A Life of Jesus

Kenneth B. Tindall

Chapter IV.

Trial of Strength.

A wild, desolate valley; everywhere rocks and stones—and again rocks; no sign of cultivation or of the hand of man; occasional patches of scrub or a stunted tree broke the monotony; but there was no grass, no sign of fertile soil; everywhere barren waste. No colour but a uniform, dreary grey; the crags rising stark out of the valley, the stony track, the boulders lying as they fell thousands of years ago, the scree on the gentler slopes—all were of this cold grey hue. The impression was of a valley of the dead.

Up this bleak ravine trudged a solitary figure; he might have been a shepherd of the district, but the expression in his face was that of a man who had come into this dreary solitude for some special purpose rather than of one who was carrying out the everyday duties of his life. There was in his eyes a look of intense concentrated purpose.

As he walked up the desolate valley of rocks, a faint smile illumined his face; nothing here to distract his thoughts—none of those gentle scenes of country life which he had loved from childhood upwards—no ploughman driving his share through the fertile soil—no sign of human life—nothing but an occasional coney scuttling away at his approach, or, if he looked upward, a solitary vulture wheeling above his head. Suddenly he stopped; under the lee of a great rock he had espied the mud walls of a ruined shepherd’s hut. This would answer his purpose; he unbuckled a strap; and the carpenter’s toolbag, which he had been carrying slung over his back, slid to the ground. He opened it and took out a heavy hatchet. A few hours’ labour was all that was needed to fell several windswept trees and construct a rough roof; this was work to which he was accustomed.

A month had passed. Every day he had walked among the rocks, sometimes climbing the gaunt hills, sometimes sitting among the stones in the valleys; every night he had heard the jackals barking round the walls of his hut; he was alone with the wild beasts. Yet he was not alone; all the time he had been conscious of the presence of God and the reality of his love. It was just that certainty which had compelled him to leave his home at Nazareth; he had a secret which he must share with others, with everyone he met, with the sinner, as with the righteous man. “God loves you and me, loves us as a father loves his children, loves us just as much when we do wrong as when we do right;” this must be his message.

Then there was another thing; he was conscious in himself of a power which other people did not possess in the same degree. He had realised this power first many years before when he had held little Thaddy while his mother set his broken leg. He had experienced it again when he was a boy of eighteen; the little daughter of a neighbour had been ill, and had asked for him to go and see her. Jesus had always been a great favourite with children. When he went into the house, the little girl was flushed with fever; he had put his hand on her head and stroked it; and as he did so, he had been conscious of that mysterious force passing through him to the child; and she had realised it too. She murmured: “that’s better, your touch is doing me good.” Then she had dropped off to sleep and when she woke up the fever had gone.

And this power had increased as he grew older; it seemed as if he could always use it to help anyone who trusted him. And here in the wilderness this force was pulsating in him; he felt that it was longing for an outlet; he believed that he could work miracles. What did this mean? He had been shown that he was the Messiah; his mother’s stories of the angels and the shepherds, of the Chaldean astrologers and the new star, had given him some proof of this; and the belief had been strengthened into certainty by John’s recognition of him as the Messiah and the amazing experience at his baptism.

But what did it mean to be the Messiah? Did it mean that he was just an ordinary man whose job in life was to do a special work? Or did it mean that the Father had given to him powers which other men could not have?

This mystical force surging within him seemed to point that way; a fierce desire beset him to test his power to work the miracle which he felt sure he could perform to prove to himself that the Father had really endowed him with superhuman gifts.

Jesus was weary and hungry that evening; he had had no proper meal for a month; and the sudden rush of questions in his mind made him feel faint and stupefied. He sat down on a rock near the hut. In some curious way his physical craving for food and his spiritual craving to know the truth about himself became confused together. His eyes fell on the stones lying everywhere about him; it was as if a voice actually spoke to him; he could hear the words perfectly clearly. “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to turn into bread.” Why not? It would be a relief to have food. And he would be able to test how fully God had equipped him to do his work.

“I must test God,” he said aloud.

Test God? What did that remind him of? There flashed into his mind a verse from the book of the Second Law, “thou shalt not put the Lord thy God to the test.” But why not? Surely it must be right for him to know what powers God meant him to have?

