In this current age of technology and science, it is difficult for us to realize that one of the most important incidents reported in the Bible for understanding the Christian faith is about an evil spirit referred to as "Satan" or "the devil." The particular incident I am referring to is Jesus being tempted in the wilderness by Satan for forty days, related to us in Matthew 4:1-2, Mark 1:12-13, and Luke 4:1-2. (FYI: "Satan" is the Hebrew proper name of the supreme leader of evil spirits opposed to God; "the devil" is the Greek rendition of the original Hebrew proper noun; both mean the same.)
It is not my intention in today's blog to discuss whether or not evil spirits really exist. That's a matter that is resolved by one's personal faith. I am concerned today only in understanding why the writers of Matthew, Mark, and Luke included this incident in their Gospels, books they wrote nearly two thousand years ago. This time period was very soon after Jesus lived his earthly life, a time when these writers actually were able to talk with people who had personally witnessed what they were writing about.
Mark's version of what happened is the shortest, with very few details. Mark does not relate how Jesus fared in this confrontation with the devil. Both Matthew and Luke, however, go into considerable detail, telling exactly how Jesus was tempted and that he never yielded to Satan's temptations.
As we look at this story in detail, let's focus on two questions: (1) Why is this incident so significant for understanding the Christian faith? and (2) What is this story's relationship with Lent? Neither is all that difficult.
Now to the details of what happened. All three Gospel writers tell us that the idea of Jesus going into the wilderness to be confronted by the devil did not originate with either Jesus or Satan; it was God's idea. Jesus was led into wilderness by the Spirit of God precisely for the purpose of being tempted by the devil. No restrictions were placed on the devil, no holds barred. Jesus was given no preferential treatment or given any ultrahuman powers. The Father did not intervene on behalf of the Son, and Satan was allowed to use the most fierce, beguiling, and persuasive methods of temptation.
This one incident, which took place immediately following the baptism of Jesus, was a foreshadowing of his entire ministry, which would start as soon as Jesus left the wilderness. Throughout the ministry of Jesus, Satan would be permitted to do anything he possibly could to entice Jesus to go astray, and Jesus would be allowed to resist the devil's onslaught by using only those powers available to all other human creatures. The Gospel writers included this particular incident so that there would be no question from the beginning of their books what the goal of Jesus's ministry was and the means Jesus would use throughout his ministry to bring to fruition that goal. Jesus was to bring about the utter defeat of Satan and destroy his hold over humanity.
But this victory by Jesus over Satan in their initial confrontation was not the end of the matter. On the contrary, it was only the beginning. Luke 4:13 tells us the devil left Jesus, but only until other opportunities arose for him to grapple with Jesus further. From that time on the diabolic kingdom waged aggressive and powerful opposition, never waiting for God to the make the arrangements. Satan attacked Jesus often and in different ways, each time failing to win Jesus over to his ways.
Finally, however, the devil thought he had maneuvered the final defeat of Jesus by using Judas Iscariot, one of the original twelve disciples, to betray Jesus for thirty pieces of silver, and then leaving it to the political and religious leaders to see to it that Jesus was crucified, dead, and buried. But Satan completely misjudged what was really happening.
On that first Easter Sunday, when Jesus was raised from the dead, what Satan thought had been a victory was actually his complete defeat. Referring to the Resurrection of Jesus, Paul wrote: "Death is swallowed up in victory. O death, where is thy victory? Or death, where is they sting? . . . Thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ." (I Corinthians 15:54-55, RSV)
This one incident in the Garden of Gethsemane tells us what the ministry of Jesus was all about. His ministry was focused on doing battle with Satan and showing all of us human creatures that in the end Jesus will defeat Satan. This one incident shows us that we have a choice to make: either joining up with Jesus and sharing his victory of eternal life in God's Kingdom or siding with Satan and sharing in his defeat. It is a personal choice each of us will need to make. And that is why understanding this one incident is crucial for understanding the crux of the Christian faith.
And what does all of this have to do with Lent? Taking into consideration that after being baptized Jesus spent "forty" days in the wilderness in preparation for his ministry, Christian leaders determined that we should use the same number of days in preparing for Easter. Hence, starting with Ash Wednesday Lent is the forty "weekday" period before Easter. Furthermore, using this incident as the basis for Lent reminds us that Satan is our biggest obstacle in being prepared for Easter.
A final note about the Gospels and the devil: the four Gospel writers relate stories involving Satan and his demonic kingdom a total of eighty-six times. In all four Gospels, Satan wages war against Jesus directly, and indirectly through people he has influenced to work in opposition to Jesus. And in all four, when Jesus is raised from the dead, Satan has met his match; the devil no longer is the power that human flesh and blood cannot resist.