In parts 1 and 2, we have looked at the three temptations presented to Jesus, by the devil in the wilderness. The first two temptations related to the gaining and use of power and challenged Jesus to prove the validity of His identity as the Son of God. The third pressed Jesus to yield his position of submission to the purpose and cause of Father God and worship the devil. The prize was luxury unbounded and all the glory that this world can offer. Jesus resisted the lure of all three temptations, submitted Himself again to the purpose and cause of Father God and rejected the devil and his wiles. All this stands as a sign to us to resist the devil’s temptations in like manner and submit our lives afresh to love God and serve His purpose and cause.
As we noted in the first part, the story is familiar to us, yet holds different levels of understanding, some plain and straight forward, others more complex. We now focus on the more complex theological issue – the meaning of the temptations for Jesus Himself. The event itself has both earthly and heavenly aspects. It involves the leading of the Holy Spirit at the beginning of the story and the ministry of the angels at the end. The event deals at one level with Jesus’ humanity – he had fasted for 40 days and nights and was hungry – and at another level His divinity – “If you are the Son of God?” the devil taunted. Who was being tested, the human Jesus or the divine Son? Were the temptations real, not only for the human Jesus, but also for the divine Son of God? The early church, leading into the 3rd and 4th century, learnt that you could not divide the two – Jesus was fully human and fully God. Whenever you tried separating the two you ran into some very difficult problems. Therefore, as the Holy Spirit specifically led Jesus into the desert with the purpose to be tempted or tested by the devil, it was to test both the fully human and fully divine Jesus.
The question then arises – were the temptations real, for the fully human and fully divine Jesus? Could Jesus have failed the test or yielded to the temptations? Was He really tempted as we are, yet without sin, which the Letter to the Hebrews claims (Hebrews 4:15)? We know He passed the test and was sinless, but could he have failed, as we do? What was at stake here? Could the eternal Godhead, represented here by the incarnate Son of God (incarnate meaning God in human form) have sinned? Moreover, if He did fail what would it mean for the nature of the living God – who is by definition without sin? God can do no wrong, as James tells us (James 1:13-14)? OK then, this leaves us in quite a quandary.
Two answers possibly remove the quandary. One, proposed by those who refuse to acknowledge the supernatural aspects of the gospels, notes that such stories were invented by the early church to promote Jesus as a “Christ figure”. That is, the devil is not real and the temptations never happened. In that case, the gospel writers were just guilty of sloppy theology and propaganda. However, my reading of the gospels suggests that the writers were a lot more honest and shrewd than such a position credits them. The second is that they were not really temptations, as we know them. What the Holy Spirit was doing, in leading Jesus into the wilderness, was for Him to have an all out brawl (via words) with the devil. The event left neither of them the victor and both a little bruised after the first ordeal (the reason why the angels came to minister to Jesus). Luke’s version of the story tells us that the devil left Him to come back again on another occasion (Luke 4:13). There was therefore no real risk to Jesus or God. That sounds better, doesn’t it?
However, I am not sure that the Greek word translated “tempted” or the one that identifies the devil as the “tempter” lets us off that easy. Temptations they seemed to be, and the devil was there to enforce them. Therefore, our quandary stands! How is it resolved? That is not easy to say, except that I prefer the quandary than the other two options noted above. The reason why is: it means that God put Himself at risk for us. Not only did “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life”, but in that very giving, the Godhead – the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit – put themselves at risk for us. They did this out of the incredible love they have for us. The temptations make this really, really clear – God Loves You – and every other person on this planet. I am not sure how we resolve the complex theological questions raised by the temptation story, except to understand the enormity of His love for us! Every time you doubt that He cares, every time you think so little of yourself, remember this – you were worth the risk. So why don’t you take the risk also – receive His love, let Him transform your life and join His cause to bring every person on this planet into His Kingdom where there is life forever more!