Tempting Jesus

Several years ago, I was leading a group of Americans on a tour through the Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow. This gallery is the leading collection of Russian art in the world, established by a Russian merchant, Pavel M. Tretyakov, who donated his well-known collection of art to the Russian nation in 1892. As we walked through the Gallery, I was especially drawn to a remarkable painting by Ivan N. Kramskoy entitled “Christ in the Wilderness.” Unlike many western paintings of Jesus in which he looks like a 1960s hippie in a perfectly clean white robe with bright blue eyes and a smile, Kramskoy’s portrayal is of Jesus evidently struggling with the evil that he faced as he announced his public ministry. Here is indeed “a man of sorrows and familiar with suffering (Isaiah 53:3).”

This painting made me contemplate the depth of Jesus’ suffering in a way that I had not thought of before. I have to admit that I never really thought very much about this event in Jesus’ life and often quickly read through the story of his temptation by Satan in the Judean wilderness. The painting prompted me to think more deeply about this experience of Jesus that immediately followed his baptism in the Jordan River.

Being baptized signifies that we have been set apart or called for service in God’s Kingdom and, once we understand this calling, a wilderness lies ahead. Challenges will come our way because Satan wants us to deny that we are really followers of Jesus. Baptism and wilderness are connected. Matthew, Mark and Luke all describe Jesus’ temptations in the wilderness and I would encourage you to read these three short reports (Matthew 4:1-11; Mark 1:12-13; Luke 4:1-13).

The Gospel writers draw parallels between the experience of Adam in the Garden of Eden and Jesus in the wilderness. In Genesis, God creates the world and makes man and woman in his own image and then notes that his creation is “good,” even “very good.” Adam and Eve have a special relationship with God and shortly after they are created, Satan interjects himself, tempts them and leads them to disobey God. Satan does this by raising doubts about whether or not God can be trusted.

In a similar pattern, God moves again in history and sends his own son to earth as the Messiah and immediately announces “This is my son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased” (Matthew 3:17). Shortly after, Satan appears to tempt Jesus. Three times Satan tries to raise doubt in Jesus’ mind about whether he can trust God. 

In Western culture, people are skeptical about the existence of the demonic. For many, any belief in the supernatural is quickly dismissed. The Bible, however, makes it clear that there are very real forces of evil in our world and these forces are cruel, complex and often well disguised. That’s what Adam and Eve experienced in the Garden of Eden and what Jesus faced in the desolate wilderness of Judea.

Throughout Jesus’ life, he was assaulted by Satan and we also face similar attacks, often very subtle. For Jesus, the ultimate attack comes in the Garden of Gethsemane, another Garden where Jesus begins his final journey to the cross, where he pays the ultimate price for the sin of Adam and Eve.

Kramskoy’s painting makes the sorrow and pain that Jesus knew he would face in the next few years very real. It also should be a warning to us. Like Adam and Eve, we are often afraid to trust God and some of us don’t trust anybody. But Jesus’ death on the cross has given us a defense against Satan. If we trust in Jesus as our King, we have a defense against Satan that can withstand his deceit and his lies.

Now God’s words about Jesus at his baptism – “with him I am well pleased” – can be about us as well if we follow Jesus and resist Satan’s temptations that will surely result in our demise.

So What?

  • It is important when reading the Bible that we remember some of the main story-lines – the “big picture.” Satan is the father of evil and he is a liar who is out to oppose followers of God and to deceive us. Getting people to be skeptical about the supernatural, about the existence of the father of evil – this is what Satan does. It is good that we believe in God, but it is also important that we understand God’s enemy, Satan.
  • Art is such a powerful medium for communicating significant truths about our world. Have you ever had an experience like the one I shared about Kramskoy’s painting?
  • The only way we know about Jesus’ temptations in the wilderness is that he shared this with his disciples. Can you imagine what they thought when he told them about his experience with Satan? 
  • After Jesus is baptized, he is immediately challenged by Satan during his forty days in the wilderness. That seems to be a pattern that many of us have faced. We make a faith commitment, we decide to change our habits and live a faithful life – and immediately we are faced with a serious challenge designed to make us revert back to our old life. Often this challenge from Satan is to make us doubt God’s trustworthiness or to encourage us to be so self-centered that there is little room for God in our small world. Have you experienced this?