Christ’s Temptation and Our Own

Jesus IconI recently posted on Jesus’ temptation in Matthew’s Gospel and argued that the event showed Satan offering Jesus means other than the cross of becoming the Messiah; signified Jesus’ overthrow of Satan; and I suggested that each temptation is developed in the rest of Gospel. I concluded that post by reminding the reader that it was both Jesus’ loving submission to the Father and self-sacrificial love for us that braced him for his messianic role. In this short post I will unpack what the temptation teaches us about Christ and the challenge it issues to us.

When I preached Matthew 4:1-11 I said that Jesus’ temptation reveals Jesus’ struggle with his mission, which was a tremendous burden. However you read Hebrews 5:7-9 one thing is certain: Jesus’ obedience to God the Father was difficult. However when Jesus was tempted by Satan, experiencing in himself our human weakness, he was without sin (Hebrews 4:15). Jesus was unswervingly committed to his task, thus he trusted his Father and gave himself up for us. To borrow an analogy from John Owen’s On Temptation: temptation pierces a vessel revealing what is within. When Jesus is tempted we are given a window into his character and what we see there is steadfast love, for his Father and those he came to save.

ScalpelWe are no different, for temptation peels back our pious masks and pretensions. Owen wrote, “Temptation is like a knife, that may either cut the meat or the throat of a man; it may be his food or his poison, his exercise or his destruction.” He understood that the nature of temptation is to expose our hearts and added, “[Temptation shows] man what is in him–that is, the man himself.” When Jesus was tempted he rose above it for he was devoted to God the Father. However, what temptation more often than not reveals in the Christian is a lack of commitment to God. We know from Scripture that God sometimes tempts in order to test our faith and that “temptation may proceed either singly from Satan, or the world, or other men in the world, or from ourselves, or jointly from all or some of them”. But regardless of its source – and I would encourage investigating Owen’s different categories, also see James’ differentiation between internal and external temptation – when we are enticed by evil our hearts are exposed. Jesus’ temptation reveals his deliberate and devoted commitment to God. When we are tempted, what is revealed?

I will conclude with two practical points for when we are tempted. Firstly, we must rely on God’s grace to forgive and strengthen us. Owen writes, “Until we are tempted, we think we live on our own strength,” but when we feel like giving in to temptation we are reminded of our need for Christ’s blood and the Spirit’s empowerment. As N. T. Wright says, in The Lord and His Prayer, alluding to Matthew 12, “Invoke the name of the Stronger than the Strong.” The cross has removed our guilt and the Spirit works in us to break the power of sin, when we are tempted, as for when we sin, we need look no further than our gracious God. Secondly, resist temptation, hate sin, submit yourself to God and resist the devil. John Owen has written extensively on the battle with sin, which we make meagre progress in only because we do not actively set about doing it. So when you are tempted, resist what you know will displease your heavenly Father. And let us strive after Jesus’ example, who resisted temptation until the point of death.

Was Jesus Really Tempted?

TemptationIn the last post Graham began a series on Jesus’ temptation in Matthew. In it, he claimed that “Jesus was truly tempted, because the task set before him was overwhelmingly daunting.” But the fact that Jesus was tempted is a point worth further investigation. We quickly affirm Jesus’ perfection and his holiness but if those things are true was the temptation Jesus was faced with anything like our own temptation? If not was he really tempted? Or more, was he really human?

Jesus Didn’t sin

Let’s begin by reasserting Jesus’ perfection. In 2009 the American research company Barna ran a poll that concluded that 22% of Americans strongly agree that “Jesus probably sinned” and another 17% “agree somewhat”. In other words, 40% of those who would describe themselves as Christians (2 out of every group of 5!) would be okay with the idea that Jesus sinned. Or even, they think it’s unlikely that he didn’t.

Jesus’ moral perfection is something that is often questioned and doubted. It is also, however, something that is absoultely critical. We see this 1 Peter 2:22. Peter quotes Isaiah 53 with reference to Jesus and the punchline is that “He committed no sin”. The thing is, Peter is encouraging Christians to endure through suffering. How are they supposed to do that? Look to Jesus as their example. That logic doesn’t really work if Jesus sinned. Peter also doesn’t stop there; in verse 24 we see that the point of Jesus’ sinless death is that we could die to sin. Peter wouldn’t care about dying to sin though unless Jesus were our sinless example.

Jesus Couldn’t Sin

Okay so we all believe Jesus didn’t sin but we may wonder, “Could Jesus have sinned? Was Jesus actually able to sin?” After all, if Jesus was not able to sin, was he really human – isn’t it human nature to sin?

