God’s sometimes has a strange way of showing His love.
Consider the ministry of Jesus. All three synoptic gospels record the same unsettling start to the ministry of Jesus. First, Jesus is baptized. Second, avoice from heaven utters this phrase (in Matthew’s wording):
This is my Son
Whom I love
With Him I am well pleased.
And then, immediately, God leads this same Son into the wilderness. Sending someone on a wilderness wandering seems an odd way of showing someone love and approval. The wilderness is the last place on earth most people would want to be sent. It is lonely, barren, hot, uncomfortable, and, as Mark reminds us in his gospel, full of wild animals.
Yet God sends His Son into the wilderness. Just as He had done before with another son, Israel; and just as He continues to do with His children today.
It would be helpful, before we go on, to define what the wilderness is in the Bible, and what it symbolizes. The Hebrew word for wilderness is midbar. The etymology is uncertain, but the word denotes several different types of land, from the sandy and almost lifeless land of the Negev in the south of Israel to the rocky and uninhabited hills of the Judean countryside. The word describes not so much the terrain of the land, but function of the land: empty and barren.
The New Testament uses the word eremos, which has the idea of desolation and isolation. Again, the emphasis is not on the type of land, but on the fact that it is apart from normal human society. Both words describe land that is barren of human life and activity because it is not conducive to human pleasures. [Note: the NIV translates both these words as desert].
Symbolically, besides the idea of barrenness and isolation, the wilderness symbolizes two main ideas.
The first is the idea of suffering. This suffering comes primarily from four things associated with the wilderness:
- Danger. Hunger and thirst haunt those in the wilderness just as much as wild animals do. To be in the wilderness is to be where our normal signs of security and stability are missing.
- Privation: The wilderness symbolizes the opposite of Eden; the normal things that delight us as humans are absent. Few and austere are the pleasures in the wilderness.
- Isolation. Most who are drawn into the barren land find the absence of human companionship perhaps the hardest part to bear. This is not always physical isolation. Often it simply but sadly means that we have no-one who understands, no-one walking through the barren valley with us.
- Temptation. Just as Israel was tempted in the wilderness (and failed) so the tempter approached the One who is the True Israel in the wilderness. The privation and lack of security in the wild places make us all more vulnerable to refusing to trust God’s ways.
The second idea associated with the wilderness may surprise us: it is grace: the unmerited favor and kindness of God. Grace grows in the dessert, and some types of it bloom nowhere else. It beckons the weary wanderer to leave off complaining, and rejoice in its beauty.
This grace is seen in four things, each one standing in opposition to the danger, privation, isolation, and temptation of the wilderness suffering.
- Protection. Israel learned (though it took them 40 years) the truth that David would verbalize some years later: “The Lord is my Shepherd…though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will not fear, for You are with me. Your rod and Your staff, they comfort me.” The experience of Israel, David, Elijah, and Jesus all confirm: God is able to protect those He leads into the wilderness.
- Provision. The model here, of course, is the manna and quail God provided to Israel. Truly Moses could say at the end of Israel’s wandering: “You have lacked nothing” (Deut. 2:7). Though it was not, perhaps, what they wanted to eat, God graciously provided it as a temporary sufficiency until they reached a more fertile land. The water from the rock, the ravens that fed Elijah, the ministry of the angels to Jesus, all are symbols of the ability of God to provide “a table in the wilderness” (Ps. 78:19).
- Revelation. It is no accident that God reveals Himself more in the wilderness than anywhere else. It was in the wilderness of Sinai He revealed his laws and ways to Moses and Israel. It was also in that wilderness that Israel saw the most dramatic revelations, not only of God’s words, but of His power, as he blessed them with miracles of manna from the sky, water from the rock, and fire over the tabernacle. Their experience is not unique: Hagar saw God in the wilderness (Gen. 16) the word of the Lord came to John the Baptist in the wilderness (Luke 3:2), Paul spent three years in Arabia before he began his ministry and Jesus Himself would often go into the wilderness to pray.
- Wisdom. Though the temptations of the wilderness are many, it is there that men and women have found wisdom. It is there, in the dangerous place, they discover their true security. It is there, in the barren place, they learn that man indeed does not live by bread alone. It is there, in the lonely place, they find the quiet to hear God. There is an ancient wisdom haunting the wilderness, a spirit that refuses to inhabit our world of plastic amusements.
We begin to see, then, why God calls His sons and daughters to the wilderness. It is not a curse; it is a blessing given to those strong enough to bear it. It is a crucible that refines, not a furnace that destroys.
Yes, a strange love that God shows to His Son (and to all His children). But a love that goes deeper than simply increasing our comfort and easing our pain. He desires nothing less than that the perfecting of His children. Of Jesus Himself it is said that, “He suffered when He was tempted” and that “He learned obedience from what He suffered” for his perfection (Heb. 2:18, 5:8). We, who call ourselves Christ followers, can expect also to find seasons of wilderness wanderings. And we can learn, as He did, that wisdom takes root in the wild place, and Grace blooms in the barren.
This is my son,
Whom I love
With him I am well pleased.