Site hosted by Build your free website today!

Nazareth Revisited


On the Banks of the Jordan and in the Wilderness.

The work of John the Baptist had been some time in progress when Jesus "cometh from Galilee to Jordan unto John, to be baptised of him." The nature, object, and upshot of that work we considered fully in chapters iv. and v. We now note the fact of Christ's entrance upon his public work, and his introduction to the nation of Israel occurring in connection with that work. Christ is first seen in the act of submitting to the ordinance of baptism at the hands of John the Baptist.

Many have wondered why he should have been baptised, in view of the association of baptism with repentance and the remission of sins. There is no real occasion for quandary. There was a need for some circumstance or situation as the occasion for Christ's "manifestation" to Israel: and John's institution of baptism (first made an object of public attention in the way exhibited in chapters iv. and v.) was provided for this purpose. Secondly, there was a fitness in Christ's submission to that ordinance, in view of the work he had come to do. Nay, we may go further and say there was a necessity. The work he had come to do was first of all a work of obedience in himself. ["By one man's obedience, shall many be made righteous" -- (Rom, v. 19). "He learnt obedience by (or in) the things that he suffered" (Heb. v. 8).] Now, John's baptism was a matter of divine command. We have seen in the chapters referred to that it was no adaptation by John of a previously practised ceremony, but an institution of direct divine appointment. Consequently, submission to it was obligatory on every faithful Israelite. Its observance was part of the "obedience" which Christ rendered. He had to be obedient in many things: for he was "made under the law," which imposed many duties, to all of which he had to conform in the process of extricating the faithful from the dominion of the law. He had to be obedient even unto death. But he had to be obedient also at the hands of John. Without this submission, the "righteousness" he wrought out for repentant sinners would have been incomplete. Hence it is easy to understand his response to John's demur to baptise him. "Thus it becometh us to fulfil all righteousness." Whatever God appoints to be done is righteousness in the doing of it. For this reason, Christ's baptism in the Jordan was part of the righteousness he developed.

But why, it has been asked, should he who was sinless be called upon to submit to an institution which was for the remission of sin? We need not ask this question. It is sufficient if God required him to submit to it. But the question will be asked, rejoins the curious; and there ought to be an answer. Well, and there is an answer. Although Jesus was not a transgressor by his own action he was partaker, for the time being, of a sin-constitution of things. He was born into a state that was evil because of sin: and he partook of all the evil of that state, even unto death itself, working in the nature he bore as the son of Mary. It was to open a way out of that evil state for man that he was "made of a woman, under the law." The way had to be opened conformably with the divine principles involved. A beginning had to be made with himself, as the foundation on which other men could build. In the first instance, as "the son of David, the son of Abraham," he was as much subject to the reign of death, established in Adam's race by sin, as any of those he came to redeem. His mission was to break into this reign of death by obedience, death and resurrection, illustrating and establishing God's righteousness in all its bearings. For his sake, men's sins were to be forgiven. Therefore, he was "the Lamb of God that taketh away the sin of the world." In view of all this, it was not incongruous -- on the contrary, it was in beautiful harmony with his work, that, on the threshold of the public phase of it, he should be called upon to submit to a ritual act which symbolised the putting away of sin.

After his baptism, Jesus was impelled by the Spirit into a neighbouring wilderness -- one of the many wild and untilled spots with which the mountainous country of Judea abounded. We are not informed which of them it was. It matters nothing at all which; but curiosity has naturally speculated, and is probably not far wrong in fixing on the precipitous bluffs standing in the midst of scorched and arid desolation to the south west of Jericho, overlooking the Dead Sea. This is a little to the south of the spot where John's baptismal operations are believed to have been conducted, and would be a fitting locality for the purpose of Christ's spirit-enforced seclusion. The purpose was that he might be "tempted of the devil." Paul says "he was tempted in all points like as we are, yet without sin" (Heb. iv. 15). His temptation in the wilderness must, therefore, come into the category of our experiences. This at once excludes the popular idea that it was the supernatural personal devil of popular theology that tempted Jesus. No man is ever tempted in this way, but always by the incitements of the flesh, either operating spontaneously within, or presented to us in an objective manner by the suggestions of a person external to ourselves. The whole narrative of the temptation shows it was a temptation of the latter sort -- a temptation brought to bear by an external tempter -- a person -- but not the popular Satan, who exists only in the Papalised imaginations of such as derive their theological ideas from inherited tradition, and not from the study of the scriptures. The Bible devil and the pulpit devil are two different things. The Bible devil, with many shapes, has a common derivation -- the insubordination of flesh and blood to divine law. This devil exists in his largest form in the present political constitution of things upon the earth. In detail, he presents himself in our own feelings, and in the persons of those who, on any pretext whatsoever, would draw us away from divine ways and thoughts. Who he specifically was in the case of Jesus, we are not informed, and do not know: but his generic identity is unquestionable.

