Reconsider Jesus – The Temptation (Mark 1:12-13)

Reconsider Jesus – A fresh look at Jesus from the Gospel of Mark
A devotional commentary by Michael Spencer
Compiled and Edited by: Michael Bell
Table of Contents

The Temptation

12 Immediately the Spirit impelled Him to go out into the wilderness. 13 And He was in the wilderness forty days being tempted by Satan; and He was with the wild beasts, and the angels were ministering to Him.

Mark 1:12-13 – NASB

Like so many things in Mark, this passage seems highly abbreviated when compared to the other Synoptic28 Gospel accounts. Matthew and Luke add details of the temptation that have become the center of many sermons and lessons. As a result, some of Mark’s version has been obscured.

The most striking thing about this passage is the verb ekballo used by Mark to indicate how the Holy Spirit drove Jesus into the desert. Mark uses this verb 17 times, often in the context of exorcisms. The force of the verb is not captured by the NIV’s “sent”. Better is the NASB “impelled.” We are not to think that Jesus is reluctant to experience this chapter of his life, but to see the strong hand of the Spirit leading Jesus in his ministry. The Spirit of the Lord is truly “upon” him29 and we read of similar strong directions by the Spirit in both the Old and New Testaments.30 John’s gospel records many statements of Jesus explaining that he is in the world to do and say exactly what he is directed by the Father. We are not to think of Jesus as a puppet, but we are also not to think of the Holy Spirit as anyone less than the sovereign God! God’s Spirit is the mightiest of powers and we should expect strong leadership of the Holy Spirit in those things that are in the plan and purpose of God.

The experience of Jesus as a Spirit-filled and Spirit led human being is important for Christians. In order to keep a real doctrine of the humanity of Christ, we must confess that the Spirit’s work in and through Jesus is not substantially different than in the life of the believer. The difference is in Christ’s sinlessness and divinity, but not in his human nature. We should not be afraid to study how Jesus experienced God. God will lead us as surely as he led Jesus. As we affirm that, let us remember where that leadership took him – to the cross.

Jesus goes into the desert “immediately” after the baptism. There is something of a pattern here for all who are interested in following Jesus. First, there is the place of obedience. Then there is the blessing of assurance that I am God’s child. Then there is the driving out into the place of temptation and testing. The place of temptation and testing is as much God’s work as the blessing at baptism. Mark is clearly telling his readers that, like Jesus, their testings and temptations are part of their experience as God’s children. We should beware of any version of Christianity that speaks of uninterrupted bliss without God-sent experiences of testing and temptation. In the desert Satan was the instrument of temptation, but the author of the experience was God. C.S. Lewis observed in The Screwtape Letters that God will not let a new believer live on the mountain top, but will drive him or her into the valley in order to develop faith and strength.31 While it may seem like a time of chaos, it is part of God’s purpose and God’s plan. It can result in a faith and strength that is not addicted to some emotional state, but dependent on God.

The desert is a familiar motif in the Bible as a whole. In the Old Testament, the desert was the experience between deliverance from Egypt and the conquest of the Promised Land. It was a place of cleansing and purification through testing and often painful trial. The Prophets looked back at the desert as the time of Israel’s true “romance” with God; the time when God prepared his people to be his covenant bride.32 It was in the desert that Moses met God through the burning bush,33 Hagar experienced God’s compassion,34 and John the Baptist prepared for ministry. The desert also has negative connotations: This passage speaks of wild animals. David speaks of “a dry and dreary land where there is no water.”35 It was also seen as a habitation of demons.36 From the very beginning, Jesus’ path is not only to heavenly glory, but a road of conflict with evil.

Mark omits the fasting of Jesus and the nature of the temptations, but he is clear that this was not a physical test but a spiritual battle. Jesus was tempted by Satan himself. This encounter between Jesus and the arch fiend has to be one of the most fascinating moments in the entire Bible. Even the other synoptic Gospels treatment is surely not exhaustive. The author of the book of Hebrews tells us that “because he himself suffered when he was tempted, he is able to help those who are being tempted.”37 He builds on this theme by stating that “we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are – yet was without sin.”38 These verses describe the entire incarnation, but the focused temptation of Jesus is also in mind. I must firmly reject that interpretation of the temptation which says Jesus could not have sinned. The writers of scripture want us to see this as real battle. The victor is the almighty Son, but in this time he is weak and weary like we are, yet he has resisted and shown us how to resist.39 His victory over every kind of temptation is a hope to every person who prays out of their own existential struggle. “Nobody understands me like Jesus”40 is the truth.