The struggle in his mind was a furious one; he knew now that it was an evil voice which had suggested the performance of a trivial miracle to test his own powers; but this made it very little easier. He longed to eat; he longed to know if he could turn stones into bread. In his desperate agitation he sprang to his feet. Up and down he paced, thinking, fighting. Suddenly he flung his face upwards and in a hoarse, unnatural voice, called on God to help him.

“Father, I know you love me; convince me that I have your strength in me without this test!”

And as he stood gazing upward, the answer came; he knew that to resist this temptation was a far harder thing than turning stones into bread; but he knew too that he had the power to resist; he knew that this power of resistance was God’s answer to his prayer, God’s further assurance that he was his chosen Son.

How paltry now seemed his craving for food! How senseless his wish to prove his own power of working a miracle! God had spoken to him. With a sudden gesture he flung out his hands, as if to push away a visible assailant; and as he did so, another verse from the Second Law came to his lips. “Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceedeth out of the mouth of God.” He felt full of peace and assurance, but physically so weary that he could scarcely drag himself to the shelter of his hovel. For a few moments he stood at the door with the setting sun lighting up his tired face; thus he thanked his Father, not in actual words, but by the silent gratitude of his whole being, for the successful issue of his trial. Then he flung himself down on his hard bed of earth and fell into a dreamless sleep.

Jesus woke as the sun touched the higher hilltops, crowning with gold the sombre masses of grey limestone. As he stepped out of the door he drew into his lungs the cool, fresh air of the morning.

The hut had been built many years before near to the only spring of water for many miles round; he drank a deep draught, threw some of the ice-cold water over his face and head and washed his hands and his feet. Thus refreshed, he stood near the spring and poured out to God in actual words his gratitude for his deliverance of the night before.

Later in the morning he set out for his daily walk; as he threaded his way mechanically between the rocks, he was thinking of the experience of the previous evening. Temptation he had often known before; both in boyhood and in manhood he had had to fight those temptations by which all other boys and men are assailed—temptations to untruthfulness, to bad temper, to impurity, to selfishness, to laziness; and he knew how he had been able to face and overcome those temptations. All his life he had prayed; as quite a little boy he had been taught by his Mother to say his prayers; but these prayers, however hard he had tried to say them properly, had not really meant much to him, until that day in Jerusalem when it had been revealed to him that God was his Father. Ever since then his prayers had taken a new reality; it was so much easier to talk over his problems and difficulties—yes, and his joys and pleasures too—with a Father who was always there and could always understand.

God was no longer a far-away, perfect Being whom he must approach with awe and some fear; He was the intimate friend with whom he could share his most secret thoughts. And this certainty of the presence of God had brought him successfully through the fiery trial of temptation. It had not been easy: often it had been terribly hard. Yet, looking back, Jesus had no feeling of self-satisfaction, just one of intense gratitude for God’s help in answer to his prayers.

But fierce as had often been his temptations in the past, what had attacked him yesterday had been something new. This had not been a straight fight against something which he knew to be wrong; it had seemed at first sight to be right, or at least harmless. And now that he had conquered the temptation, he felt the desire no more; he now knew that he had the power to work miracles, that he must only do so for the good of others. If he had satisfied his hunger and his curiosity, he would have been using God’s gift for himself.

As these thoughts passed through his mind, Jesus had been walking steadily onward without caring in what direction he went. Now he looked up and saw in front of him a curious pinnacle of rock.

“It’s like the pinnacle of the temple,” he thought.

From where he stood, he could see a possible means of climbing it and set himself to do so. The effort and coolness needed for the ascent would distract his mind.

After half an hour he lay on the summit, an almost flat ledge of rock about six feet by four. It had been a stiff climb and he could enjoy the feeling of successful achievement. When he had recovered his breath he sat up and looked about him. From below he had likened the rock to a pinnacle of the Temple; here, from above, the illusion was even more striking. Away to the right was a big massive cliff which might be the main block of the Temple buildings; while in front and to the left stretched an almost level plain which at once recalled the Temple courts; there was even a large flat rock just about where the altar of sacrifice would be. For a time he sat, idly peopling these courts with imaginary figures, brightly clad pilgrims from the country, the white-robed priests, the armed Temple guard, the wrangling vendors of sacrificial victims.

A lump rose in his throat: how little all these frequenters of the Temple really knew about the God in whose honour the Temple was built. He longed to carry his good news of the loving fatherhood of God to all that motley throng. But who would believe him? Would anyone believe in the preaching of a Galilean carpenter? He could picture to himself the sneers of the aristocratic Priests, the sarcasm of the snobbish Pharisees. One or two poor folk might accept his teaching; but unless he quickly made a reputation for himself, there would be no possibility of winning many converts. And what would be the good of a Messiah in whom no one believed? How to begin?

