Led by the Spirit into the Wilderness

Ivan Kramskoi, “Christ in the Desert,” 1872 (oil on canvas)

inspired by Matthew 4:1-11

Led by the Spirit into the wilderness
Jesus fasted from food
to the extremes of human possibility.
And it was then,
then, that the devil set to work.

Then the devil set to work
chipping away at Jesus’ identity:
“If you are the Son of God…”
Immediately after hearing the Father’s delight,
Jesus was led by the Spirit into the wilderness.

Led by the Spirit into the wilderness,
Jesus faced sharp temptations
toward false relevance, false spectacle, and false power,
all laced insidiously with the words of Scripture,
as the devil set to work.

Even as the devil set to work
Jesus stood His ground against temptation,
armed only with the Word of God
and His deep sense of belovedness,
as He was led by the Spirit into the wilderness.

Led by the Spirit into the wilderness
Jesus began the long walk to the Cross,
finding the way up is down,
and playing the long, hidden game of the humble victory of God’s kingdom,
even as the devil set to work.

Jesus the King of Another Kingdom


After John was put in prison, Jesus went into Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God. “The time has come,” he said. “The kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the good news!” As Jesus walked beside the Sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and his brother Andrew casting a net into the lake, for they were fishermen. “Come, follow me,” Jesus said, “and I will send you out to fish for people.” At once they left their nets and followed him. When he had gone a little farther, he saw James son of Zebedee and his brother John in a boat, preparing their nets. Without delay he called them, and they left their father Zebedee in the boat with the hired men and followed him. (Mark 1:14-20)

This coming Sunday is Christ the King Sunday, the final Sunday in the church year and also a celebration of the power and glory of King Jesus. As we look at text above, we see Jesus as the One who brings the kingdom of God. When Jesus brings God’s kingdom there is a direct conflict with rival kingdoms of this earth. What is a kingdom? Let me offer a definition that is simple and clear. A kingdom is any area or sphere in which someone or something holds a position of power to implement their will or way.

We may not think of kingdoms much in our lives today, but we still have them. We just use different terms. We say things like the president governs the nation, the principal runs the school, or the parents maintain the household. We say things like Jeremiah or Leticia has their clique of friends. We may not think of our own lives this way, but it is also true that we are, in a sense, the ruler of the kingdom of our lives. We hold power in our lives to implement our own will or way, or to yield that will to another. We certainly encounter all sorts of kingdoms today, even though we may not use that specific word.

Rival earthly kingdoms (1:14)

Returning to Mark 1, we sense the urgency of the author’s writing. Mark does not take time to explain what happened to John the Baptist, only that he “was put in prison.” For the back story, we must turn to Mark 6, where we read that Herod Antipas, the ruler over Galilee and Perea, imprisoned John the Baptist. Herod Antipas imprisoned John because John was critical of Herod’s marriage to his brother’s ex-wife. Later on, this criticism indirectly leads to John’s death. Herod represents all the power and authority of human kingdoms who do what they want and manipulate others for their own gain. Herod’s life and rule certainly fit our definition of a kingdom: “any area or sphere in which someone or something holds a preeminent position.”

In his life, Herod lived like he knew he held preeminent position in the area of Galilee, if not beyond. That’s why he arrests John the Baptist when he criticizes something Herod did. Despots don’t like criticism. But Herod’s rival earthly kingdom also brings about the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry. The lurching forward of Herod’s hand to imprison John becomes the momentum that leads Jesus to step forward in ministry around Galilee. And it is in light of this rival earthly kingdom that Jesus pronounces God’s kingdom is near.

Jesus declares that, in the midst of the power struggles around Galilee and all Judea, He presents a different sort of way. It is a kingdom that is under the preeminent rule of God, and this is something people longed for. This inbreaking rule of God was promised throughout Scriptures: that God would one day reign over Israel Himself. In fact, in and around Jesus’ time a wide variety of rebellions were directly linked to expectations of God’s kingdom coming.

But Jesus is presenting a different sort of way. It is the kingdom of God that comes hidden, humble, and yet full of power.

Rival personal kingdoms (1:18, 20)

There are other sorts of kingdoms, however. As Jesus turns from the context of Herod’s power struggle with John and proclaims His message, He immediately comes into contact with four men. In Mark 1:16-20 Jesus walks beside the Sea of Galilee and calls Simon (who we know as Peter), Andrew, James and John to follow Him. We will return to Jesus’ calling and message to them, but let’s talk for a bit about where these men stood. They were under no impression that they had authority like Herod Antipas. They were not trying to become the next president of the United States. But they still lived in their own personal kingdom.

