Time in the wilderness is not considered to be meaningless in the Bible, especially as it is depicted in Jesus’ 40-day test in Matthew’s Gospel. The life of Jesus exhibits numerous allusions to the Hebrew Bible. Many believe that Israel wandered in the wilderness for 40 years (Num 32:13), but more to it, Moses spent 40 days on Mt. Sinai (Exod 34:28) and Elijah travelled for 40 days in the Sinai wilderness (1 Kgs 19:8). Engaging in this spiritual activity threatens us with a counterintuitive way of being, which is personified through the Devil’s presence with Jesus in the wilderness. Surprisingly, it is easy to sympathize with the Devil’s temptations. When Jesus is implored to turn stones into bread, we must ask: why must Jesus avoid satiating his hunger? Both Jesus and the Devil reach back in Scripture to explain the basis of their claims, but the presentation of the narrative implores us to sympathize with Jesus. Through this story of Jesus, we are asked to reconsider the context of our desires because a walk through the wilderness breaks down the barriers between this earth and the Kingdom of Heaven. Jesus was testifying to the crucial need for us to be hungry for God. We often starve for certainty, but Jesus’ way of overcoming his temptations model a way to resist that desire for control.
Passing through the wilderness gives Jesus the opportunity to model a pathway of conceiving a theology of suffering. For in his first response to the Devil that humanity shall not live by bread alone (Matt. 4:4), Jesus resonates with the Deuteronomic focus on remembering, alluding to the wilderness and the God-given manna (Deut. 8:3). Through this testing in the wilderness, the Israelites were being humbled before God with the manna’s function as both sustenance and a sign of hunger. In the wilderness narrative of Matthew, Jesus, the representative of Israel, must face this test as well. The spiritual power of Jesus is shown to be a reality that breaks into our world. At the end of his test following the departure of the Devil, Jesus is ministered to by angels. Jesus succeeded in capturing the essence of the relationship between God and Israel, which forced the Devil to give up his mission to strand Jesus in that wilderness forever. The veil between heaven and earth is lifted through Jesus, and his identification with human frailty led Jesus to this possibility (see: 2 Cor 12:9). The wilderness provides a channel for us to perceive the Kingdom’s reality and soberly interpret the human condition through a life patterned after a suffering savior. Reclaiming our hunger for God allows Christian community to act in the place of those angelic ministers. Uncertainty is not a time to be ruled by panic. It is a time to draw closer to God and look for ways to be a ministering angel to others.
A simplified version of this meditation will be available in the Upper Room Magazine. The picture for this blog post is William Blake’s depiction of the affliction of Job by the śāṭān.