As he pondered this knotty problem on his perch between earth and heaven, the shadows lengthened; and he realised with a start that it was already late in the afternoon. He rose and stretched his limbs; he must start the descent. Then he realised that he was weary and that the climb down would be harder work than the ascent. “If only I could jump down,” he thought.

He smiled; that certainly would be putting God to the test—and just to save himself the trouble of scrambling down. That would be a typically pointless and selfish miracle!

But at this moment there seemed to come to him the answer to the question which had been engaging his mind all day. “Yes, it, would be pointless to jump off this rock; but suppose I were to jump from the real pinnacle of the Temple into the courts below!”

A light of excitement came into Jesus’ eyes; why hadn’t he thought of this before? He imagined the scene; the thrill and excitement of the crowd—the sudden realisation that here was a miracle the like of which no one had ever seen before—the admission even of the priests that this must be the Messiah. Here would be convincing proof of his mission and his power; he would begin his work by gaining hundreds of followers at once. And this would not be using his power for himself. God had given him this power to be of service to other folk; and what better service than to gain disciples and then teach them the truth? It never entered his head to doubt his power to perform the miracle; without knowing how the words came into his head, he found himself murmuring a verse from the Psalms. “He shall give his angels charge concerning thee, to keep thee; and on their hands they shall bear thee up, lest haply thou dash thy foot against a stone.” The quotation as he spoke it sounded in some way incomplete, but in his excitement he did not stop to think what was wrong. He felt with deep joy and thankfulness that God was pointing to him a clear path to success.

Yet in the middle of this happiness there rose before his mind, quite inconsequentially as it seemed, a scene from the long distant past; he was standing with other children in the square at Nazareth; a dark-skinned juggler from the far-away land of India was amusing the crowd. He had thrown a rope into the sky and a little brown boy had swarmed up it and disappeared. Jesus remembered that he had thought the juggler must be Satan, to work such strange magic. And then he understood; to leap from the Temple pinnacle would be just such a conjuring trick; some of the crowd might take him for the Devil; no one would believe he was the Messiah, any more than the Nazarenes had believed that juggler to be the Messiah. And if a few credulous fools did believe, they would not be the followers to do any good in the world; in the time of danger or trial such disciples would fall away.

Jesus’ sense of humour overcame him; he burst into a loud laugh, which echoed down the ravine, scaring a hen raven from her nest.

“The Tempter almost had me then,” he laughed; “I must keep my enthusiasm under control. I wonder if the angels would bear me up, if I attempted anything so useless. In any case it would be wrong to try; thou shalt not put the Lord thy God to the test.”

Another week had passed. Jesus was beginning to feel that the time had almost come when he should begin his work. He now saw clearly that if this was to last, he must convince his followers, not by miracles, not by a striking appearance, but by making them feel the strength of his character and the attraction of his personality, through his life and through his love he would lead them to the nature and love of God.

“Those who know me;” he said to himself, “must know my Father also.”

He must so reflect the character and nature of God that men would recognise him for what he now knew himself to be, the Messiah, God’s representative on earth.

He had made his way to the top of the highest hill in the surrounding country. As he stood on the summit he first looked north; there the Jordan valley lay spread out like a map before him. He thought of the inland lake of Tiberias and of the busy towns on its shores; it was in these places that he had decided to start his work; in those towns he was not known, yet he had often been in them. He could soon make friends with the homely and kind-hearted fisherfolk of Capernaum or Bethsaida. But beyond the little Jordan basin he saw in his mind’s eye the great Roman province of Syria with its capital of Damascus, which men called the gate of the World—Syria the centre of so much of the world’s commerce; further to the east lay more ancient civilisations still, Babylonia, Persia, India and remote China, those countries of mystery and mystic lore. Away to the south was the desert of Sinai where the Sacred Law was given centuries ago to his fellow-countrymen; and beyond Sinai the oldest land of all, the land of the Nile, where pyramid tombs enclosed the mummified limbs of ancient Kings. Then he turned westwards; he saw actually visible to his eyes, the holy city of Jerusalem, that mighty fortress-shrine, fortified by David as the capital of Jehovah and for the protection of His chosen race. Right away beyond Jerusalem he thought he could detect the faint glint of the Great Sea, beyond which lay Greece, land of art and letters—and still further away the hub of civilisation, the city of Rome. No one who lived in a Roman Province could fail to be impressed by the power and the efficiency of Rome; her highly trained legions, her roads and bridges, her regulation of trade, the justice of her law courts, the magnificence of her buildings—all the latest developments of civilisation flowed from the imperial city of Rome into the most distant corners of her mighty empire.

