As a young man, I would sometimes spend time talking with a family friend who was a watch expert. I was fascinated by the way in which he could quickly distinguish a true Rolex from a fake. On one occasion, my friend pointed out the seemingly microscopic initials that a watchmaker had engraved into the underside of a timepiece. It was this small detail that enabled my friend to authenticate this particular watch. I would never have thought to look for such a small and seemingly insignificant detail if he had not pointed it out to me. Similarly, the Scriptures identify the Lord Jesus as the true Israel of God by means of the smallest and seemingly most insignificant details in the records of His temptation in the wilderness.
No sooner had God brought His son (Ex. 4:22), Israel, out of Egypt and through the waters that He brought him into the wilderness for forty years—to be tested by Him and tempted by the evil one. In similar fashion, after bringing Jesus up out of Egypt (Matt. 2:15) and through the waters of baptism, the Spirit drove God’s beloved Son into the wilderness for forty days to be tested by God and tempted by the evil one. The overarching parallel is striking. But the small details recorded in the temptation accounts prove to be even more striking.
The first significant small detail about Jesus as the true Israel of God is found in Mark’s account. There we read that while He was in the wilderness, Jesus was “with the wild beasts” (Mark 1:13). Before considering how this plays into Jesus’ recapitulation of Israel’s history, we have to consider what it teaches us about Jesus as the second Adam. When God created Adam, the Scriptures tell us that he was in the garden with the animals. The Lord gave Adam the task of “tending and keeping” the garden-temple paradise and of naming the animals. When Adam sinned by eating of the tree of which God told him not to eat, Adam turned the garden-temple into a barren wilderness. The world was now a place of sin, rebellion, misery, and danger. The second Adam entered the world to undo all that Adam did. In order to do so, He had to begin His ministry as the last Adam—not in a garden but in the place that symbolized the barrenness and cursed nature of the fallen world. Jesus was not in the garden-temple paradise like the first Adam, but He was in the desert with the wild beasts.
Back to Jesus as the true Israel of God, note that when God brought Israel into the wilderness, He promised them covenant blessings and curses (Deut. 28–31). In the wilderness, He tested them. Israel failed to obey the God of redemption and, therefore, failed to obtain the covenant blessings. It was for this reason that the Son of God began His incarnate ministry in the wilderness. He came to do what Israel had failed to do. He came to the wilderness in order to regain the garden-temple paradise. When we start to see the wilderness/garden themes, we soon realize that it was not a coincidence that our Lord Jesus began His ministry by being tempted in the place of His people in the wilderness and ended it by leaving the sin of His people behind in the garden tomb.