The Temptation of Christ
Deuteronomy 26:1-11, Psalm 91:1-2, 9-16,
Romans 10:8b-13, Luke 4:1-13
Today’s psalm is a great place to go for an understanding of the way Jesus survived Satan’s temptations. In this psalm is the statement Satan extracted and twisted into a temptation that Jesus rejected. The psalm is not designed as a temptation, but Satan, like many of his slaves, abused the text, eviscerating it and holding up a bloody shred to dare Jesus to show off his power in a dramatic performance rather than live up to his purpose. Jesus the Beloved Son, was sent on a rescue and recovery mission to save human beings, God’s beloved creation. He was not sent to show off and be a sacred celebrity.
The Bible says that Jesus was tempted by Satan for forty days. Only three temptations are recorded, of which one was the last of all, but they are enough to give us a good idea of the vicious, malevolent finesse with which Satan approached the One sent to defeat him forever .
We can imagine, for example, that the temptation to turn stones into bread could have come early in the forty days. A healthy person becomes hungry after only a few hours without food. Did Satan arrive about sundown that first day to taunt his archenemy? Jesus had been baptized earlier that day, and as Jesus came up out of the water, the Holy Spirit fell into him, and people heard the voice of God say, “This is my Beloved.” Satan heard those words, too.
It is easy to imagine Satan watching and waiting all day as Jesus trekked into the wilderness with neither food nor water. The path, or perhaps it would be better to say, the route Jesus followed, was dusty and rocky, lined with brambles. One gospel mentions wild animals, although they likely appeared only after dark. Did Jesus find a cave where he could rest for the night, or was he out in the open, unprotected in any way? Mark says the Spirit “drove” Jesus into the wilderness, so perhaps he was weary of dealing with that pressure as day began to fade into evening.
Satan appeared. Writers and dramatists portray Satan in all sorts of guises. One novelist presented Satan as a scruffy, smelly old beggar, all in tatters, just the sort of person Jesus would approach lovingly during his ministry. Satan simply sat down beside Jesus and said, “You got anything to eat?” Jesus had nothing, but the reader knows he would later feed five thousand people with almost nothing. Jesus shook his head. In the spirit of the old maxim “If wishes were horses, then beggars would ride,” the beggar says, “Well, we could pretend that stone over there is a loaf of bread.” The biblical conversation develops from that point. Satan has set the stage for not only tempting Jesus to use his power to serve self, but he has cast the scene as a pretense of exactly the sort of thing Jesus actually does later. In the novel, Jesus rejects that temptation with the words of Scripture, at which the filthy beggar takes extreme umbrage and wanders off into the night.
The novelist understands that Satan did not appear with horns, a tail and a pitchfork for his battle with Jesus. Satan never appears like that. In fact, it seems highly likely that Satan himself inspired that image for the purpose of fooling people. When temptation comes our way, it is always dressed up like things a person would actually want, not like a frightful demon. Women tempted to abort their unborn babies do not succumb to a temptation to skewer an innocent baby on a pitchfork. They succumb to a temptation to believe that God himself would not want that baby to be born. They believe that the fact that conception was sired by an irresponsible man means they should never have become pregnant in the first place; it’s his fault for refusing to use a condom. They believe that they don’t have the means to support the baby, and God himself would not want them to take on that responsibility without proper means. Maybe they even think that being pregnant at this time will interfere with their opportunity to achieve personal fulfillment in a career or with a different man or etcetera. Maybe they simply buy the notion of “a woman’s right to choose” and think of the unborn baby as an unwanted interloper in their bodies. They aren’t responding to a demon in red tights. They are responding to subtle and not-so-subtle temptations to serve self and to deny the humanity of the baby.
How was Jesus able to fend off all these temptations? He relied on Scripture. A lot of brain power has been expended in arguments about the nature and authenticity of the Bible. There are a lot of secular thinkers who respect it as literature but reject it as revelation or authority. They look at the Bible and the Baghavad Gita the same way – interesting ancient myths. Jesus helps us learn that the Bible is God’s book, and the fact that Satan tried to use it to destroy God himself is additional evidence that the Bible is powerful. Today’s psalm is a testimony to that power as experienced by one ancient poet. Satan pulled out a shred for nefarious purposes, but borrowing the novelist’s viewpoint, we might wonder if he chose that text because Jesus was actually praying this psalm as Satan showed up. It would make the use of this text even more fiendish.
Psalm 91 begins by announcing that its subject is “those who live in the shelter of the Most High.” What a beautiful image. We can imagine Jesus, parched and sunburned, laboriously battling through the underbrush of the wilderness across Jordan, focusing on the words, “in the shadow of the Almighty.”
As Jesus tried to find a comfortable place to sit in the rocky, inhospitable landscape, he had to know that Satan would come. Jesus knew that the Tempter would not, could not, let him embark on his work without a savage battle to prevent people from learning that their Savior had arrived. Young men in Jesus’ day attended synagogue schools where they learned to read and write, and where they memorized the ancient texts. Perhaps as the Evil One approached, Jesus was quietly praying the psalmist’s words as his own, “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.”
That would have been a perfect time for Satan to appear, whisking Jesus up to the pinnacle of the temple while picking up the text of the psalm, “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.” Did Satan dress in rabbinical robes, perhaps with the face of Jesus’ childhood teacher as he said, “Go ahead. You believe it. Prove it.” Jesus replies from Deuteronomy 6:16: “Don’t tempt me!”
Satan comes to us, not as the Enemy, but as our friend. He whispers in our ears, “You are as good as God. Don’t let him lord it over you. How dare he say ‘Thou shalt not.’ God is just an old bugaboo of people who don’t know any better. You’re too smart for that.” Satan always makes us feel really important, like he did when he offered Jesus all the kingdoms of the world. He offers us shortcuts to popularity and success and gratification. He constantly tells us we deserve better and we shouldn’t be treated like this. When Jesus was in the wilderness, alone and starving, driven out there by the Holy Spirit, Satan played on his knowledge that, in heaven, Jesus was honored and worshipped by angels. Why did he need to wander the earth in poverty and die a cruel death? Satan offered Jesus what he came to claim – the people of the world – and Satan made it look a lot easier than God did.
That’s the way he poses it to us. Maybe it is just a little favor for a friend in high places. Maybe it is one transaction in a million with a few extra dollars to a secret account. Maybe it is the right word in the right ear that opens the right door but now you owe somebody something. Jesus had the same ego we have. He wanted to save all the people, because that was what he came for. The night before he was crucified, he prayed to be spared that agony, if there were any other way to save the world. Here was a chance to escape the pain. It could all be avoided if he simply bowed before Satan instead of God.
Jesus saw through the sales pitch. He knew that to do this would be worshiping self, serving self, saving self, instead of saving the world. He responded, “Worship only God.”
Satan comes to each of us in a thousand different ways every day, whispering, hinting, insinuating, turning even our best impulses into opportunities to reject Christ and serve Satan. The Bible says that Christ was tempted in every way we are tempted. To fight back we need the same ammunition that worked for Jesus. In the Bible’s words, God makes the same promise to us that he made to the psalmist: “When [you] call to me, I will answer [you]; I will be with [you] in trouble.”
For timely articles about the persecuted church and about cultural and political pressure in the Christian life, read Living on Tilt the newspaper.