Think back to the Garden of Eden though and we will quickly remember that God made everything good. Adam and Eve were perfectly human and perfectly sinless the way God made them. Sin, ironically, is precisely not human nature. So Jesus could be human without ever sinning (and for that matter, he didn’t even need to be tempted to sin in order to qualify as a real human).

I think we can go one step further though and say that Jesus could not have sinned because not only was he 100% flesh and blood human, he was also 100% real McCoy God. Now something we often forget is that morality is not this arbitrary set of rules out there that God is just really good at keeping. If that were true, there would be something in authority over God. Instead, morality is rooted in God himself, in his nature and character. Quite simply, Jesus couldn’t have sinned because by definition he is the source of morality. To suggest Jesus could have sinned is kind of like suggesting that tree could plant itself.

Morality comes from Jesus and so what he does defines it. That doesn’t mean morality twists and turns and changes all the time, by the way, because something else we need to remember about God is that he is consistent and doesn’t change like shadows as the day wears on. Instead, we see God outlining a moral code and then we see him acting consistently with it through all of Scripture.

Jesus Wouldn’t Sin

If Jesus couldn’t sin though, then it stands to reason that he also couldn’t be tempted – at least in any real or significant way. I mean what’s the worry of temptation if I am don’t even have to worry about resisting it, because of who I am I’ll never be able to be immoral.

It’s helpful to realise that there are two types of temptation. Internal, like the kind James 1:14 refers to when James says we are tempted “when [we are] lured and enticed by [our] own evil desires.” and External, like the kind that Adam and Eve faced from the serpent in the Garden of Eden.

Jesus was not tempted internally because, unlike you are I, Jesus was not part of fallen humanity. However, it’s also clear that Jesus was tempted externally. The synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark and Luke) all report Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness. Satan tries three times to have Jesus follow the rest of humanity in sin and three times Jesus resists, consistently turning to Scripture (a poingant lesson to 21st century Christians who are known for our “snuggle” with sin).

The gospel accounts use Jesus’ victory against temptation to set him up as the true Israel and the second Adam through whom the Fall will be overturned. There is, however, one other particularly significant passage we should take note of; Hebrews 4:15

we do not have a high priest who cannot sympathize with our weaknesses, but One who has been tempted in all things as we are, yet without sin.

Here we see the importance of Jesus’ temptation to us as frail sinners. Jesus is not someone who cannot sympathise with our weaknesses. He was tempted in all things! In fact, if I were Satan I would have maxed out my efforts on getting Jesus to sin. “Yet,” Hebrews tells us, Jesus was without sin. This is an encouragement to us when we fall into sin to turn once more to Jesus. More than that, the author of Hebrews knows that Jesus sinlessness means that even when we sin, there is forgiveness because Jesus was not only our great high priest but our perfect atoning sacrifice.

Matthew: The Temptation of Christ

The temptation of ChristAt his baptism, Jesus is called God’s “beloved Son” (Matthew 3:17), he is then partnered by the Holy Spirit and sent into the wilderness to be tempted (4:1). Having been identified with Adam (clearer in Luke’s account) and Israel by the designation ‘son of God’, Jesus’ sonship is tested before his kingdom preaching commences (4:12-17). That means the temptation narrative is pivotal in reading Matthew’s Gospel. Unfortunately this important passage is often sketchily treated and underappreciated. So in this short post I hope to impress on the reader the gravity of Jesus’ meeting with Satan in the wilderness.

An important place to start is by asking if there exists a thread through the temptations. New Testament scholar David Seccombe argues, in The King of God’s Kingdom, that Jesus is being lured by false methods to achieve his messianic role. Jesus is not merely having his commitment to God tested; his commitment to the messianic office is being tried. So in each temptation Satan offers Jesus an alternative means of becoming promised king. Firstly, Satan tells Jesus to turn stones into bread. ‘Provide the people with their physical needs. Fill their stomachs and they will follow you.’ But Jesus’ reply suggests the people have a greater need, to hear the preached word of God. Secondly, Satan suggests that Jesus throw himself from the temple, the centre of Jewish life, requiring that God send hosts of angels to deliver him. Such a miracle would compel belief, win allegiance and clearly demonstrate that this is God’s promised king. But Jesus’ answer indicates that it would at the same time express unbelief in God, testing his faithfulness and dictating how he should act in his world. Lastly, if Jesus will only worship Satan then he will receive the kingdoms of the earth. Being ‘the prince of this world’ I would argue there is some weight to Satan’s offer, but Jesus’ response is uncompromising devotion to the only Lord God. Jesus knew that his messianic task could not be carried out in any way other than worshipful obedience to God the Father. As Shane Claiborne writes in Jesus for President, ‘In each of the three temptations Jesus resisted the spectacular, legitimising himself as the Servant-King’. Jesus was truly tempted, because the task set before him was overwhelmingly daunting.