Yet just as Jesus’ message began to strike against Herod’s kingdom, so Jesus’ message strikes against the personal kingdoms of these men’s lives. You see, a kingdom is any area or sphere in which someone or something holds a position of power, and these men were kings over the kingdom of their own lives: kingdoms of fishing and business, kingdoms of overseeing hired men and working with their families, kingdoms of their daily words and actions, and the kingdoms of their interior lives.

Now, there is nothing wrong with these sort of kingdoms in and of themselves, but we have to recognize them for what they are. They are areas or spheres in which someone or something holds a position of power, and Jesus has arrived declaring that the kingdom of God holds sway over all rival kingdoms. God is the king and He holds no rivals.

Even in our personal kingdoms, God is calling us to recognize His rule and authority.

Rival powers and authorities (Colossians 2:15)

Later on in Scripture, the Apostle Paul describes the work of Jesus Christ in this way: He “disarmed the powers and authorities, making a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them by the Cross” (Colossians 2:15). As Jesus enter the world, He is calling the world toward a new way of living. He is calling us to bring our kingdom and rule, whether large or small, under His kingdom and rule. All of the places where we have authority; all of the places where we have power; all of the places where we have a role over something…we must bring it to the feet of the King.

Jesus is the King – over all kingdoms and over all our lives. So let me ask us all to consider a a series of question today: What rival kingdoms is Jesus confronting in our world and our own lives today? What does it look like to live yielded to the kingship of Christ in our personal kingdoms? How might we enter into the reality that Jesus is King in a very personal and practical way today?

Encountering Jesus the Healer and Deliverer

“That evening after sunset the people brought to Jesus all the sick and demon-possessed. The whole town gathered at the door, and Jesus healed many who had various diseases. He also drove out many demons, but he would not let the demons speak because they knew who he was.” (Mark 1:32-34)

Jesus is the healer and deliverer. He knows the depth of our sickness and oppression. He understands the cause and the symptoms in ways we do not understand and can discern the difference. He is able to draw near in the mess with full awareness of human frailty, sin, and brokenness, yet without apprehension or distaste. At the same time He is not overcome by our frailty, sin, and brokenness, and neither does He sense the need to accommodate to it. He is motivated instead by a perfect love that impels Him to reach out toward us.

Jesus does not love us in spite of our sickness and oppression but in the midst of it. He can see us clearly as we are, while also seeing us clearly for what we could be without diminishment of love. With all that, and even with our human tendency to draw back when our vulnerabilities are revealed, Jesus draws near with the touch of healing and deliverance.

Let us be like those who are sick and demon-possessed in Mark 1. Let us also flock to Jesus, knowing He is the One who can handle all the weakness, sin, and affliction we can bring to Him.

Beginning Lent with Jesus :: Ivan Kramskoi, “Christ in the Desert”

Christ in the Wilderness - Ivan Kramskoi.jpg
Ivan Kramskoi, “Christ in the Desert,” 1872 (oil on canvas)

The journey of Lent begins with attention on Jesus. We trace His pathway through incarnate life to death on the Cross. One of the first inklings we have in the Gospels that Jesus’ life will bring salvation at a great cost comes in the prophetic words of Simeon to Mary at Jesus’ presentation in the Temple: “a sword will pierce your own soul too” (Luke 2:35). This sharp word often fades away in much of our reflection on Christmas and Epiphany, but it stands out like a sore thumb. When He grows to adulthood, this theme of costly salvation stands out starkly in Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness. “Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, left the Jordan and was led by the Spirit into the wilderness, where for forty days he was tempted by the devil” (4:1-2). The emptiness of Jesus’ stomach parallels the wilderness in which He wanders. There the devil comes to destabilize Jesus with slippery questions about His identity and purpose: “If you are the Son of God…If you will worship me…If you are the Son of God” (4:3, 7, 9). Ivan Kramskoi’s painting captures the emptiness and utter aloneness of Jesus during these encounters. The landscape seems beautiful but barren, the sun is setting and the day grows dark. Jesus’ demeanor displays a heaviness and perhaps even foreboding about what the night might bring. The encounter between Jesus and the devil echoes the story of Israel’s wandering in the wilderness, caught between the land they fled and the land they hoped to reach. Hungry and tired, they began to lose their way geographically but, even more importantly, they began to lose their way spiritually. But this story of temptation does not merely reflect Israel’s exodus. This episode also echoes our own wandering in wilderness places as people destabilized and tempted, grasped by sin yet reaching for redemption, confused about ourselves and seeking after God. Jesus entered the wilderness for us that He might provide a way through it. Lent helps us see again our need for God but also that there is a way Jesus has made for us through the darkness of sin and death. We do not need to make our own way to the Promised Land. We couldn’t find our way even if we tried. Jesus went before us and carved out a road through the devil’s harsh terrain.

