Temptations

Matthew 4:1-11 Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. 2He fasted forty days and forty nights, and afterwards he was famished. 3The tempter came and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.” 4But he answered, “It is written, ‘One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.’” 5Then the devil took him to the holy city and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, 6saying to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down; for it is written, ‘He will command his angels concerning you,’ and ‘On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.’” 7Jesus said to him, “Again it is written, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’” 8Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor; 9and he said to him, “All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.” 10Jesus said to him, “Away with you, Satan! for it is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.’” 11Then the devil left him, and suddenly angels came and waited on him.

According to Matthew the confrontation he reports between Jesus and Satan didn’t just happened. He is very clear, “Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted.” It was intentional. Was it a “Boot Camp” experience, designed to train Jesus or to test his metal against the wiles of Satan? How you answer that question says a lot about who you see Jesus to be.

Matthew tells us is that Jesus’ temptation came at breakfast, literally. This is a direct contradiction of how Luke tells his story. With Luke, the temptations lasted for forty days. We are going to throw in our lot with Matthew and say that Jesus wasn’t tempted for forty days and forty nights. The temptations came at the conclusion of his fast, when he was famished, at a point of extreme vulnerability.

There is a lot we don’t know about Jesus’ fast. There is the rare and inadequately supported report of a victim of torture actually surviving forty days without food. Putting Jesus in that category of robust humanity isn’t a struggle for many. For others, Jesus is super human anyway and it isn’t an issue. But for many of us the fact of Jesus’ humanity is in question. It’s known that Ghandi survived twenty one days of living without food but he consumed water. But a good place for us to begin is to consider what was going on with Jesus and his intentional fast. It’s not a stretch. Most religions in the world recommend fasting.

There are impassioned prose writers who say that the number forty signifies God’s judgment of one sort or another somehow implying that Jesus’ was being judged by his temptations. Others simply shrug their shoulders and say that nothing is clear about the biblical use of the number forty other than it is what it is, a period of time other than another way of saying a long time. Some neuro-scientists get excited about the Gamma frequency of 40 Hz and its relationship to the human brains’ operating frequency which is also the frequency of middle ‘c’ on the piano key board.

There is no numerical figure in scripture as pervasive as that of the number ‘forty’, especially ‘forty days and forty nights’. For quite a few years now I’ve wanted to host a retreat starting with the hour of Jesus’ crucifixion and concluding with Easter sunrise, a forty hour retreat. Of course the rains in Noah’s day fell for 40 days and nights (Genesis 7:4). Israel ate Manna for 40 years (Exodus 16:35). Moses was with God in the mount, 40 days and nights (Exodus 24:18). Moses was again with God 40 days and 40 nights (Exodus 34:28). Moses led Israel from Egypt at age 80 (2 times 40), and after 40 years in the wilderness, died at 120 (3 times 40; Deuteronomy 34:7). The spies searched the land of Canaan for 40 days (Numbers 13:25). God made Israel wander for 40 years (Numbers 14:33-34). 40 stripes was the maximum whipping penalty (Deuteronomy 25:3). Three different times reported in Judges God allowed the land to rest for 40 years (Judges 3:11). Abdon (a judge in Israel) had 40 sons (Judges 12:14). Israel did evil; God gave them to an enemy for 40 years (Judges 13:1). Eli judged Israel for 40 years (1 Samuel 4:18). Goliath presented himself to Israel for 40 days (1 Samuel 17:16). Saul reigned for 40 years (Acts 13:21). Saul’s son was 40 when he began reign (2 Samuel 2:10). David reigned over Israel for 40 years (2 Samuel 5:4, 1 Kings 2:11). Solomon reigned same length as his father; 40 years (1 Kings 11:42). Jehoash (Joash) reigned 40 years in Jerusalem (2 Kings 12:1). The holy place of the temple was 40 cubits long (1 Kings 6:17). The size of lavers in Temple were forty baths (1 Kings 7:38). God gave Nineveh 40 days to repent (Jonah 3:4). The sockets of silver are in groups of 40 (Exodus 26:19 & 21). Elijah had one meal that gave him strength 40 days (1 Kings 19:8). Ezekiel bore the iniquity of the house of Judah for 40 days (Ezekiel 4:6). Egypt to be laid desolate for 40 years (Ezekiel 29:11-12). Ezekiel’s (symbolic) temple is 40 cubits long (Ezekiel 41:2). The courts in Ezekiel’s temple were 40 cubits long (Ezra 46:22). Jesus fasted 40 days and nights (Matthew 4:2). Jesus was tempted 40 days (Luke 4:2, Mark 1:13). Jesus remained on earth 40 days after resurrection (Acts 1:3). And then there is the relationship between the times of Jewish festivals and the 40 week period of human pregnancy.  So, “forty days and nights…”

Traditionally we have understood that there were three temptations:

  1. If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.”
  2. “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down; for it is written, ‘He will command his angels concerning you,’ ‘On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.’”
  3. the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor; and he said to him, “All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.”

The first challenge is about Jesus simply employing the power, prestige and privileges that are his as ‘the Son of God’ to meet his own needs. Recently we read the passage where John the Baptist lashed out at the privileged Pharisees and Sadducees saying that “God is able from these stones to raise up children for Abraham.” So why is this act of feeding oneself considered a temptation, a temptation from which Jesus turned away? I want to suggest that the issue is Jesus’ humanity and how he identifies himself. Is he able to survive without drawing upon divine resources? If God is able to raise up children for Abraham from stones, why not raising up loaves of bread from stones to meet the needs of a fleshly body?

