The Old Testament tells of a few times God “appeared” to humans. For instance, God appeared to Abraham (Gen 18:1–2), wrestled with Jacob (32:24–30), and went before Israel in a column of fire and cloud (Ex 13:21). One “like a son of the gods” walked in the fire with Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego (Dan 3:25). The Old Testament also has a number of appearances of the “Angel of the Lord”. Hagar acknowledged that the Angel was the “God who sees [her]” (Gen 16:7–14), and when Abraham was about to sacrifice Isaac, he was stopped by the Angel, who said that He knew then that Abraham feared God because he had not withheld his son from the Angel (22:12). Jacob had a number of encounters in dreams and identified the Angel as “the Angel who [had] redeemed [him] from all evil (48:15–16). The Angel appeared in burning bush (Ex 3:2) and the Lord God commanded that Moses worshipfully remove his footwear (v.4). While the Old Testament recounts that other angels counselled people that they should not offer them worship, the Angel of the Lord accepts Joshua’s worship (Josh 5:13–15).
While Hindu and Greek mythologies describe all appearances of the gods as incarnations, Christians insist that the appearances were not incarnations—that the Incarnation took place just once. The other appearances were epiphanies or theophanies. Is it because they were momentary and didn’t last a lifetime that we make this distinction?
Temptations are in a sense the ultimate point of reference or gauge for measuring humanness. Hunger, thirst, weariness are experiences we share with the animal world. Spirituality and morality are what sets us apart from all other creatures, and temptations are a way of testing and measuring them.
The Sympathetic One
Reflecting on what occurred in the Incarnation, the writer of Hebrew used a Greek word indicating that we do not have a high priest who cannot “sympathise” with our weaknesses (Heb 4:15, ESV, HCSB, NRSV, NASU). I rather like the KJV’s word “touched”. It’s a bit more graphic. Jesus was touched by our lives and He touched us. That’s the truth—and it’s worth clinging on to that. As Eugene Peterson put it, “We don’t have a priest who is out of touch with our reality. He’s been through weakness and testing, experienced it all—all but the sin. So let’s walk right up to him and get what he is so ready to give. Take the mercy, accept the help” (MSG).
All of the theophanies are of God in His almightiness. There’s nothing of weakness in any of the appearances. Hebrews drawing attention to this aspect of Jesus being touched by infirmities or sympathising with our weaknesses, zeroes in on Christ Jesus being tempted just like humans but without sinning.
Since there was only Jesus, the Holy Spirit and the tempter present at the temptations of Christ, how did anyone know about this spiritual experience? The details of His birth, infancy and boyhood, Matthew and Luke could have got from Mary who stored them in her memory (Lk 2:19). But the temptations were different. There were no human witnesses.
Some theologians such as Frederick Dale Bruner suggest that this information came to the apostles through revelation and spiritual insight. Personally, I find that hard to believe. It makes more sense to conclude that Jesus Himself recounted to His disciples about His spiritual struggles and temptations, and how He overcame them. It is not a piece of theology, but a historical account of an incident, which is why, except for a different order, both Matthew and Luke recount the incident with sameness suggestive of recording what was told by the proponent Himself (Matt 4:1–11; Lk 4:1–13). A statement of theological insight from men of differing cultural backgrounds, on the other hand, would have reflected their differences.
Temptations are in a sense the ultimate point of reference or gauge for measuring humanness. Hunger, thirst, weariness are experiences we share with the animal world. Spirituality and morality are what sets us apart from all other creatures, and temptations are a way of testing and measuring them. Thus, in the temptations of Christ we see the extent or depth of His humanity. It was not skin-deep. It touched His human soul deep down.
A closer look at the temptations show that Jesus was indeed tempted in the very areas we humans are tempted. The first temptation targeted His human appetites or His sensual life.
After 40 days of fasting, as a normal human being, Jesus was ravenously hungry and craved food. The devil focussed on our Lord’s point of weakness at the time. Isn’t that exactly how we find ourselves vulnerable to temptation? Though that is so, we have this assurance from Scripture that God will not allow us to be tempted above our strength, and not only that, He provides us a “way of escape” (1 Cor 10:13).
Paul talked of “temptations common to man”. According to Luke, there were other seasons of temptation in the life of Christ Jesus (Lk 4:13). There is a veil drawn over other episodes of temptation that Jesus faced, but He must have faced “temptations common to man”. We are shown only what is sufficient for us to know to learn from Jesus how to handle and overcome temptations. What is hidden from us is not to be a subject for speculation and inference. Invasion of privacy is never right.
The Selfishness of Doubt
The thrust of the first temptation was to make Jesus doubt His identity: “If you are the Son of God, why are you continuing in deprivation? If you are the Son of God, why aren’t you using your divine powers to take care of yourself?” Forty days earlier, Jesus had heard the Father affirm that He was His beloved Son (Matt 3:17). The devil poses the question, “How can you be sure? Here you are, hungry and abandoned. How can you be His beloved when you are not being cared for?”
