Thursday, March 17, 2011

The Temptations of Christ

Editor's note:  I wanted to include this lent series during the actual lent season, so we will finish the last two fruit of the Spirit messages following the Easter season. 

Lent #1 2004

What is your strategy for dealing with bullies?  Sometimes all you need to do is call their bluff.  And then there are those times when they're not bluffing.  They really are bigger, meaner, and nastier than anyone else you've ever met.  For example, there's the devil.

What do you believe about the devil?  What is your understanding of spiritual battle?  When you go to battle what's your preferred way to start?  Hitler liked to start with overwhelming force and speed (blitzkrieg).  It worked well against a Polish army equipped with horses but bogged down once it became a fair fight.  Some generals start by probing the enemy for weak points that they think they might exploit.  The devil used this method.

Read Luke 4:1-13.

Luke reports that God, through the Holy Spirit, is the one who arranged for this time of testing.  It will be important to remember this was God's idea.  It was His plan for Jesus to face up to the challenges of being the world's redeemer.  Jesus must decide His strategy- determine how He will work with the Father.  Will He win men by power or sacrifice?

Jesus knows that He has been equipped to be the Messiah.  The Bible tells us that Jesus laid aside His privileges of divinity.  He fought the devil as a man.  But God has equipped men with gifts before: Moses, Elijah, Elisha, Joseph, and Daniel all had extraordinary power and wisdom.  It would not be unfair for Jesus to be gifted with spiritual gifts for His ministry as Messiah, and still fight the spiritual battle of the ages as a man.

But how would He use those gifts?  The devil knew a few things, too.  He is not omniscient, but he knew Jesus could turn stones to bread.  He has never tempted me to do that.

This narrative is set on a very barren stage.  There are only two characters present.  The Savior and the devil and a few rocks and wild animals.  The devil has an agenda.  Do you need three guesses?

His whole strategy focuses on one purpose- to ruin Jesus' capacity to be the world's redeemer.  Each temptation is a challenge to Jesus' loyalty to His Father's plan.  The only plan that will work.

The first temptation is cunning, devious, and shrewd.  After 40 days without food, not to mention exhausted from His spiritual struggles, Jesus is literally starving.  Esau sold his soul for a cup of soup, and he wasn't as hungry as Jesus.  A committed Russian revolutionary who couldn't stand the pain of nicotine withdrawal after his capture spilled his guts for a cigarette- leading to the death of many of his comrades.  We don't take physical cravings lightly!

Jesus begins to struggle with the issue of feeling good or being good.  Remember, Luke tells us the Holy Spirit led Jesus to this barren place.  In Deuteronomy Moses reminds Israel that God led them to the wilderness so that He could mold them into the family of God (8:2).

First lesson for Israel:  When God gives directions, they must be followed, even if obedience causes a shortage of food and water.  God's command will contain His provisions for His people.  Based on this principle, Moses told them "Man does not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord" (8:3).

Jesus used this principle for His own wilderness test.  Remember He was led here.  Notice He didn't say, "Man does not live on bread period."  Food is needed.  For an animal without a soul it might be all that is needed, but for people created in the image of God, nourishment for the soul is even more important than food.  For people who like to eat and enjoy eating at every given opportunity, this might sound a bit idealistic!  But soul concerns must outweigh physical concerns every time and we can only nurish our soul through acts of obedience.

The temptation for Jesus is to act as if His desires are more important than God's will.  Desires are king today.  It is presumed that if you love a person, you will naturally approve of their desires- so long as they're not illegal. Just think of how many times you've heard someone say, "If you loved me, you would do what I want."  On any Biblical (or sane) view, to love someone means to favor what is good for them, and then be prepared to help them toward that good.  Even if it means disapproving of their desires.

God knows our good better than we do.  Jesus understood that at the right time, the Father would provide for His needs.  To prematurely "leave the wilderness" when the Holy Spirit hadn't led Him would be to not trust the Father.  It would be to walk away from the nourishment of God.

By contrast to the first temptation, the second is not so subtle.  Certainly the devil has something to offer that resonates with Jesus.  What it lacks for in cunning it makes up for in its attractive packaging.  Satan tries to sell Jesus "the easy way to power."  Jesus could set up a world government that would beat the Pax Roma all to smithereens.  The devil is offering Jesus, in Tolkein's metaphor, "the ring of power," that source-of-power-that-must-be-destroyed!

Jesus did not agree that the devil could legally lay claim to the kingdoms of the world.  Neither did He argue with him.  In fact, the Bible does refer to Satan as the god of this age and the prince of this world.

In exchange for allegiance to Satan, Jesus could avoid the agony of Gethsemane, the rejection of His people and the torture of the cross.  But the bill would come due.  For a few comfortable years we could enjoy a level of prosperity, but then there would be Hell to pay.  Of course people make that compromise every day.  But Jesus would not make it for us.  Instead He would build a bridge over the abyss and invite us all to join Him in an eternal kingdom.  It will be your choice.

The third temptation is perhaps the one that resonates the most with us garden variety people.  None of us will turn stones to bread.  The devil may offer the world to you, but most of us know that as soon as you sign up for it- all you'll get is demonic belly laughs.

But this idea of Jesus doing miracles to prop up our faith sounds pretty good.  Satan is suggesting that Jesus use miracles to compel faith.  The Israelites tried this with God.  They were thinking that God had forgotten about their need for water.  They were ready to lynch Moses and head back to Egypt, but first they worked out a deal, "If God will perform a miracle (provide water) we will hang around a little longer" (Exodus 17).

This sounds like bartering faith for a miracle.  "I'll give you some faith- if you'll give me a satisfying demonstration of your divinity."  It also sounds something like blackmail.  In Deuteronomy 6 Moses warned them very sternly to never again test the Lord.  He reminded them of the horrible consequences of that kind of behavior.  They may have gotten water, but they also had to live with weak faith that turned them away from the Promised Land.

If you are measuring the quality of your spiritual life by the intensity of your spiritual ecstasies, you are using the wrong yard stick.  Your faith is worthless without a miracle.  It is unbelief masquerading as extraordinary faith.

The power of God is very real.  But it is not a computer program that you can turn on to solve your problems or your boredom.  The blessing of God comes with a spirit of humble obedience.  Faith is something you have before miracles.  Most saints go years or a lifetime without an ecstatic presence of God's Spirit.  Of course some people would rather have the experience than the Spirit.

At the beginning of His ministry Jesus chose the way of sacrifice.  The way of the cross.  His choice was our only hope.  This encounter at the beginning of His ministry is a significant event on the long road to the passion.  These were Jesus temptations.  We can learn a few things for ourselves from this account- such as temptation is not irresistible.  Jesus can help us overcome the devil, too.  We are not doomed every time he shows up.  We also see that an important weapon in this battle is the word of God.

But this is a story about Jesus, not us.

This battle with Satan does more to reveal Jesus commitment to our salvation and His love for the Father than the feeding of the 5,000, curing blindness, or raising the dead.

Our response, should be worship- awe.  We are viewing the first taste of the passion of the Messiah.  For you, and even me, Jesus chose  the way of Sarifice because it was the only way to save us from eternal lost-ness.

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