When Satan accosted Jesus in the wilderness in the moment of his greatest existential weakness, it wasn’t to destroy him. Rather, the tempter knew far more damage could be done to God’s Kingdom if the Messiah could be ‘turned’ and set on a ‘this-worldly’ path. In fact, the Devil was seeking to create a Jesus more compatible, more agreeable, and more advantageous to the self-oriented human nature– a Jesus that would lead humanity on the broad road.
Though the tempter’s devious plan failed, Jesus’ victory should not embolden us to glibly dismiss Satan’s ongoing attack on our conception of Jesus. Satan may have failed in his historical encounter with Jesus Christ, but his quest to convert the Jesus we embrace in our hearts and minds relentlessly assaults our senses.
In the previous instalment, we considered Satan’s attempt to deceive Jesus into putting his material self-interest ahead of God’s will. This time we are looking at Satan’s second attempt, in which he seeks to entice Jesus into independently embracing religious validation while, in the process, testing God’s faithfulness.
Let’s look at it…
‘ 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.'” Matt 4:5-7 (NIV)
At a cursory glance it appears that Satan is tempting Jesus to perform a feat, at least in Satan’s eyes, that the heavenly father could not help intervene. After all, what father could stand by and watch their son die, when they had it within their power to stop it? Let the reader not miss the irony here.
I’m curious however, surely the Devil could have found a cliff in the wilderness on which Jesus could perform this same test of validation? Why take him to the highest point of the temple to perform the test? And why attempt to justify it with Holy Scripture? In essence, why set up this temptation in a powerfully religious frame?
It would appear that Satan is not merely tempting Jesus to test his father’s loyalty, but deliberately structuring the temptation to take place in a deeply evocative setting, the setting especially sacred to Jewish religious life, a location where the Jews came to encounter their God in a most solemn way–the Temple. In the beating heart of Jewish religious life, at the concrete intersection of the divine and human, Satan would seek to , not just test Jesus’ loyalty to the father, but the father’s loyalty to the Son, and, indeed, their joint loyalty to the people they came to save.
This temptation was aimed at forcing the father to preserve his own reputation. Would God simply allow the Savior of the world to fall to his death in the plain sight of those he came to save? Would Father God risk the most crucial aspect of his grand eternal plan as the Cross of Calvary draws ever near? Remember, I am attempting to reason like Satan at this point.
Furthermore, the temptation is cleverly designed at pressuring Jesus to validate his Messianic role in an religiously expedient manner. Think on it, if Jesus could perform this grand miracle in the sight of God’s privileged people and in this most sacred of Jewish settings, then surely all the potential scepticism over his Messianic mantle would evaporate in a moment? Indeed, was it not the apostle Paul who said, ‘Jews demand miraculous signs…’ 1 Cor 1:22 (NIV)
Imagine for a moment as Satan might: ‘Jesus, the last 40 days had been hard. The road ahead for your ministry is going to be just as hard. So why take the narrow hard way, when a short-cut lay right before you? Why not throw yourself off the temple right now, have God miraculously rescue you in plain sight of the religious elite and faithful worshippers? Gain the affirmation of the people instantly, by making it obvious that God’s favor is on your Messianic calling. Jesus you could bypass all the conflicts with the Pharisees, Sadducees, Teachers of the Law and temple affiliated clergy. With this one miraculous act all: scepticism, misunderstanding, rejection and potential failure could be erased.’
And for good measure, Satan validates the whole thing by citing Holy Scripture: ‘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.'” Matt 4:6 (NIV), a quote taken from Psalm 91. The authoritative Word of God is offered up as an alleged foundation for his challenge, adding an extra veneer of authenticity. Of course he conveniently omits the verse following this quote, which sets forth the conditions for God’s deliverance : “Because he loves me,” says the LORD, “I will rescue him; I will protect him, for he acknowledges my name.’ Psalm 91:14
So, there you have it: A miraculous act, in a holy place, validated by God’s word–what possibly could be wrong with that?
Actually, it was quite wrong, and, as before, Jesus’ response was solid and consistent.
Jesus’ first commitment was to the integrity of his relationship with his heavenly father. For Jesus, the ends do not justify the means, if ‘the means’ mean compromising the most important thing: Consistent, obedient, fellowship with God, then they must be rejected. Jesus valued his intimate relationship with God above all else, and no matter how enticing the path to religious self-significance may have seemed, it would not be worth rupturing divine fellowship for.
