Tuesday
Jul102012

Not the Last Temptation of Christ

After three mostly anonymous decades, Jesus of Nazareth was finally prepared to take his messianic personality public, but first the devil seized an opportunity to try to thwart the plans of God before they really got started.

It will become apparent that the devil suspects the kingdom intention of God is little different from the nationalistic Jews’ hopes for redemption from Rome and the return of a Davidic king to a seat in Jerusalem. Soon after the Lord’s baptism, however, the tempter has only in mind a series of tests meant to discourage and defeat the deliverer.

Matthew’s text indicates that this was not a coincidence, but that the Spirit led Jesus into the wilderness for the express purpose of allowing Satan to test him. Moreover, the odds were stacked against him through forty days of fasting, perhaps creating a heroic opportunity for Jesus to prove to his followers the potential for resistance to any sinful test.

The devil was permitted to present Jesus with three conundrums – temptations exacerbated both by his natural hunger and their moral ambiguities. 

First, the devil challenged Jesus to sate his hunger by turning some stones into edible bread, but Jesus controlled his appetite, appealed to Scripture, and made a case for obedience to his father’s will at all costs (Deuteronomy 8:2-3).

Second, the devil challenged Jesus to prove Scripture, specifically that angels would protect him from injury (Psalm 91). Jesus saw through the test and responded that man should not test God (Deuteronomy 6:16).

Finally, Satan offered to accelerate the Lord’s ascension to power in exchange for a transfer of his loyalty. Jesus could have avoided the cross and taken political authority over the earth in an instant, but he dismissed the tempter with another appeal to Scripture (Deuteronomy 6:13). Angels replaced the devil and ministered to a triumphant Jesus.

The celebration proved short-lived, for Herod Antipas had arrested John, signifying that the time had come for Christ to increase his public stature. Choosing Capernaum as his base, Jesus promoted Peter, Andrew, James, and John to fishers of men. 

John’s theme remained consistent throughout the ministry of Christ, as he proclaimed the gospel of the kingdom, its imminent establishment, and the need for repentance as preparation for citizenship. Besides his teaching, Jesus gained fame by healing people of diseases,  epilepsy and paralysis; and exorcising demons.

It is hard to imagine that anyone has ever been subjected to greater adversity as preparation for spiritual testing than when Jesus preceded his temptations with forty days of fasting in the wilderness. In spite of that, but also in some ways because of it, Jesus was able to endure the devil’s best assaults on his thoughts and needs.

There are two elements to the impressiveness of his resistance. First, his fasting, which clearly produced great hunger, also served a spiritual objective of focusing his heart upon the will of God through voluntary self-sacrifice and religious devotion. Fasting, while never ordered for the church today, continues to promise the same results to those who attempt it. Second, Jesus resisted the tempter with superior appeals to Scripture, answering his deceptions with unimpeachable truth. 

If believers today are to endure testing, it will only be as a result of committed preparation and clarity of purpose. Faithfulness and endurance are not accidental, but depend upon very diligent effort. The offers made to Jesus differ from those set before us only in degree; they are rooted in idolatry for the things of this world – the lust of the eyes and flesh, and the pride of life (First John 2:15-17). Successful resistance requires applied knowledge of both God’s will and wisdom.

Although Satan might really have been empowered to deliver on his promises to Jesus, he remains the father of lies, a deceiver so adept at prevarication that he can subtly lure into sin even the most faithful of Christ’s disciples. All he needs is for our area of vulnerability to be exposed and he can provide the choicest bait to get us on his hook (James 1:12-15, First Corinthians 7:2, First Timothy 6:9, Romans 12:21). 

In Jesus, he expected his hunger, royal aspirations, or even his trust in God would open a door to sin, but Jesus closed them all with scriptural replies. Satan is most powerful when he can enlist us in deceiving ourselves (First Corinthians 3:18, First John 1:8).

Surviving this series of temptations allowed Jesus to begin his ministry, narrowing its initial theme to repentance as preparation for the imminent establishment of the kingdom of heaven. Although it remained a mystery to so many then, the kingdom Jesus had in mind was a spiritual realm, where citizenship depended more upon moral repentance than Abrahamic heredity. 

The apostles epitomized the kind of sacrifice necessary to the kingdom as they left their ways of life to follow Jesus in ministry. A recurring theme in Christianity is sufficient commitment to count everything else loss in exchange for acceptance by Christ (Philippians 3:7-11). Because he would make the ultimate sacrifice upon the cross, we must honor him by putting him first. While this does not require monastic vows of deprivation, it does challenge the believer to prioritize the exercise of his faith higher than his hobbies.