Text Study for Mark 1:9-15 — 1 Lent B, 2021 (part one)

Part One: Tempted or Tested? Yes.

The first Sunday in Lent each year lands on the one of the “temptation” narratives in the Synoptics. Matthew and Luke share a tradition of three temptations with some fairly extensive descriptions. Mark’s account is brief and urgent, just like the rest of Mark’s story. The lack of extras allows us to focus on Jesus’ “testing” with no distractions.

We have visited portions of this text during Epiphany, so some might think we’re repeating ourselves. I find that to be a lack of imagination. We are given the rare chance to hold up a text from several angles and explore them in some detail. Some may wonder if the preacher should preach to the text or to the day (or season). I always find that to be a false dichotomy. The text and the season shape one another.

“This is a test. This is only a test. If this were a real emergency…” As I was growing up, these test announcements always brought an awareness that the end of human life could be no more than ten minutes in the future. If one thought hard enough about that reality, there was a temptation to despair. But that was not the purpose of the system test.

Photo by Arthur Brognoli on Pexels.com

The test was to make sure that the system would function if and when it was needed. I wonder if this is a possible metaphor to use for the story of Jesus testing/temptation. Jesus’ testing was not a “temptation,” not an enticement to failure. Rather, just as the Emergency Broadcast System is tested regularly to make sure it works, so perhaps Jesus endured testing in order to make sure the “system” worked when it was needed. What if that is part of the purpose for the testing of Jesus in the wilderness – to make sure that the “system” works?

Shall we describe this as the “temptation” of Jesus or the “testing” of Jesus? The Greek word is “peirazo” and can be translated either way. I’m going to get into the “word weeds” more than a bit here, but it’s important to hear the Spirit’s purpose in this episode.

First, I want to clarify a bit of grammar. Mark uses the word here to indicate the purpose or end of the action (see Wallace, page 636). Why does the Spirit “drive” Jesus into the wilderness (the Greek word is “ekballo” – to “cast out”)? The Spirit does that for the purpose of or in order to test or tempt Jesus. The grammar Mark uses indicates that the verb explains the purpose of what will happen (the testing or tempting). And it emphasizes the actor (the Spirit) rather than the action (the testing or tempting).

Only in Mark do we read that the Spirit “drove” Jesus out into the wilderness – not “led,” not “invited,” not even “accompanied.” Was Jesus on his own during the testing? “Though we do not really know what was behind Mark’s choice of words here,” Larry Hurtado writes, “the effect is to make the temptation seem more of an unsought and uncomfortable experience, an ordeal.” Hurtado suggests that this word choice makes clear that God intends for this testing to take place (page 20).

Matt Skinner offers helpful comments here. “Still, we should not miss the fact that it is the Holy Spirit who initiates the scene, putting Jesus into the setting where he must contend with Satan,” he writes on workingpreacher.org. “The Spirit forcefully compels Jesus there, indicated with the verb (ekballo, “drove out” according to the NRSV in 1:12). The same verb appears elsewhere in Mark,” Skinner notes, “when Jesus exorcises unclean spirits from harassed people. This Holy Spirit possesses Jesus, having entered ‘into him’ at his baptism (the NRSV drops the ball by translating en as “on” in 1:10).”

On the other hand, the agent of the testing is “the Satan,” not God. The grammar indicates that the Satan is the “ultimate agent” of the verb (see Wallace, page 433). Notice as well that “the Satan” is a title here and not a name, just as we find, for example, in the Book of Job. That leads me to believe that Mark sees the role of the Satan as analogous to that found in Job. The Satan served as God’s rather confrontational “quality control” officer. The Satan made sure that the faithful were authentic in their faith and up to the task when times got tough. I wonder just how much the Book of Job stands in the background here for Mark (perhaps some doctoral research for someone here).

So, is it “temptation” or “testing”? It is, in fact, both – my favorite answer to either/or questions. The Spirit tests Jesus’ faithful obedience and endurance by means of the Satan’s temptation. The Satan tempts Jesus to turn away from the path of faithful obedience and endurance. Later in Mark’s gospel, we get the full content of that temptation. That’s why, in Mark, we don’t need the threefold description we get in Matthew and Luke.

In Mark 8, Jesus tells his disciples that his suffering and death are a necessary part of the path. Peter resists this idea and seeks to deflect Jesus in another direction.  Jesus responds to that temptation by calling Peter “Satan.” Here it is not a title but a name. We don’t need the details of Jesus’ testing/tempting in the wilderness because we get the details in Mark 8. The test is whether or not Jesus will remain faithful all the way to the cross. The temptation is to turn off the path and to set one’s mind on human things rather than Divine things.

The suggestion that God “tempts” anyone presents theological problems within the New Testament itself. For example, the Letter of James devotes an entire early paragraph to this issue.

