Jesus returned from the Jordan, and was led by the Spirit into the desert for forty days, to be tempted by the devil. -Luke 4:1
We only hear about the 40th day.
What happened during the other 39?
Jesus was propelled out into the desert after his baptism, after he heard those life-changing words: You are my beloved son. Did it take him that long, perhaps, to figure out what it meant to be God’s son, and what on earth he should do next?
And this “devil” – more appropriately translated “opponent” or “obstructor” – what exactly was he trying to oppose and obstruct? And how?
I believe that, during those 40 days, Jesus wrestled with his understanding of his mission – not just the “why” and the “what” but especially the “how” of his public ministry. Opposed and obstructed at every step.
And since the good is often the enemy of the best, I suspect that the great obstructor suggested all sorts of tangential issues to care about, alternate strategies to pursue. Maybe Jesus needed those 40 days (the Biblical number for “a really long time”) to clear his head of all that rubbish, to be calm and focused and purposeful, to learn exactly how to direct his energy.
Here’s how I picture that final day:
Plans and possibilities have been considered and rejected. Powers, perhaps, have been explored, and reliance on them restricted. Hungry, weary, yet resolute, Jesus begins to trudge back towards civilization, leaning on his staff.
He is really hungry.
The stones at his feet shimmer in the heat; squint your eyes and they look like bread.
Then that damn voice again. “If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become bread.” If? If? Always if! The Spirit had said so; hadn’t he heard it? Hadn’t everyone? He’d just spent 40 days growing into that identity. Why was the “if” back? If you are the Son of God … and not some delusional freak!
Turning the stone to bread; would that silence the “if” for good? The walk back was so long, and he was so hungry. This was so hard. What harm would it do? Who would know? What was the use of being God’s son, if you couldn’t feed yourself when you were hungry?
As he leans on his staff, he realizes that hunger and weariness are feeding him insecurity and taking him to the brink of unraveling all the resolutions he made when he was feeling stronger. Mental note – fatigue and hunger are dangerous. The strongest resolutions can start to slip away under their siege. He must steel himself against such lapses in logic; he cannot use his “magic powers” for his own comfort or convenience. (And though he does not know it yet, If he can’t resist making bread when he is hungry, how will he resist the jeers of the crowd telling him to come down off that cross … baiting him with that word “if” again?)
More importantly, he can’t cave to the urge to prove himself for the sake of his pride. That can’t end well.
Once the first temptation is resisted, the subsequent ones get easier. (Probably a good lesson for the rest of us.) Though they do have their own specific appeal.
Then he took him up and showed him all the kingdoms of the world in a single instant. The devil said to him … all this shall be yours, if you worship me. (Luke 4:5-7)
Now that is tempting. All the kingdoms of the world in a single instant. Just think of all the places he will never visit in his lifetime. All the places it will take his followers years … decades … even centuries to reach, and how much his message could be warped in transmission!
And yet the devil here has overreached, showed his hand. He doesn’t have the power. The kingdoms are not his to give. Easy to resist.
So the obstructor takes a step back. Returns to what almost worked the first time. If you are the Son of God … throw yourself down (from the parapet of the temple). For he will command his angels to guard you … (Luke 4:9-10).
Again, there is a certain draw. It would get people’s attention, that’s for sure. He wouldn’t have to struggle against their disbelief in the “carpenter’s son.” Wouldn’t have to take the hard road. (Might not even wind up on the cross.)
The devil’s lures are getting tiresome.
This is not the way, and he knows it. He walks on, feeling stronger, resolute. And so the devil retreats, waiting for Jesus’ defenses to go down again.
To do the right thing, in the right way, for the right reason. That’s the challenge that was laid before Jesus, and that lies before each of us every day.