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The Way Walking in the Footsteps of Jesus
By Adam Hamilton
Abingdon PressCopyright © 2012 Abingdon Press
All rights reserved.
Baptism and Temptation
The Jordan River and the Wilderness
In those days Jesus came from Nazareth in Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. And a voice came from heaven, "You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased." And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness, and he was in the wilderness forty days, being tempted by Satan. Mark 1:9-13 NRSV
One day, as John was baptizing in the Jordan, he looked up to see a familiar face. He smiled as Jesus approached, and the two men embraced. These men had known one another their entire lives. They had played together as boys and dreamed together as young men. John was six months older, but he always knew it was his younger cousin who would play the greater role in God's plans. The two had shared long walks and conversations both in Jerusalem and in the monastery by the Salt Sea. They had stayed up long into the night discussing the Scriptures and the kingdom of God. John's preaching and baptism at the Jordan would officially set in motion a chain of events that would lead to John's own death in a matter of months, and to Jesus' crucifixion just three years later.
Jesus took off his sandals and robe and said to John, "Baptize me, brother!" John stepped back, confused, protesting: "I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?" Jesus insisted, "Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness" (Matthew 3:14, 15 NRSV). With his baptism, the three-year public ministry of Jesus began. From this time on, the die was cast. The prospect was exciting, and terrifying. Jesus was thirty years of age when he waded into the waters of the Jordan to be baptized by his older cousin.
Even in the first century, Christians were unsettled by John's baptism of Jesus. They wondered, as modern-day disciples do, why one who "knew no sin" received a baptism, indicating a repentance of sin.
In Jesus' baptism, the sinless man chose to identify with sinful people. He stepped into the water not out off his need but for ours. Later he would tell his disciples that "the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost" (Luke 19:10 NIV). He wasn't embarrassed to identify with sinners by wading into the waters of repentance. He didn't announce to everyone present, "I don't really need this; it's for you." He chose to let others think what they would—he was walking into the water with us and for us. In the days ahead, he would eat with sinners and tax collectors. He would befriend prostitutes and adulterers. This was his mission. In his baptism, Jesus identified with sinners.
At the church that I serve, we have support groups for people with various addictions. If you had friends who struggled with sexual addiction, and you knew they might find help and deliverance by attending a support group, would you offer to go with them to the group? Would you worry what others might think as they saw you enter the room? Would you feel the need to say, "I'm with them. I don't really have a sexual addiction. I'm just their friend"? Or would you sit quietly with your friends, hoping and praying that because you were there with them, they might find help? In essence, this is what Jesus did when he was baptized. He identified with sinners, not only joining them in the water, but also inviting all who would follow him to wade in.
Baptism has many meanings. Like a kaleidoscope, it presents a different picture with each turn. As Jesus stepped into the water to identify with sinful humanity and become the Son of Man, the Holy Spirit descended upon him like a dove. He heard the voice of God announcing that he was God's beloved son, with whom God was "well pleased" (Luke 3:22). Thus, in that moment Jesus was declaring that he was the Son of Man while God was declaring that he was the Son of God. Jesus also received power from the Spirit for the ministry that lay ahead. Here at the Jordan, we see the first glimpse of what Christians would come to call the Trinity. The Son came to be baptized. The Father spoke. The Spirit descended.
Beloved of God
The words spoken by God at Jesus' baptism come, at least in part, from Psalm 2:7, a coronation song in which the psalmist speaks of the kings of Israel as God's sons. But it is not an exact quote. The Psalm says, "You are my Son; today I have become your Father" (Psalm 2:7 NRSV). But to Jesus, God spoke in the midst of his baptism, saying "You are my Son, the Beloved, with you I am well pleased" (Mark 1:11 NRSV, emphasis added).
Jesus was "beloved" of God. The word used was agapetos—a Greek adjective that is a term of endearment signifying a special and deep bond with a favorite person, one who is treasured and dear. God reaffirmed this special relationship with Jesus at the Mount of Transfiguration, not long before Jesus' death, by using the Greek verb eudokeo. The word indicates taking particular delight or pleasure in someone or something.
Recently our oldest daughter Danielle and her husband moved back to Kansas City after being away for several years. They returned to the area so Danielle could go to graduate school. Having her back has brought great joy to my wife LaVon and me. I gave Danielle a big hug the other day and told her, "I love you so much. I feel such joy that you are back in Kansas City and I get to see you regularly." To me, this is the sense that agapetos and eudokeo carry with them; this is what Jesus was hearing from God.