No temptation is complete without suggesting a course of action that would bring satisfaction, and so the devil told Jesus to take matters into His hands and exploit His powers to take care of His need. Doesn’t it seem reasonable? It’s a need and you have the power to take care of the need without hurting anyone else. The temptation to exploit our positions and powers selfishly comes to all of us. We do think that what we have is ours and it is all for ourselves. What’s so wrong with that?
Jesus countered this temptation by harking back to the Word of God. He didn’t debate matters with Satan. He didn’t try to convince the devil that it wasn’t like he thought it was. Jesus gave the devil no room for continuing that line of argument. Jesus entertained no doubts about His relationship with God. And so, Jesus said, that God had put it in writing that “humankind does not live by bread alone”.
Jesus does not say that people do not need bread at all. Of course, we need food to sustain life on the earthly plane. However, all the food in the world cannot keep a person alive, if his soul and body do not hear the divine command to go on living.
Jesus told the devil that He was not going to die because He knew that God had declared it in writing that He would go on living, even though He didn’t have bread to eat immediately.
The promises of God are not to be taken out of their context—the totality of Scripture. All God’s promises are given to affirm His glory in all life. They are not given to pamper or spoil us.
An Ego Trip to Test God
The devil then changed his tactic. He challenged Christ’s faith in God’s Word. Jesus was asked to put a promise of God to the test. The devil led Jesus to a public place and defied Him to jump from the highest point. It is still a temptation to doubt His relationship with the Father: “Here you are, far from heaven and stripped of your divine glory? See if God still cares for poor you like He promised.”
Jesus countered this misuse of Scripture with another passage of Scripture. The promises of God are not to be taken out of their context—the totality of Scripture. All God’s promises are given to affirm His glory in all life. They are not given to pamper or spoil us.
Some of God’s promises are stated in an extreme way to indicate the extent to which God will go for us. They are meant to be experienced, not tested for the sake of verification. For instance, Jesus said, “Truly I tell you, if you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move. Nothing will be impossible for you” (Matt. 17:20). That is not a licence to wish for a mountain in our backyard or the removal of a mountain casting a shadow on our kitchen garden. It’s all about having faith in God and trusting Him to take care of what seems impossible as we encounter stuff. Some of the things God has promised will just happen in the course of life. No, you are not to put God to the test, but God will be there for you, when you need Him.
That’s what Jesus told the devil. He didn’t try to explain away the difficulty of the passage thrown at Him by the devil. He used another overriding Scripture that commanded that we are not to put God on trial. He is to be trusted. His Word is good enough.
This temptation was in a way also about an ego trip. Jesus was tempted to show off who He was in a public place. Jesus made it clear that God was not to be roped in to serve any human’s agenda, good as it may be. Only God’s revealed will is to be upheld.
Serving Ourselves Instead
The last temptation was to find an easy way to accomplish the mission that Christ Jesus had come on. He had come into the world to get the world back to God. The way ahead was going to be a hard one. Three years of abuse at the hands of mere mortals culminating in death that would appear to all and sundry to be a total defeat. The devil offered to give Him the world if He would just momentarily acknowledge the devil’s sovereignty. It would be a secret deal. No one else would know.
Jesus dismissed Satan at once. He ordered him to be gone. Once again, Jesus backed His rejection of the devil’s proposal with what God had declared in writing: “Worship the Lord your God, and serve Him only.” The mission didn’t matter as much as serving God.
Those in Christian ministry sometimes think that their ministry is all that matters. Success in the ministry at any cost seems okay. Isn’t it about gaining the world? Isn’t it about the numbers that can be tallied? If a little compromise will achieve the goal of mission, so be it. When that mentality takes over, what has happened is that “the Lord’s work” has displaced the Lord.
It happened a long time ago. The Jews had lulled their conscience claiming that they had the Temple (Jer 7:4), but their hearts were not following God Himself. They were disobedient to God. God had left the Temple and they didn’t even know it. Let’s not engage in the Lord’s work in such a way that it is not His work at all.
Jesus was truly human. He was tempted to do the very things that we are tempted to do: satisfy our appetites by exploitation, egotistically test God as though He is there to serve our needs, and take shortcuts to achieve our life’s goals giving them priority over God. Jesus overcame all these temptations by holding on to the truth proclaimed by God, and not entertaining the devil’s doubts and suggestions in place of what stood revealed.
Jesus was tempted and touched. The word “touched” also has the meaning “crazy”. Yes, He was tempted, because He was crazy about us. He wanted to go the whole way to touch our lives in every way. That’s crazy, when He could have just stayed in heaven and let us all go to hell as we deserve.