Which Jesus are you worshiping?
Satan was always the master deceiver and remains so. In the original deception, Satan convinced Adam and Eve into abandoning their divine mandate, plunging the world into moral darkness. In a later ambush, Satan sought to scuttle the mission of Jesus Christ, aiming to convert the Messiah into ‘a Jesus’ that the fallen human nature would find more agreeable with its ‘this-worldly’ orientation–a Jesus of Satan’s making.
Satan’s attempt failed, and Jesus’ mission to redeem humanity proceeded. Nothing more to worry about, right? Well, that’s exactly what this deceiver would have you believe. We must not think for one minute that Satan has given up on the notion of converting Jesus. He may have failed to convert the historical Jesus to his cause, but that has not stopped him working on converting the ‘idea’ of Jesus that resides in the consciousness of Christians.
If you are a Christian in a first- world context, more than likely you are aware of churches proclaiming and worshiping a Jesus oriented toward human self-interest: a Jesus that focuses on health, wealth, and material happiness. In fact, Prosperity theology and its consumer bedfellow seeker-sensitivity, are thriving in contemporary church circles–both radical and conservative. Even if you a are a Christian that rejects this kind of religion, the challenge to put your material self-interest ahead of obeying God and serving Jesus remains is constantly assaulting your senses through the ubiquitous consumer culture.
Although the New Testament clearly reveals a different Jesus than the one promoted by this prosperity religion, it remains somewhat of a mystery why such a phenomenon can go relatively unchallenged.
So, lets look at it…
It may surprise you but prosperity theology did not begin with prominent American tele-evangelists like Creflo A. Dollar, Kenneth Copeland, or Benny Hinn–nor is it limited to them. In fact, there is strong case to make that it actually began with conservative Reformed Protestants–those who would have rigorously opposed it.
Renowned German sociologist Max Weber, in his 1905 essay The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, makes a convincing argument that the ‘spirit’ of capitalism that originated in America and now dominates the Western World, had it’s genesis in the Calvinistic Protestant work ethic of the 16th-17th centuries. Weber contends that the Reformed idea of ‘the calling’, a designation for our God given vocation, inspired in the religious consciousness of Calvinists a divine mandate to see our everyday work lives as our specific service to God. No longer working to live, the Reformed Protestant lives to work– for the glory of God.
Weber then suggests that the Calvinistic notion of predestination instilled in the Protestant consciousness produced a certain anxiety– because one’s salvation was outside of human control. How then, can the Protestant be sure they are part of the elect? Weber reasons that they looked to the material success of their God-given calling as an indicator. If their work prospered, they had confidence of God’s favor and hence assurance of their election–a material validation of their faith. Though a case can be made against Weber’s argument here, we don’t need Weber to reach this conclusion; simply reading the Old Testament through the lens of 17th century Covenant Theology could also allow you to reach the same outcome–that material blessing is a sign of covenant faithfulness.
Furthermore, the German sociologist argues that driven by a desire to please God through one’s calling and its resultant material prosperity, coupled with their frugal lifestyles, and a reticence to support the poor (which they believed would undermine the Protestant work ethic), Puritan Protestants found themselves unwittingly accumulating large amounts of capital, which tended to spawn larger and larger capitalistic endeavours in the growing American society. Success, it seems, was breeding success.
It wasn’t too long, for varied reasons, that the Protestant ethic faded into the background, leaving the ‘spirit’ of a capitalist economy substantively unregulated by the Christian ethic that birthed it. But, with the vestiges of the theological justification for the capitalistic endeavour tagging along, the phenomenon morphed into a kind of folk prosperity-theology, with slogans like, ” God helps those who help themselves” and the prosperity inspired blessing, ” God bless America”.
In the popular consciousness, then, the subtle divine validation of material self-interest came into being, and like so many American cultural norms, was exported to the rest of the world.
Capitalism now directly decoupled from the Protestant ethic and animated by the burgeoning prevalence of secular greed, birthed consumerism; which only served to super-charge material self- interest to stellar levels. Unsurprisingly, this consumerism began methodologically feeding back into the Christian churches through another phenomenon which came to be know as The Church Growth movement–a movement that effectively viewed church adherents as consumers with felt-needs to be met. That it so quickly and readily gained traction, may be attributed to its compatibility with the prevailing culture.