It is an idle question that has been raised by theologians, whether Christ was "peccable" or "impeccable," in view of the fact that he was driven into the wilderness expressly for the purpose of being tempted of the devil. If he was not capable of sinning, he was not capable of being tempted. A popular writer has well said: "Some, in a zeal, at once intemperate and ignorant, have claimed for him (Christ), not only an actual sinlessness, but a nature to which sin was divinely and miraculously impossible. What then? If his great conflict were a mere deceptive phantasmagoria, how can the narrative of it profit us? If we have to fight the battle, clad in that armour of human free will which has been hacked and riven about the bosom of our forefathers by so many a cruel blow, what comfort is it to us if our great captain fought not only victoriously, but without real danger? not only uninjured, but without even the possibility of wound?" It is facts, and not the metaphysical theories of facts, that wise men concern themselves with. Metaphysics land a man in the inconceivable. We have no faculty for dealing with the abstract. We cannot follow God, as it were, in the process by which He has concreted His eternal spirit into the forms and functions of created life. It is the practical relations of the latter that concern us. On this principle, it is sufficient to note that Christ was tempted, without enquiring whether or not it was possible he could yield to temptation. The speculation only becomes material, and that in a bad sense, when it is made to interfere with that free volition of Christ, which was essential to the righteousness he came to fulfil, the very nature of which consists in the willing and witting subordination of the human will to the divine: ("not my will but thine be done").

The time at which the temptation occurred is suggestive in several ways. It was just when Jesus had been openly acknowledged by the Father as His beloved Son, and when the Spirit of the Father had visibly, and without measure, come upon him, with that endowment of power and wisdom which qualified him to perform those works and speak those words beyond the power of man, which, for three-and a-half subsequent years, filled Judea and Galilee with his fame. Why, at such a time, and not before, or later in his career, was he "driven of the spirit into the wilderness to be tempted of the devil?" Jesus himself afterwards proclaimed it as a principle of divine action, that to whom much is given, of them much is required. This seems to supply the answer. Jesus, endowed with a special measure of the Father's fayour, was sent forth to be put to a proof equal to the new greatness conferred upon him. He had been, during a thirty years' private life at Nazareth, subjected to the temptations common to men. Anointed now "with the Holy Spirit and with power," it was meet he should be subjected to a correspondingly increased test of faithfulness before going forth in the plenitude of this power to bear the Father's name before Israel.

He was tempted in three particulars only, but it will be found that they comprise, in principle, all the temptations to which we can be exposed. First, there was the proposal that Jesus should illegitimately minister to his own need in the matter of food. The temptation on this point was made as keen as it was possible to be. It was not brought to bear when Christ had eaten. It would have been no temptation had the proposal not coincided with a strong desire in the direction proposed. It came to him after a fast of forty days; when the Spirit having sustained him all that time with a supply of the vital energy ordinarily derived from the alimentive process, permitted him to hunger. As the proverb has it, "Hunger will break through stone walls." Even lawlessness committed from the force of hunger is leniently viewed by men in general, as it is written, "Men do not despise a thief, if he steal to satisfy his soul when he is hungry." The hunger of Christ, therefore, made the temptation a very strong one. But the temptation was made still stronger by the way the tempter put it: "If thou be the Son of God, command that these stones be made bread." This was as much as to say that the proof of his Messiahship required him to do what was proposed, and that if he failed to do it, he would give his tempter ground for doubting the proclamation that had just been made on the banks of the Jordan. Thus Christ's desire to testify the truth was cunningly brought to the help of his hunger to incline him to provide himself with food. But the power to make bread at will, which Christ possessed, as afterwards shown by his feeding a multitude with five loaves and two fishes, was not given to him to provide his own natural wants, but to exhibit his Father's name to Israel. Consequently, though he had the power which the tempter challenged, he was not at liberty to put it forth at the time and for the purpose proposed. It would have been sin in him to comply with the suggestion. He repelled the suggestion by a quotation from the Scriptures, which involved the assertion of those facts: "It is written, Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceedeth out of the mouth of God."

