The first temptations of Christ (that we know of) are mentioned in all the Synoptic Gospels (Mark 1, Matthew 4 and Luke 4).
While Mark only mentions that Jesus was tempted, without any specific details, Matthew and Luke’s accounts contain the same details, albeit in a different order. I will use Matthew’s account of Jesus’ trial in the wilderness, the order of the temptations being irrelevant to the points I desire to make.
An Unmentioned Fourth Temptation? (Which Actually Comes First)
Before diving into the “first” temptation, Satan’s attempt to lure Jesus into performing a miracle, there seems to be an implied temptation in this pericope that often goes unmentioned. Examining the broader context of the wilderness trials gives us a clue about an initial temptation Jesus may have encountered–one he might have struggled with prior to entering into His (im)mortal combat with the devil.
Just before Jesus goes out into the wilderness to face his trial, He is baptized by John in the Jordan river. At this very forensic scene, Jesus’ public ministry is divinely anointed as He is commissioned by the Father.
All three Synoptics give us a picture of the Trinity itself as Jesus rises from the water, the Spirit descends upon Him and, with minor variations, we hear the voice of the Father say “This [You] are my beloved Son, with him [You] I am well pleased.” Here is the Godhead in full and living color–Three in One.
In addition to the Father’s words of confirmation, we are also told that the Spirit of God visibly descended upon Jesus. This divine operation is fraught with significance and purpose. Just as the Church itself would later receive the Spirit (Acts 2) so as to be empowered for its mission to the world, Jesus is empowered by the Spirit to carry out His mission.
Of course, without Jesus’ mission there is no co-mission of the Church. That much is clear, and it is the Spirit that energizes Jesus to embark upon the decisive mission in all of human history: the atonement for man’s sin and the reconciliation of man with God.
One could only imagine that Jesus, fully human and like us in every way (yet without sin), would truly be fired up to begin His time of teaching, preaching and miracle working. At this point, if we did not know what already came next, we might expect Jesus to head straight out to find his team of Apostles, start healing the lame and the blind, or perhaps go immediately up to Jerusalem to confront the Jewish authorities.
But this is not what the Spirit of God has in mind. Instead, like Abram and the children of Israel before him, Jesus has to wait before he can begin anything. Not only that, He has to be put to the test while He waits.
Abraham was made to wait 25 years from the time God promised a son who would make him the father of all nations to Isaac’s actual birth. During this time he had to be tested in various ways. The Israelite refugees from Egypt, although promised the Holy Land, had to nevertheless wait forty years and be tested in various ways before they could enter it. Their immaturity required it.
Just as it was with these, so too would it have to be for Jesus. It is indeed the Spirit Himself who sends Jesus into the wilderness to first wait and then be tested.
Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the Devil.
Matthew 4:1 (HCSB)
There is nothing accidental here. Jesus did not simply choose to do this Himself as some kind of ascetic practice. Nor did He simply get lost or confused. This was by divine decree, intentional in every way. The outworking of God’s divine governance.
Redeeming the Time of Waiting
This “proto-temptation” of Jesus could be described in this way: after receiving the “green light go” to begin his mission, He is not allowed to actually go–at least not right away. Jesus doesn’t get to just run off to Jerusalem and begin his vital work.
Something that most of us would probably be tempted to do, if we had just had the power of God fall upon us and His voice declare us worthy. Even Jesus is called to restrain His enthusiasm. There is something else that must be done first.
Furthermore, Jesus must wait 40 days to only then be tested in the most profound manner possible– to battle the “lord” of this world. In doing this, however, Christ redeems the impatience of Abraham that lead to so many bad choices in between the promise of Isaac and God’s actualization of that promise. He also redeems the grumblings of Israel as they waited forty years in the desert to enter the promised land.
Thus, we see that something important, something of tremendous significance, actually occurs in the period of waiting. This should clue us in as to how we should wait. Waiting, in God’s economy, is not a frivolous or meaningless endeavor. It has great spiritual purpose. Waiting is redemptive, if approached with the mind of Christ (Phil 2:5-11).
Like most of us though, Jesus probably felt He was ready to do what God had asked Him to do and do it now. How many of us feel we are ready for ministry, especially if we have a genuine sense of our calling? However, in reality, we are not actually ready. If the Bible suggests that even Jesus, who clearly knew His calling after His baptism, was still not ready to begin His ministry, then how much more might we not be ready to begin ministry, even after knowing we have been called.
For Jesus Himself, there was still some growing in “wisdom and stature” (Luke 2:52) that had to be done. And, it would not be easy growth. It would require and even exhaust the full range of His human powers. For us, there may often be a series of hard trials, maybe even a long series of such trials, that comes immediately after feeling called to ministry.
The old saying “only fools rush in,” applies most poignantly to Gospel matters, which are, after all, ultimate matters. We should take heed then that not even Jesus was allowed to dive right into it. Even Christ had to wait and be tested before He could commence His public mission.
Hurry up and Wait: A Lesson for Us All
Life in the Army is often like this– waiting, often for long periods, to put into action all one has learned. To actualize every capacity one has sharpened and practice every skill acquired is foremost in every good soldier’s mind; and, as C.S. Lewis would say, in his chest.
But just as one is about to burst forth with this acquired power and energy, the commands from higher inevitably come: “Hold what you got” and “Hurry up and wait.” Every soldier knows the very real trial of waiting. It is often in the periods of waiting that soldiers, even very brave ones, meet their match.
We all experience this however, not just military folks. There are many times in life when we think we should be in the thick of it, when we just feel ready to rush into the fray. But only God knows when we are truly ready for battle. The commissioning to war, especially spiritual war, and the actual act of war are often separated by a period of personal trial and testing.
Were we wise, which we are not, we would realize that the wilderness itself is actually one part of the war. The paradox, of course, is that that wisdom is usually not acquired without going through the wilderness first. As such, we often feel like we are sitting on the sidelines, which we are not, while others do the fighting. Still, it can help, at least a bit, if someone warns us in advance about what it will be like to wait.
Waiting patiently is half the battle in any well-planned campaign. It is a crucial part of God’s plan for our lives. To be out of step with God’s cadence usually doesn’t end well, even for the most sincere believer. While our great Commander and Chief will always bring the faithful back into lockstep with His rhythm, stepping out of line, before the time is right, only hinders the mission, causing chaos among the ranks.
Perhaps this is something churches should reconsider, especially when in the process of selecting their next “senior” pastor. Maybe “senior” pastors need not be “senior” in the legal sense of 62+ years, but how often do 20-something pastors really have the life experience, needed intellectual acumen or personal character to lead a congregation of lost sheep? How often is it the case that the 27-year old preacher will have the experience and knowledge needed to say something substantive to the 70-year old congregant who fought the Viet Cong or the 15-year old struggling with sexual dysphoria?
We seem to have a serious dearth of deep teaching in the evangelical Church today. The cookies are indeed on the lower shelf. Could it be that we are too willing to rush the young and inexperienced into roles they are not yet prepared for, even if they have been called to them? Might not a stint in the wilderness, even a 10 or 15 or 20 year one, make all the difference?