Walking with the Nazarene in the Wilderness: The Second Temptation of Christ

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Of all three temptations, it is the Second Temptation of Christ that presents us with the greatest interpretive puzzle.

It is quite unlike the First Temptation. In the First Temptation we can readily see ourselves in the light of Christ’s experience. The sight of the starved Nazarene being tempted to eat by the devil is quite analogous to our personal experience of having strong desires for things that do not glorify God. Under the pressure of this testing, the fortitude of Christ is clearly revealed to us precisely because it is earthy, and therefore corresponds to the reality in which we live. We know the weakness and limits of our own frame and we know how hard self-denial can be.

Later, the Third Temptation is even more straightforward. The spiritual immensity of being tempted with “all the kingdoms of the earth” is easily understandable because in so many instances we ourselves fail when tempted by the merest sliver of a kingdom – perhaps a promotion, or acquisition of property. The news greets us regularly with stories of people who have sold their souls for a fraction of a kingdom: politicians who seek power at the expense of their fellow man; dictators who climb to the top of their nations over a hecatomb of corpses; doctors who bully and bribe to become presidents of the local board of physicians.

The incredible weakness of mankind when offered power is a stain that cannot be washed out of the race, generation to generation, no matter how many times the bitterness of oppression is experienced. Thus, in the Third Temptation when we see Christ being assailed not by the merest part of a kingdom but by all the kingdoms of the earth in their fullness, we recognise an intensity of temptation that we ourselves would be unable to bear.

In this manner the First and Third are readily intelligible. But the Second Temptation? The Second Temptation is the outlier.

How can we relate to this? What experiences does it parallel? What aspect of the human condition does it speak to? The Second Temptation does not seem to apply to any of life’s common experiences; in fact, we can look upon the Second Temptation with jaded eyes and think, “How is this even a temptation? It certainly would not tempt me!” Thus, we can simply conclude that while something certainly takes place in the Second Temptation, it lies within a veil we cannot penetrate and at a depth we cannot plumb. It must lie under the perpetual shadow of a question mark.

Yet this is very far from the case. Although the Second Temptation may be mysterious, it is certainly not shrouded in darkness and offers serious lessons to the believer that are instrumental in an age of recurrent spiritual tremors like ours. Nevertheless, (let the reader beware), the lessons taught here are not necessarily pleasant. The passage punctures religious pride; confronts misplaced religious zeal; and overturns cherished religious convictions.

This may explain why the passage so often gathers dust in the library of God’s word for if there is one thing that unstable Christians are opposed to, it is self-examination and spiritual sobriety. If there is one thing overly-emotive Christians dislike, it is being brought down to earth. And if there is one thing that drives away theatrical Christians, it is anything that brings down the curtain on religious showmanship in favour of the humble, considered and the quiet.

A SITUATIONAL TEMPTATION

The first thing to notice about the Second Temptation is that it was situational.

The devil transported the Lord out of the desert and all the way to Jerusalem. Even more surprising, the Lord was carried to the Temple of God itself.

Then the devil took Him to the holy city and set Him on the pinnacle of the temple.

Scholars suggest that Jesus was taken to the south-east corner of the temple where a roof and portico overlooked the massive retaining wall that dropped about 135 metres (450 feet) straight down into the Kidron Valley. That is a significant height. It is the same height as the Xerox Tower in New York or the Fisher Building in Detroit.

xerox tower

From this we learn two things.

First, the devil was not afraid to visit the Temple. Unlike his portrayal in many worldly movies, the devil did not sizzle when he approached the consecrated mountain or the sacred precincts of the temple. Neither did the Temple location suddenly render the devil inert and harmless. To the contrary. He was quite able to engage in his evil work around the temple; and in fact, the text would have us understand that he purposefully used this religious location as a living stage for the test he had devised.

Many think that burying themselves into religion will grant them immunity from the devil’s influence, and that if they are not drinking and murdering, then they are unable to be attacked. But the devil is far more subtle than many – perhaps even most – give him credit for. The devil can use religion (even true religion) for his purposes. He can do this either by lulling people to spiritual sleep in churches, or by twisting holy doctrines and carefully inserting them into a religious environment.

One need only look to some of the “liberal” mainstream churches to see this very process in action. Blasphemies that lead to eternal death are preached from beautiful pulpits in splendid settings once built to glorify God. In many of these old cathedrals and churches, God’s holy words are sometimes carved into the surfaces themselves while the unwary are enticed to ignore them. A man in such a place can be lured into sin even while he sits in a temple once built by the faithful.

The second key thing we learn from the passage is that Lord was positioned at a great height. His precise location is not really materially important – whether it was at the south-east corner or at the north-west of the temple, for example. What matters is that Christ was elevated to a latitude that was potentially truly dangerous.

Having lifted him to this height, at this point the devil essentially invites Jesus to attempt to commit suicide.

“If You are the Son of God,” he said, “throw Yourself down. For it is written:

‘He will command His angels concerning You,
and they will lift You up in their hands,
so that You will not strike Your foot
against a stone.’”