For Jesus, his baptism was a defining act. In that moment, he identified with sinners and heard God's affirmation that he was the Father's beloved son. He received the Spirit's power. And it marked the beginning of his ministry. Jesus' baptism was an ordination in which he was set aside and empowered for his mission of drawing people to God, inviting them into God's kingdom, demonstrating God's will, and ultimately laying down his life for humanity.
For us, as Christ followers, baptism is also meant as a defining act. Through our baptism we are claimed by God, anointed with the Spirit, and set aside for God's purposes. Our brokenness is recognized and God's grace is promised. And in our baptisms we are initiated into, and become a part of, God's covenant people. We are meant to remember our baptisms each day. Even if we don't remember the act of baptism itself, we remember that God has promised to forgive our sins, that we are called to ministry, that the Holy Spirit resides in us, and that we are God's children.
It is said that Martin Luther, when he struggled with bouts of depression, would look into the mirror when he was at his lowest and say to himself, "Martin Luther, you are baptized. Don't forget it." Several years ago, when preaching on baptism, I invited our members to remember their baptism each day. To help them do so, we prepared a simple prayer and printed it on a plastic card with a rubber band attached. We invited our members to hang this prayer in their shower and to recite the prayer when they stepped into the water each morning. The card says,
Lord, as I enter the water to bathe, I remember my baptism.
Wash me by your grace. Fill me with your Spirit. Renew my soul.
I pray that I might live as your child today and honor you in all that I do.
We give these shower tag prayers to our graduating high school seniors each year so that, when they go off to college, each morning as they take a shower they will remember their baptisms and, in so doing, remember who they are. They are children of God and a part of the family of Christ.
Led to the Wilderness
The Scripture tells us that Jesus, immediately following what must have been one of the most spiritually significant experiences of his life, was led (or driven) by the Spirit to the wilderness to be tempted while fasting for forty days and forty nights. Many of you will be reading this book during the season of Lent. The Christian season of Lent is a forty-day period, excluding Sundays, in which Christ followers join Jesus on his forty-day fast, spiritually walking in his footsteps. Lent is a season of repentance and spiritual self-examination. It is a time to draw near to Christ, and a time when we recall our brokenness and mortality. This allows us to appreciate the blessings that come on Good Friday and Easter, when Christ dies for us and then is raised to life.
As we retrace Jesus' footsteps during his forty days in the wilderness, we'll learn something about where he spent the forty days and why he went there, and we'll consider the nature and meaning of his wrestling match with the devil.
Jesus left John at the Jordan River and hiked five miles due west across a flat desert dotted with scrub brush. The desert likely looks the same today as it did when Jesus began his journey. In this area one might pass a camel or two, or a shepherd grazing his sheep, but otherwise there's not a lot to see between the Jordan River and the mountains of the wilderness. According to tradition Jesus would have passed on the north side of Jericho, the desert oasis town. He would also have come very close to the Wadi Qelt, where King Herod had built a fabulous winter palace, a palace that was at that time still in use by his family, the ruins of which you can visit to this day.
Just north of Jericho, the first of many Judean wilderness mountains arises. It is a rugged and barren mountain, known today as Mount Qurantal. (Qurantal means forty; the mountain is so named because it is thought that Jesus spent his forty days of temptation here.) It is often referred to simply as the Mount of Temptation.
Some people who read that Jesus spent forty days and nights in the wilderness picture an overgrown tropical forest. But the wilderness of Judea is a desert, dry and arid, that looks something like the Badlands of South Dakota or one of many places in the desert southwest of the United States. This is where Jesus would spend the next forty days and forty nights fasting, praying, and wrestling with the devil.
Halfway up Mount Qurantal is a large cave, easily seen from the base of the mountain. The tradition going back at least to the 300s is that Jesus slept there during his forty days. Certainly this was the closest large cave in the wilderness to the place where Jesus was baptized.
Today the Monastery of the Temptation clings to the side of the mountain and covers the cave. Pilgrims can walk up, as Jesus did, or ride a tram. I took that walk with a group of pilgrims on a recent trip. Once inside the monastery, we went past rooms belonging to Orthodox monks until coming to the entrance of the large cave. Partway back into the cave, which is set up as a chapel, is an iron gate. It is opened at various times during the day for service or for visitors to go deeper into the cave. At the back of this large cave is an opening and several stairs down. All but children have to duck their heads as they enter. Here is a smaller cave, which I judged to be about three feet by six feet with a height of about five feet. This smaller cave is said to be where Jesus slept during his forty days and forty nights in the wilderness.
