We're going to turn together in Mark's Gospel, Mark chapter 1. Last week, if you weren't here with us in the Iron Hall, we entered into chapter 1, at the beginning of the temptation of the Lord Jesus and - remembering that Mark's Gospel has the theme that this is the Son of God that is the Messiah, the King of Israel, and yet He comes as suffering Servant, and the path He trods is not one of glory, but one of humiliation and suffering - and we saw that this Servant has to be tested, and tempted, and tried, just like those He was coming to save; but, of course, differently, because He is completely victorious and completely sinless in this test. Yet there are many issues that we need to grapple with, and hopefully this morning we'll take a bit of time to do that.
So this is 'The Servant's Test - Part 2', and we'll read just verses 12 and 13 as we read the context last week. "And immediately", that is immediately after He was baptised in the Jordan, "the spirit driveth him into the wilderness. And he was there in the wilderness forty days, tempted of Satan; and was with the wild beasts; and the angels ministered unto him".
Now I want to read two other texts, keep your marker there in Mark 1, and turn with me to Hebrews 2, and then we're going to look at Hebrews 4. Just two verses, one from Hebrews 2, verse 18; and then Hebrews 4 verse 15 - taking 2:18 first, speaking of our Lord Jesus as a Merciful High Priest the writer says: "For in that he himself hath suffered being tempted, he is able to succour them that are tempted". Then chapter 4 and verse 15, again on the subject of our Great High Priest: "For we have not an high priest which cannot be touched with the feeling of our infirmities; but was in all points tempted like as we are, yet without sin". Back to Mark chapter 1.
Now you will remember from last week that we highlighted the fact that Mark has a purpose in the brevity of his account of the temptation of the Lord Jesus. When we go to Matthew's account and Luke's account, they are both longer in how they record it. It's not that Mark is lazy, or he doesn't pay attention to detail, there is a reason that the Spirit inspired him to be so brief in his account. We saw, as we read the rest of the chapter, at least the verses before 12 and 13 in chapter 1, that there is a context to the account of His temptation, and that context begins where John the Baptist declares John the Baptist himself as being the forerunner of the Messiah, who is declared by John the Baptist to be none other than Jesus the Nazarene. He would be the messenger that Isaiah foretold, and John is preparing the way for Him.
Then we saw also that as the Lord Jesus is baptised, that the Spirit comes upon Him in the form of a dove, and declares that He is indeed that One that Isaiah prophesied, the Servant of Jehovah. Then the Father confirms that, and the heavens cleft, and we hear this voice: 'This is my Beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased'. So you have right throughout the beginning verses of this chapter affirmation, declaration, confirmation that this is Jesus the Messiah, this is the Son of God, this is the King of Israel coming in His kingdom in one sense. Yet the point of why we have, in verses 12 and 13, His temptation is to show us that as Christ was confirmed to be Messiah in the wilderness, He's got to stay in the wilderness. He's not allowed to go back to Jerusalem and get in a flash palace and set up an earthly kingdom by force, an Imperial State - no! He has to stay in the desert, He has to be tried and be tempted. He must do God's will in God's way, and God's way was the way of suffering, not the way of force.
What a lesson we saw last week in that very fact: that as Mark is writing this Gospel record, remember it is given to Christians, and they are suffering, they are being tempted, they are being tried. He wants to communicate: as our Lord was tempted and tried so will we be, temptation will be a permanent feature of the servant's life - but the wonderful message that we have inherent in this account is that Christ was victorious over temptation and the devil, and so can we be in Him. But we saw implied within this account that Mark is getting across to us that the greater our service for the Lord, the greater will be our suffering and our testing and our temptations. Indeed, the temptation that we will have in our life - which I believe was the temptation that the Lord Jesus had been given by the devil - was to take an easy road, an easy path. That was not God's road, that was not God's path.
