Between the Water and the Wilderness

In film and literature there are often cues to help the audience know that an amazing story is about to take place. We may think of the old “Once upon a time…” or even the infamous, “Long ago, in a galaxy far, far away….” With both set before you I imagine that some images and story elements came to mind. Why is the case? We have expectations. There are certain genre norms attached to the beginning of great tales. Did you know that the ministry of Jesus has quite a notable beginning as well? It doesn’t begin with fanfare, nor a scrolling title sequence. It comes in the most unexpected of places: the wilderness. But what better place could be found to start mankind’s redemption from all the horrors that awaited outside of Eden, than the wilderness? Here Jesus began His ministry.

Perhaps the important question to ask is: How did Jesus prepare for His ministry on earth? There is a sense where Christ’s training was altogether unique. But the Gospels of the New Testament identify several common places that prepared Christ for His ministry. We see that the Lord Jesus was baptized in the Jordan River by John the Baptist. Here he was empowered by the Holy Spirit. After which, He immediately went out further into the wilderness to be tempted by the Devil. Each of these events all combined to prepare Him for the unique messianic ministry which He willingly submitted Himself to undergo. Although each of the four Gospels provide a window into two or more of these preparatory aspects, let’s focus on Matthew’s Gospel. 

Matthew chapters 3-4 house the relevant biblical data. Here we read that John the Baptist was proclaiming a baptism of repentance and drawing great crowds. This baptism brought over all sorts of people, from religious elites to back alley regulars. However, the one person he never expected to see was his cousin, Jesus. Initially, John did not want to baptize Jesus. “John would have prevented him, saying, ‘I need to be baptized by you,” Matthew recorded. But the Lord said to him, “Let it be so now, for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness.” (Matthew 3:14-15 ESV) Jesus was then baptized with water, and as soon as he emerged “the heavens were opened to him, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and coming to rest on him” (Matthew 3:16) God the Holy Spirit descended on Him in bodily form. Then the God the Father declared publicly, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.” (Matthew 3:17). Immediately following this, the Spirit cast Jesus into the wilderness to do battle with the Devil.

What do we make of all this? First, Jesus came to fulfill God’s righteous requirements. He had no need to be purified or cleansed by baptism. However, He did come to represent His people who were in dire need of spiritual purification. This link to Isaiah’s Suffering Servant would be made more explicit in Matthew’s gospel later in Matthew 12:18-21 (cf. Isaiah 42:1-3) Jesus was standing in the place of His people (Isa. 53:11).

Second, we find that Jesus is the anointed Messiah. Just as kings and priests were anointed with oil in the Old Testament, Jesus now is anointed with the Spirit. This is what the word “Christ” means. This is what the oil symbolized. It was a way of publicly marking out a man for the ministry God was assigning to him. Jesus came under the call and guidance of His heavenly Father, and empowered by His Spirit. The Spirit’s descent and the Father’s proclamation also connect this anointing with Christ’s role as David’s promised Son (cf. 2 Samuel 7:12f; Psalm 2:7). Ironically, it will be the Devil who first calls Jesus the “Son of God” in Matthew (cf. Matthew 4:3, 6).

Third, Jesus represented His people not only in baptism but also in the wilderness. Jesus is the last Adam and true Israel. Everywhere the first Adam and the people of Israel failed He succeeds (cf. 1 Cor. 15:21-22). Adam failed against temptation in a beautiful garden void of sin. Jesus succeeds in the wasteland, famished and assaulted regularly by Satan in a fallen world (cf. Matt. 4:1-11). Where Israel abandoned God and His Word in the Wilderness (Numbers 11-15), Christ clings to Him and His promises in the desert.

Fourth, Jesus’ preparation for ministry was for our sake. His cleansing act in baptism pointed towards the promise that we can only be cleansed in Him. His receiving the Spirit was a promise that He would one day pour His Spirit upon us (cf. Acts 2). Satan’s defeat in the wilderness was a foreshadow of the Christ’s future victory against every assault of the Devil for us. Hebrews records the significance of Christ in this way: “Since therefore the children share in flesh and blood, he himself likewise partook of the same things, that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and deliver all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong slavery.” (Hebrews 2:14-15 ESV) 

By our union with Christ, every victory and act in His redemptive work comes to be life for us forever. Even though we are sinful, spiritually marred, and too often fail against temptation because Christ has suffered for us, we have hope in Him. We have hope, forgiveness, renewal, and a new life in Him.