Consequently, through these influences, many Christians are now so used to breathing an atmosphere of consumer driven capitalism, that their consciences are no longer capable of alerting them to religious heresies generated in and by this toxic atmosphere. Which, goes a long way to explaining why many Christians are falling for the promises of Prosperity religion.
As you can see, in the end we have a religion in which God, not only endorses the accumulation of capital and material well-being as a sign of his favour, but is happy to use consumer methods to draw people into the religious sphere in which this could happen–further reinforcing this divinely validated material self-interest. Satan’s ‘Jesus of material self-interest’ presides over it all. Grounded on the deep cultural justification of divinely validated material accumulation, and inhabited by the ghost of the Protestant work ethic, this religion purveys a ‘spirit’ that powerfully breathes life into and empowers the belief in this new materialistic Jesus.
It would seem, that what is doctrinally justified and practically validated becomes difficult to challenge–especially given that the critique would result in a significant loss of financial security and emotional significance for those having the courage to confront a system they have become dependent on. As such, it remains unchecked, to the eternal detriment of millions of hapless followers.
Having outlined potential reasons why this phenomenon remains relatively unchallenged, let us turn our attention to the ‘Jesus of the Bible’ and his solution to Satan’s deceptions…
In Matthew’s account of Jesus’ temptation, we are informed that Jesus was led the Spirit into the wilderness for 40 days, presumably to undergo a temptation reminiscent to the 40 years of temptation in the wilderness of God’s ‘first son’, the nation of Israel. After fasting for 40 days and nights, the bible says, ‘…he (Jesus) was hungry’ Matt 4:1 (NIV) Now, at the moment where Jesus has reached the limits of human endurance, Satan appears and begins to play with his mind:’If you are the Son of God, tell these stones to become bread.’ Matt 4:3 (NIV) Satan’s inference being : ‘ Enough is enough Jesus, you have completed the 40 days and still God has not provided for you, surely it is time to take matters into your own hands–to look after your own material interests?’
Satan knew Jesus had the power to turn the stones into bread, that’s not what he was seeking. Rather, in believing the humanity of Jesus was at breaking point, the tempter was seeking to convince Jesus to act independently of his divine mandate, hoping that he would suspend his divine mission, abandon his trust in the father, and use his power to attend to his own material self-interest. Knowing full well that such a move would destroy the credibility of Jesus’ mission–undoing everything he came to accomplish.
But Satan had underestimated his victim and the source of his strength. Though Jesus’ flesh was weak, his spirit knew where to find sustenance–the Word of God. Jesus replied, ‘ It is written: ‘Man does not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.’ Matt 4:4 (NIV) Though his flesh was tempted to give into its inclinations, Jesus mind knew that true human existence (the existence God intended) involved much more than feeding natural instincts. True sustenance ultimately came from God himself; a sustenance promised in and bolstered by the written Word of God.
How then did the historical Jesus succeed in not capitulating to Satan? What prevented him from turning into a Satanic Jesus of His own material self-interest?
Firstly, Jesus was resolutely obeyed the father’s will.
Luke’s account says, ‘ Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the desert…’ Luke 4:1 (NIV). The Spirit (who is God) leads Jesus into a time of testing, and he willingly follows. While many Christians believe the Holy Spirit only leads a person into blessing, scripture differs. Having been anointed by the Spirit as a sign of God’s favor, Jesus obediently follows the will of the father in being led by the Spirit into the wilderness for the specific purpose of facing the hardships of temptation. Moreover, the Apostle Paul’s experiences concur: ‘And now, compelled by the Spirit, I am going to Jerusalem, not knowing what will happen to me there. I only know that in every city the Holy Spirit warns me that prison and hardships are facing me.’ Acts 20:22-23 (NIV)
Those obedient to the will of the father will face hardships, and face them willingly. As with the genuine Jesus, the genuine follower of Jesus knows that a life of material prosperity is this world is not guaranteed, John writes, ‘ Do not be surprised, my brothers, if the world hates you.’ 1 John 3:13 (NIV) Furthermore, John commands the Christian not to love the world or the things of the world, because such love supplants the love of the father. Those who obey God’s will do so because they love the father above anything in this world, they would rather die that renounce their relationship with the father.
