Temptation Test: Jesus scores 1 out of 3, could do better?

Stanley Spencer: “The Scorpion”

Matthew 4:1-11 (CEB)

Temptation of Jesus

Then the Spirit led Jesus up into the wilderness so that the devil might tempt him. After Jesus had fasted for forty days and forty nights, he was starving. The tempter came to him and said, “Since you are God’s Son, command these stones to become bread.”

Jesus replied, “It’s written, People won’t live only by bread, but by every word spoken by God.”

After that the devil brought him into the holy city and stood him at the highest point of the temple. He said to him, “Since you are God’s Son, throw yourself down; for it is written, I will command my angels concerning you, and they will take you up in their hands so that you won’t hit your foot on a stone.

Jesus replied, “Again it’s written, Don’t test the Lord your God.”

Then the devil brought him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their glory. He said, “I’ll give you all these if you bow down and worship me.”

Jesus responded, “Go away, Satan, because it’s written, You will worship the Lord your God and serve only him.” The devil left him, and angels came and took care of him.

Jesus refuses to turn stone into bread…   yet fairly soon after he turns water into wine and then turns 5 loaves and 2 fish into a feast for more then 5000 people.

Jesus refuses to throw himself off the temple in the expectation that the angels will catch him and people will be amazed…  yet fairly soon after he throws himself into the hands of the Romans and onto the cross with the expecation (surely?) that God will somehow make it right.

Jesus never (it seems to me) bowed down to Satan in return for power – or to put it into more modern terms – he never borrowed the power of unholy alliances even to advance his holy aims.  So, one out of three ain’t bad?

The temptation (see what I did there?) is to leap to Jesus’ defense here and explain how loaves and fish to feed 5000 or water into wine is different from stones into bread, or to explain that throwing himself onto the cross as a demonstration of the power of God’s love is not the same as throwing himself off the temple to be caught by the angels…  You may already be doing that – rehearsing some theological arguments in your mind…

It’s possible to do that, I’ve tried!

But lately I’ve stopped trying, because to do that is, I think, to miss the point of this story of testing.  For too long we have presented this passage as a once-for-all experience for Jesus, as if he passed this test and then lived sinless and temptation-less for the rest of his life.  We still try to present the story like this even though we know it can’t really have been like that.

Jesus goes out into the wilderness to think through how his ministry is going to be.  As he thinks it through, lots of options are there (just as they are for us today).  I imagine there were more than three – these are a symbolic three.  He must have boiled it down for the disciples sometime else how would anyone have known about it to describe it?

The thing about ministry is that it isn’t that simple – LIFE isn’t that simple – and so through the years Jesus DOES wow the crowds with miracles – and yes he does throw himself onto the cross towards death in the confident faith that, in some way he may not have understood, God would catch him.

That doesn’t mean he failed, that doesn’t mean what he did was wrong, all it means is that life and ministry is complicated and in truth you can never plan how you will respond in every circumstance.  

Maybe Jesus and God laughed together…

God:    Hey – remember that time in the desert when you said you’d never do the bread thing.
Jesus:  Yeah!  LOL! don’t remind me – I was so tunnel-focussed.
God:    I’m glad you were – you needed to be – you had to be.
Jesus:  Yeah – those 40days were the formation of everything.
God:    Yeah – I was there.
Jesus:   I know that now!  But I did feel so alone.
God:    You were never alone.
Jesus:   I did get a bit carried away with the water and the wine, though.  Mum put me on the spot!
God:    Mums do that – it’s their job!  Don’t sweat!  It did give us loads of publicity!
Jesus:  Hmmmm…  but the number of people who asked me to do it again at parties!!!
God:    You were true to your desert experience.  Your focus was always in the right place. I’m proud of you.
Jesus:   Awww… shucks…  I couldn’t have done any of it without you…

The desert was not the end of Jesus testing.  In Luke’s Gospel we are told that the Devil left “biding his time”.  If anything, this was just the start of it.

Clearly that desert experience was absolutely key for Jesus.  I have contemplated the idea of taking myself off onto the wilds of Dartmoor and rough-camping for 40 days and nights.  But I know I am never going to do that – even if I wanted to I haven’t got 40days where nobody would notice me gone and get a bit cross about it!  (my next sabbattical?)

But what I do have is Lent.  Lent is supposed to be for us an annual “40 days in the wilderness” being tested and choosing the path we will take…

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