So we learnt last week, if I could just recap very quickly, that this temptation, and indeed every servant of God's temptation, will be immediately after a spiritual high. Sometimes we have a wrong perspective when it comes to temptation. We think that the holier we become the less tempted we will be - no! It is, in fact, the opposite: here we have, I believe, the greatest temptation ever, and yet this greatest of temptations was immediately following what was, up to that point, the greatest event ever - the baptism of the Lord Jesus, and the Father and the Spirit's declaration of Him. Right after a spiritual zenith and highpoint and peak, there is this valley of trial and suffering and temptation - and that is the way it will be in life. We'll not be very long on the mountaintop until we experience a valley - that is the way God has planned it.
We see that it was God planned it that way in one sense when we look - and our third and second point last week was that though temptation is instigated by Satan - and we must say that very clearly, James 1 tells us that God does not tempt anyone with evil, God does not tempt us, it is the devil that tempts us - yet at the same time, though it is Satan who instigates our temptation, God arranges or you could say rearranges circumstances in our life for His glory. I would be strong enough to say it is God who arranges, because here we have, at least in the Lord's account, it says that the Spirit drove Him into the wilderness. God was sovereign in this test, and it wasn't just in the Lord's test that He was sovereign - you look at Job, it was God who, as it were, incited Satan into going into his life and tempting him to try and destroy him. God said, and we heard it around the table, He pointed out to the devil: 'Here is Job, my servant, is there not anyone like him in the whole earth, as righteous as he?'. He, if you like, was goading Satan to try Job, and God told Job in the midst of all his trial that there was a purpose in this, and Job could say: 'When He has tried me, I shall come forth as gold' - and he wasn't talking about the devil, he was talking about God.
So there is a mystery here, and whilst Satan is definitely the prime mover, the first cause in the sense of the one who comes and tempts us, God is sovereign over all things and God uses temptations, even in our lives, to strengthen us for the task ahead. Now what, we asked last week, what is our reaction to temptation? Is that how we view it? Often we think: 'Oh, here's the devil coming again, and he's coming with this carrot-on-a-stick that I can't resist! I'm not strong enough! God, why are you allowing this to happen? This shouldn't be, why don't you just take these things away from me, these tantalising things?'. Yet we fail to see that, as the hymn we sang last week says: when we resist a temptation, that will help us another temptation to win - it causes us to be stronger, grow stronger for the task.
Well, we must move on, and I want to spend some time this morning - and I think it's going to take us into next week, there's so much in these two verses that we have to spend time on them - and the point that I want to dwell on this morning is that the servant's temptation can be an agonising experience. That's all I want to say: the servant's temptation, test, can be an agonising experience - and it was for the Lord. We know that because it's communicated to us by a graphic descriptive scene in the wilderness. If you look at verse 13, there are a number of words that bring this picture to our view: He was in the desert, an arid wilderness; He was there 40 days; He is tempted by Satan; and He is with wild animals.
Now the desert, or the wilderness, in the Jewish mind and the Jewish thought was always viewed as a place of danger and peril. It was a gloomy place, in fact we know from the Gospels - Matthew 12 and Luke 8, where Jesus teaches on the subject of demons - that the desert and the wilderness was seen as an abode of Satan and his hordes, it was the realm of the devil. So right away what is communicated to us is that the Lord Jesus has been thrust, by the Spirit of God, into that place. Mark tells us He is there 40 days, Matthew tells us He was fasting for those 40 days. He is also among wild beasts. Now the Jordan valley and the adjacent wilderness was known as a haunt for many wild beasts. There were hyenas, jackals, panthers, believe it or not even lions! At one time lions were not scarce by any means in Palestine - in fact, lions are mentioned in two thirds of the books of the Old Testament Scriptures. It's quite possible there were lions in our Lord's day, when He was in the wilderness. Nevertheless it said that there were wild animals, and the mention of that is simply, I think, to underscore the idea that this wilderness was a scene of abandonment, a scene of peril - or, it was the opposite to the idyllic paradise scene where our first father, the first Adam, was tempted way back in the beginning.
