This text follows the account of Jesus’ baptism and a listing of his family tree (3:21-37). In this previous passage we see the mixing of the divine and the human: an earthy (watery!) baptism along with the marks of the divine—Spirit, a voice from heaven, a declaration from the Father. The genealogy looks very human except for the indicators of virgin birth (“he was the son, so it was thought, of Joseph”). All of a sudden, even this genealogy is far from regular and ordinary.
Jesus begins his public ministry at the age of thirty, and immediately we see that this is not a normal career. Jesus is marked for ministry with his baptism, and filled with the Holy Spirit. Jesus immediately, led by the Sprit, enters into the desert for forty days of temptation. Again we see human and divine, natural and supernatural all occupying the same space.
Our ministry also finds the natural and the supernatural occupying the same space. Most of ministry is very mundane, and yet in this mundane space, transformative work occurs. Sometimes we need unwearied eyes to see the possibilities of formation, and the activities of God in the midst of the common. Paul reminds us that the glorious content of the gospel is held in common vessels (2 Corinthians 4:7). We must never underestimate the power and the influence of seemingly mundane work.
Jesus knowing who he was, his identity established and affirmed in baptism, is now led into the desert where he is tempted. In his baptism, Jesus comes to a fuller realization of who he was, and now in the wilderness, away from crowds, in the stillness of his own personhood, Jesus must live out that affirmed identity in the face of challenges.
Reggie McNeal notes that serving a church with a call is hard. Serving a church without a call is cruel and unusual self-punishment (A Work of Heart: Understanding How God Shapes Spiritual Leaders (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2000, p. 99). We engage in ministry, often commonplace and earthy, not in our own strength, but with the conviction that we are living out a call to minister, a press of God on our lives. We survive through the wilderness times only as a community of faith affirms us through prayer, support, and challenge. The wilderness is a lonely place, and church leaders know that loneliness often. A solid grounding, based on prayer and good support structures will ensure ministry over the long haul.
Jesus went into the wilderness. When faced with temptation, he answered using passages from Deuteronomy. As the people of Israel wandered in the desert nearing the Promised Land, the story of their identity and obligations was rehearsed. In the OT passage, the people wandering in the desert are reminded that God has been with them every step of the way, and that the wilderness experience itself had been instrumental in forming this people into those who humbly trust in God. Jesus too, now in the desert had to learn the same lesson: to trust and rely upon God alone.
Jesus is met with three temptations from the devil. In Luke’s account they are: turning stones into bread, gaining authority over the nations by worshiping the devil, and testing God by jumping off the high point of the temple.
Turn Stones into Bread—This is a temptation to use Jesus’ unique call to meet immediate needs, instant gratification. This temptation to meet an immediate need is countered by a deeper affirmation: that Jesus would feed not only on physical bread, but also at a deeper level, on the Word of God. In John’s Gospel, Jesus says—my food is to do the will of the Father (John 4:34). No immediate tinge of hunger will get in the way of a deeper fulfillment. Jesus is hungry because in obedience to the Father, he went into the wilderness. He will trust the Father to supply his physical needs. We too pray for our daily bread (Luke 11:3), trusting that God will provide, yet our greater purpose is to move beyond the calls for immediate gratification, and place our lives and ministry in God’s hands.
The Pomp of False Worship—This is a temptation is to establish a kingdom like the vast Roman Empire. It would be easy, the devil says. It simply requires a quick bend of the knee to the devil. Paul reminds us that one day every knee will bow before Jesus (Philippians 2:9ff.), but this will not occur by the devil’s plan. This scheme would shortcut Jesus’ mission and destiny. It would involve a turning away from his calling as theSon affirmed in his baptism. It would lead him on the path to glory through a crown rather than a cross. Jesus refuses. He will not give into the impatience of the moment. He will not compromise his call or his identity: worship of God and service to God is exclusive. In our ministry as well, no shortcuts, no easy celebrity road, rather the tough road, involving taking up the cross and serving in the name of Jesus.
A Leap to Pressure the Father—This temptation is a urging for Jesus do something spectacular, but pointless. Go to a high point, bungee jump without the cord. This was a temptation to pressure God to act, rather than to humbly trust him. This was an attempt to get Jesus to exploit his relationship with the Father. Jesus will not give in. Ministry is not formed from self-will, or creating a spectacular circus side-show, rather ministry emerges from a deep and simple submission to the Father. In difficult times, and in other times, our stance is to be one of stillness and rest: Be still and know that I am God (Psalm 46:10). Stillness before God, not the testing of God, is best. This is an act of faith not a leap of recklessness.
Jesus is shaped for ministry through this desert experience. The God who called Jesus to ministry also sends him into ministry, through challenge of the wilderness. The wilderness fortified Jesus sense of call, identity and mission. This sending must include a strong understanding of identity, but even more a sense of to whom Jesus belonged. And now Jesus returns to Galilee in the power of the Spirit (Luke 4:14), he is still vulnerable, and always will be. Jesus knows that the struggles of ministry are not over (Luke 4:13). The struggles of ministry remain for us as well. But we do not do ministry in our own strength. We have this promise:
But we have this treasure [the gospel] in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us. We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed. We always carry around in our body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be revealed in our body. For we who are alive are always being given over to death for Jesus’ sake, so that his life may be revealed in our mortal body (2Cor. 4:7-11).
More: See Henri Nouwen. In the Name of Jesus: Reflections on Christian Leadership (New York: Crossroad, 1991). For an excellent discussion on the task and temptations of ministry illuminated by Jesus’ temptation. And Kester Brewin The Complex Chrsit: Signs of Emergence in the Urban Church (London: SPCK 2004, pp. 108ff.)