That is, try to commit suicide with a religious gloss.

The temptation here revolves around the concept of religious authenticity and testing God with false parameters. The devil was arguing that if Jesus really was the Son of God (authenticity) and really believed the scriptures, then he would recklessly place himself in harm’s way because God would be honour bound to rescue him (false parameter).

Of course, we know the devil was not sincere in his citation of scripture. Rather this was an act of twisted cunning, and it must have seemed to the devil a guaranteed win-win-win-win situation.

For if Jesus refused to throw himself over the edge, he could be accused of a lack of faith in the scriptures. Win. After all, if Jesus really believed the word of God, would he not gladly demonstrate his radical, divine faith by going to the extreme? Failure to do so could only be the result of a lack of real faith.

On the other hand, if Jesus did throw himself over the edge, he would hurtle to his death. Win again. In this instance, the devil would have triumphed. He would have defeated the Perfect Man not by destroying him on the rocks of sin, but by tempting him with holy virtues! If even a virtuous man could be defeated by appealing to virtue, who then could be saved? The human race would be utterly doomed.

But, if the Father did step in as Jesus was plummeting to the ground and saved his Son from death, the devil would be able to accuse the Father of violating the true meaning and spirit of his own word. Win. How could any man be saved if the meaning of God’s word was in flux, and changed according to the individual and situation? If it meant one thing when it was given through the prophet but now another thing altogether?

And if that were not enough winning, if Jesus were rescued, the devil would forever be able to point mankind to this event and urge people toward religious fanaticism in service of their own reckless pretensions. Win. Go for broke, the devil could say, for had not the Perfect Man thrown himself from a great height and been saved?

Thus the nature of the Second Temptation – as shown in Jesus own rebuttal – is about putting God to the test. It is about launching into the waters of religious delusion and expecting God to confer his blessing and protection upon us because we claim to have “faith” or “trust” in things he never promised. Indeed, it stands as a serious warning about the danger of spiritual fanaticism where men attempt to do things that are not taught in God’s word. They attempt to do such things anyway in the prideful or ignorant conviction that they are.

Such spiritual delusions often arise when men and women begin to think of themselves more highly than they ought – and this is a common affliction in an age of prideful independence and the celebration of individualism.

A woman contacted me once in great sorrow regarding her husband. He had embraced some extremist doctrines that he became convinced were taught in the scripture. His church disagreed with him, and so this man in turn become convinced that his church was in error. Other churches in the area also disagreed with him, and those churches also fell by the wayside as he declared them all “false”. He thus refused to attend any church or listen to any pastor, and became a hindrance to his wife who was faithful to true Christianity. His wife wanted to continue attending her church, but her husband made life so difficult for her that she told me sadly she had very nearly given up because the fight was so exhausting.

I attempted to dialogue with this man. I did not, alas, come regard him as especially insightful, although I am quite sure he fancied himself quite intelligent. I found him arrogant, stubborn, unkind, and alienating. In the final chapter of this saga, the man had elected to study the Bible at home with one of his buddies, since the two alone had the proper doctrine. Thus, an odd little cult of two was born.

This is sadly far from an isolated case. Many examples can be found. The man in the pew who fancies himself a preacher; the woman who thinks she should lead her sisters due to her spiritual insight; the ambitious elder who craves an opportunity to teach others in a long-winded monotone – such people are many. Legion are the men and women who have come to believe they are “special” or “spiritually gifted” and then confused their own desires and ambitions for those of God.

Here in the Second Temptation, then, is a vivid, technicolored example of how it is possible to take scripture, manipulate it for our own ends, and then imagine that God will bless and preserve us because he must be subject to our corrupt interpretation of his word. It is a textbook example of how we may arrogantly pretend that if God does not serve us (as if he were a servant and we the master!) according to our delusions and pretensions, then somehow he has failed or his word has failed. God forbid.

Religious pretension of this sort is on the increase. The charismatic movement produces many such men and women who claim to be prophets and prophetesses but are not. Then there are a rash of preachers who urge their congregants toward a “radical faith” as if only by going to the extremes is one living out the great commission. As if it were not good enough to serve God in quiet and lowly manner. As if being a humble farmer like Manoah – whom scripture documents only serving in the role of father – was somehow less faithful and less God-glorifying than the calling of Samuel or St. Paul.

The pressure to be a “radical Christian” – emanating unfortunately from otherwise orthodox pulpits – often convinces people that God will bless them as they “throw themselves over” into a life of missionary work or grand evangelism, even when they are neither equipped for it nor called to it. Even when it is not wisdom for them to do this. The results of such spiritual recklessness are often disastrous.

There has been a stark example of this as recently as 2018 – the case of John Allen Chau – who died when he was killed by the natives living on the protected North Sentinel Island. This story, better than most, serves as a vivid reminder of the susceptibility of otherwise faithful Christians to the lure of “God blessed religious radicalism”, especially if it comes attired in the guise of evangelism or other causes dear to the heart of a true Christian. After all, all true Christians long for the building of Christ’s kingdom. But even such a noble desire like this can be exploited by the devil, which is why we must be on guard against the devil’s schemes.