The power of this rejoinder may not at first sight be manifest; because, so far as appearance went, the proposal was not to discard the Word of God, but merely to provide the bread which the answer recognised as an element, though not alone, in the process of living. If we understood, however, that the proposed mode of providing it was wrong, the strength of it appears. "Bread alone" will finally land a man in the grave, because bread cannot bestow immortality. Bread, with the Word of God believed and obeyed, will be a stepping-stone to life that will never end (and it is in this sense that the Scriptures speak of men "living"). In fact, in this connection, bread becomes part of the pathway to eternal life, for without the bread first to develope and sustain the natural man, the Word of God could not have the ground to work on which leads to everlasting life (first that which is natural, afterward that which is spiritual). But bread, with the word of God disobeyed, is "bread alone," so far as life-giving power is concerned; for the word of God confers no everlasting life on the disobedient. Consequently for a man to obtain bread on terms that involve his non submission to the word of God (and this was the tempter's proposal) is to take his stand on "bread alone." To such a case, the Scripture quoted by Jesus has obviously a most forcible application. The rejoinder was unanswerable.

"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." Here we have a different class of temptation. In the first, he was invited, for two powerful reasons, to make a forbidden use of power entrusted to his hands. In this the tempter goes to the other extreme, and invites Jesus to throw himself ostentatiously on the promises of God. This, perhaps, was more difficult to meet than the other. It was as if the tempter said, "Thou art the Messiah, art thou not?" -- "Yes." "It is written, is it not, that He shall give His angels charge concerning thee, and they shall bear thee up?" -- "It is so written." "Cast thyself down, then; how canst thou expect me to believe if thou dost not?" How was this to be met? By the assertion of a principle ignored in the tempter's application of scripture -- a principle which all divine promises pre suppose, and which would have been violated by compliance with the tempter's challenge; viz., that there must be no familiarity or presumption towards God: that we must make a wise and full use of all that He has put in our power, and that divine help is only for the need that remains after there has been a humble, wise, and loving employment of the means already in our hand. This principle Jesus asserted by quoting Scripture: "Thou shall not tempt the Lord thy God." Had he thrown himself down, as the tempter proposed, he would have done what the Scriptures thus forbid, and would have forfeited his claim to the promise to which the tempter so sophistically appealed. The protection promised in that promise was protection from evil beyond control, and not from evil rashly and presumptiously incurred.

"Again, the devil taketh him up to 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." Here the temptation takes a different direction. Having failed to induce Jesus to illegitimately gratify the cravings of the flesh or to transgress in the direction of presumption towards God, the tempter tries the effect of present honour, wealth and exaltation offered on the simple condition of doing homage to the offerer, as the kings and governors of the Roman earth were in the habit of doing to Cesar for their position and dignities. Jesus utterly repels the suggestion, reminding the tempter that the Scriptures command one service only. "Get thee hence, Satan: for it is written, Thou shalt worship the Lord thy God, and Him only shalt thou serve."

The temptation of Christ is a remarkable episode in a remarkable history. It deserves more attention than it receives, as regards the lessons it conveys. There is no temptation that can come to us but what was in principle involved in the specific temptation to which he was subjected in the wilderness after his baptism. The consideration of his resistance to the suggestions of the tempter, will help us in all our exposures to similar trial. Is it proposed to us to gratify some craving of the flesh in a forbidden direction? to make a vain-glorious or presumptuous use of spiritual privileges? to obtain temporal advantage by paying court to the enemies of God in any form? Let us cast our eyes to the wilderness of Judea, and remember the principles asserted by the Lord in Scripture quotations, in answer to similar proposals.

It is also a remarkable feature of the temptation of Christ, that he employed the Scriptures in repelling the suggestions of the tempter. This is a feature worth noting in a day like ours, when the universal tendency is to give the Scriptures a less and less commanding place. With Christ, the fact of a thing being "written" was a sufficent reason for making it a rule of conduct, which is becoming less and less the case in a day when more and more the theory finds favour that the Scriptures are partly or wholly the product of human thought, and subject to human judgment and conscience as to the obligation of its precepts. The implication is obvious that we only stand with Christ fully when we recognize that "all Scripture is given by inspiration of God," and therefore, as he said, "cannot be broken" in its truth or authority. Corollary to this line of thought is the view which the temptation affords of Christ's acquaintance with the Scriptures. His ready responses to the tempter show both acquaintance with them, and that memory of their practical instructions that was able to apply them in the hour of need. If Jesus thus knew the Scriptures, it was because "his custom was" to frequent the synagogue and read the Scriptures (Luke iv. 16). His being God manifest in the flesh would lead to a powerful proneness in a scriptural direction; but it did not make him independent of the testimony which the Spirit in David says was his study all the day, and the understanding of which made him wiser than his teachers (Psa. cxix. 97-104). In Christ, therefore, we have an example of that endeavour to become familiar with the Scriptures in daily reading, which is the characteristic of the modern revival of the truth. We have also, in his treatment of them, a justification for regarding the Scriptures as the unerring source of information in matters pertaining to God.