As Jesus thought of all these different lands with their millions of human souls groping in the darkness of superstition or the more deadening influence of modern materialism, he felt an overpowering desire to bring them to the truth, to the knowledge of the love of God. His whole nature yearned for mankind, for humanity needed only to know the Father’s love, to turn from misery to happiness. He saw all the kingdoms of the world in a moment of time; he imagined them accepting his message, believing in the God who loved the sinner, as He loves the honest and upright man. He saw every nation bringing its own contribution to the throne of God and offering them in His service. He saw a religion in which the mysticism of the East, the traditions of Egypt, the sense of worship of his own people, the literature and art of Greece, the efficient organisation of Rome, would all be combined in the service of the loving Father who created all mankind and implanted in each nation its own special characteristics to be shared with others.

And as he pondered over this vision of the Kingdom of God on earth, there came to him a feeling of despair; in all these lands, with all their glories and achievements, there was so much that cut right across the loving purposes of God—the cruelties of slavery, the selfishness of luxury and vice, the horrors of war, hypocrisy, lust, cowardice, snobbishness; was it possible to change human nature? But how much did these things matter? Surely the first thing was to bring happiness to mankind? And this he could do by teaching them the truth about God, by telling them of his all-embracing love; by showing them a life of love himself.

“I could bring all the nations of the world to believe in my message if I taught them of nothing but God’s love;” so he thought; “and after all what are right and wrong compared with human happiness and man’s knowledge of God?”

Jesus’ sympathy went out to the millions without knowledge, without hope. He felt like a shepherd calling his sheep in from stony mountains to the lush pasture of the lowlands. Would such a shepherd make his sheep travel by the hardest paths? Would he refuse them pasture until they were washed and clean? It was unreasonable to expect men to give up their selfishness, their cruelty, the satisfaction of their animal desires; no, he would teach them to love God; he would teach them that God loved them. But he would not trouble them about how they lived. God was all loving; he would understand and pardon.

A cloud obscured the sun. Jesus felt a shiver run down his spine. It was cold up here on the mountain top when the sun went in. He looked up, the cloud looked like a form with black, outspread wings, and it was hiding from the earth the light and warmth of the sun. For a moment he felt as if some black and evil presence was between himself and God, the source of all life and light.

Evil; the Devil; what was it he had been thinking of before this malignant cloud had cut him off from light and warmth? It was his own thoughts that had separated him from God: how could he teach men the love of God if he did not teach them how to please God? How could he show them the nature of God in his own life if he did not show them the highest and teach them the best? How could he make them understand God’s love for sinners, if he did not make them feel the hatefulness of sin?

“I was in danger of becoming a mere sentimentalist,” he thought. “If I tried to bring men to happiness without teaching them that happiness consists in being the best we can be and doing all we can for others. What would be the good of my teaching, if men and women were still living in slavery, if their vices and selfishness were making themselves and others miserable? That would be a fine Kingdom of God!”

Jesus shivered again; how near he had been to letting his love for mankind lead him into treachery to God! To gain the world by allowing what is wrong would be like making a bargain with the Devil; the Tempter had suggested to him, “all these will I give you if you will fall down and worship me;” he had been on the point of bowing his knee in homage to the Prince of Darkness.

As if in defiance of Satan, Jesus drew himself up to his full height and shouted towards the sinister cloud: “get thee hence, Satan! It is written, ‘thou shalt worship the Lord thy God, and Him only shalt thou serve.’”

There was a moment’s pause, as he watched for God’s sign; then the cloud divided in the midst, and the light and warmth of the sun streamed upon the solitary figure on the mountain peak.

When Jesus lay down in his hut that evening, he could not sleep. He had hardly been able to walk back from the mountain; the last six weeks had been a terrible strain; the scarcity of food, the continual grappling with problems of how and when to start his work, above all the struggle against his three terrific temptations had left him depressed and physically exhausted. He had decided that tomorrow he must return to the haunts of men, must begin his work as the Messiah; and he felt incapable of making the effort.

