Jesus and the Wild Animals

It’s one of the stranger asides in all the Gospels.

In Mark’s first chapter, verses 12–13, after Jesus’s baptism, “The Spirit immediately drove him into the wilderness. And he was in the wilderness forty days, being tempted by Satan. And he was with the wild animals . . . .”

Say what? Jesus with the wild animals? What significance does that carry in this grand opening chapter of Mark?

No Random Detail

Mark has such limited space to tell about the history-altering life of the Son of God come as man. Why bother mentioning that in his forty-day wilderness venture Jesus “was with the wild animals”?

I doubt we should assume it’s a random detail. Mark’s narrative is much too carefully crafted to think that. Then what’s the point?

Back to Adam

The conceptual connection appears to reach back to the Garden where Adam was with the animals before the Fall. For Adam, the setting was perfect: a beautiful garden, more pristine than we’ve ever seen, with tame animals around him — animals over which he exercised a kind and happy dominion as God’s vice regent, created in God’s image. (Of course, there came that pesky serpent. But even he was tame enough to engage in discussion.)

But our father Adam transgressed his Maker’s regulation about abstaining from a particular tree, and in doing so, failed to exercise dominion over the creeping thing, and brought us all with him into sin.

Better Than Adam

The point Mark seems to be hinting at is that Jesus is a new kind of Adam, the new and ultimate Man. Instead of a beautiful garden, the ultimate Man faces his temptations in the wilderness, a wilderness created by Adam’s sin. And instead of kindly presiding over tame animals, the ultimate Man is surrounded by wild animals. This sinful world into which Jesus enters to accomplish his mission is less like a pristine garden and more like Jurassic Park.

Unlike Adam, the surroundings into which Jesus is put to live out human perfection are marred by sin’s corruption. Unlike Adam, Jesus faces a wild land and wild animals. While Adam was setup for success, Jesus must go against the grain.

But despite the conditions for our new Man being more difficult than they were for the first Man, Jesus succeeds, for our sake, in passing the test — in the wild land and among the wild animals. The new Adam does not succumb to the Enemy’s tempting, but stays his course to die sacrificially for the sin that entered in under the first Adam.

Confirmation in Psalm 91

Psalm 91 connects the tracks between Mark’s first chapter and the opening chapters of Genesis. In Matthew’s telling of Jesus’s wilderness temptation, he quotes from Psalm 91:11–12: “He will command his angels concerning you to guard you in all your ways. On their hands they will bear you up, lest you strike your foot against a stone.” And Mark alludes to the psalm in his mention of “the angels were ministering to him” at the end of Mark 1:13.

It’s the very next verse in Psalm 91 — verse 13 — that forges the link from the Garden to the coming Messiah’s majestic dominion over the redeemed creation, wild animals included: “You will tread on the lion and the adder; the young lion and the serpent you will trample underfoot.” Lions and tigers and bears — the God-man is reigning over them, with explicit mention of the serpent as well.

Fearless in the New Man

In Jesus, we have an escape from being born into Adam’s condemned family. With God’s amazing gift of new birth, we now are able to exercise faith in the new and ultimate Man, be joined to him, and included in the triumph of his family. In this new Adam, we’re delivered from the domain of darkness and transferred into the kingdom of God’s beloved Son (Colossians 1:13). One day we’ll reign fully and finally with him in the new heavens and new earth, where the wolf will dwell with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the young goat — and a little child shall lead them (Isaiah 11:6).

For now, we live in a world where dogs bite, zoos need cages, and even the best crocodile hunters die. But while our fear of wild animals persists (and should), in Jesus we have the promise of the Better Day to come. Jesus is our champion and pioneer who tramples underfoot the serpent, and empowers us to stomp with effect as well (Romans 16:20). A day is coming when we too will be with the wild animals and rightfully able to enjoy the serenity of Jesus.