Jesus was in the wilderness forty days, at the end of which the temptation occurred. We are not informed in what manner the Lord was occupied during that time, or for what purpose he was so long a time secluded "with the wild beasts." We can scarcely escape the thought that it was for preparation. He had come straight from the home associations of Nazareth to John's baptism, and it would scarcely have been fitting that he should at once have passed from those associations into the wide public work which he had to accomplish before his death. We all know the need for pause in changing from one occupation to another. How much more must he have felt it who stepped from a carpenter's bench to the position of a nation's instructor with the power of God upon him, and the work before him of "taking away the sin of the world." Doubtless, he had a strength in himself that made such a transition easier for him than for ordinary men. Still, as "touched with the feeling of our infirmity," he must have felt the effects of village life sufficiently to make it needful that he should have a season of majestic and heart-enlarging solitude before entering upon his journey through the multitudes of Israel as the name-bearer of Jehovah. Tile length of the period brings to mind many similar periods in the work of God. In years, we have Moses in exile forty years; Israel in the wilderness forty years; the land in frequent rest from affliction forty years; David's reign forty years; Solomon's reign forty years, &c., &c. In days, we have the flood descending forty days, Moses in Mount Sinai forty days, the spies searching the land, forty days; the Philistine defied Israel forty days; Elijah in the wilderness forty days; Jesus forty days with his disciples after his resurrection. The recurrence of this number suggests that it enters into the plan upon which the purpose of God with the earth is being worked out. Forty days were at all events a sufficiently long time to prepare the heart of Jesus for the work upon which he was about to enter.

When the temptation was ended, Jesus "came into Galilee." The enemies of the Bible make a great deal of the apparent discrepancy on this point between John and the other gospel narrators. Matthew, Mark, and Luke all speak of the temptation as occurring immediately after Christ's baptism in the Jordan, while John not only omits the temptation altogether, but appears to represent Jesus as remaining in the neighbourhood of the Jordan several days after his baptism, and departing thence to Galilee. The explanation of this is to be found in the nature of John's account as distinguished from the others. It is not a chronological biography, but a report of special sayings and discourses of Christ, for which there is only so much of circumstantial narrative introduced as is needful for a frame-work. There is no doubt some truth in the tradition that John's gospel was written last, and, not only last, but long after the others had been in circulation among believers. Its existence is doubtless due to the perception which John had of the necessity there was for a fuller exhibition of the sayings of Christ, in confutation of the erroneous ideas about him that had sprung into activity with the course of time. So much as was already well known, he would naturally think it superflous to write (and the Spirit was with him to guide and direct). Therefore, the temptation (three times already recorded) he would omit, equally with the particulars of his birth. But, says the caviller, "he ought not to have contradicted the other accounts. He ought not to have represented Christ as in the neighbourhood of the Jordan, and departing to Galilee during the forty days he was in the wilderness." The answer is, John does not do so. He only appears to do so on a rough reading. He does not record the baptism of Jesus. He only records the Baptist's remarks about it, and these remarks were made some time after it had occurred, for they are des. criptive of its having occurred. How long after, does not appear. It may have been some weeks. It may have been long enough to give time for Christ's forty days' absence in the wilderness. True, it speaks of Jesus coming to John the same day; but may not this have been after the return of Jesus from the wilderness? If the place of temptation were, as believed, to the south of the place of baptism, it would be natural that Jesus on his way to Galilee, which lay to the north, should repass the scene of his baptism where the Baptist was still at work with the multitude; and what more natural in that case than that the Baptist, on seeing him again, should say (as John represents him saying), "Behold the Lamb of God.... I saw the Spirit descending from heaven, and it abode upon him?" It is evident that Christ's baptism had happened some time before: in which case, there is no discrepancy at all between John and the other recorders, but merely a different order of narrative.

Berean Home Page