December, 1974

When Jesus was about thirty years old, there came a man called John into the nearby wilder ness preaching the coming end of the world and calling upon men to forgo their "wickedness" and to deal justly and ethically with each other. He became known as John the Baptizer because of his ritual of cleansing people in the river; and he is reported to have said that there was another great- er than himself coming after him, who would baptize them with fire as he was baptizing them with water. It seems clear from his carefully reported words in both Luke and Matthew that his message was one of a' coming judgment by fire.

Apparently Jesus first accepted these teachings of John for he came himself to be baptized. We are told that at the moment of his baptism the heavens were opened to him and he saw a dove descending upon him, and heard a voice saying to him in the words of the Old Testament Psalm: "Thou art my beloved son; this day have I begotten thee" (Ps. 2: 7; quoted this way also in Heb. 1: 5). There is no reason to think that this vision was seen by anyone else at that time; both Mark and Luke report the experience and the words as being to Jesus alone, although Matthew changes the words of the Psalmist to make it seem that the words were spoken to all those gathered there ("This is my beloved son..."). But we know that historicallY John continued with his own disciples until his death, and if John had acknowledged Jesus as the One coming after him, as Matthew tells it, and if those words had been spoken to all of John's followers it does not seem likely that John would have continued with his own followers nor that he would have questioned Jesus as he did later ("Art thou he that should come?" Matt. 11:3; Luke 7:19).

It is then reported that Jesus withdrew into the wilderness for forty days and forty nights, or for an extended period during which he was "tempted of Satan". Luke and Matthew provide details for these temptations, reporting them as three in number, all involving supernatural activity and all rejected by Jesus in words chosen from the Old Testament. The first of these three temptations as reported was to turn stones into bread, which Jesus rejects by replying, "Man does : not live by bread alone." (Deut. 8:3) The second was to cast hlmself down from the plnnacle of the temple to prove that the angels would catch him, which Jesus rejects by answering, "Thou shalt not tempt the Lord thy God" (Deut. 6:16). And the third was to bow down and worship Satan in exchange for kingship over all the kingdoms of the world to which Jesus replies, "Thou shalt worship the Lord thy God and him only shalt thou serve." (Deut. 6:13) These are reported as happening to Jesus alone, which means that he must have told them to his followers in order for them to have been written down, which in turn means that he probably had a reason for telling them.

What is the significance of the baptism and the temptations? There seems no reason to doubt that Jesus underwent some great experience at the time of his baptism; it must be understood to have been an inner event rather than an outer event because of the lack of evidence that anyone else present heard or saw anything. The meaning of the event for Jesus can perhaps best be understood from his own words: "Thou art my beloved son; this day have I begotten thee." This choice of expression from the Psalms tells us two things: that Jesus experienced possibly for the first time, the meaning of sonship with God and that at least some aspect of that sonship seemed new as of that day. Whether this had anything to do with the teaching of John concerning the end of the world cannot be assumed.

Jesus probably withdrew into the wilderness to ponder on whatever this new insight was that he had during the baptism, and also further on the teaching of John which had brought him to be baptized. Mark tells us that Jesus was "driven" by the Spirit into the wilderness and was with the wild beasts. Since it may well be doubted that the temptations describe any actual outer event they must also be understood to be inner events. But in order to have any relevance to us or to the Jews of Jesus' day, they must be applicable to some current experience of theirs and ours; else they are hollow statements showing at best Jesus' own special purity but even then they suggest that his listeners and we ourselves should respond in like fashion to similar temptations. It is an historical fact that at that time there were three different messianic hopes held by the Jews: the hope that God would himself come and rule over the kingdom of Israel; the hope for a religious Messiah who would come with signs and wonders and re-establish Israel as an independent kingdomr and the hope for a political Messiah who would overthrow the Romans and establish the Jews as the rulers of the world. Jesus' responses to these temptations can be seen as symbolic answers to each of these three hopes: it was devilish, or Satanic to hope that God would intervene in history, even to assist the Jews who for hundreds of years had considered themselves as the "Chosen People"; God would not intervene in history for any reason whatever and any action based on that hope was misled; and finally any action based on the hope of any man or any nation for rulership over the world had nothing to do with the kingdom of God and was in fact a temptation of the devil. Thus the three temptations can be understood as parables in which Jesus speaks to each of the Messianic hopes held by his people, in which he not only rejects those hopes but asserts positively that they are temptations of the devil that they are Satanic in origin, and thereby makes his answers apply not only to himself but to all persons.

(originally published under the name of John Fitz)