“But Jesus, filled with the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan, and he was led, in the Spirit, in the wilderness for forty days, being tested by the Diabolical One.” (Luke 4:1, my translation).
Why was Jesus tested in the wilderness? I think the proper translation of “peirazo” here is “to test” rather than “to tempt.” That is the consensus of Biblical scholars. Both Hebrew and Greek have one word for tempting and testing. But as English speakers we need to make a choice because there are differences in emphasis between the two words.
That translation choice doesn’t really help, however, to answer the question. Why was Jesus tested in the wilderness? This question raises all sorts of secondary questions. Was there a chance that Jesus could or would fail the test? On the one hand, that seems obvious. After all, it’s not a test if you can’t fail. I don’t think this is an Alice in Wonderland contest where everyone wins, and all shall have prizes. This is a real test or it’s a waste of parchment.
Yet, what does it mean to say that Jesus might fail? The writer of the Letter to the Hebrews seems to rule out this possibility as that writer interprets Jesus’ various tests and trials. The writer connects the fullness of Incarnation with Jesus’ role as our merciful and faithful high priest. In order to make the properly atoning sacrifice for us, he had to become one of us (yet without sin), and that included testing. As a result of that testing by suffering, “he is able to help those who are being tested” (Hebrews 2:18b, NRSV).
One answer from the Letter to the Hebrews is that Jesus is tested in order to become fully immersed in humanity and to embody and enact divine solidarity with all who are tested by suffering. That solidarity produces “help” for those who are being tested. This answer to the question is amplified in Hebrews 4:15 (NRSV) – “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who in every respect has been tested as we are, yet without sin.”
This divine sympathy and solidarity are what make it possible for us to “approach the throne of grace with boldness” where we can “receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need” (Hebrews 4:16, NRSV). The Letter to the Hebrews assesses the testing of Jesus from our perspective and for our benefit, and that’s a useful lens through which to read the Wilderness Testing in Luke 4.
But this perspective doesn’t really deal with the question. Why was Jesus tested? Didn’t God know how it would turn out? Was God uncertain of the limits of the Incarnational design tolerances? That seems unlikely. Did Jesus need some sort of physical and spiritual conditioning before launching into the rough and tumble of ministry? Was this some kind of Messianic boot camp? Was the testing really some time in the Christ-kiln to fire the glaze or harden the metal? Perhaps.
What did this mean for Jesus? Was he unaware of what would happen during his own wilderness wandering? Was he unsure of his own endurance and limits and needed to test those limits before going forward? That proposal, at least, seems plausible.
Or was this initially more of a symbolic or prophetic act for Jesus. Perhaps he wanted to experience personally or even complete the wilderness wanderings of Israel, where God’s people had been tested and often failed. Perhaps he wanted to retrace the path of the first Adam, whose own testing and failure led (at least symbolically) to the human predicament of life under the powers of sin, death, and the devil. Either or both of these intentions also seem to fit with Jesus’ prophetic self-understanding as portrayed in the Lukan account.
It’s worth noting at this point the differences between the Synoptic reports of the Wilderness Testing. The Markan composition is not only brief but almost terse. The Markan composer declares that the Spirit drove or cast Jesus into the wilderness, perhaps against his will. That violence is certainly missing from the Lukan account. The Lukan author portrays Jesus as being led into the wilderness “in the Spirit.” This is a pilgrimage rather than an abduction.
The Matthean account has Jesus being led into the wilderness. But the verb the Matthean author uses can also be used to describe how an offering is brought to the altar. Jesus is led into the wilderness by means of the Spirit. We read an aorist passive infinitive form of the verb “to test.” This indicates purpose or intent. The Spirit led Jesus into the wilderness to be tested by the Diabolical One.
The Lukan account has neither the violence of the Markan account or the purposeful verb construction of the Matthean account. Instead, the Lukan account seems to describe an outcome or result rather than a purpose. The Spirit leads Jesus into the wilderness. While he is there, he is tested by the Diabolical One.
