Walking With the Nazarene in the Wilderness: The First Temptation of Christ

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Early in Matthew’s gospel Jesus is led out to the desert, where, alone, in the wilderness, there is a terrible collision of spiritual forces. It is a gripping moment in the gospel, for the devil comes face-to-face with God in human form for a moral battle. It is a unique experience for both the contestants. It is the first (and only) occasion in spiritual time where the devil sees his Maker at a disadvantage, weakened, starving, and as vulnerable as a human being can be rendered. Here indeed we see that Christ “made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant” (Phil 2:7).

St. Matthew informs us that the Lord is in the desert for forty days. It is a highly symbolic number because Israel had spent forty years in the wilderness. Behold! Here is the true Israel, St. Matthew is saying, the promised Messiah whose life an entire nation has been unconsciously dramatising for thousands of years.

Nonetheless, during the forty days the Lord is hidden from our sight, as scripture draws a veil over this desert experience. We can therefore only imagine the baking heat and the chilly nights; the search for shade at noon; and the avoidance of snakes and scorpions by day. We can picture the sweat; the shimmering air; the emptiness; the stillness. But in accordance with his own good purpose, God does not see fit to grant us firm information.

All we are told is that he went without food, and by the end of the time he was “starved”, “famished”, a “hungred”. His desert experience, in other words, was marked by gnawing hunger and weakness. He was plunged into the weakness of humanity.

And then, right on schedule, the devil showed up.

The tempter came to him and said, “If you are the Son of God, tell these stones to become bread.”

We may note that the devil begins his vile work by targeting an obvious vulnerability of the Lord’s humanity. To a desperately hungry man – like Esau coming in from the fields – the prospect of food is nearly irresistible. Survivors of the Soviet gulag often testified that during their imprisonment they thought of nothing but food. They dreamed of it; talked about it with other prisoners; they meditated on it when they were alone, planning the dishes and meals they would prepare when they were free.

We learn here the important lesson that the devil does not fight the spiritual warfare honourably. He never assaults a man where is he most fortified, for what advantage is there in that? Rather he targets our greatest vulnerabilities. Whatever weakness of mind, heart, or body we possess, we can be sure that it will be precisely here that the devil will be most active and his spiritual artillery will focus its barrage.

Thus a man who struggles with avarice will be tempted with money. A woman who struggles with pride will be tempted with self-righteousness and vanity. A man who falls victim to lust will be tempted with sexual impurity. No wonder scripture so often advises us to engage in the self-cleansing work of repentance (Isaiah 1:16; Luke 11:39) and St. Paul urges us to put on the full armour of God that we may stand against the devil. When we “wash our hands and purify our hearts” (James 4:8) we are forced to think about our weaknesses and failures. We are made to see where our battle lines are thin and the enemy broke through and we sinned. We can strengthen those points and guard against the schemes of the devil.

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The First Temptation is a bit of a puzzle. Other than targeting the Lord’s terrible hunger, it does not appear to be an obvious incitement to sin by breaking any of the Ten Commandments.

We may ask, is it a sin to eat? No, of course not. God made us experience hunger so that we would eat. Did the Father command the Lord not to eat during his wilderness experience? Certainly, there is no evidence in scripture that this is so.

Well, then, was the sin inherent in the miracle itself? Would it have been a sin for the Lord to turn stones into bread? Some have argued that since stones by their nature cannot feed people, to use divine power turn them into bread would be a “sinful miracle”. But this is surely a weak conclusion because at the marriage at Cana, the Lord changed water into wine.

Something deeper is afoot than merely eating bread by miracle power. Charles Ellicott in his commentary (1878) put it this way:

The nature of the temptation, so far as we can gauge its mysterious depth, was probably complex.

The clue to understanding the “complex” nature of the First Temptation lies in the Lord’s answer to the devil. As in each reply, Jesus cites from Deuteronomy, which one may note were the very scriptures that were given during Israel’s wilderness years.

In this case, Jesus quotes Deuteronomy 8:3:

Jesus answered, “It is written: ‘Man shall not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.’”

The original context for these words are greatly instructive:

Remember how the Lord your God led you all the way in the wilderness these forty years, to humble and test you in order to know what was in your heart, whether or not you would keep his commands. 

He humbled you, causing you to hunger and then feeding you with manna, which neither you nor your ancestors had known, to teach you that man does not live on bread alone but on every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord.

This thought is continued later in the same chapter:

He led you through the vast and dreadful wilderness, that thirsty and waterless land, with its venomous snakes and scorpions. He brought you water out of hard rock. He gave you manna to eat in the wilderness, something your ancestors had never known, to humble and test you so that in the end it might go well with you. 

You may say to yourself, “My power and the strength of my hands have produced this wealth for me.” But remember the Lord your God, for it is he who gives you the ability to produce wealth, and so confirms his covenant, which he swore to your ancestors, as it is today.