Now I don't want to go into that too much, because I'm going to reflect on that perhaps next week. So the wilderness, wild animals, 40 days there, it's trying to get us to see that this was a traumatic experience. Then, to add to it, and it's very easy to skip over this, He was tempted by Satan. Now we can be tempted by the world, and not directly by Satan; we can be tempted by demons, and perhaps not directly by the evil one - but He was tempted by Satan. Now some scholars believe that the present participle that's used here, that's simply 'being tempted', 'being tempted' is there to modify what is an imperfect verb, which is the word 'was'. 'He was being tempted' - now what Mark doesn't want us to think, some believe, is that this is something that happened way back then, and it's something that only happened during those first couple of the 40 days when He was fasting, and maybe He had a break of a couple of days, and then the devil came back to Him before the 40 days were over and so on. He wants us to modify this idea of 'was tempted' with 'being tempted', in other words this was a continuous thing: He was continually being tempted during the 40 days He was in the wilderness.
I think that's what he's getting at. Now, of course, the temptations in the Lord Jesus' life didn't stop after the 40 days. We know that the Scribes and Pharisees often on occasions came and tempted Him, tried to test Him. But it's interesting - and you should note, by the way, in the Bible, the things that are left out, as well as the things that are put in - Mark does not mention that Jesus was victorious over this temptation, isn't that interesting? Mark does not mention that there was any end to the temptation, whereas Matthew does - the devil left Him, fled from Him. Now, of course, victory is implied in this account, for Jesus is the victorious suffering Servant; and of course there was a protracted period in the wilderness where He was tempted; and yet what I think Mark is trying to get across to us is that this was what the whole life of the Man of Sorrows was going to be. He was being continually tempted and tested in His life. Yes, He was victorious, but the application in Mark's record is that this temptation and testing didn't cease in the wilderness after 40 days had transpired, and he also implies that though He was momentarily victorious over the devil there, His final victory had not come yet. It would have to come at the cross. It is very instructive, I feel, what Mark doesn't tell us.
But why am I labouring on this? I'm making a point, and I'm spending all of this morning's message to make this point, because I feel, at times, that there is a danger that we think the temptation of the Lord Jesus was a kind of act, like a facade, a shove-on, that it wasn't real. We might even think it was easy for Him, sure He was God's Son! Now this account communicates graphically that this testing that the Servant of Jehovah went through was of mammoth proportions. There is no doubt about that, that's what the language communicates. But here's the problem that we have, and it is a problem: we've already said that God cannot tempt anyone with evil, but James also says in James 1 that God cannot be tempted with evil. Now Christ was God, and yet He was tempted - at least that's what the Bible says. God cannot be tempted with evil, yet Christ was tempted.
Now here's how some people attempt to answer that predicament: they say, 'Well, He wasn't really tempted as we are tempted. It wasn't real temptation'. In other words, it was just to try and prove who He was. Now that is an aspect of it, but is that a satisfactory answer? Then other people in the other extreme, they say: 'Well, it was real temptation, and in fact it was as real as our temptation', and they go to the point of saying, 'Well, He could have sinned, and if He couldn't have sinned, then it couldn't have been real temptation'. Of course, they say He didn't sin, but: 'If there wasn't that option there, well, how could you say it is temptation at all?'. Here we have a seeming dilemma, and it has led to a theological debate over the peccability and impeccability of Christ, that simply means: could He have sinned in the wilderness, was it impossible for Him to sin?
Now let me say before I say anything more that there is a mystery here, as there is, I think, with every doctrine in Holy Scripture to an extent. Whilst there is a mystery, we still must grapple with and find agreement between the truths of Scripture, because we say so bombastically that the Bible doesn't contradict itself - and yet so often we are timid to try and hammer these things out. I believe that there are two equally scriptural truths that must be harmonised in this event of the temptation of Christ. Here's the first one: Christ could not have sinned. Now that is clear, and I'm not going to spend time going into that because that is not the big dilemma, I think, that is there. If you want verses for that: 'They could find no fault in Him', 'He was the spotless Lamb of God', and so on and so forth. We could spend all morning on that one. Yet although He could not have sinned - we must maintain that - the second biblical truth which is also equally as clear, I would say, is that He had to be truly tempted. He had to be! Because if Hebrews 2:18 that we read is true: 'For because he himself hath suffered when tempted, he is able to help those who are being tempted'; if Hebrews 4:15 is true: 'For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathise with our weaknesses; but one who in every respect has been tempted like as we are, yet without sin' - how can He sympathise with us if His temptation was not real?