The Holy Spirit is mentioned twice in Luke 4:1 in the space of fourteen words. The presence and power of the Holy Spirit is a major theme in Luke-Acts, but the impact of the Spirit is heightened here even in Lukan terms. Could it be that being filled with the Holy Spirit simply leads to times of testing? I think that’s a consistent element of the Lukan account.
Soon, for example, Jesus heads off to the synagogue in Nazareth. There he reads a text that begins, “The Spirit of the Lord God is upon me…” It’s not long before he’s engaged in a theological debate and the local folks make plans to pitch him into a pit as a prelude to stoning a false prophet (when it comes to alliteration, I just can’t help myself). It would seem that being filled with the Spirit gets a person into what John Lewis called “good trouble.”
This Lukan emphasis prefigures how things work in the Book of Acts. The Church is filled with the Holy Spirit and proclaims Jesus as Lord and Messiah. It’s not long before apostles end up in jail. Stephen is full of grace and power (Acts 6:8) and speaks with an irresistible Spirit. He preaches a sermon that enrages his listeners. At the end of the sermon, Stephen is filled with the Holy Spirit (Acts 7:55). The words are the same as in Luke 4:1.
As a result of his sermon, the crowd convicts him of blasphemy and stones him to death. As he dies, he recapitulates Jesus’ death as reported in Luke. He returns the gift of the Spirit to the Lord Jesus (Acts 7:59). He prays for his executioners to be forgiven (Acts 7:60). Being filled with the Spirit gets a person into real trouble, at least in the view of the writer of Luke-Acts. The examples could be multiplied, but the point is clear. Life in the Spirit leads disciples and the Church into testing as an expected outcome.
I know that these days many people seek deeper encounters with the Holy Spirit in the life of the Church. We live in the “Age of Authenticity” as Dwight Zscheile puts it and are leaving behind the “Age of Association” which created Protestant church life in America. I find that many folks seek these deeper encounters as ways to cope with the chaos and uncertainty of contemporary life. I think those folks often find precisely what they are seeking.
I’m often envious of such folks because that’s rarely how it works for me. I’m sure this more a matter of temperament than of theology. But I don’t find much peace and serenity in the encounters I have with the Holy Spirit. I think such peace and serenity is critical for both ongoing healing and discernment for disciples. I just don’t find as much of it as some people do. And when I do find it, I don’t find it very interesting.
More’s the pity for me, I suspect. Nonetheless, I think the Lukan author wants the community to know that following Jesus and being filled with the Spirit often results in good trouble. I think the Lukan author wants us to see that Jesus was tested in the wilderness, not to prove anything, but as a result of who he was and is. The presence and power of the Holy Spirit in the wilderness places of the world causes problems for those who think they are in charge of such places. That presence and power will inevitably provoke pushback (Have I mentioned how addicted I am to alliteration?).
Gregersen suggests that “Jesus is the crystallization point for the moving power of the Holy Spirit that both fills him and radiates from him to alter his surroundings” (page 236). I really like that description. If wilderness is the domain of the demonic, Jesus invades that space and irradiates it with the Holy Spirit. The powers who pretend to be in charge, concentrated in the Diabolical One, cannot tolerate such an incursion and respond with tempting and subtle attacks.
If the Lukan author is addressing disciples who are settling in and perhaps getting a bit too comfortable with their social status and material wealth, this is a challenging perspective. Power, position, privilege, and property are not bad in themselves (perhaps). But they are not in themselves signs of being filled with the Holy Spirit. When the Spirit is present in fullness, there is likely to be good trouble. And that good trouble is likely to cost us our power, position, privilege, and property.
Perhaps during this Lenten season, then, we should expect to be troubled, disoriented, under duress, beset by the Diabolical One. That’s not the purpose of Lent, but it may be an inevitable result as we seek to get deeper into this Jesus-following business.
Perhaps during this Lenten season, then, we could reflect on our desire for our (White) churches to be “no discomfort zones.” If we’re about the Spirit’s business, that seems to be an unlikely outcome. Perhaps “discomfort zones” are what our churches are indeed called to be.
What are your thoughts?
References and Resources
Gregersen, Niels Henrik. “The Extended Body: The Social Body of Jesus according to Luke 1.” Dialog 51.3 (2012): 234-244.
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