Blessed is anyone who endures temptation. Such a one has stood the test and will receive the crown of life that the Lord has promised to those who love him. No one, when tempted, should say, ‘I am being tempted by God’; for God cannot be tempted by evil and he himself tempts no one. But one is tempted by one’s own desire, being lured and enticed by it; then, when that desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin, and that sin, when it is fully grown, gives birth to death. Do not be deceived, my beloved.” (James 1:12-16, NRSV)

James rejects the suggestion that God could be responsible for human sin. The paragraph, Seesemann suggests, “is directed against Christians who are in danger of taking temptations too lightly, and who even seem to be disposed to make God responsible for their sins” (TDNT VI:29). James rejects the notion that God’s sends suffering, for example, as a continuing education opportunity. Suffering can prove and demonstrate our faithful endurance, but God is not the source of that suffering (according to James).

Regardless of the translation, Jesus triumphs in and through the experience. “Early here in the Gospel story,” Hurtado writes, “Jesus encounters Satan (v. 13) under adverse circumstances and, as the narrative implies, wins against him, setting the tone for Jesus’ conflict with demonic powers to prevalent throughout the rest of the book” (page 21). Osvaldo Vena notes that Mark understands clearly that this testing is “the decisive encounter with Satan that will explain Jesus’ exorcisms in the rest of the Gospel: “the stronger one has confronted the prince of demons, and is plundering his house” (Mark 3:22-27).”

Jesus is in the wilderness “forty” days. The grammar indicates that he was being tested during this time, not merely afterward. There is no mention of fasting or other privation here in Mark. So, Mark wants us to think about the periods of forty in the Hebrew scriptures as we imagine the Testing. We know that in one version of the flood story, the ark was upon the waters for forty days and forty nights. We know that Moses was on Mount Sinai with God forty days and forty nights as Moses received the tables of the Law. We know that Elijah was in the wilderness of despair for forty days.

Most of all, we know that the Hebrews were in the wilderness for forty years as they prepared to enter the Land of Promise. “The point of the probable allusions to these traditions,” Hurtado notes, “is to make Jesus’ desert period a time of new revelation and salvation equivalent to the revelation given to Moses and Israel in the classical, Exodus time” (page 21). These forty-day periods in the Hebrew Scriptures are times of waiting, times of preparation, times of discerning God’s intentions – as well as a time of repentance and regeneration for Israel before entering the Land of Promise. Mark can tap all those illusions with this small referent.

We know now that the season of Lent is forty days (excluding the Sundays from the count). This was a time of final preparation for baptismal candidates who would undergo immersion on the Eve of Easter. Does Mark intend for our imagined baptismal candidate to see their own period of preparation in Jesus’ story here? That seems likely. “Jesus is acting out the great drama of Israel’s exodus from Egypt, Israel’s journey through the wilderness into the promised land,” notes N. T. Wright. “The road Jesus must tread, precisely because he is God’s dear son, is the road that leads through the dry and dusty paths, through temptation and apparent failure. So,” Wright concludes, “it will be for us as well.” (Kindle Location 317)

It’s not clear if Jesus finds himself in the company of animals and angels during or after the forty days. Hurtado suggests that the mention of the wild animals is intended to portray the danger of the experience. He also notes that it could be an allusion to the story of Adam naming the animals in the Garden of Eden. If that is the case, “Mark may be portraying Jesus as a new Adam signifying a new beginning for the human race” (page 21. Hurtado notes that he is not persuaded by this suggestion, although he doesn’t explain why that is the case.

Malina and Rohrbaugh make a different suggestion about Jesus’ traveling companions. Jesus is alone in the wilderness. “He is far removed from the protective network of kinsmen and therefore vulnerable to attack,” they note. “The social network of the heavenly realm comes to his aid, however, and it is revealed that he is not alone at all. Once again,” they suggest, “the claim to be of the divine kin group is affirmed” (page 176). Osvaldo Vena notes “That Jesus was assisted by angels resembles a similar situation in the life of Elijah (see 1 Kings 19:5-8)”. Jesus may appear to be alone, but he is not. He is “with” Creation and “waited on” by the angels as he recovers from his wilderness wandering.

“Mark 1:13 may talk about a transformed creation made harmonious, or it may hold out the promise of keeping at bay all the still-dangerous elements of creation,” Matt Skinner summarizes. “In either case, the imagery contains a sense of reconfigured boundaries,” he notes, “Old rules and expectations no longer apply in the same way when Jesus is present.”

It’s not clear if John’s arrest came “immediately” after Jesus’ return from the testing. We get no indication of the time frame. But there is a connection between that arrest and Jesus’ wrestling. I often wonder if the arrest came between the baptism and the wilderness wandering and precipitated this time of testing. Jesus comes out of these challenges with a clarity of vision and with a passionate purpose. “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near,” he announces, “repent and believe in the good news.”

Resources and References

Hurtado, Larry. Mark (Understanding the Bible Commentary Series). Grand Rapids, MI.: Baker Books, 1989.

Malina, Bruce, and Rohrbaugh, Richard L. Social Science Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels Kindle Edition.

TDNT VI: 23-26 (Seesemann), peira, etc.

Vena, Osvaldo. https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/first-sunday-in-lent-2/commentary-on-mark-19-15-5.

Wallace, Daniel B. Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics. Grand Rapids, MI.: Zondervan Publishing, 1996.

Wright, N. T.. Mark for Everyone (The New Testament for Everyone) . Westminster John Knox Press. Kindle Edition.

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