I’ve been reflecting lately on the temptations of Jesus in Matthew 4. The temptation that grabs my attention right now is when the tempter takes Jesus to the highest point of the temple – the center of religious and spiritual life in Jesus’ day — and challenges him to jump off and let God’s angels catch him.
The devil even quotes Scripture to Jesus, from Psalm 91, about how God commands his angels to keep his chosen one from dashing his foot on a stone. Temptations wouldn’t be so significant if they didn’t sound good; if there wasn’t a dash of truth thrown in there. One of the lines in Ben Rector’s song “If You Can Hear Me” says: “Sometimes the devil sounds a lot like Jesus.”
The heart of this temptation for Jesus seems to be the invitation to prove himself. To show, in the middle of the crowds at the temple grounds, that he is someone special. To start his ministry off with a spectacular, miraculous bang. Who wouldn’t respect Jesus and listen to him if they saw angels rescue him in mid-air as he launched himself off the top of the temple?
The devil, in fact, roots this temptation in Jesus’ identity: “If you are the Son of God…” then prove it! Prove that God’s favor and power are at your disposal. Then you’ll have everyone’s favor and approval as well.
Jesus responds by alluding to a story of Israel in the wilderness. He quotes Deuteronomy 6:16: “Do not put the Lord your God to the test.” The rest of the verse says, “…as you did at Massah.” Massah means “to test” and was the name of the place where Israel tested God by complaining to Moses about dying of thirst. “God are you with us or not?” Israel questioned. “Then prove yourself and give us some water!” So God told Moses to hit a rock and water flowed out to provide for the people. But Moses is clearly not happy with Israel — he named the place Massah because they tested God. They used God to get what they thought they needed rather than trusting God to provide for them.
Jesus’ temptation seems to have a vertical dimension (to God); and a horizontal dimension (to others). It is the temptation to use God (vertical) to gain the approval of others (horizontal) rather than trusting in God’s approval and provision and timing. It all revolves around identity – who Jesus is, and posture with which he lives out of that identity. Will he trust God, or will he take things into his own hands?
The import of this temptation story is that Jesus resists temptation where Israel failed; Jesus resists temptation where we fail to resist. The good news of the kingdom of God is that the One who is greater than the one in the world lives within us – the one who resisted the temptation to use God to gain the approval of others.
This weekend I watched as one of our Storyline babies rested in the crossed legs of his spiritual aunt. He was laying on his back, taking in the world, not a care or a worry in his mind; just relaxing in joy and peace. The Matthew 4 story came to my mind in that moment, and I realized this was a beautiful picture from God of resting in the affection and identity that God gives us.
Mother Teresa was known to have said one sentence over and over in her ministry. It expresses a heart at rest in God’s affection and fatherhood: “We were not created to be successful but to be obedient.”
When we’re sure of who we are, and of God’s great love for us, we are empowered to live our lives in peace and joy, without the compulsion to use God so that other people will approve of us.
What grabs your attention in this temptation story? What do you see beyond what I’m mentioning here?