Into the Wilderness

By Paul Koch

Ever since my wife and I returned from our adventure backpacking in the High Sierras, I’ve found myself daydreaming about getting back out into the wilderness. There is something so peaceful and exhilarating about being out amongst the lodgepole pines and following a rugged trail through water crossings and over mountain passes. Out away from the distractions that fill our normal lives, you find a renewed sense of focus and connection with the world around you. There is an intentionality that comes with every move you make, from picking a campsite to getting water and making dinner. I suppose what I miss the most is that you really live every moment. Things don’t seem to be wasted, and there is less of a blur to one’s life when you’re out in the wilderness.

But not everyone enjoys being in the wilderness. In fact, for many the wilderness is viewed as a place to be avoided. The ancient people of God had spent 40 years wandering the wilderness. It was not something any of them were longing to return to once they entered the Promised Land. The wilderness was a place of testing and trial, a place that many probably viewed as a sort of punishment. You do something bad, you fail to trust in God, so you go into the wilderness until you’ve learned your lesson or paid off your debt or something like that. But the wilderness wasn’t merely about punishment; it was about learning how to rely upon God, upon his provisions. It was a place where you couldn’t rely on the economy of man and had to trust instead in the promises of God. The wilderness, then, was a place of blessing and strengthening for the people of God. Though, to be sure, it probably didn’t seem so at the time.

Today we read about our Lord going out into the wilderness. He goes there to come face to face with the great tempter of all mankind, that old evil foe, Satan. Satan seems to be waiting for him there. Away from his friends, away from his support and his admiring crowds, away from a consistent source of food and water. Satan launches his attack. His attack is focused on the identity of Jesus. “If you are the Son of God,” he says, “If you are… command this stone to become bread” (Luke 4:3). The temptation isn’t just to feed himself because he is hungry; the temptation is to take up his own cause of glory to prove that he is the Son of God. The temptation is to justify yourself, to show the world who is right and who is wrong. Oh, what I would do with such power! I would certainly show Satan who is in charge, who is in control of things, who is the Son of God. But what does Jesus do? Nothing. Well, not nothing, he quotes the Word of God. “It is written, ‘Man shall not live by bread alone.’”

But Satan isn’t so easily pushed aside. Next, he directs our Lord to all the kingdoms of the world. He shows them their prestige and power and authority and glory. He says, “Look this is all mine, it has been delivered to me. This is where I roam, where I am king, and I can give it to whomever I choose. Just bow down, just worship me and it is all yours, everything. Not at some other date, not in a thousand years or at your second coming, but now. Right now, it will all be yours.” Oh, the temptation of this world. The riches and glory and power that we all long to have. How often have you turned a blind eye to the command and decree of your God because of what you desire, because of your need to fill your own longings? You know what is right and wrong. You know what God says about marriage and commitment and love, but you do things how you see it, because it’s what you want. You know how he calls for separation from sin and perversion, yet you embrace the things God despises because it is part of the glory of this age. But Jesus is unmoved by the idols of this age, the substitutions we make for the one true God, and so he simply quotes the Bible again, “It is written, ‘You shall worship the Lord your God, and him only shall you serve.’”

But Satan is still determined to win this battle in the wilderness, so he switches his tactic a little. This time he takes our Lord to a high pinnacle of the temple and again challenges his identity, but this time he quotes Scripture to Jesus, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here, for it is written, ‘He will command his angels concerning you, to guard you,’ and ‘On their hand they will bear you up, lest you strike your foot against a stone.’” In other words, the temptation is to prove himself to be God’s Son by putting to test these Words of the Bible. But once again Jesus doesn’t seem to be phased by this. He simply replies, “It is said, ‘You shall not put the Lord your God to the test.’” You can’t use what is otherwise good and faithful to trick Jesus into testing his Father.

Now watching from the sideline as our Lord goes out into the wilderness to match wits with Satan is a blessing for us all. What we see unfold is exactly how a faithful child of God endures the wilderness, exactly what is supposed to happen. Jesus is faithful everywhere that we are not when we find ourselves in the wilderness. The wilderness is supposed to be a place where we rely upon our God and trust in him to provide, to see us through, to be faithful to his promises and justify his own cause. And that is exactly what Jesus does. He relentlessly leans on the Word of God. Notice that the whole time he doesn’t make any answer on his own. He simply speaks to Satan what God has already declared. Now, don’t get me wrong. I don’t think that the point here is that you need to go out and memorize a bunch of Bible verses so that you too can outduel Satan in Bible passages. Rather, the focus here is that Jesus doesn’t rely on his own strength, his own glory, his own power. He is triumphant by relying on his Father.

What you are given here is a picture of the Christian life lived in the wilderness. And for you the wilderness isn’t some desolate place away in the mountains or off in the desert. The wilderness is the life you live right now. A life that is attacked on all sides by a world that seeks to turn you from the clear and simple Word of God. A life where Satan roams proud and strong to try and get you to justify yourself. A life where glory and power are dangled before you at every turn if only you bow down and worship. And Satan and the world out there have a willing and eager accomplice that lurks right within each and every one of you. That old sinner which clings to your flesh is always ready to take the opportunity to follow your desires over God’s commands.

The wilderness waits for you as you leave church this day. The wilderness lurks at your work and makes a home amidst your families. The wilderness is felt by your struggling and your pain, your heartache and your loneliness. And right there the Word of God and the presence of the Holy Spirit and the attacks of Satan will go to war. And in the wilderness, the faithful will find that they can endure. In the wilderness, they will become bold and confident, not in their own strength but in the promises of God. In the wilderness, they will marvel again at how the promises of God do not go unanswered. Life will beat back death and light will overpower the darkness.

And perhaps you wonder, “How?” How will I come through the wilderness with such gifts? How will I make it at all? Well, because you do not go alone. The living Word of God, the only begotten of the Father goes with you. He who is already victorious over sin, death, and the power of the devil is your champion. He forgives you, he loves you, and he will endure with you. Christ alone is your hope, and he promises not to lose a single one of you.