Wednesday, October 3, 2012

I Would Only Follow a God Who Was Tempted

I always imagined the devil as a really pale white guy with a black robe and black hair and a pointy black goatee. Now I realize that's because of this illustration in a little-kid bible I used to read:

Source: Early Reader's Bible, 1991.

Some very exciting news today: This bible story (Matthew 4:1-11) is available in the form of a rage comic! Many thanks to An Average Jane for making this. I laughed so much. Go check it out. Anyway, here are my thoughts:

Matthew 4:2 "After fasting forty days and forty nights, he was hungry."

Captain Obvious's favorite bible verse. Image source
But seriously, is that even possible? Fasting for 40 days? Okay, it's October 3- that would be like if I hadn't eaten since August 24. Raise your hand if you even remember what you were doing on August 24. Yeah, me neither.

Yes, it is possible. Apparently the average person can go maybe 8 weeks without food. Hunger strikes (many of them lasting over 50 days) have been used as a form of protest- Gandhi did this.

In this story, satan is talking to Jesus- is that even real?

Whenever I've read this story, I always imagined satan (to whom I give the middle finger of grammar) as a person, talking to Jesus, who's a person. I never even thought to question it.

The devil can't be a person. God became man, and that was a super huge big deal- one of the most powerful and amazing events in the history of the world. I don't think the devil can become a human too. He's not God.

So, there are 2 possibilities for what's going on here:
  1. The devil appears to Jesus in the same sort of way angels sometimes appeared in the bible.
  2. It's all in Jesus' head.
For option #1, okay, that makes sense- the devil is technically an angel. (Not sure if the bible explicitly says this or not, but it's what I've always heard.) In the bible, whenever an angel showed up, it was very obvious that it was an angel and not a human- and everyone was terrified of them. (For obvious reasons. I'd be super-freaked-out if an angel turned up in my apartment.)

Dude, I was about to put in an image of a weeping angel from Doctor Who, but I got too freaked out just looking at the thumbnails. Instead, have a care bear. Image source.

But I actually lean toward option #2- it was all in Jesus' head. This makes sense because, in my experience, temptation does not come from some glowing scary guy standing next to me, offering bad advice- no, temptation comes from my own mind.

And for the parts where satan takes Jesus to the highest point of the temple, and then takes him to the top of a mountain- I really think it makes more sense to interpret this as a vision that Jesus had, rather than actually physically going to those places. Because how would they get there? Walk? If it takes an hour to walk there, do you think they made small talk along the way? Did satan pick Jesus up and carry him there? I don't think Jesus would submit to that.

Why would Jesus put up with this? Aren't we supposed to flee from temptation? But if it's in his head, he can't escape. And isn't that the way temptation is? It's in my head- it's not some external influence I can just remove from my life.

Hold on perfectnumber, I don't think you're allowed to say this. Are you saying this wasn't real? No. The temptation that Jesus experienced was definitely real. Are you saying the bible isn't true? No. I definitely believe the bible- I'm just trying to figure out what Matthew meant here, based on what else I know about God and temptation and what makes sense.

All right so let's look at the 3 things satan asked Jesus to do:

"If you are the Son of God, tell these stones to become bread."

satan challenged Jesus to prove his Son-of-God status. Wow, that's pretty insulting- but Jesus didn't take the bait. He knew it would be wrong to turn the stones into bread, even though he could totally do it.

"I'll turn this one into a coffee cake." Image source.

Why is it wrong? Look at Jesus' response. He quotes Deuteronomy 8:3 "Man does not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God." Listening to God was more important than Jesus' physical needs. He had already made a commitment to fasting in order to focus on God the Father.

What would this temptation look like for the average American Christian nowadays? It would be breaking a commitment you've made to God. It would be me realizing I need to pray more, and then spending all my free time reading blogs on teh intarwebz instead.

Some things are more important than blogs and Facebook and whatever other silly things I spend time on. Some things are right up there with physical needs. Christians NEED prayer. Christians NEED the word of God. Jesus needed it too.

The devil quotes Scripture too.

Next, satan takes Jesus to the highest point of the temple (I would argue that this is in a vision) and tells him to jump off, because God will keep you safe. satan quotes Psalm 91:11-12 "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."

In other words, "You can fly!" Image source.

All 3 times satan makes a dumb suggestion, Jesus replies by quoting the bible. But satan can quote the bible too, as we see here. That's why it's so freakin' important to understand CONTEXT and what the author was trying to say, instead of just taking one verse and declaring "the bible is clear on this." satan's interpretation of this verse is WRONG!

satan is basically telling Jesus to do something stupid and then trust God to save him.

"Being brave doesn't mean you go looking for trouble." Mufasa's words of wisdom. Image source.
This doesn't really seem like a "temptation" to me- it seems more like an incorrect understanding of what faith is. See, Jesus, if you just had more FAITH, you'd jump off. Don't you believe the promise God made in Psalm 91?

And Jesus' answer? He quotes Deuteronomy 6:16 "Do not put the Lord your God to the test." In other words, yeah, maybe God would rescue him if he jumped off. But why even do that? Force God to step in and rescue you because you did something stupid. That's not right.

