Drenched and dripping, Jesus was lifted by his cousin, John, from the murky waters of the Jordan River. . .
The harmonious experience following Jesus’ baptism, then, ruptures immediately—this is Mark’s own word—when the spirit drives out Jesus into the wilderness.
In any number of popular books on the holy spirit you’ll be told that the holy spirit is the source of power: power to work miracles, power to bring joy, power to preach well. All of this is true. Just not here, not at the start of it all for Jesus. Here, along the Jordan River, the holy spirit exercises the power to drive Jesus out into the battlefield of Satan.
This is the first action of the spirit in Jesus’ adult life, and it grates unexpectedly against the spirit’s gentle descent. The shift is jarring. Jesus can’t for a split second linger in the pleasant confines of his vision, with heaven opened, a divine voice directed at him, a spirit-dove’s docile descent into him. He won’t for a moment remain on the shores of the Jordan River, basking in the words “beloved” and “my son.” He can’t because the spirit, which arrived as gently as a dove, now drives him into the wilderness immediately. There is no hiatus to breathe in the majesty and mystery of his visionary experience.
Yet the ruthlessness of this action is matched by its necessity, for Jesus had to leave behind this remarkable experience on the banks of the Jordan River in order to exercise his vocation and to grasp, ultimately, God’s commitment to him. The simple detail that Jesus was “with the wild animals” points to this. Typically, wild animals were seen as a threat, as in Psalm 22:11-21
and Ezekiel 34:8
. Mark, however, uses simple grammar: “he was with,” which indicates peaceful coexistence (Mark 3:14; 5:18; 14:67
). Jesus coexisted peacefully with wild animals. The usual hostility between human and beast is gone. Jesus, in essence, reestablishes a forty-day epoch of Eden, when the animals live peaceably with human beings.
The simple detail that Jesus coexisted with the animals fulfills all sorts of Israelite hopes for a restoration of Eden, for a return to a peaceful coexistence with wild beasts. According to the Israelite prophet Ezekiel, God promises, “I will make with them a covenant of peace and banish wild animals from the land, so that they may live in the wild and sleep in the woods securely” (Ezekiel 34:25
). Closer at hand lies the vision of the prophet Isaiah, which contains the memorable description of an anointed leader on whom the spirit rests, a ruler who would usher in an era of universal peace. . .
There is so much more we need to learn about Jesus, so much more we need to experience of God that cannot be gotten in the peaceful confines of fruits and gifts, of successful living, of powerful preaching. We don’t need to make peace with the animals when everything is already at peace. We don’t require angelic care when there are no threats. . . The holy spirit sends us to places and people we would never otherwise choose to go because only there, where our very existence is at risk, can we understand on the deepest human level that we too are God’s beloved, a source of God’s pleasure.