Jesus sat in a shaded outcropping of rocks as the heat rose off the desert floor in distorted waves. After forty days of fasting, starvation was beginning to set in, and with it, a tired lethargy. It was in this desperate state that the tempter appeared.
These tests of the devil are not the enticements we typically associate with “temptation;” they’re not related to leisure and diversion. Instead they offer Jesus alternative routes to fulfill his legacy and calling. Like all temptations, they leverage Jesus’ talents and abilities in a way that one could argue would ultimately serve the common good.
What’s troubling is that he is still presenting the church with these exact same temptations, and because the temptations don’t come all bundled in one big desert showdown, sometimes the church acquiesces. Unlike Jesus, we often believe the end justifies the means.
The temptation of a social gospel
And the tempter came and said to Him, “If You are the Son of God, command that these stones become bread.”—Matt. 4:3
In Jesus’ emaciated state, it’s no wonder that the enemy would start here. On the surface level, it’s a purely self-serving test. I’m not sure I could have resisted this offer after skipping one meal, let alone 120 of them.
But beyond the opportunity to feed himself, this suggestion carried more seductive elements. There are many in Jerusalem that are starving under Roman rule. Israel is waiting for a Messiah to usher in utopia. They’d be immediately inclined to offer him their allegiance if free food involved.
But Jesus rebukes Satan with a passage from Deuteronomy:
But He answered and said, “Man shall not live on bread alone, but on every word that proceeds out of the mouth of God.”—Matt. 4:4
It’s not that Jesus is afraid of feeding the multitude; it’s that he knows exactly what that will get him. The time Jesus does miraculously feed a large gathering (5,000+), he’s followed by more people than ever. But Jesus isn’t fooled:
“Truly, truly, I say to you, you seek Me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate of the loaves and were filled. Do not work for the food which perishes, but for the food which endures to eternal life, which the Son of Man will give to you, for on Him the Father, God, has set His seal.”—John 6:26–27
The church’s temptation
There’s no question that social justice and the gospel go hand in hand. Immediately after the temptations in the wilderness, Jesus kicks off his ministry by reading these words from Isaiah:
“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he anointed me to preach the gospel to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives, and recovery of sight to the blind, to set free those who are oppressed, to proclaim the favorable year of the Lord.”—Luke 4:18–19
As Jesus attributes these words to his ministry, he makes it clear that the gospel cannot be separated from the justice it creates. Throughout Jesus’ ministry he reinforces this fact, even sharing a parable that, at face value, seems to suggest that salvation is contingent upon the work done for those on the margins.
But while we get passionately involved in helping others because the gospel confirms the value of all people—helping others isn’t itself the gospel.
This is an area where I struggle. As I talk to my skeptic and atheist friends, there’s always a temptation to play up the social justice element of the gospel and quietly downplay the troubling and puzzling aspects. If I sincerely want to be like Jesus, I can’t afford to confuse the two.
If the gospel was simply about helping people, there’d be nothing off-putting or confrontational about it. But the New Testament regularly reinforces that people aren’t going to be happy with the gospel because it requires them to come to grips with their need to be reconciled to God.
Jesus amasses this huge crowd after feeding the 5,000, and then he seems to go out of his way to alienate them. This is when he launches into the whole “you need to eat my flesh and drink my blood” spiel. It’s intentionally troubling and confusing—and Jesus isn’t too concerned about clearing up any misunderstanding. Many of the people following Jesus leave—even some who considered themselves disciples. As if that’s not enough, Jesus turns to the twelve and chides them too, “You do not want to go away also, do you?”
I have serious doubts about the sincerity of anyone who claims to follow Christ and feels no responsibility for the poor or those culturally marginalized by gender, race, or sexuality. Followers of Jesus seek justice and care for the poor and oppressed because they’re important. But that care is not the gospel; it’s an implication of the good news.
I have a wonderful friend who is so supportive of my Christian views because I’m “nice and nonjudgmental unlike those other Christians.” She’s caught off guard because of the combative nature of a lot of Christianity. But in our discussions about the actual gospel, she’s resistant. While she totally would have followed the kind rebel Jesus who thumbed his nose at the religious establishment and cared for sinners and prostitutes, she’s opposed to anything that smacks of Christ’s exclusivity, her responsibility to God, or any perceived loss of personal autonomy.
