The Temptation of Christ

The Temptation of Christ

The Temptation of Christ.

(Matthew 4:1-11; Mark 1:12-13; Luke 4:1-13).

Pushed. The Gospel of Mark doesn’t mince words. “The Spirit drove Jesus into the wilderness.” (Mark 1:12). The Holy Spirit didn’t passively encourage Jesus to go into the wilderness. The Spirit didn’t lead Jesus by the hand into temptation. The fact is, the Holy Spirit drove Jesus, He thrust Him into the wilderness to face off with the devil. The temptations were forced onto Jesus. He was pushed, and He didn’t have much of a choice. The temptations were difficult experiences directed by God. And this was immediately after a spiritual mountain top experience, the baptism of Christ. The wilderness temptations came right after God Himself spoke from heaven, confirming the eternal Sonship of Jesus and God’s everlasting love for His Son. Sometimes God brings us head first into difficult situations right after a spiritual high point. He wants to test our progress in the Faith. He wants us to learn from experience. He wants us to toughen up and become stubbornly dependent on God. As it happens, the Spirit doesn’t have to push us into predicaments very often. We are are so adept at getting ourselves into difficult situations, we don’t need the Lord’s help. The timing of the temptations was important. It must have been crucial to God that Jesus face this enemy and defeat him before His public ministry began. Jesus was thus given the opportunity to qualify Himself as the Messiah before He swings into action.

Loyalty. What was the devil trying to do with these temptations? Did he have an ultimate goal in confronting Jesus with these moments of testing? Was there an overarching purpose to the devil’s temptations? Yes, there was one dominant goal. The devil wanted to drive a wedge between the Father and the Son. The Greek word for devil is diablo, which means “slanderer.” Diablo comes from two different Greek words which taken together means, “tear apart.” And that’s what the devil wanted to do, tear apart the eternally intimate relationship between the Father and the Son. The devil wanted to test the loyalty of Jesus to God. Each of the three temptations were meant to have Jesus question His trust in God, to move independently of the will of the Father. Each temptation was to try to create some self-doubt in Jesus’ mind about His status with the Father… “If you are the Son of God…” In turning the stones into bread, the devil subtly wanted Jesus to doubt His dependence on God to care for Him. The devil wanted Jesus to grow impatient and question if God was going to provide food. In the second temptation, the devil wanted Jesus to question His security in God. Jesus was meant to wonder if God could protect Him. The devil wanted Jesus to doubt God’s protection and thus do something to test God, to find out if He is faithful. The third temptation was the devil’s attempt to get Jesus to doubt God’s control over the world. Is the Father truly the King? Maybe I should take that power if God is not up to it. All three temptations were meant to separate, even a little bit, the intimacy between God and His Son. If the devil could get Jesus to become disloyal to the Father and to act independently of Him, then the devil had it made. But there was no wavering of loyalty, no compromise of their divine love. The devil knew a secret, but it didn’t do him any good. “The secret of the whole world of humanity is the love between the Father and the Son. That is at the root of it all. Upon the love between the Son and the Father hangs the whole universe. What it can mean exactly, you know, I cannot tell you.” (George MacDonald, Knowing the Risen Lord).

Submission. Jesus submitted to God’s push into the wilderness because He needed to set the record straight with the devil. Jesus needed to show the devil right from the start who the boss was. Jesus needed to undo the fall of Adam. The devil is a fool. He figured that if he could defeat Adam, he could succeed against Jesus as well. But the devil didn’t realize that Jesus was the New Adam, the only one who could undo the Fall and face off with the devil and win. Jesus defeated the tempter and his schemes, and now can offer the eternal life bungled by Adam. Jesus can now offer the hope of salvation that was lost in the doom of Adam’s sin. Jesus also wanted to show His followers an example of how we can stand victoriously against temptation. And He wanted to reveal a warning to us that we will indeed face spiritual warfare with the devil and his forces. Finally, Jesus needed to face temptation as a human experience, something common to personhood. He needed to prove His humanity by going through temptation, and He needed to prove His divinity by passing the test.

Armor. Being filled with the Holy Spirit after His baptism, there is no doubt that Jesus was wearing his spiritual armor in the wilderness. He spent His forty days in prayer and fasting. He knew He was about to wrestle against the primary spiritual force of darkness. He knew He would have to stand against the wiles of the devil, against the crafty power of wickedness. So Jesus made sure He was wearing the belt of truth and the breastplate of righteousness. He wore the Good News of peace on His feet. He held up His shield of faith and trust in God to put out the devil’s fiery darts. Jesus wore the helmet of salvation to protect His mind during the ordeal. And, most conspicuously, Jesus wielded the sword of the Spirit, the Word of God. For every fiery dart, Jesus responded with a razor-sharp word from Scripture. For this intense battle with the devil, Jesus wore the full armor of God and was saturated in prayer. Jesus had received His battle plans. He was ready to stand firm against the subtle but deadly strategies of the Adversary.

Forty. The number forty is an important one in Jewish history. The length of time Jesus fasted no doubt brought to mind many things from the Hebrew Bible. Moses and Elijah both fasted for forty days. Noah patiently waited while it rained for forty days. Jonah preached to the Ninevites for forty days. So the number forty tends to signify a passing of a test or a time of trial. Of course, Israel had to endure forty years of testing in the wilderness. The observant believer would certainly have taken note of that parallel.