I cannot pass this passage without poking at least once at those who would deny the existence of Satan. While I accept that Jesus was a man of his time, I do not believe Satan is a cultural symbol, but an essential part of the biblical portrayal of evil. The Bible’s picture of evil includes fallen humanity and a fallen creation, but there is more – there is a personal and diabolical dimension of evil that is not explainable by environment or heredity. Jesus believed in fallen creation and sinful people, but he also believed in the personal, intelligent and malicious enemy of God.41

God often seems to use forty days or forty years to do his work in the lives of his chosen. We ought to beware of those who believe God can be manipulated by imitating forty days of prayer or fasting. Such ascetic imitation may be impressive, but it is not the point of the passage. Jesus was in the wilderness long enough for God to prepare him for his destiny.

Mark then gives us a glimpse into the presence of angels assisting Jesus in his time of testing. Angels appear throughout the Bible as ministering spirits. The birth accounts in Matthew and Luke show that angels have been involved with Jesus from the very beginning. Luke has a similar story of an angel ministering to Jesus as he prays in anguish prior to his crucifixion.42 The book of Revelation is our best study of angels, showing that the angels are devoted to the worship of the Son of God.43

Mark is not trying to present Jesus’ experience of angels as unique. Throughout the book of Acts there are stories of angels involved with the early Christians. I believe that they are involved with us as well. Having said that, the Bible discourages interest in angels on the level we are seeing it today. Most cults and even many orthodox Christians cross the line in fascination with angels into something approaching idolatry. Much false information about angels is transmitted through the New Age movement and other spiritual counterfeits. We should be grateful for the ministry of angels, but not seek to invoke or manipulate them. Angels do their business without our assistance or applause.

Before we leave the story of the temptation, I think it is important that we reconsider one key point. The temptations that we face are not unique. Jesus was tempted as we are, yet did not sin. In a future chapter we will explore this further. Why do we so often fail when we are tempted? How did Jesus have a human nature yet not sin? Knowing that Jesus was tempted as we are, but did not sin, not only gives us confidence in him, but also gives us confidence that he can help us in our own times of testing. This is only part of the good news that Jesus offers, for he is about to step onto center stage for the first time and let the world know that “good news” has arrived!



[28] Matthew, Mark, and Luke are referred to as the Synoptic Gospels because they share many of the same stories, often with similar wording, and often in the same sequence.

[29] Luke 4:18

[30] 1 Kings 18:12, 2 Kings 2:16, Ezek 3:12, 14 ff, 8:3, 11:24, Acts 8:39 ff.

[31] C.S. Lewis, The Screwtape Letters, Chapter 9.

[32] Jeremiah 2:1-3; Hosea 13:5

[33] Exodus 3

[34] Genesis 16

[35] Psalm 63:1

[36] Matthew 12:43

[37] Hebrews 2:18

[38] Hebrews 4:15

[39] Ephesians 6:10-18

[40] Nobody understands like Jesus. Music & lyrics by Linda Greenfield & Michael Fenemore. 1984

[41] Read People of the Lie by M. Scott Peck. While I can’t endorse most of Peck’s work, this psychiatric case that this book makes for the existence of the devil is very good.

[42] Luke 22:43

[43] Revelation 5:11-12; Revelation 7:11-12

Notes from Mike Bell:
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3. Find any grammar or spelling errors, phrases that are awkward or difficult to understand? Also send these type of comments to the email address above.

33 thoughts on “Reconsider Jesus – The Temptation (Mark 1:12-13)

  1. Q is a reasonable working deduction, but it can give no account for what other sources may have fed into the writing of the Gospels. We just don’t know, and barring new documentary evidence, we can’t know.


  2. could ‘Mark’ also have been taken from the “Quelle” (source) ? as an initial effort?

    ‘synoptics’ is what you are thinking about perhaps?

    “In the gospels of Matthew and Luke there are passages almost identical or similar to those found in Mark. Since Mark was written first, one of the sources that Matthew and Luke used in writing their gospels was the already-written Gospel of Mark. This would explain some of the similarities.