Clearly there is a forceful overlap between Old Testament Israel’s hunger in the wilderness, and Jesus’ experience of extreme privation and hunger in the desert.

But what do these texts teach us about the nature of the temptation?

The constant temptation for Old Testament Israel – a term that has a broader meaning than “illicit desire” as it is often used today – was always to forsake God or grumble against his prophet when privation or hardship came. Israel grumbled about food; they complained about water to the point where Moses was fearful he would be murdered; and they praised Egypt as a slavery better than the freedom of being the chosen people of the ever-living God.

Here the devil was effectively attempting to duplicate that temptation: “You’re God’s Son? And he’s left you starving in the wilderness to the point of death? You are nearly dead! Feed yourself! End your pointless suffering.

Jesus’ answer acknowledges that a man surely lives on bread – the body must be fed or it dies – but the quote also underscores the truth that man never lives on bread alone. Life is more complex than a materialistic matter of eating and drinking. Indeed, Jesus taught in a later sermon, “Life is more than food and the body is more than clothes” (Luke 12:23). A proper understanding of life sees it as more than just a search for the fuel needed to support it. A proper understanding recognises that all the processes of life continue only at the command and behest of God.

It is God who causes the sun to rise and the rain to come so that crops can grow and man can eat. It is God who strengthens the farmer for his work and allows man to develop agricultural technologies. It is God who draws the seedling from the earth. It is God who makes the ground fertile. It is God who gives us each day our daily bread; sets the span of our days; and sends the manna in the desert. By God’s command and instruction, man lives. And when God wills for man to die, then he surely dies.

As St. James writes:

Now listen, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we will go to this or that city, spend a year there, carry on business and make money.” Why, you do not even know what will happen tomorrow.

What is your life? You are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes. Instead, you ought to say, “If it is the Lord’s will, we will live and do this or that.” As it is, you boast in your arrogant schemes. All such boasting is evil.

In Moses solemn prayer in Psalm 90, he also acknowledges this great truth. Man truly lives and dies by the command of God not by his own intelligence or scheming:

You turn people back to dust, saying, “Return to dust, you mortals.”

A thousand years in your sight are like a day that has just gone by, or like a watch in the night.

Yet you sweep people away in the sleep of death— they are like the new grass of the morning: In the morning it springs up new,but by evening it is dry and withered.

So, in the First Temptation the Lord proves himself to be the true Israel. Unlike Old Testament Israel, the true Israel succeeds and passes the test. He trusts the Father with his life, without grumbling. He hungers quietly and patiently in the desert, but never doubts that the Father will sustain him.

As the Second Person of the Holy Trinity, Jesus is not tempted to use his deity against the deity of the First Person, the Father. He does not distrust the Father. Unlike Old Testament Israel, he does not plot treason against the Father by taking matters into his own hands. Rather he stands secure in the splendid simplicity of faith: he knows he will live because the Father commands and wills that he should live.

St. Matthew thus teaches us something about the nature of true faith and what it means to really trust God even in the midst of temptation and trial. No matter how painful the trial may be for the moment, and no matter how tempting it might be to find an early or easy exit from our sufferings – whether it is the burning of persecution or the burning of unfulfilled sexual desire; whether sufferings great or small – the true sons of the kingdom will aim to follow the footsteps of Jesus and answer the devil in similar terms.

I live and exist because of the daily words spoken by God.

I live because in his divine government he wants me to live.

My circumstances are willed by God for his purposes. And I can have the firm confidence that he will never leave me to suffer needlessly neither does he watches me without compassion. I can have faith that my God is good and he will be with me.

In his time – whether now or in eternity – I will see the reward of my suffering and will be truly satisfied.

Yes, Christmas Is Culturally Degraded: What Do You Expect From the World?

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In the hands of secularists and unbelievers, the austere Christian observance of Christmas has mutated into a vivid expression of spiritual decay. It proves that while Western civilisation may have prosperity to the rafters and an extraordinary quality of life, it has obtained these things in a truly Faustian bargain. To get them, it has sold away eternal meaning, temporal purpose, moral significance, and existential depth.

Christmas is a season for frantic gift purchases, drunken office parties, quaint Victorian tropes (like stockings), gluttony, and schmaltzy movies about saving Christmas and Santa Claus. In fact, this jolly deliveryman from the North Pole has become a cause célèbre in his own right. The extraordinary lengths that parents go to in order to convince their children of Santa’s reality range from cookie crumbs on the mantelpiece to the planting of elaborate evidence (footprints, torn pieces of red cloth, and so on).

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Indeed, an aggressive debate now rages over telling children the truth about Santa. Each year, some child somewhere is told that Santa is fictional and their anguished tears are reported in the tabloids, dripping with pathos. My favourite story happened a few years ago. During his annual Christmastide talk to a group of primary school children in his parish, a Church of England vicar let slip that Santa was not real.