This reminds me of weird, extreme groups within Christianity who pick up snakes because of that one verse that says you can pick up snakes, or who don't believe in medicine because you should just pray for God to heal you. Again, it's not exactly a "temptation"- it's an incorrect understanding of faith and how God works.

And what about in my own life? What would be an example of doing something stupid and expecting God to support me? If I rushed into another culture, thinking I'm going to bring them the gospel and save them from their stupid, backwards ways- and that of course God would help me. No, that's not how it works. Whether I'm talking to other Americans who don't belong to the internet-geek subculture that I do, or people on the other side of the world, I need to listen and understand them first, instead of just thinking I have all the answers.

As I already said, this one seems weird to me because it's not really a "temptation." I understand "temptation" to be something that you really want to do, but you know you shouldn't, and you try to convince yourself it's really not so bad. But for the "jump off a building and God will save you" case, it's something you DON'T want to do, but your common-sense refusal is taken as a sign that you lack faith. Or maybe you didn't have a "common-sense refusal"- you rushed into something that's way over your head because you genuinely thought God was into that kind of thing. It's a mistake that comes from an incorrect belief about how God works. It's not something "you know you shouldn't do".

Next, the devil asks Jesus to worship him.

Then they go to a mountain and look at "all the kingdoms of the world." This is why I think it was a vision, not real life- where are you going to find a mountain with a view of "all the kingdoms of the world" (or even the kingdoms known to them at that time)? And Jesus had been fasting for 40 days- I'd imagine he's not up for climbing a mountain right now.

satan says, "All this I will give you, if you will bow down and worship me." FYI if this ever comes up in your life, the correct answer is DO NOT worship satan.

What exactly is the temptation here? Jesus was about to start his ministry- which would be characterized by suffering and serving, and eventually getting killed. Wouldn't it be much easier to not do that? He could just get power over the world by worshiping satan (although I have some doubt as to whether satan would keep his end of the deal).

Wait, why doesn't Jesus just fake it? He can bow down- it doesn't really mean anything, whatever. No- honor and shame were a big deal in that culture- it DID mean something.

How does this temptation come up in my life? Sometimes there's an "easy way out". Doing the right thing is hard. But if cutting corners involves doing something I know is wrong, then that's not okay.

The devil finally leaves.

Jesus says "Away from me, satan!" Why didn't he say this earlier? I thought Christians are supposed to avoid situations where there could be temptation. Why doesn't Jesus get serious about kicking him out until the 3rd temptation?

It's almost like Jesus knew his own limits and weaknesses and was confident that he had the situation under control- no need for some huge reaction. Until the idea of worshiping satan comes up- he didn't tolerate that at all.

But I thought Christians are supposed to flee from temptation. As in, at the slightest hint, you GTFO (err... you get out of there). Because you never know what you're capable of. Am I wrong about this, or is Jesus special and doesn't need to be so jumpy and fearful about it?

Or, if it was all in his head, maybe there was no way for him to escape, until the devil gave up.

It's inaccurate to refer to this as "the temptation of Jesus".

Whenever I hear someone make a reference to the fact that Jesus experienced temptation like we do, I think of this story. But that's not right- Jesus lived on earth for 33 years- surely he faced A LOT more temptation than just these 3 explicit suggestions from satan.

Was Jesus *actually* tempted?

There are 2 parts involved in temptation:
  1. You get some idea of a bad thing to do.
  2. You start to think about it and reason with yourself, thinking maybe you might actually do it.
In this passage, was Jesus at step 1 or step 2? Was he thinking that anything satan says is automatically a bad idea, so just reject it right away, or was he thinking, "ya know, I could make those stones into bread. Wow, that would be really tasty. I could really go for some cinnamon-raisin bread right now. That would actually be pretty cool- it would be like a practice miracle. Yeah... wow, that sounds really delicious..."

There is a HUGE difference. It's so much harder to reject something after you've already imagined what it would be like and made a plan for how to do it.

This really matters to me. What kind of God do I follow? Does my Lord know what that's like- to want something, to really want something, to reason with yourself about whether it's okay, and come to the conclusion that no, no, you absolutely can't do it, no matter how awesome it seems?

Does he know? Does he know? Does Jesus understand?

I need a God who understands. Who knows that there's more to it than "well, that's wrong, don't do it. Duh."

Hebrews 2:18 says, "Because he himself suffered when he was tempted, he is able to help those who are being tempted."

And I believe that's the God I have. My Savior did want to eat those stones. He was slightly offended at the whole "if you are the Son of God" bit. And maybe for a second, he wondered if he could get away with not doing the whole "suffering servant" thing.

Later, Matthew writes about Jesus' power to heal diseases and control the weather. But first we see his power over his own mind, his own desires- and it is this power more than anything else which qualifies him to be the Savior.


This post is part of a series on the gospel of Matthew.

Previous post: John the Baptist was Kind of Obsessed with Fire (Matthew 3)

Next post: In which Jesus actually starts doing stuff (Matthew 4:12-25)

Click here to go to the beginning of the series.


  1. Love your point that the devil takes Scripture out of context and uses it to try to pressure Jesus into doing something. That's definitely something people do even today.

  2. Yep. I was especially surprised to find that in a passage about temptation.

  3. Just wanted you to know I have recommended this piece for October's Biblical Studies Carnival, hosted this month by Bible Literature Translation.