by Doug Ward

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 John 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 had not sinned, Israel corporately needed to repent, and Jesus acted on their behalf. When Jesus was baptized in the Jordan, he 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 and thus served as a forerunner for the restored nation, leading the way as the first to embark on a promised great future Exodus (Deut 30:1-6).


Approaching the Most Holy Place

Along with these familiar Exodus connections, the Gospel accounts of Jesus' baptism and testing also contain some allusions to the tabernacle or temple.1 The temple connections begin with John the Baptist himself, who came from a priestly lineage (Luke 1:5; 3:2). Although John never served at the Jerusalem temple, as far as we know, 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 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." As we will see, 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 narrative proceeds.


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.


Then 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 is associated with 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. Then when the tabernacle was constructed, the twelve loaves (artoi in the LXX) of the bread of the presence, on a table opposite the lampstand, represented the tribes. In effect the stones were turned into bread-but at God's command, not the devil's. The new Israel, represented by Jesus, would have to live by God's Word (Matt 4:4).


The descriptions of the second and third temptations contain links to the inner chamber of the tabernacle or temple, the most holy place. The devil next set Jesus "on the pinnacle of the temple" (Matt 4:5). The Greek word translated "pinnacle" comes from the word for "wing." In the LXX, this word is used for the wings of the wooden cherubim in the inner chamber of Solomon's temple in 1 Kings 6:24.


Then Jesus was taken "to a very high mountain" to view "all the kingdoms of the world and their glory" (Matt 4:8). In the ancient world high mountains were associated 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). We also can 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 most holy place in Solomon's temple (1 Kings 6:20). We might think of the New Jerusalem as a "very large most holy place."


This final 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, representing a new Israel, to reject idolatry. He did so decisively (Matt 4:10), quoting Deut 6:13.


With the tests completed "the devil left him" and "angels came and were ministering to him" (Matt 4:11). Symbolically, Jesus had "come to his temple", entering the most holy place as the one truly worthy of worship. The devil had been dismissed from his presence, and angels served before him as priests.


The tabernacle/temple links in the Gospel accounts of Jesus' baptism and testing further highlight for us the deep symbolic meaning of those events. Jesus paved the way for a restored Israel and also was the Lord coming to his temple, as prophesied in Mal 3:1.


1See 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.

Issue 31


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