13 Then Jesus came from Galilee to the Jordan to be baptized by John.14 But John tried to deter him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?”
15 Jesus replied, “Let it be so now; it is proper for us to do this to fulfill all righteousness.” Then John consented.
16 As soon as Jesus was baptized, he went up out of the water. At that moment heaven was opened, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. 17 And a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.”
4 Then Jesus was led by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted[d]by the devil. 2 After fasting forty days and forty nights, he was hungry.3 The tempter came to him and said, “If you are the Son of God, tell these stones to become bread.”
4 Jesus answered, “It is written: ‘Man shall not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.’[e]” — Matthew 3:13 – 4:4
John has just rebuked the Pharisees and Sadducees. He has warned them, that if they have come into the wilderness in order to control him, then they should know that there is one coming after him whose sandals even he is not worthy to tie. This just makes his next response all the more ironic though. I have to think the words flew out of his mouth before he could think, which gave both Jesus and John an honest glimpse into John’s heart. It also gives us a glimpse as to why John was not the chosen Messiah. In Greek the word Matthew uses is dieKOluen, die being a form of dia or “through” and KOluen from kóluó for “forbid”. When Jesus requested John to baptize Him, the one who had proclaimed the coming of the Messiah, the one who preached repentance and preparation for receiving a new covenant, John the Baptist thoroughly forbid Jesus from doing this. In the end, John’s answer to Emmanuel was the same as everyone else’s, John said, “no”.
John must have had a preconceived idea of how things would go when Jesus arrived. He had been waiting in the desert for a long time preparing himself and others for the Kingdom of Heaven. But when the Messiah appeared, His first request was not for command of the Temple, or for an army, but instead for John to simply baptize him. John probably only realized after he rebelled that he had had these preconceived conditions in his heart as to how Jesus should move and act. It was a small rebellion, momentary but powerful. John sinned, not because he was wrong, but because only God is right. John had tradition, biblical teaching and the law, but those things aren’t God.
One of my favorite descriptions of Christ comes from C.S. Lewis’ description of Aslan in the Chronicles of Narnia where Aslan is described as not being tame, but as being good. In this week’s reading, Jesus is good, but he is not tame. In this instance, the I AM declared that his son should be baptized and Jesus’ response to John clearly restates this request. Jesus knows that the Father has his reasons for sending Him in this space at this moment in time. Following for Jesus is not tied to a legalistic adherence to scripture, but in an obedient relationship to the Father. To his credit, John can practice what he preaches. At this moment, the one who has been preaching repentance will himself repent when Jesus answers his rebuke with a simple request for obedience.
Jesus calls John out of thinking about the past and into the present. He uses the Greek word arti which means “at this precise present moment”. Jesus’ baptism by John is in accord with the God’s will and occurs in God’s time. This will be a hallmark of Jesus’ ministry as time and time again he goes against perceived rules and religious teachings that have been established in legalism and not love. Jesus will call all things into the present, living out the law among men. One of my favorite quotes is by Catholic priest James Martin that “there is a reason Jesus didn’t come down as a book”. I think this baffles us today as much as it did John and others in Jesus’ day. The obedience to deliver baptism in this present moment in Matthew seems to unlock the further baptism John believed Jesus would deliver, as the Holy Spirit descends and the voice of the Father speaks. God’s will is moving and it is unpredictable, it is unknowable, but it is good. It is what the people have come into the wilderness to find.
From this point on in Matthew, we know that all cards are on the table. John who has been sure of what he has been proclaiming is himself unsure of how it will be implemented. The Messiah of the Living God has arrived and already He has refused to play the part we have scripted for Him. His light illumines our darkness. We are infected with rebellion. We have taken the scriptures not as a path to salvation, but as leverage for control. We would be our own gods, all of us, even John. And now there is one who would compete for the throne of our hearts. This God is not of wood, or stone. He is not a manifestation of our imaginations, or a product of our making. He is flesh and blood, He is freedom, He is life and He has arrived.
John is right when he teaches that Jesus will bring a baptism of the Holy Spirit and fire, he just doesn’t anticipate that Jesus will first submit himself to this baptism. This is the way of Christ, He leads where we cannot go, endures what we cannot endure and obeys what we cannot obey. As Jesus emerges from the water, a voice from Heaven claims His son, the Spirit descends, and then the fire begins. The word that Matthew uses is pur, the same word means fire as well as trials. Baptism follows repentance, but purification follows baptism, and this baptism is one by fire and trials. We get a confirmation in Matthew that this indeed is the way, as Christ departs from his baptism by John and enters deeper into the wilderness for 40 days.
Forty days is a long time, honestly forty minutes is a long time when you’re tired and thirsty. This is where Jesus places himself prior to his first meeting with Satan. Forty days without eating and then the first temptation. The temptation seems so simple reading about it from a distance, but when we’re physically compromised, our physicality is the first place where we break down spiritually. Anyone who coaches knows this. It was Vince Lombardi who once said “fatigue makes cowards of us all”. After the mountaintop experience, the trials in the valley will very likely first take shape around our physical bodies. It is difficult to escape Maslows pyramid as a framework for existence. What we will eat, what we will drink and what we will wear Jesus will later teach as being what pagans run after, and what our Heavenly Father provides. But the path for passing from faith into belief involves extending ourselves into positions of vulnerability like where Christ finds himself, deep in the wilderness and at the end of a long fast.
The attack is subtle. On the surface it appears to be a straightforward attack on Jesus’ physical vulnerability, but that is only part of the strategy. The tip of the iceberg. The real temptation, is to acquiesce to Satan’s’ use of scripture to validate turning stones into bread. This level of spirituality involves understanding that what is right is not always what is good. Satan quotes scripture out of context, it makes sense by the letter, it makes sense physically, but spiritually it moves our faith from being in the Father, to being in ourselves. We want the blessing of being right without losing the assurance of being safe.
The lesson of the first temptation is that through Christ, we are more than physical. This is what should be different for believers. This is the first step toward having endurance in trials. The knowledge that we are more than our physical bodies gives us freedom. Immortality is an escape from the space-time continuum in which all of reality is trapped. The space of our bodies and the the weight of the past and the tyranny of the future are the first three captors that we are set free from once we begin our baptism of fire. This revelation is also true of God’s law, it is more than physical, it is more than a book, it is a relationship. It is a dance between creation and creator. It is not just the right thing, but the right time. It is perfect, and we are invited to play a part, but we cannot control it. Our prayer along with John’s for Emmanuel has been answered, and now we are free to rely less on bread and more on every word from the mouth of God.