1st Temptation. Turn these stones into bread.” Forty days is the outside number for the ability to survive without food. After forty days, one’s inner organs start to consume each  other in the body’s desperate drive to receive some sort of nourishment. So Jesus was literally beginning to starve. He was way beyond being merely hungry, and the devil wanted to exploit that fact. Jesus was getting desperate, but He nonetheless didn’t give in to this powerful temptation. For one thing, Jesus was not about to comply with any suggestion of Satan. Jesus depended on the Father for provision of food. Jesus wanted to depend on God’s word to be said, God’s will to be done, God’s initiative to give the green light to eat. Jesus was not going to use His supernatural power for self-indulgence. He would not seek nourishment apart from God’s timing. His loyalty to the Father was like food to Him. Jesus expanded on this in John 4:32-34: “I have food to eat of which you do not know… My food is to do the will of Him who sent me, and to finish His work.” Henri Nouwen likens this first temptation to our being tempted to be “relevant,” in which we base our ministry on being productive, on meeting a need, or successfully producing tangible results. The devil wanted Jesus to use His power to meet a felt need and ignore the Father’s will in the process. To engage in independent self-reliance is not in Jesus’ game plan. Earthly well-being is not a priority for Jesus. Becoming a slave to physical needs does not sway Jesus despite His intense hunger. Jesus is saying that He will use His power to serve God, to serve others, but not to serve Himself. The self-discipline here of Jesus is a marvel.

2nd Temptation. Taking Jesus to the highest point of the Temple, the devil told Him to jump off.” Did the devil and Jesus teleport themselves to the Temple in Jerusalem? Why not? Or was this scene in their vivid imaginations and that was the same as being there? We don’t know, of course. The highest point of the temple is on the Royal Porch, which overlooks a sheer drop of 450 feet to the valley below. Also of interest is that in rabbinic tradition, “In the hour when the Messiah is to be revealed, he shall come and stand on the roof of the Temple.” So for one thing, Jesus knew it was not yet God’s time for Him to be seen anywhere near the roof of the Temple. Then the devil wanted Jesus to do what amounted to a spectacular magic trick. Throw yourself down, says the devil, and surely the angels will protect you. Think how extraordinary this would be, you would be a sensation, your popularity will be over the top! Go ahead, says the devil, and see if your God  will really protect you like He said. Put Him to the test. Are you all that secure in God’s ability to rescue you? Don’t you have a tiny doubt in there somewhere? Go ahead, let’s see what your God does. Call His bluff. Jesus replied with Scripture about not testing the Lord. Besides, Jesus is saying, I don’t need to test the Lord. I trust Him, I am secure in His protection. I am not going to recklessly expose myself to danger to find out if He is faithful. I already know He is. I am not going to provide some heavenly spectacle for the acclaim of the people. No, devil, that will not work for me.

3rd Temptation. I will give you all these kingdoms if you worship me.” The devil and Jesus now find themselves on the peak of a high mountain. They are able to get a bird’s-eye view of the world and all of civilization. The devil proudly claims ownership of all they survey, and offers to give to Jesus the power to rule everything they see. It seems the devil has a right to at least think this bombastically. After all, Scripture even names the devil “the ruler of this world” (John 12:31 and 16:11) and “the god of this age.” (2 Cor. 4:4). John said that “the whole world is in his power.” (1 John 5:19). The devil appealed to the human thirst for power, but with strings attached. In some ways, this temptation doesn’t make sense. What good would it do to have power over the kingdoms but still have Satan in power over you? I’ll give you all this power, Jesus, if you give me your allegiance so I’ll be the most powerful of all. But if you were the ruler of all these kingdoms, Jesus, think of the wealth, the domination, whatever you want at the snap of your fingers. You would be the boss of everyone, they would all have to obey you! Think of that power! All you have to do, Jesus, is let me be your boss. Is that so much to ask? Come on, where’s your ambition, where’s your pride? Think of your influence, your control! Don’t worry about your so-called Father and His kingdom. You wouldn’t need Him any more. Stay with me, Jesus, and you can rule without Him. But once again, Jesus didn’t compromise with evil. This temptation didn’t appeal to His spirit of servanthood. The mission of Jesus is self-sacrifice, not domination. Even if I was attracted to give orders, devil, I would not bow down to worship you. The only One worthy of worship is my Father, the Lord my God. Him only will I serve. So go away now, Satan! Be gone! You lost.

Retreat. So the devil finally retreated from Jesus, and angels came to minister to Him in the wilderness. They could have brought manna from heaven, or provided a feast of some type, but certainly they brought comfort and encouragement from heaven’s throne. Once the devil knew he was defeated in this face-off, he left Jesus, knowing he was going to return to Him “at an opportune time.” (Luke 4:13). This wasn’t the last He’d see of the devil. No doubt temptations came and went throughout the public ministry of Jesus. Certainly the devil made an appearance during the Passion, with Judas, in Gethsemane, in front of His accusers. Throughout His life, Jesus was probably tempted everyday, just like us. “For we do not have a great High Priest who cannot sympathize with our weaknesses, but was in all points tempted as we are, yet without sin… For in that He Himself has suffered, being tempted, He is able to help us when we are being tested. So let us come boldly to the throne of our gracious God. There we will receive mercy, and we will find grace to help us when we need it most.” (Hebrews 4:15, 2:18, 4:16). In the wilderness of our world, we will find ourselves in a battleground like Jesus. But we can be assured that our victorious Pioneer will be at our side. He knows what to do. He’s been here before.