a while for me to build up strength; so long that I’m a new person by the time I cast aside my shackles. Even then, it’s a long road:

“And the Lord spake unto Moses and unto Aaron, saying, /…And your children shall wander in the wilderness forty years, and bear your whoredoms, until your carcases be wasted in the wilderness.”—Numbers 14:26, 33.

Though the Israelites did reach the Promised Land, eventually, holding onto it was a daily battle. Just so, it is a daily battle within our souls for us to hold onto our paradise—what we love and aspire to most. Accepting weakness, striving for greater strength, Moses rose from the ashes of Abraham, as John the Baptist continued for (and was prophesized by) Isaiah:

“The voice of him that crieth in the wilderness, Prepare ye the way of the Lord, Make straight in the desert a highway for our God. / Every valley shall be exalted, and every mountain and hill shall be made low: and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough places plain: / And the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together: for the mouth of the Lord hath spoken it.”—Isaiah 40:3-5.

The prophets were His voice, the mouth of the Lord—proxies, not for what God wanted to do, but what He wanted to say. They symbolized our internal voices, our conscience. The part I put in bold shows a fundamental break from the eye-for-an-eye philosophy, which dominated the Old Testament. This new approach became central for Jesus and the new covenant:

“For whosoever exalteth himself shall be abased; and he that humbleth himself shall be exalted.”—Luke 14:11.

At the beginning of his ministry, Jesus read from the book of Isaiah.

“The spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he hath anointed me to preach the gospel to the poor; he hath sent me to heal the broken-hearted, to preach deliverance to the captives, and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty them that are bruised.”—Luke 4:18.

He quoted Isaiah 61:1. Isaiah prophesized about Jesus and John the Baptist; he paved the way, as John and all the prophets did, for a new understanding—not just between God and the Israelites, but with God and everyone who would listen, not just listen to the Word of God, but to their own inner voices: the knowing within us all.

What John and Jesus preached about was not a literal promised land, a location on the map, but the satisfaction of being fulfilled, of facing the overwhelming force of life with the humility that comes from recognizing your place, and finding the courage to always strive to make things better.

“And the same John had his raiment of camel’s hair, and a leathern girdle about his loins, and his meat was locusts and wild honey.”—Matthew 3:4.

How I love crazy John the Baptist! (For further reading, and a real treat, check out this example of one of his sermons from Matthew 3:7-12.)

John was willing to show humility, weakness of mind before the Lord. Would you dare to act tough in front of a tiger, standing solid in the midst of a hurricane, or would you be willing to bend your knee, acknowledging the overwhelming force of infinity?

“Then cometh Jesus from Galilee to Jordan unto John, to be baptized of him. / But John forbad him, saying, I have need to be baptized of thee, and comest thou to me? / And Jesus answering said unto him, Suffer it to be so now: for thus it becometh us to fulfil all righteousness. Then he suffered him.”—Matthew 3:13-15.

For those of you following along with a King James Bible, note that what I put in bold is the first red lettering, the first time Jesus spoke.

“Think not that I am come to destroy the law, or the prophets: I am not come to destroy, but to fulfil.”—Matthew 5:17.

Just as Moses took the torch from Abraham, and as the prophets passed the Word of God from one to another, Jesus came because of that original covenant. He came to continue it, improve on it, but most of all he came to fulfil God’s promise of paradise.

But, first, he would have his time in the wilderness.