Then Jesus was led by the Spirit into the desert to be tempted by the devil. After fasting forty days and forty nights, he was hungry. The tempter came to him and said, “If you are the Son of God, tell these stones to become bread”. Jesus answered, “It is written: ‘Man does not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God’.” Then the devil took him to the holy city and had him stand on the highest point of the temple. “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’.” Jesus answered him, “It is also written: ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test’.” Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendour. “All this I will give you”, he said, “if you will bow down and worship me”. Jesus said to him, “Away from me, Satan! For it is written: ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve him only’.” Then the devil left him, and angels came and attended him. (Matthew 4:1-11 ESV)
Who determines reality when we want to talk about more than what our senses are telling us? (And considering our senses can be fooled, we probably should have a healthy scepticism a lot of the time.)
Is reality determined by the law of the land? That changes. Culture and morality? That changes. Self interest and what’s in it for me? How do we know if what we’re doing is in our best interests? Religion or philosophy? There are a supermarket of them from which to choose! I think the answer is found in whether you think that there are absolute answers around – definites that don’t change over time – and ultimate authority that is … ultimate.
And so the call to determine reality and how to live in our multi-religious, pluralist society is complex and increasingly so. We Christians say that we uphold ‘the law of the land’ but we also have a qualifying statement in keeping with the apostles – an authority for us – when we say that we also “… must obey God rather than men” (Acts 5:29). Who determines reality can come down to who has final authority?
I think that was what was at the heart of what the Devil was on about against Jesus – particularly when Jesus was in the wilderness – challenging Jesus to consider his final authority. As I have mentioned before, in my opinion, the Devil is not unsure of Jesus’ identity and the Greek word ει can mean ‘if’ or ‘since’ – and so what the Devil is saying is ‘Since you are the Son of God …’ do this or that – turn rocks into bread, make a spectacular entrance among the people and use your power to shock and awe, or accomplish your goal simply by worshipping me [the Devil]. Jesus wasn’t being tempted or goaded to prove his divinity but he was tempted or goaded into revealing who was his ultimate authority.
Jesus’ response indicates that he regards God through his Word as authoritative. “It is written: ‘Man does not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God’.” Jesus bats back the first temptation not easily – indeed he would have been hungry – but as he said on a later occasion, “My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to finish his work” (John 4:34). Notice how the Devil responds with the second temptation – the one of the glory road – he now uses God’s Word too!
“[Since] you are the Son of God, 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’.” To which Jesus replied, “It is also written: ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test’.” It’s almost like two lawyers citing precedence – if you consider it this way …, no, you must consider it that way. The Devil doesn’t make up God’s Word but he does twist it and misapply it. Of course, he wouldn’t say so but Jesus did – and that’s the point! For Jesus, blind following of God’s Word used to
back up a selfish course of action would reveal that his ultimate authority is himself and his needs or wants and to ‘compound the crime’ he would be giving the appearance that he is truly faithful towards God. This temptation is cunning for it uses God’s Word itself.
The third temptation is the most blunt – worship me and save yourself says the Devil. We have no way of knowing how it impacts Jesus – whether Jesus already could see the cross looming and one bow of the knee would steer him away from it but it is a temptation for Jesus and he counters it again with God’s word ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve him only’.
Jesus reveals that his final authority is God’s Word. “It is written …” he says each time and even when that is thrown back at him, he counters again by showing that he understands both the letter and the spirit of the words. We know from the Gospel accounts that Jesus spoke of his being one with the Father, his goal of doing the Father’s will but in our text we hear it as “It is written …”. We know from this reading that it was the Spirit of God who drove Jesus into the wilderness in the first place and so we are aware of a combination of factors – Jesus’ relationship with Father, his presence in the wilderness because of the Spirit, and his constant anchoring in God’s Word that keeps him from sinning, falling away from his mission, and on track for our rescue – which means ultimately the cross for him.
If the Devil whom Jesus later calls ‘the Father of lies’ uses God’s Word for his own ends, why are people so accepting of all the words we write – good and noble they may be – and not see that the interpretation and conclusion of all words – whether they be love letters, cooking instructions, or High Court pronouncements – is at the mercy of the interpreter – and theologically, all interpreters are flawed, selfish, biased – and all words written by such people – including all laws, rules, and regulations have as their final result not a happy ending or a paradise on earth but a challenge to our human failings?
Our temptations are essentially clashes of “It is written’s” – maybe the law of the land says something is legal but God says ‘No’ or the law is silent and God says ‘Yes, do it’. Maybe there are clashes with the scripts of our own lives, our to-do lists, our plans, our own ‘laws’ and we, deep down, know that our struggle, our temptation is actually about final authority – and we so don’t want to not be ‘boss’! Our temptations are really all about ultimate authority – and even the law of the land can not be that for all it can do is describe us in legal terms here on Earth – and then imperfectly as it plays catch up with each new twist and turn sinners bring to light. Of course, we need laws to function socially but they can neither define us nor truly help us.
Our help is in the name of the Lord. Now most religions would claim something like that. Christians look to Jesus and call others to do the same. They look at him at his baptism, in the wilderness, in his public ministry, being accused of breaking some of the laws of his day, and finally crucified on a cross. But he is not a history lesson and this is not abstract stuff. Because Christians only meet Jesus through his Word – the Bible becomes critical for us – and thus we read it personally – it affects us now. And its law – more stern than any other – convicts and condemns us as sinners – no excuses – guilty as charged. But we also hear another message – forgiveness, mercy, from Jesus himself – addressed to us as well personally – Your sins are forgiven. And now we have a perspective on how to live in the world with all its laws – under the Lordship of Jesus, following Jesus, in obedience to him above all – as we are sent into the world to serve those in it.
Christians have a role to play in society – in the public square and in the local neighbourhood and privately behind closed doors – to follow Jesus and to serve those around them – and that means that we will be guided by God’s “It is written” – Law and Gospel – for in Jesus we have our ultimate authority – God who died so that we might live.
- Matthew 4:1 - 11