Now let me say that there are no watertight answers that satisfy every question in this dilemma. I'm sure that my explanation won't satisfy a lot of you too - but I believe there is an explanation, a biblical explanation, and I've been greatly helped by a man called Wayne Grudem in his Systematic Theology on this point, but I believe that the explanation and the answer is found in the two natures of our Lord Jesus Christ. He had two natures. He was God, and we've already established that, and therefore if He was God that means He had a divine nature. Yet He also shared in our human nature, that's what the nativity and incarnation is all about. Yet whilst He was Immanuel, God with us, we must see that in all of the Gospel record and the Epistles the Lord Jesus Christ did not come into this world to live as God among men. Mark, particularly, shows us that He came to live as a Man of Sorrows, coming to suffer for His people's sins. As someone has put it: 'Jesus Christ is the condescension of Divinity, God come down; and the exaltation of humanity, bringing man out of his sin to God'. But this is what I want you to see: Jesus had to come to obey God perfectly in our place as a man, and if He had to do that, He had to do so as a man and a man alone.
Let me explain it a little bit more: this meant that the Lord Jesus coming - yes, with a divine nature, but also with a human nature - had to obey God in His human strength alone. Now let me explain why that had to be: imagine if the Lord Jesus called upon His divine powers, which He could have done, to make His temptations easier for Himself. How would He have obeyed God? He would have obeyed God as God's Son alone - but He had to obey God fully, completely as a man. I believe an element of the temptation was that He should use His divine attributes to overcome in that regard. You look at them, they're miraculous - turn stones to bread, cast Yourself off the Temple. The temptation, in one aspect, was tempting the Lord to, if you like, cheat a bit and not face as a perfect man what the devil was throwing at Him; to, in some way, make His temptation a little bit easier. Now here's a passage that I believe is helpful for us to understand this particular truth, it's Philippians 2, if you turn to it, and the translation I'm going to read out of in this regard is much more explicit in what Paul is trying to get across to us concerning the humiliation of the Lord. Philippians 2 verses 6-8, speaking of the Lord's condescension: 'Who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped', he's not denying He was God, but He didn't grasp at the use of His divine attributes, 'But made himself nothing, taking the form of a servant', and a suffering Servant at that, 'being born in the likeness of men: And being found in human form, he humbled himself, by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross'.
Now that is helpful because there is a difficulty here: some people say, 'If this was really real temptation, then you have to say He could have sinned'. Now let me explain this to you. Others say: 'Well, if He is God, it cannot really be real temptation, because God cannot be tempted with evil'. The answer is in His two natures. Here it is: if the Lord Jesus Christ only had a perfect human nature, like Adam in the beginning, and He was facing the devil here in the wilderness, He could have sinned. Did you hear that? If He only had a perfect human nature, like Adam, and faced the devil in the wilderness as He did, He could have sinned. Yet He also had a divine nature - yes, He didn't grasp at the use of it in the temptation, and though He was not to draw power upon it for our sakes, it was still there; and because it was still there it was like, if you want to put it, a moral strength, a kind of backstop that prevented the Lord Jesus Christ from sinning. He could not have sinned, because His divine nature was there; and yet because He faced temptation in human, perfect though it may be, strength alone, and though He didn't draw upon His divine supernatural powers, it was facing temptation as a man. Do you see it?