John Allen Chau was a young man in his late twenties. Last year he attempted to convert the isolated people of North Sentinel Island, who live a primitive life, having been completely cut off from the rest of the world. The people on North Sentinel Island have made no technical progress above the level of the stone age; they are aliens to modernity.

John Allen Chau’s diary reveals a young man who was frightened of these people (and justly so for they were notorious for their inhospitable disposition). Yet so fervently did he believe that he was on a divine mission and was acting in the cause of Christ’s kingdom, that he became immune to the plainest wisdom of scripture and good sense. Indeed, his diary reveals an impetuous, death-or-glory self-belief that his preaching mission was a divine adventure. It was a belief wholly unsupported by anything but self-conviction. It was a belief that was attached to thin air.

Religious radicalism can become its own feedback loop. The more radical and audacious the act; the more dangerous and improbable its success, the more it can seem to be God’s will in line with the stories of the great saints of the past. This was certainly at work in the case of John Allen Chau. After reading his diary, it is hard to escape the conclusion that the extreme nature of what he was doing of its own accord seemed to convince him that he must be doing God’s will. “It is radical and therefore it is God’s will”, seemed to be his thinking. Yet the tragedy and failure of his missionary endeavour teach us the lesson of the Second Temptation. For this young man threw himself over the wall.

He would doubtless have been stopped had he approached his missionary endeavour under the authority or oversight of a church, bishop, elder, or experienced mission director. This he apparently did not have. He seems to have submitted his plans to no qualified Christian – certainly to none of the local churches in the area – and nobody seems to have assessed his suitability for this work.

This fact alone reminds us of the warnings in scripture regarding individualistic freelancers who seek to act independently of God’s appointed leaders of his one chosen agency on earth, the Church. This is contrary to the spirit of true Christianity.

St. Peter explicitly warns young men: “In the same way, you younger men must accept the authority of the elders.” In keeping with this theme, St. Paul strongly impresses upon us that not everyone is gifted in the same way and able to perform the same work, precisely because the Church is a body. Not everyone is an eye, or a mouth. Some believers have other gifts that are just as vital. But importantly, no part of the body acts independently; it is all subject to the head, and the head of the Church is Christ.

Likewise, in his Epistle to the Romans, St. Paul gives us the same principle of submission, albeit in relation to secular authorities but this is not a greater requirement than the obligation of Christians to be subject to the appointed godly men of Church leadership:

“Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment.”

During his missionary effort, John Chau paid men to break the law and deliver him to the island. These men were later arrested. (It is inconceivable to imagine St. Paul – the greatest missionary in Church history – paying men to breach laws on his behalf.)

While on the island, the islanders became hostile and shot an arrow at him. John Chau attempted to preach to them but unsurprisingly failed because he did not know a word of their native language. Elementary wisdom – not to mention St. Paul’s sober warnings about tongues – powerfully impresses upon us that preaching must be understood by its hearers or it has no value at all. We have the classic example of the Roman Catholic Church’s centuries of holding services in Latin to show us how effective language barriers can be in shutting up the gospel.

Despite the hostility and ineffectual nature of his first attempt, and despite his injuries, and despite his diary revealing a man gripped not by the “peace that passes all understanding” but by terror and fear, John Allen Chau returned to the island in a second effort to preach. Only this time he was murdered. Thus he withheld from the Church all of the energy he might have expended in quieter and less flashy ways, but in ways that would have been more effective and kingdom-strengthening.

His efforts succeeded only in making the people of the North Sentinel Island more isolated than they were before, with renewed efforts to shut up the island and keep them in an unfortunate condition of a severed relationship to the rest of the human race. In liberal and progressive jargon, they have “the right to be left alone” which means keeping them in a state of cultural suspended animation.

But markedly, we see demonstrated in this missionary effort, the danger of expecting God to preserve and safeguard us in reckless religious endeavours. Extreme commitment to the service to God is appropriate only when it is truly consistent with his word; when it is subject to godly authority; is truly in line with his desires and purposes; and only when we do not put God to the test of expecting him to save us from evident foolishness. The Second Temptation serves as an inoculation against a runaway religious imagination and against putting God to the test on the basis of parameters we have devised.

God is under no obligation to our misuse of scripture to justify our religious adventures or pretences. He does not need to prove his fidelity by rescuing us from folly and fantasy. Blessed indeed are those who are slow to assume they are special, and quick to assume they have a lowly calling. Who seek God’s will first, whether it be ordinary or extraordinary. Who are diligent in separating their personal desires from God’s will, and killing off unwarranted ambitions when they are not part of God’s calling. If Jesus shows us anything in the Second Temptation, it is to be wise in “not putting God to the test” by expecting him to save us from foolishness, fantasy, recklessness, pride, and extremism.

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.

Jesus+in+the+desert

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.