"And straightway the Spirit driveth Him forth into the wilderness. And He was in the wilderness forty days tempted of Satan; and He was with the wild beasts; and the angels ministered unto Him." MARK 1:12, 13 (R.V.)
ST. Mark has not recorded the details of our Lord's temptations, and lays more stress upon the duration of the struggle, than the nature of the last and crowning assaults. But he is careful, like the others, to connect it closely with the baptism of Jesus, and the miraculous testimony then borne to Him.
It is indeed instructive that He should have suffered this affront, immediately upon being recognized as the Messiah. But the explanation will not be found in the notion, which Milton has popularized, that only now Satan was assured of the urgent necessity for attacking Him:
"That heard the adversary . . . and with the voice Divine Nigh thunderstruck, the exalted Man, to whom Such high attest was given, awhile surveyed With wonder."
As if Satan forgot the marvels of the sacred infancy. As if the spirits who attack all could have failed to identify, after thirty years of defeat, the Greater One whom the Baptist had everywhere proclaimed. No. But Satan admirably chose the time for a supreme effort. High places are dizzy, and especially when one has just attained them; and therefore it was when the voice of the herald and the Voice from the heavens were blended in acclaim, that the Evil One tried all his arts. He had formerly plunged Elijah into despair and a desire to die, immediately after fire from heaven responded to the prophet's prayer. Soon after this, he would degrade Peter to be his mouthpiece, just when his noblest testimony was borne, and the highest approval of his Lord was won. In the flush of their triumphs he found his best opportunity; but Jesus remained unflushed, and met the first recorded temptation, in the full consciousness of Messiahship, by quoting the words which spoke to every man alike, and as man.
It is a lesson which the weakest needs to learn, for little victories can intoxicate little men.
It is easy then to see why the recorded temptations insist upon the exceptional dignity of Christ, and urge Him to seize its advantages, while He insists on bearing the common burden, and proves Himself greatest by becoming least of all. The sharp contrast between His circumstances and His rank drove the temptations deep into His consciousness, and wounded His sensibilities, though they failed to shake His will.
How unnatural that the Son of God should lack and suffer hunger, how right that He should challenge recognition, how needful (though now His sacred Personality is cunningly allowed to fall somewhat into the background) that He should obtain armies and splendor.
This explains the possibility of temptation in a sinless nature, which indeed can only be denied by assuming that sin is part of the original creation. Not because we are sinful, but because we are flesh and blood (of which He became partaker), when we feel the pains of hunger we are attracted by food, at whatever price it is offered. In truth, no man is allured by sin, but only by the bait and bribe of sin, except perhaps in the last stages of spiritual decomposition.
Now, just as the bait allures, and not the jaws of the trap, so the power of a temptation is not its wickedness, not the guilty service, but the proffered recompense; and this appeals to the most upright man, equally with the most corrupt. Thus the stress of a temptation is to be measured by our gravitation, not towards the sin, but towards the pleasure or advantage which is entangled with that. And this may be realized even more powerfully by a man of keen feeling and vivid imagination who does not falter, than by a grosser nature which succumbs.
Now Jesus was a perfect man. To His exquisite sensibilities, which had neither inherited nor contracted any blemish, the pain of hunger at the opening of His ministry, and the horror of the cross at its close, were not less intense, but sharper than to ours. And this pain and horror measured the temptation to evade them. The issue never hung in the scales; even to hesitate would have been to forfeit the delicate bloom of absolute sinlessness; but, none the less, the decision was costly, the temptation poignant.
St. Mark has given us no details; but there is immense and compressed power in the assertion, only his, that the temptation lasted all through the forty days. We know the power of an unremitting pressure, an incessant importunity, a haunting thought. A very trifling annoyance, long protracted, drives men to strange remedies. And the remorseless urgency of Satan may be measured by what St. Matthew tells us, that only after the forty days Jesus became aware of the pains of hunger. Perhaps the assertion that He was with the wild beasts may throw some ray of light upon the nature of the temptation. There is no intimation of bodily peril. On the other hand it seems incredible that what is hinted is His own consciousness of the supernatural dignity from which
"The fiery serpent fled, and noxious worm; The lion and fierce tiger glared aloof."
Such a consciousness would have relieved the strain of which their presence is evidently a part. Nay, but the oppressive solitude, the waste region so unlike His blooming Nazareth, and the ferocity of the brute creation, all would conspire to suggest those dread misgivings and questionings which are provoked by "the something that infects the world."
Surely we may believe that He Who was tempted at all points like as we are, felt now the deadly chill which falls upon the soul from the shadow of our ruined earth. In our nature He bore the assault and overcame. And then His human nature condescended to accept help, such as ours receives, from the ministering spirits which are sent forth to minister to them that shall be heirs of salvation. So perfectly was He made like unto His brethren.