Bring on the Desert!

Note: This commentary is based on the Seventh-day Adventist Sabbath School Quarterly, First Quarter 2016, Lesson 6: “Victory in the Wilderness.” Please read Matthew 4:1-11; Mark 1:12-13; Luke 4:1-13.

Approaching familiar biblical stories with a fresh pair of eyes can be challenging. The episode of Jesus retreating to the desert after his baptism is certainly no exception. In these cases, it is not just what the text is talking about that matters. It is also important to be clear on what is not going on. I would like to begin with the latter.

What is Not Said

First, we must acknowledge that Jesus’ sojourn to the desert was not unique. Jesus wasn’t the first person to inhabit such places, if only for forty days. Moses, Elijah, David, and John the Baptist were all fellow “desert dwellers,” which indicates that he was simply following in the tradition of the great Jewish luminaries. What sets Jesus’ experience apart from the others, however, is the meaning attributed to it by the gospel authors. Many biblical scholars concur that his wilderness experience is an allusion to that of the children of Israel as recorded in the books of Moses. But where they failed, Jesus succeeded.

Second, to refer to this story as the temptation of Jesus could be misleading. All of the synoptic gospel authors declare that it was the Spirit who drove Jesus into the wilderness. And the Spirit does not tempt anyone to violate the laws of God. If we assume, as the text indicates, the initiative was with God, then “the whole emphasis of the story is on the testing of Jesus’ reaction to his Messianic vocation as Son of God.”[1] Thus, according to one exegete, the verb translated as “tempt” in Matthew’s account (4:1, 3) occurs over thirty times in the New Testament, but in only two of those instances does it indicate tempting to do wrong (see 1 Corinthians 7:5; James 1:13-14).

Third, the temptations from the devil that befell Jesus were not of the typical variety that we, as mere mortals, must endure. To parallel the grounds upon which the devil sought victory over Jesus, with the barrage of temptations his followers withstand, is a distortion of reality. This certainly does not mean that we have one “who cannot sympathize with our weaknesses” (Hebrews 4:15, NASB). On the contrary, we have one who was tempted in more ways than we’ll ever know. In this instance, the gospel authors seem to move beyond the passage in Hebrews that declares Jesus as one who was “in all points tempted like as we are” (Hebrew 4:15, KJV). Jesus was tempted as a man, but also as a God-man, and it was the unique combination of both that we see as the grounds for attack.

Finally, the victory Jesus gained did not mean that the enemy of souls was vanquished for good, and that Jesus had now taken this world back from the dominion of Satan. Instead, the tempter would return again and again manifesting himself in a variety of contexts as deemed opportune (Luke 4:13). Evil, pain, suffering, and injustice are still woven into the fabric of the human experience despite the fact the enemy had to retreat on this occasion with his proverbial tale between his legs. As the angels ministered to Jesus at the end of the narrative, you can almost hear the devil’s voice echo off the desert canyon walls, “This isn’t over!”

Geography, Myths, and Paradise

We have talked about what the story is not saying. But what is it saying? What can we learn from this captivating account?

If I could encapsulate in one word the take-away message for me of Jesus’ “victory in the wilderness,” it would be this: struggle. This story normalizes struggle. For the believer, especially, struggle is necessary and even healthy in the spiritual life because “the fallenness of the world imposes it (e.g., physical sickness, mental anguish, death of a loved one), discipleship requires it (e.g., self-sacrifice) and believers must choose to face it. We therefore cannot escape struggle, nor should we try.”[2] Like it or not, as the Sabbath School quarterly emphasizes, we are caught amidst a cosmic struggle between Christ and Satan. This earth is the battlefield and we are the prize.

This story depicts a struggle, which is first literal and second metaphorical. When scripture says Jesus was driven into the desert and was tempted by the enemy of souls, he went to a very real geographical locale. It was beautiful and lonely. It was barren and bereft of the comforts of home—no food, little if any water, and shelter was scarce. To be sure, the one thing we must not do is prematurely mythologize the desert before we acknowledge that most of Jesus’ energy was “absorbed in the onerous task of staying alive.”[3]

The harsh realities of desert survival laid the foundation for the spiritual battle that ensued between Christ and Satan. The text reads how the enemy approached Jesus at the conclusion of his forty days, when he was the weakest both physically and mentally. Naturally, the first temptation to come Jesus’ way was regarding the one thing his body needed most—bread.