The temptation of signs and wonders
The enemy tries a different tact:
Then the devil took Him into the holy city and had Him stand on the pinnacle of the temple, and said 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 strike Your foot against a stone.’”—Matt. 4:5–6
Levitating off the temple would have definitely given Jesus credibility. There was no place as central and obvious as this holy site for a dramatic miracle. Something so grand would have galvanized Israel for sure. But Jesus deflects:
Jesus said to him, “On the other hand, it is written, ‘You shall not put the Lord your God to the test.’”—Matt. 4:7
The church’s temptation
I was serving in a Foursquare church throughout the nineties. I was there when the “Toronto Blessing” blew up at the Toronto Airport Vineyard with all kinds of “signs and wonders.” There was holy laughter and people “drunk in the spirit.” Some of the excesses included people barking like dogs, rolling around on the ground, and just getting bizarre and out of control.
Soon the movement devolved into this strange one-upmanship. You’d hear about a church where people’s fillings were turning gold, and then there would be another church somewhere else where gold flakes where materializing in the sky. I desperately wish I was kidding, but I’m not. I had acquaintances who’d follow these movements around with the devotion of seventies-era deadheads.
At the same time, Benny Hinn was packing out stadiums with his own brand of sideshow nonsense—and the Trinity Broadcasting Network was giving preferential treatment to signs-and-wonder hucksters.
There was some attempt to usher the movement into our church, and that’s about the time I started to sour against my charismatic roots. Don’t get me wrong; I think the Foursquare association, which I belonged to, is wonderful and full of fantastically sincere people. It’s just a fringe element within the charismatic movement which seemed to lose the plot. While I’m definitely not a cessationist who believes that miraculous gifts have ceased, I’m not sure I would ever actively identify as a “charismatic” again.
Jesus performed miracles all the time, and went out of his way to keep them quiet. There was nothing about him that wanted to build a movement on his ability to perform miracles. It’s a desperately shallow motivator for faith. Once you acclimate to miracles, you need something more dramatic to pique your interest. That’s why the people I knew would go from movement to movement. If they were no longer receiving the emotional jolt they were looking for, they’d would have to go someplace else.
The temptation of power and control
Again, the devil took Him to a very high mountain and showed Him all the kingdoms of the world and their glory; and he said to Him, “All these things I will give You, if You fall down and worship me.” Then Jesus *said to him, “Go, Satan! For it is written, ‘You shall worship the Lord your God, and serve Him only.’”
Then the devil left Him; and behold, angels came and began to minister to Him.—Matthew 4:8–11
It’s always interesting to me that Jesus never questions whether Satan is able to deliver on his promise. It’s obvious that Jesus knows he is. In fact, Jesus calls him the “ruler of this world (Jn. 12:31).”
The devil tempts Jesus with a influence and power if he’d just compromise. It’s obvious that Herod would have done it—Jesus passes.
The church’s temptation
I think this is the still the church’s biggest temptation. Despite our tendency to misuse power and influence, they hold so much allure. So many discussions in the church revolve around authority and submission. Who’s in charge? Pastors? Elders? Parents? Men? Who needs to submit? Who gets to have a title? Every singly person believes that they’re above power’s corrupting influence—but few are (and the ones who are don’t want power).
To really wrap our minds around the dangers of authority, we need to remember that power is the only temptation Satan offers Jesus where “selling one’s soul” is a prerequisite. The other two temptations are a misuse of talents to facilitate an ultimate goal, but authority allows us to further our vision using compulsion and coercion. It’s a tactic more closely associated to our enemy than the lover of our souls.
Wielding power over others is so intoxicating—and genuinely appears to be effective way to facilitate God’s aims. It’s why there’s such a pull towards political power among the religious. If we can wrest power away from the wrong people, and get it in the hands of the right (no pun intended) people, we can pass laws and enact measures that force people to be good—or at least incentivize goodness.
But there’s nothing in the New Testament that sees Christianity operating from a top-down power model. The gospel comes alongside and lifts up. It’s grassroots oriented and always challenges power; it doesn’t try to replace it. Christianity takes up it’s own cross; it doesn’t put others on crosses. As we see in Satan’s offer, the cost of choosing power is always going to align us with the devil. It’s going to require compromise and judgment.
A steady obedience
Jesus refused any strategy that might further his mission at the expense to his connection to God. He reinforced his scripturally informed conviction that we should be living by God’s Word (instead of trusting in our own abilities), trusting God (instead of testing him), and serving him (instead of furthering our aims by making others serve us).
When the devil comes a-calling, I hope we learn to make the same decisions.