Matthew 4:1–11 (NRSV)
The Temptation of Jesus
(Mk 1:12–13; Lk 4:1–13)
4 Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. 2 He fasted forty days and forty nights, and afterwards he was famished. 3 The tempter came and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.” 4 But he answered, “It is written,
‘One does not live by bread alone,
but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.’ ”
5 Then the devil took him to the holy city and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, 6 saying 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.’ ”
7 Jesus said to him, “Again it is written, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’ ”
8 Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor; 9 and he said to him, “All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.” 10 Jesus said to him, “Away with you, Satan! for it is written,
‘Worship the Lord your God,
and serve only him.’ ”
11 Then the devil left him, and suddenly angels came and waited on him.
I find the narrative surrounding the Temptations of Jesus as being one of the most inspiring portions of scripture. I know that sounds strange, why would I like a portion of scripture that focuses on struggle? I am a bit of a pessimists, I see things in the darker hues so to speak. I find great satisfaction in looking at the things that most people find hopeless and seeing the glimmers of light. The temptation of Jesus is one of those stories. Most people can see the light because Jesus overcomes the darkness of the struggle but what I find so inspiring is that Jesus shows us how to be victorious amid our inflictions.
None of us like living through struggles. We do not like enduring illness, we despise the emotions of grief, and if we had a choice we would choose the pathways of least resistance. This is part of human nature we seek survival over everything else. When there is a trial of any kind we seek to alleviate the problem. This is the main reason we have an epidemic of addiction in our land. We are a people who like quick fixes and we have this unhealthy idea that happiness is the goal of life. Sure, we should pursue happiness, but to achieve a life of joy we must endure hardships. That is the difference, when we pursue happiness by living in a short-sighted life, and we often miss the true joy that we could obtain. To obtain a lifestyle of Joy we need the strength to endure, we need the power to overcome the struggles and not let them distract us from our true hope. Probably my favorite quote from American history is from the Declaration of Independence, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness.” Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. I love this quote because it places happiness in the proper light, it is something that is pursued. To pursue something requires endurance of some form. We were endowed by our Creator to pursue happiness or joy.
Unfortunately, the struggle deters many from the pursuit of happiness in their lives. In their attempt to alleviate the struggle, they often settle for something less than joy. Perfect joy we learn from scripture is to do the will of God in our lives. Anything that we allow to distract us from this pure perfect joy of becoming the person God wants us to be, the person we were created and endowed to be by our Creator is sin. But often those distractions can come clothed in a pursuit of our goal. If we are to look at the fall of humanity in the story of Eden mankind desired the knowledge of good and evil for themselves. There was a tree in the garden that offered a short cut to this knowledge, and then there was the path to that knowledge through the walks in the garden with God in relationship. We often think that our first parents were greedy for knowledge, but they were just like us they wanted what they were endowed to have. The sin was that they chose a short cut, so they would not have to endure the time it took to gain the knowledge through the ongoing relationship with God.
Their sin was not the desire for knowledge. God wants us to have knowledge, it is part of the joy that we are to pursue. Their sin was allowing the desire of their endowed right to place a wedge of separation in the relationship. They sought knowledge without relationship. Denial of the relationship with God is sin, and anything that entices us to bypass the endurance of a relationship is temptation. This is where Jesus’ temptation brings us inspiration.
Temptation is not sin, the fact that we are tempted means that we are in pursuit of something greater. Those who are not tempted are living a life that is devoid of the pursuit of joy they are instead living a life that is filled with the short-sighted pursuit of fleeting pleasures, or you have stopped the pursuing a life of joy completely. Both are sin, because both deny relationship.
Jesus was tempted. Just like us because his pursuits were good. He was seeking to honor the relationship with God, He was seeking to live out what his humanity was endowed to be. He was tempted because the life he was going to live was one that would bring hope to humanity and make our joy and that of God’s complete. Jesus was tempted in every way that we are tempted, yet did not sin. He was tempted yet did not allow himself to get distracted from the path he was to walk. Jesus was tempted but he endured the struggle so that through him we can endure also.
When we read through the epistles we find that Adam was a prototype, and that Jesus was the perfected human. The sin of Adam caused us all to be born into a lifestyle of sin, this simply means that we have hereditary tendency to avoid struggle, often to the detriment of our relationship between creation, the rest of humanity, and to God. Jesus came to provide a way and a means to change this. In a sense the blood of Christ is a vaccine to the disease of sin. He provided the cure, but he also provided us with an example or a demonstration of how overcome the effects of the disease. It begins with a fast.
Fasting is not something that I have spoken about much but it is very important. The reason I tend to shy away from speaking of a fast is because many of us have ideas surrounding it that may or may not promote the purpose of it. A fast is a spiritual discipline that has been part of pretty much every ancient religion. It is a voluntary abstention from something to prepare for an encounter with a deity. The most common fast is from food. Most people believe that a proper fast is to go a minimum of twenty-four hours without food, but this was not the most common fast practiced in ancient time. Most fasts, unless it was regarded as a severe fast, were simply an abstention of food during the daylight hours. Meaning they would abstain from food while they worked and would celebrate life with their families at home. There were severe fast, or a total abstention from food for a period, surrounding the high holy days especially around the day of atonement.
The fast represents and emptying of oneself and one’s selfish ambitions for to bring a greater intimacy in the relationship. It is an abstention of something that brings pleasure to devote the time that is devoted to that activity to prayer and study. We fast not to change the mind of God but to recalibrate our lives to the will of God, to reorient our will to that of God. Jesus began this time of struggle with a fast. The fast is a way to let the concerns of the world fall away as we deny their hold over us.
