Weakness in the Wilderness
A week ago, I experienced vertigo for the first time, though only briefly. Then, a couple of days later, it began again and has not ceased even until this very moment. In being bed-ridden this week, I’ve experienced a new kind of weakness in which I, literally, cannot do what I’ve previously been able to do easily. This has given me a new appreciation for Jesus’ words to Paul in 2 Cor. 12, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.”
Living into weakness is reminiscent of Lent, when Christ followers through the ages have engaged in practices of self-denial, like fasting. This is meant to orient our hearts and minds to the sufferings of Christ who spent 40 days in the Judean wilderness fasting while enduring a sequence of Satanic temptations. However, this historical event is placed in a broader story-line written by the Master Composer. Matthew, in particular, paves the road for presenting Jesus as Messiah.
As the story begins, Matthew begins with Jesus’ pedigree of sorts, tracing his ancestry all the way back to Abraham. This reveals Jesus as the One who would fulfill the Abrahamic covenant to bless all the nations of the earth (Gen. 22:18). He also reveals Jesus’ lineage as being from the royal line of King David (fulfilling Jer. 23:5). Then we have a series of prophetic fulfillments:
- The nations come to the Messiah (Isaiah 60)
- Messiah is born in Bethlehem (Micah 5)
- Messiah (Immanuel – “God WITH us”) is born of a virgin (Isaiah 7)
Then we have a sequence of events that directly connect Jesus to Moses (and Israel).
- Comes out of Egypt
- Crosses the Red Sea
- Enters the wilderness for 40 years
- Receives the Law from the mountain which details how Israel is to love God and love their neighbor
- Comes out of Egypt
- Baptism in the Jordan River
- Enters the wilderness for 40 days
- Gives teaching from the mountain which reveals what it’s like to live under the rule and reign of Jesus who fulfills the Law
In this, Matthew is revealing that Jesus is the promised Messiah who is greater than Moses. He will deliver Israel from slavery, give new divine teaching, save them from their sins, and establish a new covenant between God and his people through his death on the cross (for sin) and resurrection from the dead.
So, this 40 day span in the wilderness has significant Christological implications pointing to the greater reality that Jesus is the promised Messiah who would bring redemption and hope to his people. However, this hope would come through denial, temptation, and suffering. Just as God led Israel in the wilderness, “that he might humble you, testing you to know what was in your heart, whether you would keep his commandments or not.” (Deut. 8:2), Jesus was led into the wilderness by the Spirit to be tested (Mt. 4).
First, Israel was fed through divine food but proved to be disobedient (Ex. 16). Jesus was tempted to create divine food while fasting (Moses also fasted for 40 days while in the wilderness). However, he resisted temptation affirming that, “Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.” (Deut. 8:3).
Next, Israel tested God at Massah by demanding he give them water to save them from death as evidence of his presence with them (Ex. 17). Jesus was tempted to test God by throwing himself off the pinnacle of the Temple in Jerusalem as evidence of God’s presence with him saving him from death. However, Jesus resisted temptation affirming that, “You shall not put the Lord your God to the test.” (Deut. 6:16a; 6:16b reads “…as you tested him at Massah”).
Finally, while slaves in Egypt, Israel worshiped idols; however, upon delivering them from Egypt, God commanded them to cast away these idols (Ez. 20:6-9). Ezekiel goes on to write that Israel did not forsake the idols of Egypt. As a result, God swore to them in the wilderness that he would not bring Israel into the Promised Land “because they rejected my rules and did not walk in my statutes, and profaned my Sabbaths; for their heart went after their idols.” (Ex. 20:15-16). Satan took Jesus to the pinnacle of a very high mountain, showed him “all the kingdoms of the world and their glory,” and said to him, “All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.” However, Jesus again resists temptation, rejects worshiping any other god and responds from Deut. 6:13, “You shall worship the Lord your God and him only shall you serve.”
Through weakness and temptation, Jesus was proven to be greater than Moses as the promised Messiah, the One who was obedient in the wilderness where Israel utterly failed. And though Israel wasn’t ushered into the Promised Land, Jesus ushers in a kingdom that welcomes all nations, “From that time Jesus began to preach, saying, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.’” (Mt. 4:17).
In this season of Lent, let us remember the testing of Jesus in the wilderness and live as ones under his rule and reign. We’re sent into this world not from a position of strength and power, but with a posture of humility and weakness. And when we are tempted and weak, let us hold fast to our confession drawing near to the One who can sympathize with our weakness while offering grace and mercy in our time of need (Heb. 4:14-16).