The Only Way to the Kingdom

When Jesus proclaims that “the kingdom of God has come near” (Mark 1:15), He draws upon a powerful idea that pervades the Hebrew Scriptures and history. There was an expectation in the Hebrew Scriptures that God’s kingdom would catastrophically break into the world. The Scriptures described a figure—the Messiah or Son of Man—who would inaugurate God’s kingdom and bring renewal and change to earth. But even as He proclaimed the kingdom’s arrival, Jesus also offered a radically different understanding of what the kingdom was all about.

To help us understand that, let me offer a quick overview of four other approaches to the hope of God’s kingdom that were prominent in Jesus’ day. I am drawing upon the helpful summary of these approaches in Craig Bartholomew and Michael Goheen’s book The True Story of the Whole World.[1]

  1. The Pharisees – The Pharisees were a religious group deeply concerned about compromising with culture. Because of this they advocated for strong religious separation from pagan corruption and radical obedience to God’s Word. They worked within the existing religious structures, the synagogues, to urge the people to influence culture by being different. The wanted to bring the kingdom by forceful separation.
  2. The Essenes – Like the Pharisees, a second group had a similar desire to be different from the culture but took a very different approach to that. The Essenes withdrew from society, forsaking even the existing religious structures to form entirely separate communities centered on God. It is likely that the area of Qumran, where the Dead Sea Scrolls were found, was an Essene community. The wanted to bring the kingdom through withdrawal.
  3. The Zealots – A third group, the Zealots, were furious with the Roman occupation of God’s land. Like the Pharisees, the Zealots called for radical obedience to God’s Word, but took it to another level. They promoted violent revolution against Rome. While the Zealots were not really one organized movement, these groups took their religious commitment frightfully seriously, sparking revolutionary movements against Rome that eventually led to reprisals from Rome, culminating in the  destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70. They wanted to bring the kingdom by violence.
  4. The Sadducees – A fourth group was known as the Sadducees. The Sadducees were largely a priestly group responsible for the maintenance of the Temple. They held positions of power with great influence under the Roman occupation, but often made politically compromises with the occupying forces of Rome in order to stabilize the country and maintain their power. They sought to bring hope and God’s kingdom through compromise.

Each of these groups wanted to bring in the hope of God’s kingdom, but they took different approaches toward making that happen: forceful separation, withdrawal, violence, or compromise. Jesus’ approach is distinct from all of these. So let’s examine first what it is that Jesus declares and then what it is that Jesus does.

First, in Luke 4:16-21, Jesus declares that He is the One who fulfills God’s promises in the prophets – the One who is to come and usher in the kingdom. After reading in His hometown synagogue from Isaiah 61, which speaks of the arrival of God’s kingdom, Jesus boldly declares:

“Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.” (Luke 4:21)

 And when Jesus begins His public ministry, as we have already read in Mark 1:15, He says:

“The time has come…The kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the good news!” (Mark 1:15)

This is a bold proclamation—a declaration that something new has come. The only response to such a thing is to repent; that is, turn around, pay attention, and respond to this new reality.

To those holding various other views, such as the Pharisees, the Essenes, the Zealots, and the Sadducees, Jesus essentially says, “Turn away from your current approach. God is doing something new in Me. Turn from your old ways of bringing in God’s kingdom and follow after Me and My way.” Yes, repentance is a turning from sin, but it is also a turning from alternate ways of living and alternate philosophies.

In a world that offers all sorts of philosophies of life, Jesus says there is one philosophy that truly brings in God’s kingdom and reflects God’s kingdom and it only comes from and in Him.

[1] Craig Bartholomew and Michael Goheen, The True Story of the Whole World: Finding your place in the biblical drama (Grand Rapids, MI: Faith Alive Christian Resources, 2009), 102-103.