During the summer, we’re doing what any good TV network does and playing mostly reruns, working through previous episodes in Matthew’s Gospel. But for these three days, we have some new material on Matthew chapter 4.
If you’re just joining us, you need to read last Friday’s post and then yesterday’s post for this to make sense, along with the text we’re looking at, Matthew 4:1-11. We saw how Jesus was symbolically re-enacting the scene of Israel’s failure, but this time getting it right – being “God’s son” in a way that Israel never could.
Jesus: The Suffering Messiah
But that’s not the only thing the story tells us about Jesus. Jesus as our champion; the one who gets it right. Let’s look a bit more closely at the temptations themselves. They all tell us a bit about what kind of Messiah figure Jesus was going to be. And what kind of Messiah figure he was not going to be.
Because each of these three temptations seeks to redefine Jesus’ ministry in worldly ways. Three ways in which Jesus’ mission could have been derailed by the expectations of the world around him. And – if we’re honest – still can be today.
Firstly, Jesus is tempted to use his power like a magician, for his own ends. In the first century, a typical magician trick was to transform one substance into another. Sure, stones into bread isn’t quite as stage-friendly as a handkerchief into a dove, or a wand into a bunch of flowers, but it still would have been impressive. Boosted the crowd numbers. Got him a regular Vegas gig. And more than that – it would have been using his powers for his own benefit, rather than for the benefit of others.
There’s a genre of writing from the 3rd and 4th centuries AD called “infancy gospels.” They’re a bit like fan fiction. Speculating about what it would have been like for Jesus as a boy. Invented stories of the son of God growing up. Most of them are pretty wild, showing Jesus as a sort of ‘SuperBoy’, flying around, performing miracles, putting his teachers to shame, and punishing his parents’ neighbours when they were evil. They make hilarious reading.
One story has him putting strips cloth in a vat of purple dye and pulling out diff colours each time – like a bad Vegas magic show; another has him stretching a piece of wood for his father in the workshop so it would fit the bed they were building. (That one ended up in The Passion of the Christ.) My favourite is this one, from Thomas’ Gospel of Infancy:
The son of Annas the scholar, standing there with Jesus, took a willow branch and drained the water Jesus had collected. Jesus, however, saw what had happened and became angry, saying to him, "Curse you, you irreverent fool! What harm did the ponds of water do to you? From this moment you, too, will dry up like a tree, and you'll never produce leaves or root or bear fruit." In an instant the boy had completely withered away. …The parents of the boy who had withered away picked him up and were carrying him out, sad because he was so young. And they came to Joseph and accused him: "It's your fault - your boy did this."
It’s clear that the writers of these alleged gospels thought that no-one ever took Jesus’ lunch money…and lived.
But the real stories of Jesus – the ones collected in our first century gospels – they paint a different picture. One where Jesus refuses to be a selfish magician. To perform signs on demand, like turning stones into bread. Just like he would later refuse to perform “signs” on demand to impress the hard-hearted religious leaders. But use this very same bread-making power to feed 5000 who were truly seeking after God.
Is that how you are tempted to redefine Jesus, by using him for your own ends? As a magician, who can perform for you on demand? A genie who’s there to give you what you want? Maybe the great Australian dream of financial security and a comfortable life. Maybe dreams of career success. Of relationship success. Of good health. Whatever it is, Jesus is my genie; my good luck charm. If I sprinkle a little bit of Jesus-dust onto things, it’ll all turn out the way I want it.
That’s not the kind of Messiah Jesus was. By resisting the temptation to turn stones into bread to feed his hunger, he showed us that. He showed us that having access to the power of God wasn’t to be used selfishly. But for the benefit of others.
Secondly, Jesus is tempted to be like the many deluded visionaries that dotted the first century Palestinian landscape. The Jewish historian Josephus records many false prophets who expected God to back up their crazy ideas with miracles. For the most part, they were disappointed. The devil tries to get Jesus to be like them: If you really are the son of God, go ahead and test God – jump! Make him serve you, not the other way around. But Jesus refuses to play that game, too.
