Reading: Luke 4:1-13
The temptation of Christ must be one of the hardest stories for me to connect with in the gospels. I don’t really understand the three temptations. I don’t understand why they were temptations, and in the case of the temptation to create some food and eat, I don’t understand what would be wrong with Jesus meeting the needs of his own body in the same way He met the needs of many other bodies. I don’t understand why Christians and prophets went into the wilderness to meet God, but Jesus went into the wilderness to meet the devil. I don’t understand what the story adds to the gospel, nor why it is so important that Matthew, Mark, and Luke all tell this story.
There are three temptations: First, the devil tells the hungry Jesus to turn a stone into bread so that he has something to eat. Second, is to worship the devil and the devil will give him the kingdoms of this world. The third temptation is for Jesus to jump off the top of the temple, so that people will see the angels protect Jesus.
First, the devil sees that Jesus is hungry, and he tells him to turn the stones into bread and eat them. Jesus replies that “man does not live by bread alone”. This temptation is difficult for me to get because the miracle stories that I know best are ones where Jesus fed the multitudes with a single boy’s snack, or brought a miraculous catch to the disciples who had fished all night and caught nothing, or miraculously turned water into wine. If Jesus would create food from nothing so that those who listened to him preach would not go home hungry; or create wine so that the couple who were just married would not be embarrassed because they ran out of refreshments, why would it be wrong for him to create food so that he could break a forty day fast?
The second temptation makes little sense to me because if I believe that Jesus is God, then I have to believe that the devil has nothing to offer; it makes no sense for the Son of God to bow down to the devil and worship him in hope of gaining something that already does not belong to the devil. Why would Jesus bow to rule the kingdoms of the world when He is the God of the universe? Why bow down to receive what is already his?
The third temptation, again, makes little sense to me. I’m not exactly afraid of heights, but if I’m up high, I really like to have solid footing. I cannot imagine throwing myself off a perfectly good building, and definitely cannot imagine jumping off a roof to prove a point. While I’ve never fallen far enough to seriously injure myself, I’ve fallen far enough that I know that the landing is painful. The idea of jumping wouldn’t even be a temptation.
One traditional interpretation is that these three temptations show that Jesus has the virtues of fortitude, prudence, and temperance. You know that I have a traditional bias, but I really don’t like this interpretation. I have trouble seeing how the refusal to turn a stone into a loaf of bread shows fortitude. While it would be imprudent to jump off a high building, not jumping requires so little prudence that it can hardly be used as evidence of one’s character. The only one of these that makes sense is the idea that Jesus practiced temperance when he had no desire to worship the devil and rule the world.
A more modern interpretation, suggested by Mennonite theologian John Yoder, is that this is a foreshadowing of Jesus’ ministry, and of the crowds who continually wanted to make Jesus king and wanted him to be the kind of Messiah who drove out the Romans. For Yoder, there is really only one temptation — to create a kingdom of Earth, but the bread and the temptation to jump off the temple are a reference to the feeding of the multitude, and the times that Jesus appeared at the temple. I like this interpretation: Luke tells us that the devil departed until a more opportune time — suggesting that perhaps temptations continued, but it it does sort of gloss over 2 of the three interpretations.
I’m not personally sure what the right interpretation is, but I’d like to suggest that Jesus was tempted with the same sorts of things that Christians, or the church is tempted with. Jesus was tempted to turn stones into bread so that he would have something to eat; this is a temptation to do the miracle Jesus later did for the benefit of thousands in secret, in a way that only benefited him. The church likewise is tempted to feed itself in secret; hold onto the gospel in secret. To quote a parable Jesus told, there is a real temptation for the church to hide its light under a bushel basket.
One thing we know about the early church is that they didn’t grab onto the great commission right away, and proceed to send out missionaries; instead Jesus’ disciples largely were content to remain in Jerusalem until persecution scattered them. Instead of obeying the call to spread the gospel throughout the world, they would have been content to wait for Jesus to come back. One might say that the church fell into the first temptation, eating the bread of the gospel in secret without sharing it.
While I don’t think of the temptation to jump off the temple as much of a temptation — it was a temptation to be spectacular and make a name for oneself. I don’t know about the ancient world, but I live in a place that makes a big deal out of its celebrities. Christian culture is a lot like secular culture in this; we have Christian celebrities who are placed in such high regard that their words seem to be held in higher esteem than those of Jesus Himself. It sometimes appears that people seek to become famous — we fall to the temptation to be publicly spectacular missing that this is not the mission of the church.
The biggest temptation I think the church falls to is the temptation of falling to worship Satan in order to rule kingdoms of the Earth. I know that we don’t come to that extreme, but I have noticed a strong tendency for some Christians to act as if there is a political savior, and that their faith requires loyalty to this savior. Sometimes it is a party, some times it is a person. In recent days, I’ve seen people compromise in order to maintain this loyalty to the point where they will argue against scripture. It seems that the promise of political influence is enough to compromise just about everything a person claims to believe in. Sometimes it feels like people are bowing to Satan to sit on a temporary throne.
The thing is, Jesus teaches that His kingdom isn’t of this Earth. There are things that are done here that are unthinkable in the Kingdom of Heaven. Every time people tried to put Jesus on an Earthly throne, he refused. Christianity is not about beating the secular government — it is about living in obedience to God no matter who is in power. Christianity recognizes that people are not very successful at building a Godly government. In the roughly 1,000 years that Israel and Judah ruled themselves as God’s people, with few exceptions their leaders managed to ignore God’s law and rule unjustly. Pagan Rome, having no interest in God’s law, of course was not going to do any better. Christianity has never intended to rule a nation — it’s always been about changing hearts and minds of individuals so that they can live as citizens of the kingdom of heaven — no matter what country they live on in this Earth.
If Christ was tempted in the place where people go to meet God, we can expect the same for ourselves. It is easy to fall into these temptations; often we don’t think twice about them. I know we have not lived out the gospel perfectly. I know that many do not receive what they see from Christians as good news. I know that whenever I see the word ‘evangelical’ on the news, they are talking about a political voting block and nothing to do with Christ or the gospel. We are now living in the consequences of falling into temptation. I pray that we truly repent and return to Christ.