The First Temptation of Christ

He was tempted in every way, explains the author of the Epistle to the Hebrews.  There is no temptation in our experience that Christ cannot understand, firsthand.

Other parts of Scripture, however, turn our attention to some particularly dramatic and key temptations in the life of Christ.

The filmmaker Scorsese brought to life a controversial “what-if” depiction of Christ’s last temptation. What temptations existed before that point, however? What was the first? As far as Scripture is concerned, Christ’s most dramatic, early, temptation at the beginning of his ministry was his confrontation with Satan in the wilderness. Satan tempts Jesus by calling upon Jesus to use His divine power and prerogative to save Himself, to gain glory and security for Himself; instead of the path of suffering and servanthood that Christ was called to take.

Satan’s final temptation for Christ is the most grandiose:

 “Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor. “All this I will give you,” he said, “if you will bow down and worship me.” -Matthew 4:8-9

This narrative is rife with political overtones.

In a very real way, Jesus’ first and perhaps his most profound temptation was a political temptation.

Christ was offered authority over all the Kingdoms of the world. He was offered a straight and easy path into the promise of the Messiah. The One who would come from God and be declared Lord of Lords, to Whom the nations would stream. Nearly every Old Testament prophet spoke of this glory. Jesus knew this was His identity, why not simply take it for Himself, the easy and self-celebrating way, not the way of suffering, service, and humility. The way of a King, not the way of a criminal. The way of a successful and self-made businessman, not that of an abused blue-collar worker. The way of someone identified as one of the “unruly” and “thug” masses of poor and angry peasants.

It was a temptation all throughout his career. It was a temptation that surrounded him and pressed in upon him, and infected his closest friends.

1st century Palestine was bursting with revolutionary fervor. Many followed Jesus in hopes that he was the promised Che Guevera of Palestine’s liberation, or a George Washington to release them from the Empire’s taxing clutches. Judas, a Zealot, probably attached himself to Christ for these reasons, and got fed up that Christ wasn’t strong enough. Wasn’t bold enough.  Even the other disciples kept their swords handy, waiting for a plan of attack and the right moment that would be chosen by their fearless hero. They all scattered when Christ was arrested.

They had been ready to take life, but not to give up their own.

There are hints in the Gospels that the crowds around Jesus were hoping, even pushing and cajoling, him into becoming their military King. The crowds who welcomed him into Jerusalem sang the chants that had been sung by an earlier violent revolutionary. This was it. 

The path of power, of dominance, of violence. Of killing the unorthodox and wily Samaritans, blowing up the military outposts of the occupying forces. These were all open to Christ. The culture around him was ripe for it.

But Christ knew that the temptation from Satan, the temptation of the Enemy, underlie all these possibilities. That is why Jesus rebukes, “get behind me Satan!” when Peter echoes Satan’s earlier temptations, suggesting Christ not take the path of death and sacrifice.

You see, Satan feared a powerless God. The darkness could not understand the Light (John 1). Powerlessness was not in Satan’s vocabulary, not something in his arsenal. Self-sacrifice for an enemy was that “deeper magic,” that Satan could not comprehend. And it was Satan’s obsession with violence and power, when met by the love of God in Christ, that was ultimately his undoing. The sacrificial death of the powerful, destroyed the power of Death.

Christ’s mind was one devoted to the renunciation of His power and privilege. And this powerlessness was to his glory:

…Rather, he made himself nothing
    by taking the very nature of a servant,
    being made in human likeness.
And being found in appearance as a man,
    he humbled himself
    by becoming obedient to death—
        even death on a cross!

Therefore God exalted him to the highest place
    and gave him the name that is above every name,

-Philippians 2:7-9

Have this same mind, Paul commands.

In a political season, there is much rallying around the banners of power. Much talk of destroying the bad guys. Rounding up the enemies. Or, as one campaign has bombarded us with, the idea of “greatness.” These political aspirations are tempting values to grasp onto. They appeal to our practicality, and to our love of safety. They appeal to our pride and our individual-centrism, me first. To be sure, the political values of security, strength, power, are important political considerations for a just and peaceful society. As drawn as I am, and as much as I believe Scripture attests, to the supremacy of non-violence, there is still something of a realist inside of me.

I do wish, however, some other values became part of our political discourse as well. Restoration, reconciliation, restitution, mercy. These are important Biblical values which support peace and justice.

I must acknowledge that I often hide behind ‘justice’ and ‘peace,’ to account for what are really much more base longings. It is often a cover for my desire for self-preservation above the others who I perceive to be less-important than myself, less deserving than myself because of their real, or perceived, sins or failures. “Peace” and “justice” are excuses that cover up for my fears and prejudices and my thirst for power.

At the very least, I am forced to acknowledge that patriotic values of power and greatness should always, vigilantly, be held in tension with and indeed subordinate to the powerlessness of the path of Christ, the path that steers far away from the temptation to power and dominance.

Johannes Metz gives what may be the most poignant exposition on the passage of Christ’s temptation that I have ever read. And it is with this passage that I conclude:

“Satan, however, tries to obstruct this self-renunciation, this thoroughgoing ‘poverty.’ Satan wants to make Jesus strong, for what the devil really fears is the powerlessness of God in the humanity Christ has assumed. Satan fears the trojan horse of an open human heart that will remain true. . . . Satan’s temptation is an assault on God’s self-renunciation, an enticement to strength, security, and spiritual abundance; for these things will obstruct God’s saving approach to humanity in the dark robes of frailty and weakness.” -Johannes Metz, Poverty of Spirit. 





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