And again, Jesus acts not out of self-interest, but in the interests of others. After all, if he had jumped – well, he is the son of God. He would have been rescued. In fact, the jump would have been the easy option – the path to safety, back with his Father.
In refusing to jump, he chooses the difficult path of continuing danger and hardship. One which leads, ultimately, to the cross. And at that point the temptation is repeated by the onlookers – if you really are the son of God, save yourself, come down from the cross! But he doesn’t act to save himself. Because he came to save us.
How do we see Jesus? As someone who gets us out of difficult situations? Who’ll always be there to make sure nothing bad happens to us?
That’s how many Christians get derailed when bad stuff happens. Because it’s not part of their understanding of Jesus as the fixer of all our earthly problems.
I’ve seen many Christians over the years go through times of trial. Illness. Grief. Stuff happening to their kids. It’s awful. But the ones that survive it with their faith intact are the ones whose picture of Jesus is right. Their Jesus didn’t jump to safety. Their Jesus chose the path of suffering. Their Jesus went to the cross for others. Their Jesus is the one who didn’t take the shortcut on offer, so that all of life’s trials and difficulties will be done away with in the age to come.
Who is Jesus for you? Is Jesus the one who gets us out of difficulty? Or is Jesus the example we follow – in choosing to go into difficult situations, for the good of others; for the glory of God among the nations?
Thirdly, Jesus is tempted to be a political revolutionary. Like so many revolutionaries in the decades and centuries before him. Leaders who’d sought to rid the Jews of foreign rule by military power. By rebellion. By political alliances. Do it my way, says Satan, and it’ll be an easier path. Bow down to me, and I’ll give you the world’s kind of authority. Follow the world’s means of bringing in this idea of the kingdom of God.
But again, Jesus chooses the harder path. He knows that there isn’t another way, otherwise he would have let the cup of God’s wrath pass from him at Gethsemane. He knows it’s the only way. And it’s why, when Peter rebuked him for talking about his coming death, he said this:
Matt 16:22 "Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; you do not have in mind the concerns of God, but merely human concerns."
And in so doing, he gained something far greater. Not just the kind of authority over the world that the devil offered him. But as it says at the end of Matthew’s gospel, all authority in heaven as well as on earth has been given to him.
Again, how are we tempted to view Jesus? Do we see him as a way to achieve political ends? A world or a nation that’s run the way we want it? With the kinds of people we want in it? The kind of prosperity we think we deserve?
Maybe we try to legislate “Christian values” on an unwilling majority. Being more coercive than God himself, who’s continued to let human rebellion run its course – respecting our freedom.
Or – to bring it into a different realm – is that how we’re tempted to view Jesus’ church? As a way of exercising power over others. Of displaying our importance. Our worth.
Or maybe we try to fit in with our world so much that we cease to be different. We try the shortcut to success – doing things that make us popular in the eyes of the world – and then wonder why no-one is particularly interested in asking us for a reason for the hope that we hold.
Are we like James and John – still acting like we’re building an earthly kingdom in this age? Are we like the adoring crowds that welcomed him into Jerusalem – who got disillusioned when the expected revolution didn’t occur?
The story of Jesus’ temptation makes it clear what kind of Messiah Jesus was going to be: a suffering servant, not a warrior king.
And it makes it clear what following him will mean:
- Using power to help others, not to help ourselves.
- Choosing to live dangerously for the kingdom, rather than jumping to safety.
- Rejecting coercion; instead embracing submission and sacrifice.
That’s the kind of life we’re signing up for, as part of the people of God. It’s not an easy life. It’s not a comfortable life. It’s a life lived for others – to the glory of God.
And yes, we’ll fail. Just like Israel did back in the desert. But we keep going, knowing that Jesus has lived our life for us, perfectly. That he’s paid the penalty for our failure. And that his Spirit is now in us, enabling us to stand up under that temptation.
Heb 4:15-16 For we do not have a high priest who is unable to empathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are—yet he did not sin. Let us then approach God's throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need