“I shall hardly be able to stagger back to the Jordan,” he thought. “And I need to be so fit and active for the work that lies ahead. If I could only sleep! Or if I had some food, I should feel stronger.”

There was a knock at the rough door and voices were speaking outside.

“May we come in, sir?” said one.

“Come in and welcome,” replied Jesus in astonishment.

The door opened and two young men entered.

“We are sent to help you,” they explained. “Here is food and drink for you, sir.”

They set a basket of fresh fruit and bread and cheese before him and sat down by him on the ground.

“Where do you come from?” asked Jesus. “Since I came into the wilderness I have seen no living soul.”

The two strangers looked at one another and smiled.

“You need food, sir. We have brought it to you. It will strengthen you for your journey in the morning—and for what lies ahead. When you have eaten, we can talk.”

Jesus took the bread, blessed and broke it and offered it to his guests.

“We have no need of food, sir,” they protested. “We brought it to supply your needs.”

The meal did Jesus good, but still more was he refreshed by the companionship of his silent benefactors. When he had satisfied the pangs of hunger, he turned to them again.

“How did you know I was here?” he asked.

“We were sent by our master,” one of them replied. “We are only his messengers. Now that we have done his bidding, we must return.”

They rose and took up the basket and stood for a moment by the door. The moon fell full on their faces, illuminating them with an unearthly radiance. Jesus sprang to his feet.

“Your faces are familiar to me,” he cried. “Where have I seen you before? You are not Galileans.”

Again they looked at one another and smiled.

“No, we are not from Galilee, sir. But you have seen us before; our names are Michael and Gabriel.”

“Shall we meet again?” asked Jesus.

“Yes, sir. But not until your work is successfully finished.” And with these words they strode away into the moonlit night.

Jesus looked after them; and as he watched them tirelessly ascending the hills, there came once more into his mind that verse from the Psalms which had run in his head on the pinnacle: “He shall give his angels charge concerning thee, to keep thee.”

He lay down again. A wonderful peace had settled upon him. This was not due merely to the satisfaction of his hunger. God had sent his angels to minister to him. He fell asleep.

Before the day dawned, Jesus was walking back from the wilderness. The exhaustion of the previous night had passed away. He felt full of vigour and ready to face life. As he strode along, he reviewed in his mind the decisions of the past six weeks. Everything now seemed clear to him; he was the chosen Messiah, appointed by God to save the world. This he was to accomplish by living as a man among men, by teaching them the truth of the love of God for them, by leading them to serve and love God by serving and loving one another. He felt confident of being able to bring home this truth to the poor and needy, and above all to those who were outcast and despised. His heart longed to bring to sinners the message of God’s forgiveness, to lead them to hate their sins for the sake of the Father who so loved them.

But what of the educated classes, the Pharisees, the Priests, the Rabbis, the doctors of the Law? Could he convince them? His work would be so much easier if he could win them over to believe in the truth of his message. He thought of the occasion in his boyhood, when he had talked with the grave lawyers in the Temple at Jerusalem and they had smiled their encouragement. He thought of the old Rabbi at Nazareth, who was his good friend still. It might not be so hard; he and they were seeking the same thing. The only difference was that they searched the ancient Scriptures for the will of God, and he felt it as a force inside himself.

He must try to make them his friends and allies. But if he failed in this, what then? Well, then he must go ahead without their help, perhaps even in face of their opposition and enmity. Nothing should stop him.

His mind turned back to the temptations which had assailed him in the wilderness. It seemed strange to him that he had ever wished to test his power, or to win followers by a startling miracle or to allow evil in this world which it was his purpose to save from evil. He had learnt now what he had come into the desert to find out: he was to be the Saviour of mankind. But he had discovered something else. He knew that if he had fallen to any of the temptations which had assailed him, he would have thereby failed in his life’s work—he would have forfeited his right to be the Messiah.

But he had not failed. By the strength and goodness of the Father in whom he had always trusted he had been victorious over the powers of darkness. He knelt for a moment by the side of the track from which he could now see the Jordan valley.

“I will give thanks unto the Lord, for he is gracious,” he murmured, “and his mercy endureth for ever.”

As the sun rose behind him, he got up and stood for a long while looking down on the homes of men. Then resolutely he set his face to the west and strode on, a solitary figure to save the world.

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