In my second post on this passage, I concluded that the wilderness is not the locus of God abandonment, but rather the staging point for radical encounter with God. Sustained by God through ministering angels, Jesus is shown to be the bread of heaven himself (manna). Jesus is the embodiment of the kingdom, the ongoing and sustaining presence of God in the world, as our confessions tells us, in whom alone we trust in life and in death for to Him we belong. (Heidelberg Catechism)
We have one final clue to God’s abiding presence with Jesus in the wilderness that shows Jesus to be the perfect embodiment of God’s will for human life, the new Adam standing at the inauguration of a new heaven and new earth in his very person. Jesus shows himself as the new Adam in the wilderness, ground zero for God’s redemptive purpose in which “the desert and the parched land will be glad; the wilderness will rejoice and blossom,” (Isaiah 35:1) as the “wild beasts” are drawn in as witnesses. (Mark 1:13)
Typical readings casts this near throw away line about the “wild beasts” as a terrifying encounter, akin to saying “lions, tigers and bears, oh my!” Surely Jesus was not only tempted by Satan and deprived of nourishment, most readings of this passage suggest, he also had to fend off wild beasts that threatened to tear him apart.
I don’t want to say that such a reading is precluded as even Mark passes over the comment quickly, but it doesn’t resonate well with what I think the passage is suggesting in light of the wilderness as staging point for encounter with God. To see the wild beasts as expressive of something deep about God’s redemptive purposes for not only human life but all creation, we can turn to the creation stories in Genesis, as well as a lovely passage from Job 12:7-16 :
7 “But ask the animals, and they will teach you;
the birds of the air, and they will tell you;
8 ask the plants of the earth, and they will teach you;
and the fish of the sea will declare to you.
9 Who among all these does not know
that the hand of the Lord has done this?
10 In his hand is the life of every living thing
and the breath of every human being.
11 Does not the ear test words
as the palate tastes food?
12 Is wisdom with the aged,
and understanding in length of days?
13 “With God are wisdom and strength;
he has counsel and understanding.
14 If he tears down, no one can rebuild;
if he shuts someone in, no one can open up.
15 If he withholds the waters, they dry up;
if he sends them out, they overwhelm the land.
16 With him are strength and wisdom;
the deceived and the deceiver are his.
There are a lot of rich directions one could take making parallels between Job’s afflictions as a universal representative for the human plight and Jesus’ sufferings that I do not have time to run down. For our purposes, we simply remark that Job is pushing back against his friends who would speak for God regarding his current affliction. Unlike his friends, Job sees God’s will at work in his present affliction because he reasons from God’s absolute and providential care of creation, something to which the birds and the plants bear witness.
The whole creation, much like the four strange beasts in Revelation 4, resounds with the praise and glory of God, with every passing breath breathed in the world dependent upon the graciousness of God who sustains them. Job, mourning the apparent silence of God, tells his friends to consult the wild beasts as they bear witness to God’s sustaining and absolute power. Though Job strains to hear the voice of God, he cannot help but conclude that God alone is the source of all, and even the deceived (his friends) and the deceiver (the Satan; the adversary) play their roles in God’s larger drama writ small on the stage of Job’s tragedy.
Enter Jesus in the wilderness. He too now is among the wild beasts and also confronted by the deceiver. As I stated before, this is no grand conflict as it is readily apparent throughout Mark that sovereignty abides with Christ alone; even the tempter must play out his role of establishing the steadfast love and mercy of God who abides with Jesus, sustaining him. Yet, among the wild beasts we have imagery paralleling Job in which the whole created order — as represented by the wild beasts — is called in as witness. Yet, unlike Job who would have to wait for God to address him out of the whirlwind, nature itself now draws near to bear witness to the sustaining presence of God at work in the One who is both fully God and fully man; both creating Word and redeeming Son dawning over the world.
Here, surrounded by attending angels, we have a return to the garden with silent nature as first witness the inauguration of God’s redemptive plans for the whole creation through the new Adam, Jesus the Christ. As Adam was tasked to tend the garden and name the animals, bringing them from a state of wildness to divine/perfected domestication, the wild animals gather once more at the feet of the new Adam who does what the old could not do. Jesus is obedient. Jesus abides in the sustaining presence of God the Father who empowers him by the power of the Spirit. Sustained by God in deep and intimate encounter, even the tempter must bend the knee, and creation, groaning as it is has amidst its labor pains (Romans 8:22), comes to celebrate the pending victory over the powers of sin and death, freeing both humanity and the creation from its bondage to decay. (Romans 8:21)
While there is much in this interpretation that depends on an imaginative reading of what Mark is up to, I believe it is supported by two observations. One, as I mentioned, is that the wilderness must be understood not as source of deprivation and mortification, but instead as the staging area for radical encounter with God that prepares both Jesus and the created order for the redemption to come.
Two, Mark takes us directly from this scene into that bold proclamation that the kingdom is at hand, and the hearer must “repent and believe in the good news.” (Mark 1:15) This radical declaration of the kingdom comes not from a place of weakness and deprivation on Jesus’ part after some great drama of suffering. Instead, Jesus declares boldly from the authority and power he carries in himself, declared at the baptism, established, sustained, and prepared in the wilderness, in full control over the tempter, and first revealed to the now waking world and its beasts.
Additionally, one might also remark that Jesus has recapitulated and perfected the story of Israel, having gone into the wilderness for forty days and forty nights (as they did for forty years). Yet, he has done so as the Messiah, and his perfect obedience to and harmony with God’s sustaining will has placed on his shoulders Israel’s story: its hopes, dreams, prayers — and yes, its transgressions — for whom he will become the representative substitute. Here we depart from penal substitutionary models I find lacking towards representative substitution grounded in putting the faithful righteousness of God on display in Christ’s obedient and self-giving love, showing God to be in the right by taking our broken history and healing us, not in satisfying a capriciously vengeful God.
Now as Lord of all, the new Adam who will exercise right and just dominion, there is no longer need or room for John to continue his work, and so Mark records that Jesus’ declaration comes after John’s imprisonment from which he is ultimately silenced. As John 3:30 puts it, the Baptist must decrease so that Jesus might increase. The kingdom now fully at hand, Jesus declares the good news of repentance and restoration, a declaration that demands our response and certainly includes the entire created order.
From this vantage point, we can begin to make sense of what many often refer to as the silence of God. I asked earlier about how we often feel that being in closer relation to God seems to entail growing distance. From the vantage point of this interpretation, God is nor has ever been silent or distant. Instead, God has, is and will speak in full-throated fashion, but often in echoes and tones we are not tuned to hear. God speaks clearly at Jesus’ baptism, yet for all our words about the coming kingdom, we don’t recognize him when he arrives. In the wilderness, what would have been our complaint about lack and want of resources becomes a source of strength and sustenance for Him who abides in the awesome sovereignty of the Father. In the nagging pull of the tempter’s voice, we hear challenge, but Jesus asserts authority. In the call of the wild jackal that elicits terror in us, nature itself bears obedient witness to the eternal righteousness and grace of God now revealed in the new Adam who holds just dominion over the created order.
The problem isn’t God’s voice, that eternal Word spoken in Jesus; the problem is that we lack ears to hear and hearts to receive. “Repent, and believe in the good news.” (Mark 1:15)