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The Jesus Way: Temptations

Updated: Oct 18, 2022

by Mike Bowling

Matthew 4:1-11

Follow me, Satan (Ilya Repin), 1903

Dietrich Bonhoeffer reminds us that the temptation of Jesus in Matthew’s gospel should be read in concert with the temptation story of Eve and Adam in Genesis 3. From “the first humans” to “the ultimate human,” temptation is a universal human experience. However, recognizing that everyone experiences temptation should neither trivialize nor oversimplify it; temptation is a complex topic which challenges all of us. James 1 draw a distinction between testing and tempting: James encourages us to joyfully embrace the testing of our faith as an opportunity to be strengthened, but he is quick to point out that, while God is willing to supply us with much needed wisdom to endure testing/trials, temptation is the kind of experience which should not be thought to originate with God.

Want more complexity? Job is a guy minding his own business as an exemplary human being when God gives Satan free reign to make Job’s life an absolute misery. Still more complexity? It is the Spirit which leads Jesus into the wilderness “to be tempted by the devil.” This is an odd thing for the Spirit of God to do in light of the fact we are taught to ask God to “lead us not into temptation.” Parsing the difference between trials and temptations may not be worth the effort, and identifying the origin of either is at the very least tricky, if not counter-productive. In the end, “God allowed it” is a self-evident discernment in light of God’s sovereignty, and “the Devil made me do it” is an affront to human freedom and without biblical foundation.

Followers of the Jesus way should be encouraged by Matthew’s story of Jesus’s temptation in the wilderness. It is a stark reminder that when we pray “lead us not into temptation,” Jesus (our heavenly High Priest) has sympathy for our struggle (Hebrews 4:15, 16). After all, the gravitational pull of temptation on us is the human weakness of malformed desires in us (James 1:14, 15). We generally assume Jesus emerged from Mary’s womb with desires which automatically aligned with God’s will; if that was so, how could he sympathize with us? I believe the tempting of Jesus in Matthew 4:1-11, while magnificently symbolic, was representative of the temptations Jesus experienced from his baptism until his death on the cross.

Notice the wilderness temptations immediately follow God’s declaration at Jesus’s baptism: “This is my beloved son, with whom I am well pleased.” The primary issue is not whether or not Jesus will resist particular sins; the temptations are about what kind of God’s agent/representative or messiah will Jesus be. The geography and duration of the temptations are meant to remind the reader of Israel’s testing in the wilderness. Before entering the land of promise, Israel had to face the desperation of physical hunger and thirst, and they had to decide between an unseen and unfamiliar God or gods/idols fashioned by themselves. Jesus drops hints to the parallel experiences of testing by quoting from Deuteronomy 6 and 8. Israel was tested in the wilderness for forty years “to see what was in your heart” (Deut. 8:2). Would they trust in “every word from God’s mouth” (Deut. 8:3) and the provisions God promised? Would Jesus trust God to provide bread in the midst of hunger, or would he abuse his power and position for his own need? Would he identify with the hungry of the world or use his power as a privileged messiah?

The second temptation reminds us that Scripture can be used for both good and ill. Satan quotes a messianic promise found in Psalm 91 to bait Jesus into testing God. “Hey Son of God, if you are so sure of God’s protection as you venture into the rough and tumble world, risking life and limb, how about a demonstration tumble off the pinnacle of the temple?” Jesus’s response, quoting Deuteronomy 6:16, reveals his trust in God without need to put it to a test. The significance of the temptation and Jesus’s response is bound to the context of Deuteronomy 6. Like God’s demand of Israel, will Jesus demonstrate an unquestioning trust of God?

The third temptation is more brazen than subtle, “Hey King Jesus, imagine all the good you could do if you ruled the world. Well, I’m a king maker; submit to my priorities, and the deal is done.” Jesus’s rebuke is short and to the point, “Get lost Satan! My sole commitment is God’s rule, not my own or anyone else’s for that matter.”

The essence of Jesus as Messiah has now been set, and by extension the essence of how the Church will live as the Body of Christ. Jesus will identify with the bruised and the broken. He will display unquestioning trust in God’s instructions. Most importantly, Jesus will serve only God’s interests. The consequences of Jesus’s resistance to the temptations are often overlooked: the devil leaves him and angels arrive to serve him. The devil’s departure reminds us of the simple admonition and promise found in James 4:7: “Submit therefore to God. But resist the devil, and he will flee from you.” The angels’ arrival is captured beautifully by Gerhard Lohfink: “And at that moment, when Jesus shows himself to be the one who lives in absolute union with the will of God so that his very food is to do the will of God, the wilderness is transformed into paradise.

As we embark upon the Jesus way, we must remember whose road it is. The Jesus way means choosing the path Jesus chose. We live by the Word, the words and works of Jesus. We live confidently by his commands. We seek nothing but God’s will done on earth as it is in heaven. May God transform our wilderness into a paradise, for us and all our neighbors. The angels are waiting!

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