Jesus, fresh from the cleansing waters of baptism, when the Holy Spirit descended upon him like a dove and a voice from heaven declared, “This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased,” was led up by that same Holy Spirit into the wilderness. Now, the Old Testament is replete with stories of trial and testing in the wilderness—from Moses to the Israelites to Elijah. So, it is not at all surprising that Jesus would be sent to so desolate a place. But it’s not simply because the wilderness happens to be a good place to be tested. The wilderness is a recurrent theme in Scripture because it is the place where humanity, because of Adam’s sin, has been left to wander since being cast out of the garden. Adam and Eve wanted to see with their own eyes and know good and evil on their terms. But after eating from the forbidden tree, their eyes were opened and they beheld not the beauty of a garden, but the ugliness of a barren wilderness. They saw not a creation redeemed by their own efforts to better themselves, but a creation utterly devastated by their naked act of rebellion. Jesus is led into the wilderness because the wilderness is where the fallen race he came to save now finds itself.
In the generations following Adam, the crafty serpent never changes his playbook. Every time humanity stumbles over its own fallenness, it is because of the same old lie, the same old exploitation of the human desire for self-preservation, self-gratification, and self-exaltation. Jesus in the wilderness faces the same temptation as Adam and Eve. It’s repeated three times, but it’s really all one temptation.
Turn stones to bread and feed yourself.
Jump off the pinnacle of the temple and call attention to yourself.
Bow down and worship me and you will have all the kingdoms of the world for yourself.
“Eat from the tree, and you will be like God.”
It’s the same old lie; the same old empty promise. Satan yanks God’s own word out of context, perverts its meaning, and seeks to confuse us and exploit our fears. But why do we keep falling for it?
We keep falling for Satan’s lie because, like Adam and Eve, we forget the context of the story. Adam and Eve fell because they lost their perspective on who they were and for what reason God created them: not to gain glory for themselves, but to give glory to God; to enjoy perfect fellowship with the One who created them in his image and likeness.
The serpent’s words are enticing because, with our perspective clouded by a misguided desire for something other than the way God has provided, the lie sounds like the simplest explanation.
“Did God actually say, ‘You shall not eat from any tree in the garden?’ Did he really make life so difficult by imposing such a rigid standard?”
“Well, actually, no. He didn’t forbid us to eat from any tree, only the one in the center of the garden. But since you did remind me of how stern God is with his rules and regulations, I’m not even going to touch that tree, lest I die.”
You see, now, how the serpent’s lie has complicated things. The context has been lost. The perspective has been distorted. God has become the taskmaster who imposes impossible burdens. Freedom has become slavery. But Adam and Eve will not be slaves anymore. They will seize the power themselves. They will decide what is good and what is evil, on their terms. They will decide what is best for themselves. They will eat from the tree and become like God, and they will control their own destiny.
And there you have it: the root of the problem which has been our downfall ever since.
The gospel according to me, myself, and I.
It is this misplaced, out of context, “me first” orientation, the root cause of our dehumanizing self-centeredness, that Jesus confronts and challenges—not in the pristine beauty of the garden, but in the arid ugliness of the wilderness: the serpent’s home turf. But where Adam and Eve failed miserably, Jesus triumphs victoriously because he will not allow the tempter to take his focus off the big picture.
“If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become bread.”
“Sorry, Satan. That’s not the whole story. Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.”
“If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down, for it is written, ‘He will command his angels concerning you,’ and ‘On their hands they will bear you up, lest you strike your foot against a stone.’”
“Hey, Satan. Why don’t you let God’s Word be its own best interpreter? Don’t just throw out a couple of proof-texts and expect me to take the bait. Again it is written, ‘You shall not put the Lord your God to the test.”
“You see all these kingdoms? All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.”
“Be gone, Satan! You may have fooled some into thinking you control the world. But I know the whole story. I know its beginning, and I know its end because I wrote it, and you’re nothing but a footnote. For it is written, ‘You shall worship the Lord your God and him only shall you serve.’”
From the manger to the Jordan River to the wilderness to Galilee to Jerusalem to Calvary to the empty tomb to the ascension to the right hand of the Father: in Jesus, the story is put back in context. Through Jesus, we begin to understand the story from a proper perspective. And with Jesus, alive in us in the power of his resurrection and the working of his Holy Spirit, our self-centeredness is being replaced by Christ-centeredness; our desire for self-exaltation is being replaced by a passion for Christ-exaltation; and our appetite for self-gratification is being supplanted by a hunger for righteousness and holiness as we offer ourselves in thanksgiving as a living sacrifice to a loving God, who through his Son Jesus Christ has set us free indeed from the law of sin and death and given us the promise of eternal life as the free gift of his grace.