Just as the desert is a real place, we must also concede that in the Christian imagination it has become a mythologized place, home to the devil and his underlings. The unfolding story of the Church is rife with such imagery. One prime example of this can be seen in the life of Antony of Egypt—the most famous of the desert Christians. Seeking to live a more seamless life of discipleship, he heard the words of Jesus “go, sell all your possessions” (Matthew 19:21), and immediately exchanged a life of ease and material wealth for an austere lifestyle enveloped by the severity of the desert. In The Life of Antony by Athanasius, we read about a man who went to the desert to battle the devil but through a struggle with geography and metaphor, ended up finding a deeper relationship with God.[4]

Jesus: Desert Ascetic

Jesus’ forty days in the desert was what one might call ascetic. As a single man, no stranger to poverty, he fasted, prayed, meditated on scripture, and contemplated his mission in solitude and silence.[5] These were his weapons of choice in this type of warfare. But to what end? According to Douglas Burton-Christie, the desert is not only geographical and mythological; it is also “paradisal”—the place where the follower of Jesus is drawn in order “to discover and create a new Eden.”[6] Jesus gives us a glimpse of the inescapability of struggle in human and cosmic affairs, but it is only through those struggles that we will realize the hope of victory.


G. K. Chesterton, a master of the epigram, once wrote: “The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting; it has been found difficult and left untried.”[7] Indeed, to truly follow Christ in any age has never been easy; it requires sacrifice and struggle, truths we’d rather not embrace. While most of us will never become desert saints, nor will we go toe-to-toe with the devil, we do have our own places of struggle. These are real places involving real people in real lives. But our struggles are also about confronting the enemy within, a more intangible foe we attempt to hush in our pursuit of the superlatives. What is needed is what is always been available, the desert—a place of quiet where we are stripped down to only the essentials, laid bare before God, and challenged to the core of our being to remain faithful. Solitude or quiet can be sought even in the midst of activity; what’s important is not how one gets there but that one does go. So for those willing, and as the Spirit leads, bring on the desert!

Erik C. Carter, DMin, PhD, is the newest member to join the faculty of the Loma Linda University School of Religion, where he teaches full-time.

[1]R. T. France, Matthew: An Introduction and Commentary (Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 1985), 96.

[2]Gerald L. Sittser, Water from a Deep Well: Christian Spirituality from Early Martyrs to Modern Missionaries (Downers Grove: IVP, 2007), 74.

[3]Belden C. Lane, The Solace of Fierce Landscapes: Exploring Desert and Mountain Spirituality (New York: Oxford, 1998), 161.

[4]Athanasius, The Life of Antony and The Letter to Marcellinus, trans. Robert C. Gregg (Mahwah, NJ: Paulist, 1980).

[5]See Ellen G. White, The Desire of Ages (Mountain View: Pacific Press, 1940), 114.

[6]Douglas Burton-Christie, “Desert,” in The New Westminster Dictionary of Christian Spirituality, ed. Philip Sheldrake (Louisville: WJK, 2005), 230.

[7]G. K. Chesterton, “Quotations of G. K. Chesterton,” The American Chesterton Society, (accessed January 29, 2016).

This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at

This week’s lesson is high priority.

"Without any question - without any question at all, the biggest problem that Christians have is temptation."
John MacArthur Jr (1970) repeated in a 1978 sermon as well.

“All heaven is watching to see how we are fighting the battle of temptation.” Temperance 191
"And every failure or defeat on our part gives occasion for him to reproach Christ." Desire of Ages 125
"Those only will enter heaven who have overcome the temptation to think and speak evil." Sons and Daughters of God 348

Isaiah 55:7 Let the wicked forsake his way, and the unrighteous man his thoughts: and let him return unto the LORD, and he will have mercy upon him; and to our God, for he will abundantly pardon.

2 Corinthians 10:5 Casting down imaginations, and every high thing that exalteth itself against the knowledge of God, and bringing into captivity every thought to the obedience of Christ;

1 Corinthians 10:13 There hath no temptation taken you but such as is common to man: but God is faithful, who will not suffer you to be tempted above that ye are able; but will with the temptation also make a way to escape, that ye may be able to bear it.


