Monday, January 24, 2011

The Temptation of Christ

I've been pondering the temptation of Christ over the last couple of weeks. It has been the sermon topic at the church my wife and I have been attending. As we have been going through this story, it never ceases to amaze me all of the things that are held in such a small place on the page. The event is recorded in the fourth chapter of Matthew taking up all of eleven verses. It's a strange passage in which we see an exchange between our Lord, and Satan. Making his appeal to Jesus to ignore the will of the Father and indulge himself, Satan tempts Jesus with incomplete ideas. Let's take a look.

The scene begins forty days after Jesus' baptism. Many scholars have speculated on what happened during this time in the desert, but that is not what we are doing today. As we look at this story I think an important thing to keep in mind is, what we have recorded in the Bible is more than likely a condensed account of a much more lengthy exchange. Since we don't have the full account, we will work with what we have and hope the Lord will guide our imaginations to fill out the picture in a way that leads us to learn some of the truth He would have us learn from it. I say some of, because so much is held here that there is no way we could exhaust this passage in a single post.

The main points I want to ponder today are Satan's reason for believing in success, and the reason that we cannot live our lives existing on sound bytes.

We have to understand when we look at the text that this is not a Sunday morning drama team exchange of words. This is not the interlude between the music and the sermon. Jesus has been in the desert for forty days and nights. If you ever want a good description of what forty days without food in the desert will do to a person, please read "The Lonesome Gods" by Louis L'Amour. We often begin looking at this passage with the idea that this was done solely as an example for us to follow, that Jesus had to be tempted to prove he can identify with us. This is the same as children singing choral arrangements of folk songs saying they understand what it was like being a Union Pacific railroad working in the 1800's. Jesus did not just appear to be tempted in a dramatic scene to condescendingly show us how easy it should be to resist the devil.

So why, you ask, did Satan think that he might have succeeded in this venture? Often times when we think of Jesus we forget about his humanity. Jesus was fully God, that part I think is easy for a lot of believers, but he was also fully human. The very fact that Satan even attempts to cause Jesus to sin should be a reminder of his humanity. While pondering this idea I had the question come to mind: "If Jesus was born without sin, how could Satan tempt him into sin?" The short answer is because he has led sinless people astray before. If we remember in the Garden of Eden, Adam and Eve created by God without sin. I believe that this is part of where Satan's confidence comes from. He has appealed to and seduced a sinless humanity in the past, why not think that he can do it again. The fact that Jesus does not give in, is proof of his divinity. Here in eleven short verses, we are given a small glimpse of one of the greatest mysteries of God. The God made flesh, still fully God, powerful beyond measure, while subjected to frailties, and still humbly obedient to the will of the Father.

Now if look at the tactic used here, Satan appeals to the most basic of issues facing Jesus: hunger. There is a great amount of work done on how this parallels the nation of Israel walking in the desert and being delivered by God from hunger. In fact, Jesus even references the story of Deuteronomy chapter eight. What we need to understand is that Jesus is using a referencing tool that many Jewish teachers would have used. He quotes a short section of a larger passage to tell a great story of God's provision using very few words. In short he is telling Satan, and possibly reminding himself, that when God leads us into the desert, He will provide. Jesus is not letting how he feels interfere with what he knows about God's character.

When the base elements of humanity fail to ensnare Jesus, Satan tries a different approach. He quotes a few scriptures back to Jesus. He starts again by appealing to Jesus identity, and moving on to telling Jesus things he should be entitled to, offering Jesus what would seem to be a short path to glory. I think it's important to note the major differences in the way that Jesus and Satan approach the scripture. Jesus uses it as a revelation of God's love and character. Satan attempt to wield it like a lawyer pleading a case for Jesus against God.

When Satan begins using scripture to help justify actions, he begins by stating that which seems most appealing and stopping just short of the whole truth. He tells that if we behave a certain way then God is by law bound to grant us something. Imposing God's promises as a fine, God must pay for our yielding to His desires for us. For example in the Garden of Eden, Satan tells Eve that if they eat of the fruit they will be "like God knowing good and evil." This is only half of the truth. Yes, we did learn good and evil, but we were still condemned to death. Satan attacks us by limiting and distorting our imagination. Encouraging us to focus on the thing that seems most urgent, and forgetting that God is faithful. He presents something that seems simple, the thing we can provide ourselves without God's help, and uses scriptures to justify it. This is where we have to remember that God is greater than our basic ideas of how life can be.

We should always take into account all of God's promises, not just the parts that seem most appealing to us. Paul in the book of Romans says that we must note both the kindness and the severity of God. If we allow Satan to stop us with only the parts of God's word that will appeal to and appease us for a short time then we are easily trapped by our perception of what we think we need, our belief that we deserve to be treated better, and a desire to abuse God's word for personal gain. We should always keep in mind that God desires to make us Holy, through this process we can find our fulfillment in Him. Only then will we find true joy. One of the largest dangers of Satan's temptation, is his ability to stop us from waiting on the Lord.

I say all of that to say this: When we look to apply scripture to the situations we face in life, we need to keep in mind the fullness of the stories God has presented us. We need to keep in mind that the condensed sayings, or smaller pieces of the Bible that we call up quickly from memory, should always remind us of the fuller context. We should always be reminding ourselves the ways God has proven his love, and that He is faithful to do it again.

When he leads us into the wilderness, He will provide. Just look at what Jesus was talking about when he was dealing with the devil.

Deuteronomy 8:1-20 (It’s beautiful.)


Dirty Butter said...

There is a LOT to think about here, but I think the part that impressed me most was your idea of why Satan thought he would succeed, based on his success with the then sinless Adam and Eve.

I'm going to look forward to reading all your posts!

I found you on ExposeYourBlog.

PS. Your comment box is breaking frames. Please contact the Admin on EYB so he can help you fix this!!

Elizabeth Sweeny said...

"I think it's important to note the major differences in the way that Jesus and Satan approach the scripture. Jesus uses it as a revelation of God's love and character. Satan attempt to wield it like a lawyer pleading a case for Jesus against God."

I really like this framing of different ways of approaching/using Scripture, and the reminder of which way is more in tune with God. Thank you.

[Here via Emily's link in comments on Sarcastic Lutheran's "Sermon: Baptism of Our Lord and How To Tell Demons to Piss Off"]