Jesus, as an obedient servant of God, did not allow the comforts or even necessities of life to distract him from remaining resolutely faithful to God. He knew and taught that the road to life is narrow and hard and the road to destruction is broad and easy. Like the Lord before them, genuine followers of Jesus are not easily deceived by the allurement of material self-interest. When challenged to deviate from the father’s will–they stay the course no matter what it costs.
Secondly, Jesus faithfully embraced self-denial.
Jesus entire earthly life was one of self-denial. In the words of the Apostle Paul, ‘being in very nature God’, he took on human likeness through the incarnation. He was born to poor parents in a stable with animals, lived in a small town, owned no possessions, and sought only to serve others, even though he was given many opportunities to exalt himself, he took up none. His humility allowed him to be be unjustly tried, tortured, and cruelly executed; all this, to obediently complete the mission his heavenly father had commissioned. Jesus’ life exhibited humble self-abasement from beginning to end.
Satan thought he had Jesus on the ropes, when he witnessed his biting hunger in the wilderness following the 40 days of temptation, ‘Surely he must relent and use his own power to attend his most basic needs?’ But Satan was unaware of Jesus’s secret weapon: Faith in God through a life of self-denial. Satan didn’t understand that God’s power was actually most potent when embraced through human weakness. Through faith, the humble servant of God is able to overcome the impossible. Drawing on the truth of Holy Scripture, Jesus rebutted Satan with the truth, ‘ Man does not live by bread alone, but every word that comes from the mouth of God’ Matt 4:4 (NIV). Trust God despite your hardship and he will meet your every need, was Jesus’ secret–and it worked!
Indeed, a key antidote to material self-interest is material self-denial. Christians today have mostly abandoned the practice of fasting, even though Jesus taught it. Yet self-denial enables the Christian to be set free from the addictions of human culture that so readily entrap them. Denying natural appetites causes the believer to deepen their dependency on God, to refocus on life free from the toxic addictions that so readily bind human nature. But a mindset of self-denial enabled Jesus to complete his mission, and he teaches us that to follow in his steps we must embrace the same mindset: ‘ If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me will find it.’ Matt 16:24,25 (NIV)
Finally, Jesus trusted ‘absolutely’ the written text of Holy Scripture.
This truth is really the key to it all. Unlike the Pharisees and teachers of the Law, those experts in Scripture who believed in the ‘idea’ of the authority of God’s Word, Jesus actually believed and obeyed it. He knew the Word gave access to divine truth and power and could be implicitly trusted. Jesus could have drawn on his ‘own’ authority; after all he was God. But he would not be drawn into acting independently of his father’s will. Moreover, he did not simply paraphrase biblical ideas, but quoted the written text. In so doing was validating the authority and reliability of Holy Scripture for all who would need to draw on it’s ‘final’ authority when facing difficult issues.
The power and authority to overcome evil resided with God, and was made available to the humble servant of God through the written text of Holy Scripture. Jesus did not forget that it was the power of God’s word that spoke creation into existence. Surely the power of this same Word could meet the needs of a man starving in the desert? Jesus believed so, refusing to take the easy way out, he was proven right.
Many Christians have fallen into the error of embracing a false Jesus, simply because they do not know or understand Holy Scripture. If the Protestant Reformers have an enduring legacy, it is really not the Protestant work ethic, but the value of the written Word of God as the supreme authority in all matters of life. If the multitude of first-world Christians caught in the trap of prosperity religion are to have any hope for their beleaguered souls, it will be found in a return to the authority of Holy Scripture as the final arbiter for all matters of truth. Hope must be found in believing and obeying the God’s Word, inspite of the prevailing circumstances that pressure their lives and the deceptive lies twisting their idea of Jesus.
This is how Jesus overcame Satan, and this is how you and I can prevent Satan from converting the Jesus of our imagination into something that serves his evil purposes.
God wants to you to order your life more like Jesus. Satan, it seems, wants to distort your idea of Jesus, making the Jesus of your imagination more compatible with your carnal life. Will you let him do that?
Which Jesus will you worship?