Now I know I may not explain all the answers, or questions I should say, and yet I think it's the best explanation - but the amazing thing of it all, while we theologise about it, is that - and if we miss this, we miss everything that's for our heart this morning - He chose to face temptation not in the strength of His divine power, but as a human with perfect faith in God. Now let me clarify one point, lest I be misunderstood: we must also assert that though Christ was truly tempted, His temptation was not exactly the same as ours. What do I mean? Well, He had a human nature, but He did not have a fallen, depraved human nature that was naturally drawn to sin. In other words, the psychological process that He went through in temptation, it was not identical to the one we go through. Here's how James puts it: 'Let no one say when he is tempted, 'I am being tempted by God', for God cannot be tempted with evil, He himself tempts no one: but each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire' - that did not happen with Christ. He did not have a desire for sin, He did not have a fallen human nature. Then desire, James says, 'When it has conceived, gives birth to sin; and sin, when it is fully grown, brings forth death'. The Lord did not have that lust after sin.
You see, for us there are outer stimuli to sin, outer factors, and that is Satan and the world - but we also have an inner urge to sin, and that is our fallen sinful nature that urges us to follow sin and temptation. Jesus did not have it, no inner urge! As the hymn writer put it:
'We have a Priest who suffered,
Knowing weakness, tears and pain,
Who like us was tried and tempted,
Unlike us without stain'.
Yet Christ still had the outer voice of Satan tempting Him. He had fasted 40 days, and that temptation was very real. He had a sense of need, He was hungry. He was conscious of an outer urge to satisfy that need - the devil, telling Him to do it. He had a supernatural power to supply that need if He so desired, so He was conscious of real temptation - and the battle was to resist that outer voice. We must never think that it was a breeze for Him. It would have been a breeze for Him if He had faced it as God, but He faced it in His perfect humanity. I believe this was the greatest temptation ever, and it was agonising! Perhaps, could I suggest to you, that the horror of this temptation was heightened because of the sensitive innocence of His perfect humanity.
Now why does all this matter? Some of you're sitting there maybe thinking: 'You're going in too deep this morning, and you're just confusing folk and giving them questions'. I'll tell you why it matters: because as difficult as it is for us to comprehend, Scripture affirms that in these temptations Jesus gained an ability to understand and help us in our temptations. That's why it matters. Though He didn't sin, and He couldn't sin, and whatever His temptation was, it was apart from sin; it was real! That's why He suffered when tempted, so that He might be able to help those who are tempted. That's why we have a Great High Priest who can sympathise with infirmities - that word is 'weaknesses' - for He, in every respect, has been tempted as we yet without sin.
Do you not think it's important? I'll tell you why it's important: because temptation will be an agonising experience for all God's servants, but the wonderful thing is that we have a sympathetic High Priest. Why? All because He didn't choose an easy road. When we go the hard road, following Christ, and we endure persecution and sufferings of all sorts because we obey Christ, isn't it wonderful to know that whatever we go through He knows and He understands? You can't underestimate what that means. Now remember, Mark was probably written to Christians suffering persecution under the Emperor, or who would suffer persecution in a day that was very near - do you not think that it mattered to them that Christ suffered tests, that He suffered trials, that He shed tears, that the devil tempted Him? Does it matter to you? Oh, it matters to me!
I read a story from the New York Times Magazine. Nancy Rhian, the reporter, told a story she'd heard 25 years earlier from a friend just simply called 'George'. This was the story: in those days work crews marked construction sites by putting out smudge pots with open flames. George worked on one such site, and one day George's four-year-old daughter came to work with him. She got too close to one of those sites, smudge pots, and her trousers caught fire like the straw man's stuffing. The scars ran the length and breadth of Sarah's legs, and her legs looked like a jigsaw puzzle. When she was in the third grade she was asked the question: 'If you could have one wish, what would it be?'. This is what Sarah wrote in her little report: 'I want everyone to have legs like mine'. Now what was that? Well, when we suffer, just like Sarah, we want others to understand, don't we? We wish they would know what we are going through, we want them to be like us, why? Not out of some kind of sick gratification, but we want them to be able to identify, understand what we're going through!