Jesus’ reply was: ‘One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.’” Our life is dependent on ‘every word’ that comes from the mouth of God including the creative word that brought stones into being. Even the stones have an intrinsic integrity. There is a huge environmental message in that. Far to easily can we fool ourselves into thinking that we can meet our most basic and simple needs and in the acquisition of which no one else is hurt, no one else is deprived, no one else is effected. In how we meet our needs, much less our wants, we are in a set of living relationships with all creation.  Were we to only eat fruit that falls of its own accord to the ground, our action interrupts the cycle of planting, germination, maturity and fruition.

So next, from the top of Herod’s Temple, Satan again challenges Jesus’ sense of identity. “Are you really who you think you are?” Satan asks. He quotes the Ninety First Psalm reminding Jesus again of his exceptionalness.

You who live in the shelter of the Most High, who abide in the shadow of the Almighty, will say to the Lord, “My refuge and my fortress; my God, in whom I trust.” For he will deliver you from the snare of the fowler and from the deadly pestilence; he will cover you with his pinions, and under his wings you will find refuge; his faithfulness is a shield and buckler. You will not fear the terror of the night, or the arrow that flies by day, or the pestilence that stalks in darkness, or the destruction that wastes at noonday. A thousand may fall at your side, ten thousand at your right hand, but it will not come near you. You will only look with your eyes and see the punishment of the wicked. Because you have made the Lord your refuge, the Most High your dwelling place, no evil shall befall you, no scourge come near your tent. For he will command his angels concerning you to guard you in all your ways. On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone. You will tread on the lion and the adder, the young lion and the serpent you will trample under foot. Those who love me, I will deliver; I will protect those who know my name. When they call to me, I will answer them; I will be with them in trouble, I will rescue them and honor them. With long life I will satisfy them, and show them my salvation.

Do you believe that Jesus? “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down; for it is written, ‘He will command his angels concerning you,’ ‘On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.’”

Jesus replies with a word of scripture of his own: “Again it is written, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.'” The response is from Deuteronomy 6. In Deuteronomy 5 Moses teaches the people what God had told him on the Mountain. It is a recitation of the Ten Commandments. Then, recorded at the first of Chapter 6 is Moses’ statement of the Shema “Hear, O Israel: The Lord is our God, the Lord alone. 5You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might. 6Keep these words that I am commanding you today in your heart. 7Recite them to your children and talk about them when you are at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you rise. 8Bind them as a sign on your hand, fix them as an emblem on your forehead, 9and write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.”

There is a brief recounting of Israel’s salvation history and then, in the sixteenth verse we find “Do not put the Lord your God to the test, as you tested him at Massah.”

As I was thinking about how Jesus handled this intense confrontation I wondered how equipped I am. Do I have an adequate command of the assurances offered in our scriptures to give me the necessary back bone to survive such an attack?

The third temptation puzzles us all. Making bread seemed relevant. The spectacular stunt we can understand. But after deflecting the first two challenges the last seems so glaringly obvious that Jesus would reject it.

Jesus is given a view of all the kingdoms of the world and Satan offers to give them to him on the one condition that Jesus worship him. Jesus doesn’t challenge Satan’s power to make the world such a gift. All the evidence in the gospels suggests that Jesus had no interest whatsoever in political power. In John 6, when it was offered to him he literally ran for the hills. So how can Satan’s offer be a temptation, be something attractive to Jesus?

Jesus doesn’t want political power, but this whole experience is preparing him for his ministry and he is considering various ways of approaching his task. He wants to influence people, he has a message that he wants people to hear. Perhaps here is where the devil’s suggestion becomes a little more plausible. He’s trying to get Jesus to keep his eyes fixed on all the kingdoms of the world. He’s trying to make him desire and go after as many followers as possible. He’s trying to get him to play the ratings game; to be guided, if you like, by opinion polls. He’s trying to make him desire success above all things. And it sounds so good and holy. What could be better than for Jesus to be THE influence, the guiding force over everyone on earth?

John Hemer, a British Catholic, asks, “But if Jesus does that how will he cope with his opposition? How will he cope when the Pharisees tell him he’s wrong, or when some of his own disciples tell him that his words are intolerable and leave him? (John 6: 66) Well, if he eyes are fixed on getting (and keeping) as many followers as possible might he tailor his message to suit his audience? He won’t do a complete about turn, he won’t deny anything he’s said or done so far, but would he make subtle changes in order to make his message more palatable? The Pharisees, after all, are hugely influential, there’s no point in alienating them when they can be such useful allies. So rather than heal on the Sabbath and court controversy, Jesus can heal on other days, he’s still healing after all. Rather than lose all those followers at Capernaum, he can call them back and explain his ministry in terms that are less offensive, more acceptable. No major changes, just tweaking the message here and there to make sure it hits its target audience.

If Jesus makes these little changes here and there, he will end up preaching not God’s truth but what his audience want God’s truth to be. What will be guiding him will not be the voice of God but the voice of sinful human beings, the values of sinful human institutions. Without even realizing it he will no longer be worshiping God, but the devil. And by worship we mean more than just an isolated religious act. The thing we worship is the thing which guides our lives, the thing that motivates us. If Jesus allows himself to be motivated by the desire for success, it will always be fallen human concerns which guide him. The Truth will then be whatever his listeners want to hear and that is tantamount to worshipping the devil.

All through Jesus’ public life we see the consequences of his coming unscathed through Satan’s challenges as he refuses to be swayed by public opinion or by threats or violence. Worshipping Satan isn’t necessarily a huge act of rebellion, but a series of small acts of accommodation. It is a constant temptation for us as Christians and the only sure antidote is the one Jesus gives: “You shall worship the Lord your God and him only shall you serve.”

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