I was fortunate to have the space to myself for a few moments, and I tried to imagine Christ sleeping here. Scattered throughout the room were photos brought by visitors of loved ones they were praying for and scraps of paper bearing prayer requests. I paused for a moment there to pray and to thank Christ for choosing to undergo the temptations, and I invited him to strengthen me when I face the tempter.
As I left the Monastery of the Temptation, I walked down a path where most visitors don't go. It took me back to the mountainside, just below the monastery. I imagined Jesus walking this desolate path, with nothing to eat or drink, sleeping alone in a cave, and I was reminded that the wilderness is often a metaphor for those places we don't want to go, when life seems barren and the road seems hard and we seem to be wrestling with evil.
I thought of Elijah, who fled to the wilderness when the evil Queen Jezebel sought to kill him. I remembered David, who fled from Saul and lived among the caves, writing psalms with words such as "How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever?" I thought about Moses, living for those long years as a fugitive from Pharoah's hand in the wilderness of Sinai. All these stories have one thing in common: God met each of these men as they sojourned in the wilderness. What was true for them is true for us. All of us sojourn in the wilderness at times in our lives, feeling hopeless and all alone. Yet when we pay attention and listen, God comes to us and uses the wilderness to strengthen and sanctify us.
The Meaning of the Three Temptations
Jesus spent forty days in the wilderness. The number is significant. The rain that raised Noah's ark fell for forty days and forty nights. Moses spent forty days and forty nights fasting on Mount Sinai as he received the Law. Elijah fasted for forty days and forty nights in the wilderness before hearing God whisper to him. In addition to these examples, there was one more connection to the number forty that may have been important. The children of Israel wandered in the wilderness for forty years. In Deuteronomy 8:2, Moses says that that period of wandering was to test them, "to know what was in your heart, whether or not you would keep his commandments" (NRSV). This last connection seems to have been foremost in Jesus' mind, for in his responses to the devil's temptations we find that all three of his responses came from Deuteronomy, chapters 6 to 8.
Jesus' temptations and his time in the wilderness were a way for him to connect with the stories of the holy people of old, but they meant more than that. The temptations served as a test for Jesus. Just as a teacher gives a test, not to break students but to strengthen them, so it was with this test. (The Greek word for temptation, peirazo, is often translated as "testing.") Jesus was being tempted, but more important he was being tested, so that when he began his public ministry and faced adversity and success, he would continue steadfast in his mission.
When you think of Jesus' temptations, how do you imagine them? The Gospels describe a conversation between Jesus and the devil. We might take this literally and at face value. But it seems more likely that Jesus had a conversation with the devil in the same way we have conversations with the devil. I don't see a man in red tights, carrying a pitchfork. I hear a whisper to do something I have no business doing or urging me to refrain from doing what I should do. He personifies the inner spiritual struggles that all of us face. We've all wrestled with the devil.
We don't know all the temptations the devil threw at Jesus over those forty days, but Matthew and Luke tell us of three specific temptations. Unless they were simply making it up, the only way they could have known this information was for Jesus to have described his wrestling match with the devil to his disciples. I think this is likely. And if he did so, he was trying to teach them something about temptation, and he was also revealing something about his own temptations, which can be seen as the archetypal or universal struggles we wrestle with as human beings.
Jesus' first temptation was about food. Food is among our most basic needs, but the desire for it can at times be our undoing. This first temptation takes us back to the Garden of Eden, where Adam and Eve were tested by the tempter, who urged them to eat the forbidden fruit. They succumbed to the temptation, ate the fruit, and paradise was lost. Several chapters later in Genesis, Esau was willing to sell his birthright to his brother Jacob for a bowl of porridge. In Exodus, the Israelites were willing to return to slavery in Egypt so they could eat cucumbers and leeks rather than manna. In each of these stories, the desire for instant gratification that was related to food led to (or in the case of the Israelites in the wilderness, would have led to) a profound loss of blessing.
Those of us who live in the developed world struggle with the temptations related to food. We are tempted to eat too much, or to eat the kinds of food that increase the likelihood of disease. We know this but find it hard to say no to the devil's whispers. Meanwhile our eating habits have helped cause a health-care crisis. We also know that millions of people die of starvation and malnutrition each year, yet few of us give to causes that benefit those in extreme poverty.
Excerpted from The Way Walking in the Footsteps of Jesus by Adam Hamilton. Copyright © 2012 Abingdon Press. Excerpted by permission of Abingdon Press.
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