“The desire for an easy religion, that requires no striving, no self-denial, no divorce from the follies of the world, has made the doctrine of faith, and faith only, a popular doctrine; but what saith the Word of God?” GC 472

Some in Christianity can stay focused on the cross (deals with guilt) and the resurrection (deals with the death/fear of death)…yet the gospel addresses depravity and perversion by providing grace to counter temptation so that a human can have a mind makeover, be decriminalized and regenerated/restored into the likeness of the image of God.

It is a waste to be preoccupied with 3rd person accounts from 2000 years ago if one is not becoming fit for eternal life by doing the will of God.
The emphasis on theological knowledge deceives those who place little emphasis on wisdom. By beholding we become changed and that beholding needs to be more than shallow/superficial assent to truth.

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welcome to Loma Linda, You are following some great heroes of the Gospel. However, the focus of Christainity is The Cross and the Resurrection. John and Paul make that their agenda. Jesus was in all places and points tempted such as we, yet without sin, Praise be to God for His gift of Love. Tom Z

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Hi Tom! Thanks for the comment. My response: agreed! I’m not eschewing the truth that Jesus was tempted; I’m making a distinction between temptation and testing that is evident in the text and this story. Jesus, as God and man, experienced both. He was tested by God and tempted (to do wrong) by Satan. We experience both as well, but not necessarily on the same grounds as Jesus because he is God. -EC


Yes, it is all that… and more. Jesus didn’t go into the wilderness as an ascetic; or even as our prototype. Jesus had a real battle within himself. Did he believe what John had just told him - was he the one the world was waiting for. The dove and the voice from above had been proof enough.

What was he offering as “the Son of God”? What were the issues… Wasn’t the history of “God with us” enough. Why was he here?

Dostoevski, in the excerpt from Brothers Karamazov, called The Grand Inquisitor, describes the issues in balance, out there in the desert, differently. Jesus came to change the dynamics. Instead of promises of health and wealth for those who obeyed, Jesus came to bring freedom - of choice. The three temptations weren’t so much about survival, either physical or moral, but about the mission itself - to give us freedom through faith. Had Jesus turned the stones into bread, he would have had a sure following, bought with earthly bread.

But Thou wouldst not deprive man of freedom and didst reject the offer, thinking, what is that freedom worth, if obedience is bought with bread?

Thou didst reject the one infallible banner which was offered Thee to make all men bow down to Thee alone - the banner of earthly bread; and Thou has rejected it for the sake of freedom and the bread of Heaven.

The temptations were the rejection of using “miracle” to entice a following. Miracle is one of three false motivations for devotion. The other two are mystery and authority, none of which allows man to worship out of freedom - without fear and earthly benefits. Jesus didn’t base his authority on the miraculous even on the cross when men were egging him on to “Come down from the cross and we will believe.”

Of course, Dostoevski wrote this piece as a condemnation of the church of Rome, as it embraced the “miracle, mystery and authority” that Jesus had rejected, as the basis of discipleship. The church offers man just the things Jesus rejected, claiming miracle, mystery and authority; and the faithful follow.

Had Jesus succumbed to the temptations, he would have bound men to himself for the “loaves and the fish” more than freedom to love out of pure faith.

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as long as we are born with original sin in a fallen nature we didn’t ask for, and into a fallen world we didn’t ask to be born into, nurturing the born again life we receive through the holy spirit when we give our hearts to god requires an all-out struggle…this is because everything we naturally are isn’t interested in cooperating with god on any level, nor yet even with our own enlightened intentions…and all of this is in addition to the fact that invisible spirits, led by a being whom many people have agreed to call satan, aren’t interested in seeing us escape the pull of the original sin in our fallen nature…

i agree that christ, in this struggle in the wilderness, is an example…i also agree that his struggle represents a level of temptation we can never be called to face…christ was the one person untouched by original sin in his fallen nature…he therefore had a natural aversion to sin which we will only approximate, even after many years of resisting temptation…christ endured the full power and onslaught of satan, whereas each of us face modified temptations, according to what god knows we are individually capable of bearing…

jesus was the pattern we can never equal, in order to be the sacrifice we can never be…this is why we worship him, and not ourselves…

Very well done, and an excellent basis for stimulating conversation on a Sabbath morning! One interesting question for me is: Can a person “struggle” toward spiritual growth without lapsing, like Luther in the monastery, into guilty self-preoccupation.