    However, there are also other stories and sayings common to Matthew and Luke that are not found in Mark. This suggests that these two evangelists used another source that Mark did not have access to.

    Certain stories and sayings about Jesus, as well as some sayings of Jesus himself, were probably held dear by the early Christian communities. This common source, which appears not to have survived, is called “Q” (from the German word for source, quelle.)”


  3. Research Q!

    No, not QAnon–I mean the hypothetical sayings source that Matthew and Luke seem to have copied from, at the same time that they were plagiarizing almost the whole of Mark.


  4. If Jesus had incarnated in Ireland, then the Bible would be full of accounts of wars between elves, fairies and leprechauns. And it would all seem very normal.


  5. And here an article I recently read by William Bentley Hart in First Things, one that was written some years ago, had me almost convinced that You Know Who, despite his pronounced lack of the charm, sophistication, and attractiveness that I have probably erroneously come to associate with His Satanic Majesty, very much resembles what The Devil must be like, “A Person You Flee at Parties”.


  6. They are not all saying the same thing and to pretend otherwise is to miss much.

    The Devil is in the details. Where exactly their agreement ends and their disagreement begins is not a thin borderline but a very wide zone over which scholars who accept historical critical method disagree widely and wildly. For one who believes that, despite areas of disagreement, the writers almost all agreed on certain things, for instance the reality of the resurrection of Jesus, see Luke Timothy Johnson, a Roman Catholic scholar who could never be accused of not employing historical critical method.


  7. Sad to say that both Todd Bentley and Benny Hinn both have Canadian connections.

    After Todd Bentley’s 15 minutes of fame he showed up at a church just five minutes down the road from me.
    And Benny Hinn’s brother also Pastored in my town.


  8. I remember the big uproar during Tatted Tod’s 15 miniutes of fame. One faction claimed his antics were The Holy Spirit, others claimed it was all DEMONS (with the usual Spiritual Warfare convoluted “proofs”).

    My writing partner (the burned-out preacher) put it this way:
    “I didn’t see the Holy Spirit, I didn’t see any Demonic Spirits.


  9. Of course, it’s not so much that I’m determined to reject historical critical method altogether but that I just don’t have a dog in that fight at this late date.


  10. Duh…

    What I meant was that I was several times almost quite undone by a constellation of adverse events which I had interpreted as ‘extremely bad luck’, or worse, the just punishment for my innumerable sins. Like the trench grunt in World War I, you have to remember that you have an enemy out there, and every breath you take is a small victory over him.

    Everybody has a sign on their lawn these days; my favorite is the one that says

    “Don’t worry. It’s not going to happen.”


  11. –> “Nevertheless, remembering that the devils bear us no small measure of ill-will has preserved me from despair on more than one occasion.”

    I remember reading a statement by a former Satanist that said his “revelation” was when he realized Satan’s ultimate intent for him was his destruction.


  12. The real problem I think is that we view “angels” and “demons” through a distorting lens of post-Biblical culture that raises totally irrelevant associations in our minds. Most people’s view of angels is of androgynous Victorian hippies and views of demons are at best Medieval or Dantesque. It’s worth pointing out that in the Bible even the angels of God were terrifying. What are the first words out of their mouths? “Fear not!”


  13. Well it’s not as simple as the author of Mark wrote earlier therefore his traditions are more “primitive”. I think some of Matthew’s sources, especially Jesus’ sayings (like the Sermon on the Mount) and Matthew’s so-called “special source” (the material that he possesses that does not appear in any other gospel) are as old or older than Mark’s sources.

    Mark does contain early sources but he was almost certainly a gentile believer writing to a mixed audience of Hellenistic Jews and gentiles, perhaps in Rome itself, a long way from Palestine. Note that he always translates his Aramaic to Greek indicating that his audience did not speak Aramaic. And his knowledge of Jewish customs and Palestinian geography is sometimes problematic.

    Matthew on the other hand is almost certain a Jewish believer and while he certainly knows Mark and responds to him, his attitudes reflect an early Christian viewpoint especially towards the Law that more closely resembles the attitudes ascribed to James rather than Paul.

