The Temptation of Jesus in Mark

Unlike Matthew and Luke the account of Jesus’ temptation in the Gospel of Mark is told in a meager two verses. 12 At once the Spirit sent him out into the wilderness, 13 and he was in the wilderness forty days, being temptedby Satan. He was with the wild animals, and angels attended him. (NIV)

I found the following summary discussion in Robert Stein’s commentary on Mark very helpful.

“It is strange that this very short passage has received so many varied interpretations. The very brevity of the passage and its enigmatic nature may be the reason for this. Some of the more common interpretations of the meaning of the Markan temptation are: (1) It serves as an example and encouragement for Christians in their temptations. Yet we do not read of any struggle of Jesus with temptation in the account, and no explicit mention is made of Jesus’ victory over such temptations. This is only implied. If it were the point of the account, however, we would expect an explicit reference to this. Furthermore, if this was meant to serve as an example for Christians undergoing persecution, would not the crucifixion of Jesus have served as a better example? In the temptation no harm comes to Jesus. On the contrary, the angels come and care for him. (2) The account contrasts Jesus’s success in overcoming temptation with Israel’s failure during its time in the wilderness. But again the victory of Jesus over temptation receives less emphasis than one would expect if this interpretation were correct. No explicit comparison of Israel’s failure and Jesus’s success in encountering temptation is found in the passage, and the analogy between the forty days of Jesus in the wilderness and the forty years of wandering by Israel encounters the problem of forty years versus forty days. It is a least questionable whether Mark’s readers would have made such a connection merely by the term ‘forty.’ Mark’s readers (and the modern-day reader as well) have no clear markers for understanding the account in this manner. (3) The temptation should be understood as the apocalyptic restoration of the pre-fall paradisal bliss through Jesus’s undoing of Adam’s failure. Yet again explicit pointers to an Adam-Christ comparison are lacking. Attempts to see them in the term ‘casts’ (1:12 and Gen 3:24) lose sight of the fact that the actions are quite different. In the former, the Spirit casts Jesus into the evil wilderness; in the latter, God casts Adam and Eve out of the blessed garden. We furthermore find nothing in the Genesis account involving forty days. Once again, the lack of any explicit statement of Jesus being victorious over the temptation should be noted, for it weakens considerably such a comparison. (4) The account teaches the once-for-all defeat of Satan by Jesus. After this, Jesus’s encounters with Satan are little more than mopping-up operations. Yet we find no clear statement to this effect in Mark, and we find nothing in Mark like ‘I saw Satan fall like lightning from heaven’ (Luke 10:18) to support such a view. There is no suggestion that the reference to the binding of Satan in 3:27 was interpreted by Mark as occurring at the temptation. On the contrary, this verse is best understood as indicating that in Jesus’s exorcisms the kingdom of God had arrived, and this meant the defeat of Satan. There is no clear statement or allusion here that would lead the reader to see Jesus as having defeated Satan once and for all in the temptation.”

“The point that Mark is making in 1:12-13 is christological in nature. The temptation shows that the Spirit-led Jesus is the Son of God. This is seen in his facing a great temptation by Satan himself, which lasted for forty days. But Jesus is stronger than Satan! He goes out into the wilderness–a place of wild beasts and the realm of Satan–and returns victorious, for he is stronger than the evil one. He is ministered to by angels–the lesser (the angels of God) serving the greater (the Stronger One–Jesus Christ, the Son of God). Along with 1:1-11 the present account portrays Jesus Christ, the Son of God as announced by John the Baptist (1:2-8), anointed by the Spirit (1:10), acknowledged by the divine voice from heaven (1:11), approved by testing in the wilderness (1:12-13), and now prepared for his ministry and mission (1:14-16:8).” (pp. 65-66)

He offers the following quote from Gundry:

“All that we have [in this account] is a dignifying of Jesus, a series of acknowledgments–a backhanded acknowledgment by Satan, a pacifistic acknowledgment by the wild beasts, and a ministerial acknowledgment by the angels–in recognition of the status of Jesus as God’s beloved Son. Mark 1:12-13 is neither exemplary nor proclamatory nor promissory, but Christological.”


About Louis

I am a 1997 graduate of Trinity Evangelical Divinity School.
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