Jesus in the Judaean wilderness
Tanquary, Oliver Leo
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Three questions have concerned the writer in the preparation of this paper. First, what actually occurred when Jesus went out into the Judean wilderness? Secondly, how are we to interpret the temptations in relation to the earthly ministry of Jesus? And thirdly, what significance do the temptations hold us for today? In these fundamental inquiries one finds the motive which has prompted a sincere investigation into the nature of Jesus' wilderness experience. Considerable has been written about the temptations of Jesus, and innumerable interpretations have been offered in explanation of the phenomenal experience which came to him. But, for the most part, the average comment only leaves the student more bewildered than ever as to what actually happened. It is the aim of this paper, therefore, to present a rational interpretation of the wilderness episode, one which would not only be in harmony with the concepts of modern theology, but which could be justified on the basis of the best scientific research. The word temptation, as commonly used in the Gospel narrative, is of Greek origin, and denotes all of those experiences in life, such as pain, sorrow, and conflict by which men are proved and tested. We, therefore, must not think of Christ's temptations as being similar to ours in the sense of solicitation to sin. They had to do with the making of certain great decisions regarding the exact methods Christ would use toward realizing his ideals. The entire narrative is clothed in symbolic phraseology. Historical investigation reveals that the early Christians believed in the devil as one who manifested himself directly, if not objectively. While it is quite probable that many of them may have conceived this incident as objectively enacted, we must look upon it simply as a profound subjective experience, and embodying the utmost of reality, even though it comes to us expressed in symbolic language. To understand Jesus' relationship with John Baptist is of the utmost important in enabling us to comprehend the purpose of the temptations. He had been attracted to the Jordan region by John's powerful preaching, and, while he did not ask for a sin baptism, he nevertheless insisted upon being baptized, "for thus it becometh us to fulfill all righteousness." "Us" refers to all the people and by "righteousness," he means their duty and obligation to God. Immediately after the baptism, he felt the bestowal of the Holy Spirit upon him. In other words, he awakened to a Messianic consciousness. For the first time the idea that he was the Messiah dawned. The shock of such an awakening was, without a doubt, tremendous. Rest and opportunity to think through the implications of his divine powers were most urgently needed. To spend forty days or so in the wilderness alone thinking through such a jarring revelation would be most natural. Being "led by the Spirit" denotes the influence which his awakening had in prompting him to seek solitude. Psychologically, he was in a wilderness of doubt and indecision, regardless of the nature of the environmental surroundings. Due to this fact we may at least be sure that he was not literally and corporeally forced into the wilderness by some objective Satanic being. The temptations, or trials, which followed were visions of the many concrete ways by which he might use the newly received power in achieving desired ends. In relating such an experience to others, the use of symbolic phraseology would be only natural, especially when one considers that it was the common practice of his day. In the first scene, temptation is represented by the natural inclination to relieve oneself of hunger. Why not use the divine power which had been given to turn stones into bread. The implication here is that such great power could be used to fill stomachs everywhere. Consequently, the purpose was indeed worthy, insofar as it went. But Jesus answered the proposal by a quotation from Deuteronomy which said that the life of man may be sustained not by bread only, but by whatever other means God shall appoint. Jesus reasoned, therefore, that to undertake to supply his own wants and the physical desires of others, would be to show a distrust for God; he woud not do it without a special dispensation. The first temptation not only evidenced his resignation to God, but it also carried a conviction which served to regulate his future conduct. The second scene takes place in the Temple yards at Jerusalem. Here the devil is supposed to have led Jesus, and after placing him on the pinnacle, questions him something like this: "Inasmuch as you are the Son of God, would it not be becoming for you to open your ministry in the most triumphant and conspicuous manner possible? Why not cast yourself off the pinnacle, and trust God for a safe delivery, which is a Scriptural promise? Not only will you startle the Jewish leaders, and instantly win their allegiance, but you will also be fulfilling prophecy by visibly descending from heaven in a manner harmonious to their expectations." As Jesus pondered such interrogations, he came to realize that the very Scriptures which made this tempting appeal, also admonished men not to make improper trial of God's power. "Thou shalt not tempt the Lord thy God." It was in this manner that Jesus was forewarned of a very subtle temptation with which he would later be called upon to deal. God's will meant the rejection of any inclinations he might feel toward using his miraculous powers to dazzle men. The attitudes of faith and dependence upon God could not be instilled into the hearts and minds of people by giving them signs from heaven. In the last scene, or temptation, Jesus faces frankly the Messianic expectations of his people. Of the many hopes held, the thought of a kingly deliverer, one who could smite the enemy and set up a reigning state, was most dominant. Long had the Jewish people expected the Promised Messiah to come and establish for them a world empire with Jerusalem and its Capital. The symbolic setting for this trial is upon an exceedingly high mountain where the tempter is represented as showing Jesus all the kingdoms of the earth. The offer is that Jesus will be given possession of all of them provided he falls down and worships Mammon (the devil). In other words, should Christ employ his divine powers to establish an earthly kingship, there would be nothing under the sun which he could not achieve. A justifiable implication to this is that after having once attained kingly glory, he might then endeavor to win the people over the joy, peace, and righteousness. However, as Jesus reasoned with the suggestion, he felt that again the Scriptures held the best answer. "Thou shalt worship the Lord thy God, and Him only shalt thou serve." Paying allegiance to men is indeed honorable; but all religious homage must be paid to God alone. It was not God's will that Jesus should seek to gain spiritual goals with the methods of men. The Messianic consciousness, out of which these three great choices had come, and in which there was to be found the potential seed of truth and righteousness among men, had been given by God; therefore, Christ's first responsibility was to seek the divine will, regardless of the opposition and sacrifice which he might be called upon to make. A detailed study of this kind is beneficial only as we come to realize the true significance of the temptations, not only to Jesus but for our own lives. They were of invaluable consequence to Jesus; for in the choices involved, he found the direction of his ministry, and nucleus of a definite plan of work, and some important guiding principles. Never was he to exploit his divine power for the purposes of satisfying material wants only, nor was he to seek external or worldly power for the achievement of heavenly goals, nor was it ever to be his intention to avoid personal danger, when in the act of doing God's will. For us today, the temptations are of infinite value; first, because they serve to exalt the character of Christ, and to confirm our faith in his divine mission, and secondly, because our trials, are similar to what his were. When we distrust God's providential care, or make ostentatious remarks about our faith, or clamor for earthly rewards, we yield to the very temptations which Christ conquered. Because these are the temptations which Christ conquered. Because these are the temptations which belong to the common experience of humanity, Christ becomes more than ever our Savior by the example he gave us in overcoming them. By so doing, he proved that moral principles should take precedent over natural inclinations, and that sin is the choosing of a lower way when a higher way is possible.
Thesis (M.A.)--Boston University, 1940. N.B.: Pages misnumbered: text starts on page 6.