“Into the Wilderness”

“Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil.”

(Matthew 4:1)

In the beginning, God placed the first human in the perfect living conditions, a literal paradise where all his needs were met. His work in tending  the garden (Gen. 2:15) was a joy until, because of a foolish decision to mistrust his Creator, he was forced  into exile away from  paradise and away from God Himself (Gen. 3:22-24). Not only this, but the once pristine ground had become “cursed” and his cultivation of it burdensome (Gen. 3:17-18). In a manner of speaking, Adam was sent “into the wilderness.” His mistrust of God resulted in him trading  life in a perfect world for life in a much harsher, corrupted one.

A “wilderness” is a desolate and lonely place devoid of vegetation. Theologically, it is the place where the Satan, represented by the serpent in the garden, took up his domain as  “ruler” (Jn. 12:31; 14:30 etc.). The Bible consistently depicts the “wilderness” as a place of judgment. Let’s notice a few examples that demonstrate this.

When Abraham's wife Sarah punished her servant Hagar, she “treated her harshly and she fled from her presence” (16:4-6). And where did Hagar run? Into the “wilderness” (16:7; 21:14, 20-21).

When Moses’ attempt at revolt in Egypt failed he fled to the “wilderness of Midian” away from the presence of Pharaoh to escape a death sentence (Ex. 2:15; 3:1).

The entire Exodus generation was forced to “wander in the wilderness forty years” as a punishment for their unbelief (Num. 32:13).

David fled from Saul “to the hill country of the wilderness” to escape persecution (1 Sam. 23:14). Later in life, David fled again “to the wilderness,” this time from his own son Absalom (2 Sam. 15:23).

The nation of Israel was carried off into Babylonian captivity because of their rejection of the Lord and His covenant. While in Babylon the land of Israel literally became a “wilderness” (Isa. 64:10).

But Isaiah prophesied of a time when a voice would cry, “In the wilderness prepare the way of the LORD; make straight in the desert a highway for our God” (40:3). He described Israel’s spiritual condition metaphorically as a desolate land. But God promised that He would “[make] her desert like the garden of the LORD” (51:3). God was going to transform the barren, desert-like lives of His people into a flourishing garden. Israel’s rejuvenation would, in a sense, bring them back to the garden and back to the presence of God.

But first, God had to send His “messenger” who would “clear the way before” Him (Mal. 3:1). What better place to “prepare the way of the LORD” than in the wilderness (Mt. 3:3)? This messenger, John the Baptist, lived in the “wilderness” of Judea as a symbol, meeting Israel where they were spiritually, in a desert of sorrow and sin (Mt. 3:1).

Then the Lord finally arrived! After he was proclaimed God’s “beloved Son” (Mt. 3:13-17) we find Him being “led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil” (Mt. 4:1). Jesus did not accidentally stumble "into the wilderness." He wasn’t there fleeing from some evil like David nor was he being punished like Israel. He was “led” there “by the Spirit” for a purpose: to confront evil at its source. The lying serpent who started this whole mess in the first place was about to meet his arch nemesis in Jesus (cf. Gen. 3:15).

While in the “wilderness,” Jesus suffered greatly at the hands of the evil one but overcame temptation as a human, succeeding where both Israel and Adam had failed and opening up for us the pathway back to Paradise. In Jesus, we are no longer doomed to wander in a barren land but are being drawn back to the Garden and to God!