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The Temptations and the Tabernacle

We read in the Gospels that the public ministry of Jesus was heralded by his cousin John, a powerful prophet who proclaimed the coming of the Kingdom of God and called for Israelites to repent of their sins. Many who responded to John's message underwent baptism, a ritual immersion in water symbolizing the spiritual transformation occurring in their lives (Matt 3:1-6). For this reason, we refer to John as the Baptist.

John announced the imminent arrival of an even greater prophet, "he who is mightier than I " (Mark 1:7). When that prophet, Jesus of Nazareth, came forward for baptism, John was understandably surprised. Why would Jesus, who had never sinned, request a baptism of repentance? (Matt 3:13-15)

The answer lies in Jesus' role as a representative and personification of Israel. Though he was without sin, Israel corporately needed to repent, and Jesus acted on their behalf. When he immersed himself in the Jordan, with John as a witness, Jesus symbolically "passed through the waters" as Israel had once crossed the Red Sea (Matt 3:16). God then claimed Jesus as his son (3:17), as he had done for Israel in Egypt (Exod 4:23). Jesus went on to fast for forty days in the wilderness, a symbol of Israel's forty-year sojourn; and was tested with bread (4:2-3), as Israel had been with manna (Deut 8:2-3). Jesus passed his test, thus serving as a deliverer for the restored nation, leading the way to new Exodus foretold by Moses (Deut 30:1-6).

Along with these and other Exodus connections, the Gospel accounts of Jesus' baptism and testing also contain some allusions to the Tabernacle (which later, became the Temple).(1) The Tabernacle connections begin with John the Baptist himself, who came from a priestly lineage (Luke 1:5; 3:2). As far as we know, John never served at the Jerusalem Temple, yet he can be considered a sort of wilderness priest with a unique set of priestly garments. In particular, the Greek word for the "leather belt" that John wore (Mark 1:6) is the same word used in the Septuagint (LXX) for the sash that was part of Aaron's raiment (Exod 28:39).

One of the prophecies describing John's mission, according to Mark 1:2, is Mal 3:1: "Behold, I send my messenger, and he will prepare the way before me." This prophecy continues, "And the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his Temple." Fascinatingly, the Gospels make a series of references to features of the Tabernacle or Temple, presented in the same order in which one would encounter those features while approaching the inner sanctuary. We can then think of Jesus "coming to his Temple" as the narratives proceed.

When John greeted Jesus, he declared, "Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!" (John 1:29) At the tabernacle, the bronze altar was the place where lambs were offered each day (Exod 29:38), and atonement for sin carried out (Lev 1:4; 4:35; 5:16). John's greeting associates Jesus with the lambs and that altar.

Next, Jesus was baptized, an event we can connect with the "basin of bronze" that stood between the altar and the tent of meeting (Exod 30:18). At Solomon's Temple, it was called a sea and measured ten cubits in diameter (1 Kings 7:23). Hebrews 9:10 notes that it was used for various washings, where the Greek word for washings is baptismoi.

As Jesus came up from the water, the heavens were "torn open" and the Holy Spirit descended upon him (Mark 1:10). The verb for torn open is used later in the Gospels for the tearing of the Temple's inner veil (Mark 15:38). Here we can picture the outer tabernacle curtain opening to reveal what is inside the holy place, including the golden lampstand (Exod 25:31-40). The oil that fuels the lampstand relates to the work of the Holy Spirit in Zech 4:1-6.

The first temptation that Jesus faced in the wilderness was the devil's directive to turn stones (Greek lithoi) into bread (artoi). Correspondingly, at Sinai (Exod 24:4) Moses initially erected an altar and twelve stone pillars (lithoi in the LXX) representing the twelve tribes. After the construction of the Tabernacle, the bread of the presence—twelve loaves (artoi in the LXX) sitting on a table opposite the lampstand—represented the tribes. Ironically, the stones had already been turned into bread, but at God's command, not Satan's. The renewed people of God, represented by Jesus, would by the Father's Word (Matt 4:4).

The descriptions of the second and third temptations contain links to the inner chamber of the Tabernacle, the holiest place of all. We next witness the devil setting Jesus "on the pinnacle of the Temple" (Matt 4:5). The Greek word translated pinnacle comes from the word for wing. This same term is used in the LXX for the wings of the wooden cherubim in the inner chamber of Solomon's Temple in 1 Kings 6:24.

Finally, Jesus was taken "to a very high mountain" to view "all the kingdoms of the world and their glory" (Matt 4:8). The ancient world associated high mountains with the presence of deity. When Ezekiel was shown visions of a future Temple, for example, the Temple was on a "very high mountain" (Ezek 40:2), and the entire top of the mountain was "most holy" (43:12). Compare Matt 4:8 with Rev 21:10-11, where John the Revelator is taken "to a great, high mountain" and shown the New Jerusalem "having the glory of God." The New Jerusalem is in the shape of a cube (v. 16), like the Holy of Holies in Solomon's Temple (1 Kings 6:20) leading us to conceive of the New Jerusalem as an enormous sacred space.

This last temptation was critical. Israel had often sinned by turning to false gods at "high places" (Jer 3:6), so it was especially important for Jesus as Israel's King to reject idolatry. He did so decisively (Matt 4:10), quoting Deut 6:13.

With this time of testing completed "the devil left him" and "angels came and were ministering to him" (Matt 4:11). Faithful to God's Word, Jesus had come to his Temple and entered the sacred innermost chamber as the one truly worthy of worship. The adversary was dismissed from his presence, and the angels served before him as priests.


(1 ) See Nicholas P. Lunn, "The Temple in the Wilderness: Allusions to the Hebrew Sanctuary in the Baptism and Temptations of Christ", Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 59 (2016), pp. 701-716.


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