“Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit was led…into the wilderness for forty days, being tempted by the devil.” Read Luke 4:1-13
Temptation is no longer a name for serious moral conflict, a dark night of the soul, or the lure of sin. It is a perhaps a name for a perfume, a singing group, or a mildly titillating movie. The word sinner does not fit our enlightened age. Oscar Wilde epitomized our secular view of temptation: “The only way to get rid of temptation is to yield to it.” In other words, to yield to temptation is to enjoy life. As the saying jokingly goes, “Get thee behind me Satan – and push!”
There is a much more spiritual way to discount the reality of temptation. It begins by recognizing the downward pull within us and the beguiling, destructive power of the demonic. Yet this is quickly followed by the assurance that we may rise above it on wings of ease if we will only believe. By saying the right words, following the correct formula or believing the true doctrine, we will be delivered. The cross becomes an amulet protecting us from the battle with temptation. Former basketball coach Al McGuire said, about a movie of the week on World War 11, that he didn’t see why people were so excited about the movie; everybody knows who wins in the end. That is like the spiritualizing that sings “Victory in Jesus” and says we know who’s going to win.
Maybe our aversion to the story of Jesus’ temptation is caused by its emphasis on struggle. In one of John Updike’s novels, Rabbit Angstrom is in church when the minister begins a sermon on Christ’s wilderness confrontation with the Devil. “Rabbit scarcely listens, for he has no taste for the dark side of Christianity, the going-through quality of it, the passage into death and suffering that redeems and unveils.”
Indeed, in the Gospel accounts this story has two parts: the baptism (3:21-22) and the temptation. The baptism is the part we are attracted to: light, affirmation, joy, God’s chosen One, the Son of God. The temptation is dark, foreboding, filled with demonic challenge: “Are you the Son of God?” In the first part Jesus is called to fulfill the role of the suffering servant. In the second, he is confronted with the terrible costliness of that role.
Luke reminds us of Jesus’ membership in the family of Adam. By separating the baptism and temptation movements by a genealogy! (3:23-38) If there had been any doubt about his being really human, Luke underlines his sharing of our flesh and blood in this vivid scene of temptation. If Jesus is the descendant of Adam, he must now face not only what Adam faced but the powers that had been unleashed through human rebellion and sin. Long years of habitual rebellion against the creator God had brought about a situation in which the world, the flesh and the devil had become used to twisting human beings into whatever shape they wanted. Further, the number forty links Jesus with the “fasting” stories of Elijah and Moses. Even more, it is the reminder of Israel’s forty years in the wilderness that was marked by temptation. Theirs was the challenge of choosing “this day whom you will serve.” They often failed the test.
We must not think that the three temptations came and went like scenes in a play. We must rather think of Jesus deliberately retiring to this lonely wilderness near the Dead Sea where the hills were like dust heaps; the limestone looked blistered and peeling; the rocks were bare and jagged; and it glowed with heat like a vast furnace. The temptations seem plausible, attractive, and make, as we would say, a lot of sense. God can’t want his beloved son to be famished with hunger, can he? If God wants Jesus to become sovereign over the world (that’s what Gabriel had told Mary) then why not go for it in one easy stride? If Jesus is Israel’s Messiah, why not prove it by spectacular displays of power?
If Jesus is to be in deed as well as in promise the Son of God, he must be the Son of Humanity, tempted as we are, engaged in the battles we face. Our battles are seen in his temptations. He was tempted with bread. He was hungry for food, and he was hungry to do the will of God. What better opportunity: “Turn stones to bread and you will be proclaimed the Messiah.”
It is the temptation to settle for less. For Jesus, it was exchanging the role of suffering servant for that of material savior when deeper needs begin. “If you want people to follow you, use your wonderful powers to give them material things.” He was suggesting that Jesus should bribe people into following him. Back came Jesus’ answer in a quotation of Deuteronomy 8:3. “A man,” he said, “will never find life in material things.” It is Esau exchanging his birthright for a bowl of stew. It is the prodigal son turning his back on love and settling for its substitute. It is our temptation.
He was tempted to rule. The tempter said, “Worship me, and all will be yours.” If he worshiped the Devil, this great panorama of nations would be his. It was the temptation to grasp more. The lure of greater power and glory comes to us it many forms. We can’t have a lasting relationship because of our compulsion to be in charge. It is Jacob tricking his brother out of his inheritance. It is the Kings of Israel trusting political alliances and military buildup. It is our temptation.
He was tempted by magic. If he leaped tall buildings in a single bound, then surely God would prove his Son to all. Thus in the third temptation Jesus in imagination saw himself on the pinnacle of the Temple where Solomon’s Porch and the Royal Porch met. There was a sheer drop of 450 feet down into the Kedron Valley below. Luke alone places this temptation last, maybe because it is the most subtle and pervasive temptation. It was the temptation to test God. We want a miracle, not to glorify God but to make faith automatic. If-then is the formula. “If you save my daughter, then I’ll be faithful.” If you prove yourself now, God, I’ll be your servant.” It is our temptation.
Jesus’ real battle with temptation was whether to remain faithful to God’s will or not. It was only in losing his life that he gained life for all. He was, in no automatic or easy sense of the phrase, “Christus Victor.” Luke says the Devil ended his tempting, until the opportune time (i.e. for a season). What more graphic way of saying “It was not over”? All of his life was a temptation to be less than he had been called, at his baptism, to be. The final opportune time would come in a garden. It was the battle royal. All the temptations must have been magnified in those hours; another way sought to feed the hungry, liberate the oppressed, impress people with God’s saving power. Yet he resisted, not easily, but by the same power of God open to us, he resisted. Take note that Jesus’ victory over Satan in the wilderness launched his subsequent successful ministry.
What does this mean to us? In the book of Hebrews, we are reminded that because he suffered and was tempted, yet remained faithful, he is able to help us when we are tempted. It is not that he, the Suffering Servant, lifts us above temptation. Rather he stands with us, strengthening us through the word of God to stand firm. Karl Barth claimed, “One thing still holds, and only this is really serious, that Jesus is Victor.” Through him we have hope because self-defeating behavior, sin, evil and death do not have the last word.