You write: “Jesus was tempted as a man, but also as a God-man, and it was the unique combination of both that we see as the grounds for attack.” But notice that Jesus quoted from Scripture in response to each temptation, and each of those passages was written, presumably, for the edification of ordinary human beings. So I think I would say that if Jesus was a special object of the devil’s ire, he was surely also representative. The whole pathos of (failed) Christendom–Christendom caught up in partnership with political power–might, for example, have been avoided if Christians had realized that thirsting after earthly political success contradicts the spirit of the true God.

To this day, ordinary Christians, transfixed by the lure of political power, lapse easily into thoughtless patriotism. That is part of the reason why contemporary critics have such an easy time of it associating Christianity with violence.



Tom, it’s that simple and yet that powerful. Unless this wilderness experience of our Lord is understood in the light of Calvary it’s just religious philosophy.

The meta-narrative of Scripture is “God was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself, not counting their trespasses against them…”

I think I may have mentioned this before but if we are to talk about human struggle in the context of Christ’s wilderness experience as the back-drop and we fail to put it into the context of the struggle and victory of Christ on the cross, followed by the resurrection, then I submit that we have failed as ambassadors for Christ.

Everything centres around God’s work of reconciliation - God was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself. And yes, not counting our trespasses against us.

Ray I guess you missed my point. I closed With–Jesus was tempted in all places and points such as we. Jesus as a babe was taken to Egypt and returned to
To Israel and then following His Baptism He spent 40 days in the Wilderness. Just as with the Sancuary He was in all point the true Israel. The place I part company with the Adventist view is the IJ and all its appointments including the final generation a la Douglas et al. Tom Z

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I can agree with you on the rest of your points too Tom, but especially your reference to the cross and the resurrection as the focus. I wanted to underline that as giving meaning and purpose to the other events and symbolism in Scripture.

It is hard to understand how earth was drawn into heaven’s conflict that was not its making. God forgives sinners of heinous crimes against humanity, when they call on Him. Yet Eve was not given any opportunity, considering her mistake was not malicious but a judgment error. From this one youthful offense, attributed to her lack of inexperience and gullibility. Satan has ever since been permitted to be the grim reaper; with a thousand-fold advantage.

Since this is a cosmic conflict, how much pain, rampant inequality and injustice does un-fallen intelligences need to choose between the difference of goodness and evil for all time? Between the NT ideals and Satan’s malevolent swastika? Maybe I am looking at this from a human perspective considering that humanities distressed existence is just a passing zephyr on eternity’s clock. Nevertheless, I wonder if Eve had known that God was inflexible and severe in punishing billions of her decedents, along with all plant and animal life, for slight misjudgments she would have given more thought to the magical serpent’s promises?


I whole heartedly agree with your statement:
“Eve’s mistake was not malicious , but a judgement error. From this one youthful offense, Satan ever since has had a thousand-fold advantage.
God was inflexible and severe in punishing billions of Eve’s descendants, along with all plant and animal life”.

EGW states that Lucifer/Satan had immense intelligence.
It seems that this was a very unequal, one-sided conflict between a naive woman, created “lower than the Angels” and an Angel that was at the pinnacle of the heavenly hierarchy of Angels.

God evidently was alert to the inevitable outcome of this inequitable confrontation , since He “before the foundation of the world” had already planned for Eve’s highly predictable downfall.

That six thousand years later, (and many millenia more, if we are to believe scientific evidence) God still exacts his"pound of flesh" in human suffering, because of one woman’s naivety and lack of judgement, is to say the least dismaying.

Not only did Satan have huge advantage over Eve, but he has been allowed way too long to be dominant over mankind.

How can the “good Angels” and the unfallen beings on other planets, tolerate the STENCH of MISERY and suffering that has emanated from this planet for multiple millenia, with appalling atrocities, awful anguish and agony, because of Eve’s appetite for one apple??

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