Mark's Look at Jesus' Temptation (and What It Teaches Us About Bible Study)

One of the hallmarks of a growing knowledge of the Word of God is the ability to associate key events or doctrines with the Bible chapters that record them. Sometimes though, this ability can lull us into thinking that a single Bible chapter contains the entirety of what the Bible has to say on a subject. For example, when I say, “Where can I find an account of Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness,” what chapter springs to mind? Was it Matthew 4? Maybe in studying Jesus’ temptation, you discovered that Luke also records this event, and so Matthew 4 and Luke 4 both came to mind. But – and be honest now – did Mark 1 come to mind as quickly as those other two? Did it come to mind at all?

In all honesty, if you had asked me that question before I authored this article, Mark 1 probably wouldn’t have come to my mind. Further, if you had asked me back then to present an in-depth look at the temptation of Christ, I probably would have noted that Mark 1 recorded the event, but I would not have used it as my main text and may or may not have attempted to reflect upon its uniqueness. What I probably would have done (and have been guilty before of doing with other Bible accounts) would be to try to present a picture of the event by combining the looks of the various Gospel authors who covered it.

I might have used the word “guilty,” but there is actually nothing wrong with studying Bible events and doctrines topically – in other words, taking all the information that the Bible presents, organizing it logically or sequentially, and drawing conclusions. Even the Bible demonstrates the value of topical study. For example, the recorded portion of Peter’s sermon in Acts 2 presents the fruit of a topical study of the resurrection of Jesus Christ. However, examining events and doctrines exclusively as topics can lead to 1) neglecting the original context of statements, which can lead to misinterpretation and 2) ignoring the author’s intention revealed by including and/or excluding certain details.

What we sometimes fail to reflect on is that if God had wanted to give one exhaustive presentation of the life of Christ rather than the four accounts we have, He could have done so. There is value in studying the events of the life of Christ topically, combining the four accounts to present one cohesive picture. However, there is also value in reflecting simply on what each author presents in his account, and how it fits into his unique presentation of Christ’s life.

To return to our example, the reason that Mark 1 might not have come to mind when you thought about Christ’s temptation is that his record of the event is only two verses long (Mark 1:12-13). In studying the account comparatively with Matthew and Luke, you would discover only three points of uniqueness: 1) Mark is the only author to note that the period of temptation was “immediately” after Jesus’ baptism; 2) Mark uses a more forceful word to describe the imperative to go into the wilderness than the other authors, stating that the Spirit “drove Him into the wilderness”; 3) Mark adds that while He was in the wilderness, He “was with the wild beasts [animals – ESV].” You would also find that a lot is not found in Mark’s account; notably, none of the three specific examples of temptation included by Matthew and Luke are included by Mark.

What can be gained though by reflecting solely on what Mark includes? Here are some observations that came to mind as I reflected on the text:
  • Christ’s temptation immediately followed His baptism. We can expect major decisions for God and major acts of obedience on our part to be met with great opposition by Satan.
  • Temptation itself is no sign that God is not pleased with us. Jesus was greatly tempted immediately following the Father’s affirmative words, “You are My beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased” (Mark 1:11).
  • Temptation is actually a part of God’s design for us; the Spirit “drove Him” to it. Christ was driven towards temptation, not away from it. While it is Satan that did the tempting (and that reflection is also important – see James 1:13-15), it is clearly God who overruled the process. This should make God’s promise to find a way of escape even more real to us (1 Corinthians 10:13).
  • We are never alone when we are tempted. Christ was “in the wilderness” and “with the wild beasts” – terms used to emphasize being alone – but “angels ministered to Him.” Neither Mark nor Matthew (Luke omits this detail) tell us exactly how this angelic ministry worked, but we are told elsewhere that angels are “ministering spirits sent forth to minister for those who will inherit salvation” (Hebrews 1:14). God not only overrules temptation, but also appears to be actively involved in helping us get through it by means of His angelic hosts.
  • No specific reason is given for Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness, but it is significant that His period of trial came before the first recorded instance of Him preaching the gospel (Mark 1:14-15). You can’t preach the Word of God unless you are prepared to “endure hardship” (2 Timothy 2:3)
  • Mark’s brevity and lack of specificity is useful. He allows us to identify with the simple fact that Christ was temped instead of calling us to focus on specific temptations which might seem foreign to us. Jesus “was in all points tempted as we are” (Hebrews 4:15), but the specific temptations recorded by Matthew and Luke are not likely ones we have been called to overcome.

As you consider the above reflections and add some of your own, how does it compare with a list of reflections you might create after reading Matthew’s or Luke’s account of the same event? While there might be some similarity, the lists would doubtless be different. Could this have been God’s design all along? It’s impossible to know for sure, but it certainly seems possible.

I hope that you can see the value in reflecting on Mark’s account of the temptation of Christ. I hope further that you can see the value of systematically studying parallel accounts (accounts recorded in more than one place) by focusing first on what one Biblical author has said instead of rushing immediately to what other Biblical authors also said. There’s value in constructing the whole picture provided to us in Scripture, but there’s also value in considering each text individually.
-Patrick Swayne   
patrick@tftw.org

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