Moreover, in relying on Holy Scripture as a consistent countermeasure, Jesus was not just broadly committed to the authority of scripture as a doctrinal maxim. He had a sound, thorough knowledge of God’s Word, such that when a false idea was offered up from Scripture (as in this case), he could quickly and easily identify if it was truthful or not. When Satan applied Scripture out of context, the Lord readily countered with a text of Scripture more relevant to the issue at hand. Jesus didn’t just know what the Holy Scriptures said, he understood their interrelationship, he actually knew what they meant!
Finally, Jesus believed God’s ‘way’, as hard and impossible as it seemed, was always best. Satan’s suggestion of the ‘Temple miracle’ might have offered an expedient solution, but Jesus knew that any religious action misaligned from God’s will was futile. In fact, Jesus teaches as much just a few chapters on, ‘ Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. Many will say to me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and in your name drive out demons and perform many miracles?’ Then I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!’ Matt 7:21-23 (NIV)
Satan was aiming to re-create a Jesus founded on religious self-promotion, a Messiah who would act impetuously and independently of the Father’s will to accomplish some grand religious goal. Jesus did’t buy into it for a minute, he saw it for what it really was– spiritual self-destruction.
Now we come to the challenging application for our lives, and it is challenging!
How often has Satan, metaphorically speaking, placed servants of Christ atop the lofty temple, put his arm around them and offered a tempting solution to their ministry dreams?
Can you hear the tempters words in the ear of the religious dreamer: ‘ Just take a leap of faith in the sight of God’s people, God’s won’t let you fall, in fact when Jesus followers witness your miraculous provision they will be convinced this is God’s work, and from this point any method that makes the ministry more effective and efficient will not matter, it will only seek to validate what was confirmed in that ‘leap of faith’.’ Of course the tempter will bring to mind numerous scriptures to validate the cause. Sadly, what looks like trusting God is actually testing him. I wonder, how many missionary endeavours, ministry programs, building projects, academic works, and music ministries have been founded on this deceptive premise?
Of course, what was not clearly discerned in this, is the underlying premise of the religious dreamer–self-glory. This temptation only works if you look at it through self-oriented, self-promoting lenses. ‘Just select a ministry that you are comfortable with, that gives you the most benefits, expect God to bless it and he will!’ Sadly, more often than not, these underlying malignant motives are not able to be identified because the hapless dreamer has fallen for a Jesus of religious self-promotion; the one that Satan tried to create 2000 years ago and failed; but has now successfully created in the dreamer’s imagination–a counterfeit Christ that approves of counterfeit ministries.
By the way, in case you are wondering. Apparent success is not a validation of God’s approval. The size of the auditorium, the size of the growing congregation, the amount of record sales, and the glowing reviews may prove nothing more than the deception has been successful through to the end. Even cancer grows successfully and the most vigorous plants are thorns! Do you recall the Matthew 7 verse I quoted a few paragraphs ago? Those who said, ‘Lord, Lord’, had successful ministries too. But what is the Lord’s response? ‘I never knew you, away from me , you evildoers.’
Yes, Jesus’ ministry was successful. But success, in terms of Jesus’ kingdom, is not measured by this-worldly metrics: number of adherents, size of buildings, number of book sales, number of likes on Facebook etc. The success the Lord validates, is measured in terms of true moral fruitfulness: Loving obedience to the Father’s will and a reverence for His name, genuine care for the needs of the Saints, a counter cultural love for enemies, charitable works done anonymously, consistency in following Jesus’ commands in the face of withering persecution, becoming last that you might allow God to put you first, walking in humility that God might receive the glory etc. This kind of success only comes by following the pathway of self-denial, not self-promotion–by walking in the ways of the real Jesus.
Only God’s work, done God’s way, finds God’s approval; and such an approval might only come to light on the last day, when the servant of Christ hears those blessed words, ‘ Well done, good and faithful servant.’
So as you look to the opportunities before you, desiring to serve God, please do so with the mindset and methods of Jesus Christ: ‘ On reaching the place, he said to them, “Pray that you will not fall into temptation.” He withdrew about a stone’s throw beyond them, knelt down and prayed, “Father, if you are willing, take this cup from me; yet not my will, but yours be done.” Luke 22:40-42 (NIV)