The other interesting aspect of this is Jesus withdrew to the wilderness to do this discipline of fasting. I have highlighted many times that Jesus would withdraw to these isolated places to pray, and suggest often that we should do the same. Like the fast, the withdrawing from a daily routine allows us to reconfigure our spiritual directive. A fast releases the grip of substances over our lives, a retreat to a place of contemplation allows our minds and spirits to loosen the bondage of time. When we remove ourselves from the grips of time we allow ourselves to enter God’s timing. When we make it a habit to withdraw often to pray we will see that many of our anxieties will also calm because our focus is on our creator not on our creations.
Both disciplines are ones that can speak to our cultural conditions. Our culture has issues with consuming. We use our consumption to distract our minds and bodies from the struggles we face. The results are obesity, alcoholism and other substance abuse problems, shopping, and various other lusts of the flesh. We run to these vices because we are consumed with stresses that eat up our time. We are busy all the time and I am probably the guiltiest of all. We are caught in a vicious cycle where we consume because we are consumed and our relationships and communities suffer.
But why do we do this to ourselves? Again, Jesus tells us why. Each of the temptations that Jesus faced were based on his endowed purpose in life. The result of these temptations was what he desired, and ultimately what the Father desired for his Son. Most of our temptations are based on our desires as well, many of which we could say are our right, and justify in our own minds. This is why we struggle with temptation. The first temptation Jesus faced was to ease his hunger. God does not want us to starve. We need food to live to eat is not a sin. Jesus had the ability to do this he used this power multiple times in public, but to use our abilities only to serve our needs can lead us into a state of selfish indulgence. Jesus refused to use his abilities because to use them would hinder his relationships with other. If Jesus would start to use his abilities to supply his most basic personal need what ministry would Mary and Martha provide? We too should allow other to help us fulfill our needs as we assist them with theirs, this builds relationships and allows us to grow closer to each other.
The second temptation is one that has religious implications. The accuser, the adversary, the devil takes Jesus to the top of the temple and tells him to jump. According to the interpretation of scripture at that time, the Jewish people believed that God would not allow harm to the Messiah. Satan was tempting Jesus to reveal to the people that he was the chosen one of God. He was the chosen one, but to gain that recognition before he endured the struggle and suffering of the cross would have negated his purpose. If Jesus did not suffer and come through the suffering victorious we would be left without hope amid our suffering. To take this short cut would also force people to believe, they would believe not because they came to an understanding of His special place but because He played into their expectations. This again removes the struggle of relationship. We come to the knowledge of Jesus’ messiahship though our relationship with him. We struggle through the miracles, the teachings, the death and resurrection and we must make a choice in our minds that yes, we will follow because he is God or we will stay focused on ourselves and rejecting God.
Jesus is then taken to a high mountain where he can see all the kingdoms of the world. Satan says to him, “you can have this all.” And you know what that again is Jesus’ inheritance. He will be and is the king of kings and the lord of lords, but his kingdom is not like the governments of this world. Jesus does not seek to gain allegiance by force, but his influence spreads through one person and one community at a time. “You can have it all if you only worship me.” Satan says. Forget about convincing people to follow. Forget about teaching and going through that whole lengthy process of discipleship. Just take the world and become their king. Again, this short cut to royalty would drive a wedge between the relationship we have with our king. The people would become subjects instead of active participants. We would be slaves instead of Friends. To bypass the struggle would leave us without a true king, but a tyrant. We would be unable to see the benefit of entrusting our lives to our lord. We would always see his will as being opposed to ours instead of working in conjunction.
We are always tempted. We are tempted to provide for our own wellbeing. We are tempted to force morality instead of encouraging life. We are tempted to take what we deserve without building a foundation. We are tempted in these things every single day of our life. But look again at that quote from the Declaration of Independence, “we are endowed with certain unalienable rights, among them are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” There is something interesting within those words that I think we often miss do to our radical individualistic enculturation. Life. We are endowed with the right of life, as is everyone else that lives around us. If I want to live a certain we I have that right in so far as I do not infringe upon someone else to live their life. Even within our nation’s first founding document our existence requires relationships to be built. Liberty. We have the freedom to live our lives how we choose, but then again so does everyone else. If I have the freedom to act I must be willing to offer that same freedom to everyone else around me, so again to live in liberty means we must live in relationship. Without the relationships, our nation fails, and we fall to the temptation of denying others their unalienable rights. Then there is the pursuit of happiness. Pursuit requires a struggle. We do not have the right to happiness only the pursuit of happiness. Why? Because to be happy to have a life of joy again requires some form of relationship and unity with other. A marriage is not happy unless both partners serve one another, when we look only to our own happiness our own desires we infringe on the rights of others.
Jesus showed us that the struggles of life are real. Satan tempted Jesus with Jesus’ own desires and purposes. He tempted Jesus with the very will of God. The temptation was to bypass the struggle, just like our first parents and each of us. The struggles are there because through the struggles we become a community encouraging each other. We cannot be that community unless we empty ourselves and are saturated with the Spirit of God. We cannot be that community unless we withdraw and enter into the timing of God. We cannot be that community unless we serve those around us with the love of Christ. This season leading up to Easter the time where we witness the victory over the struggle I pray that we will pursue God in a way we have not before. That we will fast, abstain so that we can cease consuming and instead build. I pray that we will withdraw to isolated place to spend time praying and contemplating on scripture and our relationship with God. And that we will build His kingdom by living the love of Christ with others and assisting them in their own pursuits of happiness.