    Of course if you’re determined to reject historical critical method altogether then this will all seem bizarre. But this attitude is regrettable because it prevents you from appreciating the diversity and richness of views among these writers. They are not all saying the same thing and to pretend otherwise is to miss much.


  14. I’ve heard that it was written for Roman gentile believers, painting Jesus as a Man of Action. Hey, historical theologians have to publish or perish, just like the rest of us.


  15. As a side note: Dana has been very helpful in emailing me a list of errors and awkward phrasing after each post.

    Many thanks Dana!


  16. I made one small edit subsequent to posting this from a recommended edit earlier that I failed to make.

    I changed “Mark is not trying to present Jesus as unique. ” to “Mark is not trying to present Jesus’ experience of angels as unique. “


  17. I think that Michael Spencer’s comment here has not aged well. Remember that it was written circa 1998 where there was an unhealthy obsession we angels and demons in large segments of the church.

    I will see what others think, but I might need to revise this a bit.


  18. Remember Tatted Todd of Lakeland and his pet angel Emma?

    Somebody said once the popular appeas of Angels are that they are lesser Supernatural beings (small-g god figures), without the baggage of big-G God. (And if you’re like John Dee & Edward Kelley, much easier to summon and control.)


  19. The opinion that the material in Mark is ‘more primitive’ or closer to a ‘historical’ understanding of Jesus is becoming repugnant to me, as if the Evangelists could be set against each other. Mark strikes me as nothing less than a document written for those already intimately familiar with the details of Jesus’ life, so that the reference to the temptation is kind of a shorthand, and the details were left to be filled in by the listener.


  20. Reluctantly, I agree. We are more than capable of generating enough evil on our own.

    Nevertheless, remembering that the devils bear us no small measure of ill-will has preserved me from despair on more than one occasion.


  21. ” Most cults and even many orthodox Christians cross the line in fascination with angels into something approaching idolatry.”

    I am wondering about this statement, being among the ‘many orthodox Christians’, as to how this viewpoint is determined by those who are not ‘orthodox’ (small ‘o’) Christians. Among non-‘orthodox’ Christians, what IS considered ‘idolatrous’ about the traditions of ‘orthodox’ Christians?

    I remember the Lutheran minister who spoke at the funeral of Rachel Held Evans. Here is an excerpt from that remarkable sermon:

    “As you may know, Rachel loved Mary Magdalene, as many of us do. Mary Mag, the apostle to the apostles, the first witness to the resurrection, the woman of valor whom Jesus told to go and tell the boys.

    I started to wonder this week, “Why was Mary Magdalene chosen for this role?” See, I don’t think it was because she had followed the instructions for how to make herself worthy to witness the resurrection. And I don’t think it was because she fit the high priest’s description of an ideal preacher, and I don’t think it was because she had pure doctrine. But most importantly, I don’t think it was despite who she was; I think it was BECAUSE of who she was.

    I think Mary was chosen because she was a woman from whom demons had fled. I think Mary was chosen, because she knew what it was like for God to move; not when the lilies are already out in church and the lights are on — but while it is still dark. Because unlike when the men looked in and saw only laundry, when Mary Magdalene looked in the tomb, SHE saw angels.

    Mary Magdalene saw angels, because she was not unfamiliar with the darkness. She had the kind of night vision that only comes from seeing what God does while it’s still dark.”

    I’ve never ‘seen’ an angel, but I believe these creatures of God exist and that they are present. I wouldn’t mind seeing an angel, but it’s okay because when my time comes at the end, I hope they will come into the room where I am dying. My father ‘saw’ angels just before he passed.

    How did fundamentalist-evangelicalism get so estranged from ‘orthodox’ Christianity that ‘angels’ became such an issue ? I don’t understand this, no.


  22. “I believe that they are involved with us as well. Having said that, the Bible discourages interest in angels on the level we are seeing it today. Most cults and even many orthodox Christians cross the line in fascination with angels into something approaching idolatry. Much false information about angels is transmitted through the New Age movement and other spiritual counterfeits. We should be grateful for the ministry of angels, but not seek to invoke or manipulate them. Angels do their business without our assistance or applause.”

    I believe the best course of action is to live our lives as though angels (and demons) do not exist. A foot slogger need not concern themselves with what the Air Force is up to, unless you need to get out of the way of one of their air strikes.


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