The Temptation in Mark

The Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. And he was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels ministered to him. (Mark 1:12-13 RSV)

Mark 1:9-15

A sermon based solely on this text will be very short! Mark’s temptation narrative is the sparsest of the any of the synoptics. Mark doesn’t tell us about the content of the testing, as do Matthew and Luke. Mark doesn’t even tell us that Jesus fasted.

There are a few clues as to what Mark is up to here. Both Moses (Exodus 34:28) and Elijah (1 Kings 19:4-8) experienced 40 day fasts in the wilderness. (Well, actually Moses had two 40-day experiences on the mountain. See also Exodus 24:18). Moses’ 40 day experiences are associated with the making of the covenant, while Elijah is fleeing for his life. Moses fasts on the mountain of God , while Elijah fasts en route to it. Mark, however, makes no mention of a mountain and no mention of fasting. Still, these are the closest literary parallels in the Old Testament.

In the Moses and Elijah stories, the mountain (Sinai / Horeb) is in the “wilderness” (Exodus 19:2, 1 Kings 19:4). The LXX of the Old Testament uses the same word for wilderness as Mark – “eremos”. In Exodus, the wilderness is the place of Moses’ encounter with God (Exodus 3:1-6) and the place of Israel’s forty-year testing:

And you shall remember the whole way that the LORD your God has led you these forty years in the wilderness, that he might humble you, testing you to know what was in your heart, whether you would keep his commandments or not…. who led you through the great and terrifying wilderness, with its fiery serpents and scorpions and thirsty ground where there was no water, who brought you water out of the flinty rock, who fed you in the wilderness with manna that your fathers did not know, that he might humble you and test you, to do you good in the end. (Deuteronomy 8:2, 15-16 ESV)

The Temptation narrative is the first of two episodes in the Gospel of Mark that combine a voice from heaven declaring Jesus to be God’s son with allusions to Moses’ life that are associated with the establishment of the covenant on Mount Sinai. The second episode is found in the Transfiguration narrative in Mark 9 (See my post from last week, “Listen to Him.”) In this respect, the two episodes have a certain parallelism.

In the Elijah story of 1 Kings 19, Elijah flees from Jezebel and the pro-Baal forces in Israel. Elijah gives up and despairs for his life, but an angel comes to him, serves him food and strengthens him (1 Kings 19:5-8, cf. Mark 1:13). Elijah then fasts on the 40 days journey to Mount Horeb (= Mount Sinai) where he hears from God. There, God directs Elijah to anoint the kings who will destroy Israel’s idolaters (1 Kings 19:15-17). God also directs Elijah to anoint Elisha as his successor. Elijah’s subsequent call of Elisha bears some similarity to Jesus’ call of his disciples (1 Kings 19:19-21, cf. Mark 1:16-20).

As many have noted, the language of Mark 1:12 is very forceful: the Spirit throws out (“ekballo“) Jesus into the wilderness. It’s the same word that’s used of Jesus’ exorcisms of evil spirits.

The word “tempt” might better be translated “test,” “try” or “prove”. We’ve come to see it as primarily an internal struggle of conscience when it really concerns public, observable events that demonstrate the true character of something.

“Wild beasts” translates a single Greek word: “theria.” This is the same word that the LXX uses to describe the beasts of creation and paradise (Genesis 1:25, 2:19). In the Genesis story, the fall of humankind destroys the intended relationship between humans and the other living creatures; in the fallen realm, humanity has an adversarial relationship with the wild kingdom. Are the wild beasts here friendly or hostile? Are they here to tell us that Jesus restores paradise, even in the midst of Satanic testing in a hostile environment, or are they more like the dangerous creatures of Deuteronomy 8:15 (quoted above) ? Are they allies of Satan or the angels? The word describing Jesus’ relationship to the wild beasts is neutral (“with”, Greek “meta”) , so it’s difficult to be certain about Mark’s intention. Nothing, however, suggests domestication. In the Temptation narrative, Jesus enters the fallen world in all of its alienation to confront the power of Satan.

The Spirit drives Jesus to the wilderness where he is tempted (or tested) by Satan. He’s with wild beasts, but the angels serve him. The word “serve” is “diakoneo“; it is in the imperfect tense indicating continuous action. Jesus’ divine sonship does not spare him from danger, privation or trials. He does not face these things alone, but they are nonetheless real. This fits Mark’s overarching theme of Jesus’ suffering being the most defining characteristic of his Messianic ministry.

Acts of power will follow close on the heals of the temptation. These, too, are a confrontation with Satan (Mark 3:23-27). But the major temptation from Satan is for Jesus to be a “Miracle Max” type of savior and and forego suffering and sacrifice (Mark 8:33). That confrontation with Satan begins here.