Out of the Wilderness
Updated: Jul 20, 2021
It's there, in the wild, that Jesus' mission is most clear.
Today, we come to the last part of Jesus’ early Galilean ministry. We’ve looked at this account as a means of answering an important question: What is Jesus’ mission?
In the scene with the demon-possessed man, Jesus played the part of spiritual conqueror who pushes back the forces of evil. With Simon’s mother-in-law, Christ was the compassionate physician, healing the wounds of a broken people.
But like any good drama, the end includes its share of twists and surprises.
And rising very early in the morning, while it was still dark, he departed and went out to a desolate place, and there he prayed. And Simon and those who were with him searched for him, and they found him and said to him, “Everyone is looking for you.” And he said to them, “Let us go on to the next towns, that I may preach there also, for that is why I came out.” And he went throughout all Galilee, preaching in their synagogues and casting out demons. (Mark 1:35-39)
After a successful ministry in Galilee, where many have marveled at his demonstrations of power and authority, Jesus retreats from the crowds. In fact, he retreats from the city altogether, finding solace in “a desolate place.” Why?
A good student of Mark’s gospel will notice “the wilderness” represents a place of importance.
It’s where John appeared, “proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins." Eventually, Jesus of Nazareth submitted to this baptism and was immediately driven further into the wild to face Satan.
It’s after these wilderness accounts that Mark places Jesus’ first public proclamation of his mission: “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel.”
We see then that Jesus’ withdrawals into the wilderness are a rhetorical tool for Mark to emphasize Christ’s mission. It’s there, removed from the cacophony of assumptions and expectations, that Jesus’ mission is most clear.
This is nothing new to anyone well versed in the Old Testament. In the Exodus account, the Lord calls his people out of Egypt and brings them into the desert. There, in the most desolate of places, God establishes his covenant with them and reconstitutes them as the people of God for his good purposes.
And similarly, Jesus retreats to the wilderness for prayer and submits himself again to the will of the Father.
But Jesus’ quiet time is interrupted. Simon, whose own household was just blessed by one of Jesus’ mighty acts, finds him humble and alone.
We should read Peter’s declaration as one of exasperation. “Everyone is looking for you.” “What are you doing here when there are so many who need healing!” Peter has not yet grasped the essence of Jesus’ mission.
Jesus replies with a summons to pack up and move on. “Let us go in to the next towns, that I may preach there also, for that is why I came out.” Does Jesus lack compassion for those who have gathered? Certainly, not! So why the rush?
Exorcisms and healings are important. Jesus will continue to do as much throughout his ministry. But Jesus’ mission is not merely about combating demons and disease. His mighty works are signs of God’s kingdom breaking into reality. They are proof of a larger phenomena.
Which is easier: to heal crippling diseases or forgive sins? Jesus posits the very question to his first audience of skeptics in the next chapter. And as Mark himself tells us, Jesus heals the paralytic as a sign of his greater purpose.
Thus, we can rightly say Jesus’ mission is to proclaim the kingdom of God; to save sinners for citizenship in that kingdom. His mighty acts testify to his power and authority to do as much. But we ought never to conflate them with the mission.
After all, a Jesus who merely solves our problems without any demand on our person is an uninspiring Jesus. To repent and believe that salvation is in Christ alone, by faith alone is dangerous. It’s a thumb in the nose of all earthly authorities and their false promises.
But when we fix our eyes on Jesus and contemplate all he has done for us, how small are the passing things of this earth. “Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord.”
Robert Hasler is a Ministry Associate and Director of Communications for Ministry to State and cohost of The Will & Rob Show.