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(18) Jesus’ Testing
In my last post on the satan I said I was going to follow up with some thoughts on Jesus’ temptations in the Gospels. Imagine my surprise then to find I had a “follower” who had written his PhD on this very subject, Dr. Jeffrey B. Gibson. By chance or by the grace of God I had found his book The Temptations of Jesus in Early Christianity last year on my trip to Australia and had read it while traveling down under. (Whew!). So, this past several days I have revisited that book along with an article by Dr. Gibson and much to my delight found that indeed we are tracking along the same path. For this reason, these next few posts are going to lean heavily on his work and I am going to quote him more extensively than I have others in my previous posts. Although I am certain he may not agree with all I write I thank him for his magisterial work on this topic and urge anyone interested in delving more deeply into this topic to read his book.
When one compares the gospel accounts of Jesus’ testing in the wilderness following the baptism, it is easy to see that Matthew and Luke have ‘expanded’ narratives and Mark’s gospel contains a brief account. On this basis some have argued that Mark’s account does not offer much detail. Gibson has challenged this reading noting that the use of the words ‘the Spirit’, ‘desert’, ‘testing’ all would trigger immediate inter-textual echoes (or references to Old Testament stories of Israel’s testing in the wilderness).
Today I want to focus on the content of that testing in Jesus’ life by noting three important things.
First, the episode of Jesus’ testing found in Mark 1:12-13 (“At once the Spirit forced Jesus out into the wilderness. 13 He was in the wilderness for forty days, tempted by Satan. He was among the wild animals, and the angels took care of him”) is not the only test of Jesus. Mark bookends his gospel with another test of Jesus in the garden of Gethsemane (Mark 14:32-53). While this text does not explicitly state the nature of the test, it becomes clear that the test involves Jesus’ fidelity to his call and mission to renounce violence. This is clearer in Luke 22:38 where Jesus says in reply to the disciples bringing swords, “Enough of that!” or Matthew 26:52-53 where Jesus says “Put the sword back into its place. All those who use the sword will die by the sword. 53 Or do you think that I’m not able to ask my Father and he will send to me more than twelve battle groups of angels right away? 54 But if I did that, how would the scriptures be fulfilled that say this must happen?” Mark’s gospel is thus bracketed at the beginning and end of Jesus’ ministry with the same test: would Jesus renounce the use of violence, force and coercive power or would he succumb to them?
Second, Gibson points out that the word that is sometimes translated “to tempt” has less to do with Jesus’ struggle with greed, avarice, lust etc, and more to do with the central focus of his mission: how to reveal that God is nonviolent. He says “When the participle – indeed, any form of ‘pierazo’ – was used, as in Mk. 1:13a, with reference to a person, its connotation was even more specific: being probed and proved, often through hardship and adversity, in order to determine the extent of one’s worthiness to be entrusted with, or the degree of one’s loyalty or devotion to, a given commission and its constraints.
So “central” was this connotation to this usage of the participle and its root, that the statement that someone was “being tested” could not be made without communicating the idea that person was undergoing an experience in which his character or fidelity was being ‘put to the proof’.” The great test for Jesus had to do with the possibility that he might succumb to the use of violence as a justifiable means to accomplish his Abba’s will.
Third, if this is not clear from Gethsemane, it is clear by another passage where Jesus is tested; at Caesarea Philippi in Mark 8:27-38. Here again Jesus is tested, this time by his main man, Peter, to renounce his idyllic hippie, tree-hugging vision and get with the revolutionary program. Jesus calls Peter a “scandalon” which is the worst relation one could possibly be in relation to Jesus. Peter would have Jesus take up the mantle of the Davidic Warrior Messiah, act like Phineas with zeal for God’s holy will and start a holy war like the Maccabees. Jesus renounces Peter’s violent ideology. So Mark 1, Mark 8 and Mark 14 are the three great tests of Jesus in the gospels. Tomorrow we shall look at The Tester.