No doubt astonished that any clergyman of the Church of England would say anything that was not vague and wishy-washy, the children ran home to tell their parents. Rather than accepting the reality that eventually someone, somewhere will tell little Chanel or London Jr. that it was a bit of make-believe, the parents responded with extreme anger. How dare someone disabuse their child of the falsehoods so painstakingly inculcated into them! They were far more upset about Santa, one suspects, than they would ever be about the promotion of disbelief in Christ.

The most amusing part of the story was the response by the church. The Church of England, in its ceaseless quest to offend nobody and thus enter total irrelevance, was put in the unenviable position of needing to defend the nativity of Christ as the actual historical Christmas account, while concurrently appearing not to condemn the fantasy character that had supplanted the Lord in the affections of the parents.

Fictitious stories are serious business to a lot of people it seems. This nonsense has been taken so seriously that The Atlantic put together an article some time ago that featured professional-looking graphs depicting the age when people lost their faith in Santa.

Of course, this is what happens when unbelievers want to inject a transcendent vibe into an annual celebration. They either must seek it in extreme consumption – for what could be more transcendent in a materialistic culture than stuff – or they must seek it through a saccharine sentimentality related to childhood. Transcendence is found in the merry eyes of a child, sitting in front of the TV, watching a Christmas movie, gobbling M&M’s, whilst excitedly waiting for an imaginary fat man to deliver parcels of DVD’s, video game consoles, and remote-controlled drones down the chimney. Only this can truly capture that special emotion known “the spirit of Christmas”.

As silly and sad as it may be, we can hardly blame unbelievers for their parasitic simulacrum of Christian joy. Not for them the indescribable wonder of the birth of God in the flesh, and the lowly manner in which he was born that he might seek and to save the lost. Not for them the joy of confessing the Messiah as Lord and Master. Not for them the overwhelming gratitude at being chosen by God – though unworthy – and the grateful ecstasy at having value and significance in the eyes of God. “God sent the Messiah into the world for me – a rebel who has given God nothing – and yet he still came for me!” Not for the unbeliever the relief and release of sins forgiven, of a cosmic sense of belonging to the household of faith, to the family of God.

Thus, let us put aside the now-traditional lamentations from Christians about the loss of the meaning of Christmas. What else do we expect from unbelievers? Why is anyone surprised when unbelievers act like unbelievers?

The mourning over the loss of a religious Christmas season really amounts to tiresome and redundant hand-wringing. In the process of this emotional bloodletting, Christians get caught up on a mere tradition. They become evangelical about divisions between the world and the Church that are inevitable and healthy. There should be a vast and stark difference between a Christian Christmas and the celebrations of the pagans.

For Christians, Christmas ought be a sombre reminder above all that Jesus Christ is the centrepiece of Time. While the unbelieving world thinks they need not reckon with him and can safely erase him from history or reduce him to a footnote, the birth of the Lord is an annual reminder that the human story is God’s story. He is in control of it. And events are marching forward in complete accord with God’s eternal plan and timetable. We can rejoice because we have passed a key milestone. The Messiah has come, and just as the Prophets taught, the everlasting gospel has flowed out of Israel – the rivers of salvation – as the news is spread throughout the earth. Christ really walked on the earth, drank the water, breathed the air, performed miraculous signs, and taught living truth. His one perfect life has left a mark that will never, never fade.

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But if Christmas is the story of the Lord’s first advent on that starlit night so long ago, if it tells us the glorious message of the arrival of the King through a quiet birth to an unremarkable couple in the lonely countryside of Israel – it also is designed to underline his second advent. The return of the King with the fullness of his majesty.

Christmas is a time to acknowledge that the Messiah has come, and this same Messiah is going to come again. The purpose of his first advent was to begin the defeat of Satan, and to redeem for himself a new human race from under the curse of sin. The process of building his new creation started; the Second Adam is the progenitor and head of this race, as St. Paul so clearly taught us.

But, his second advent will be even more glorious than the first. Christ will come again to usher in the fullness of his Kingdom of which there shall be no end.

The nativity scene reminds us that we are living in the valley between two advents. Behind us lies the land of Egypt out of which the Church has had its exodus. We have journeyed together from the darkness of paganism, slavery, sin, and the unmerciful rule of Pharaoh. In front of us lies the Promised Land, and we are marching toward it. But St. Paul  tells us that we are not there yet: “Not that I have already obtained all this, or have already arrived at my goal, but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me” (Phil 3:12).  We have not yet obtained the promised blessing, though it will certainly be ours in the grace and power of Christ.

Christmas is not just about looking back but also looking forward. If there was one advent, there will certainly be another. This is joyous news! The Messiah has come, and he is also coming again. He is shortly to appear. And on that day he will destroy the works of Satan; judge the living and the dead; redeem his people; and the praise of his glory shall never end.