Therefore He had to, Hebrews 2:17 says, be made like His brothers in every respect, so that He might become a merciful and faithful High Priest and the Servant of God to make propitiation for the sins of the people. That's why He had to take flesh and blood, He wasn't walking around doing an act, He was a real man! He was God, yes, but He was man, and He was tested in all points, in all respects, like we are. Now specific temptations, I know, vary with time, and sometimes we get perplexed about that verse and we think: 'Well, He couldn't be tempted the way I'm tempted because those things weren't around in Jesus' day'. Well, all our temptations match the categories of the temptation the Lord faced: the lust of the eye, the lust of the flesh, the pride of life - that's how He was tempted. But you know, you can be more specific than that, because if you reflect on the life of the Lord Jesus for even a little space, you begin to see that there were similar tests, similar temptations that He faced that we face.
He stood at the grave of Lazarus and wept, bereaved. His family deserted Him and forsook Him, is that where you are? His brothers thought He was mad. We don't read of His father recorded in the Gospels after the Temple event at the age of 12; and probably His mother, Mary, was widowed, and He had to assume the chief role in the home - and there He is, that was a single parent family, whatever way you want to describe it! Here's the Saviour fitting a place in this human family as a young lad, that other young lads wouldn't experience, so that He might experience what we experience. Have Christians offended you and betrayed you? How do you think He felt when Judas kissed Him on the cheek, and he calls Him 'friend', and at the cross all the disciples forsake Him? They questioned His parentage: 'You're illegitimate!'. Public opinion was against Him. He was misrepresented, He was lied about, He was abused verbally and physically - and that's only some of the list. You know, when we see that though those sufferings and temptations and trials are not efficacious in the sense that it was only the cross that could take away our sins, it's only the cross can save our soul, yet look: He's doing it for you! He didn't have to do it, yet He did it, and that will get us through. The writer to the Hebrews says it will, it should give us confidence because of this, because He took flesh, because He suffered in the same respects as us yet without sin, because He sympathises - let us then, with boldness, confidence, draw near to the throne of grace that we may receive mercy, and find grace to help in time of need.
I heard a lovely story about a man called Rev H. C. Trumbull. Mr Trumbull was preaching, as he often did, in the prisons to some of the inmates. On this one occasion he said: 'The only difference between me and you is owed to the grace of God'. He was identifying with them as sinners. Afterwards one of the prisoners came to him and said: 'Mr Trumbull, did you mean what you said about sympathising with us, and that the only thing that makes a difference in your life is the help that you've got from God? That's the only thing that's made you to differ from us?'. When he received an affirmative answer from that man, this is how the prisoner responded - listen to this very carefully: 'I am here for life, but I can stay here more contentedly now that I know I've a brother out in the world'. Do you know something? This scene for us, if we are the servants of God, is a scene of suffering, of temptation, and of trial - but we ought to be able to say, as we look at our Saviour in the wilderness: 'I can stay here more contentedly, because I know I have a Brother in heaven who sends grace and mercy for my need and my temptations'.
The hymnwriter - and we're going to sing it - Michael Bruce put it well when he said:
'Though now ascended up on high,
He bends on earth a brother's eye;
Partaker of the human name,
He knows the frailty of our frame.
Our fellow-sufferer yet retains
A fellow-feeling of our pains;
And still remembers in the skies
His tears, and agonies, and cries.
In every pang that rends the heart,
The Man of Sorrows had a part;
He sympathizes with our grief,
And to the sufferer sends relief.
With boldness, therefore, at the throne,
Let us make all our sorrows known;
And ask the aid of heavenly power
To help us in this evil hour'.
Father, we don't want to dwell any longer on our particular and very specific temptations, we want to dwell on Him, O Lord, who endured, who triumphed; and at the cross defeated sin, death, and the devil; who now dispenses at Your right hand on high grace and mercy. Lord, here we are, and with boldness in our need - and our need is great, and You know our hearts, You know what we struggle with, You know what we face, You know our tests - Lord, give us the grace to overcome, to grow stronger for the task You have for us, and in consequence grow more like our Suffering Master. Amen.
Preach The Word.
This sermon was delivered at The Iron Hall Evangelical Church in Belfast, Northern Ireland, by Pastor David Legge. It was transcribed from the fifth recording in his 'Studies In Mark' series, entitled "The Servant's Test - Part 2" - Transcribed by Preach The Word.
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