The next question to ask might be: What does Jesus’ resistance to Satan’s temptation signify? In Matthew’s Gospel the simple answer is victory. Looking ahead, at 12:29 where Jesus says the strong man must first be bound, C. H. Dodd comments in The Founder of Christianity that implicit to Jesus’ teaching is that, “he had cleared scores with the devil before his work began, and he could carry on his campaign into the enemy’s country unhampered”. N. T. Wright makes the same point in Simply Jesus about Jesus’ temptation: Satan tried to bring Jesus over to his side, grasping the right goal but through the wrong means. Jesus’ temptation spelt the beginning of Satan’s defeat. Yet Jesus’ kingdom parables reveal that Satan’s opposition to God will be on going, as the kingdom advances (13:19, 38). According to Jesus’ words in 25:41, the final victory over Satan will only come at the end of the age. The victory over Satan in Matthew, and larger scope of Jesus’ ministry, poses a real challenge to the ‘classic or ransom theory’ of atonement, which understands Christ’s death as a payment to Satan for the ownership of humanity. In his ministry, kingdom proclamation, and the cross, Jesus was bringing about the defeat of Satan, binding him and loosing his reign over the kingdoms of earth.

The temptation of ChristFinally, something which entire post could be written of, is the theme of temptation further developed in Matthew’s Gospel? I would argue that it definitely is, not only in general but specific to the three temptations Jesus endured in the wilderness. Jesus showed twice that he could miraculously provide bread in abundance (14:13-21; 15:32-39). When he was arrested in Gethsemane he asked, “Do you think that I cannot appeal to my Father, and he will at once send me more than twelve legions of angels?” (26:53). Lastly, prior to his arrest, Jesus lies prostrate before the Father in desperate prayer yet submits himself to the Father’s will (26:39). He refused to establish a ‘bread circus’, he renounced his right to the angelic hosts, and he resisted the temptation to worship anything and anyone but his Father in heaven. Jesus carried out his messianic role without erring; though agonisingly tempted to use other means, his loving submission to the Father and his self-sacrificial love for us drove him ever closer to the cross.

Authenticity in Strange Places

Upper Room DiscourseI recently moved office and in the process uncovered my copy A. N. Wilson’s Paul: The Mind of the Apostle. In this imaginative biography, replete with dogmatic scepticism, Wilson plies the tired view that without Paul’s theology, or more specifically his Christology, Jesus was little more than a ‘moderately pale Galilean.’ That is just one incarnation of historical incredulity towards the four Gospel accounts. Popularly it is presented, most often ignorantly, like this: “The Gospels are documents written much later than when Jesus lived and are undoubtedly loaded with the faith of the church, later traditions, and developed doctrine.” In this post I hope to challenge that myth by turning to the Gospel accounts themselves, something most sceptics fail to do. As the title suggests, my arguments will come from peculiar features in the Gospels that indicate authenticity.

The Gospel of Luke’s underdeveloped Christology
In his brilliant but concise work, Jesus and the Logic of History, Paul Barnett shows that the Gospel writers had a different focus to the letter-writers. Anyone who has read both the Gospel accounts and the epistles will notice how the Gospels reflect an ethos of ‘Jesus back there’ whereas the epistles address issues specific to life in the early church, as a believer. Barnett speaks of the noticeable contrast between proclamation and tradition. Jesus’ teachings clearly relate to the circumstances of people in Galilee and Judea in the 30s. They are unconcerned with the issues that the epistles address. The Jesus that we meet in the Gospels is not recast in order to settle the many apparent issues that developed in the life of the apostolic church; he is surely Jesus in his own historical setting, ‘then and there’. Picking up on a point made by C. F. D. Moule, Barnett suggests that this is perhaps most pronounced when we look at Luke’s two volumes. It is hard to ignore the difference between pre-Easter Jesus (in Luke) and the resurrected Lord (in Acts). Barnett, following Moule, argues that in his Gospel account Luke refused to inject Jesus with the high Christology of Acts, because the former is a historical work dealing with the life, ministry, death and resurrection of Jesus.

Sketchy details surrounding the Upper Room Discourse
Our small groups have worked slowly through John’s Gospel this year and almost came to a standstill in John 14-16. The conversation is often terse, at other times convoluted, and is evenly enigmatic. Interestingly, D. A. Carson, in his invaluable work Jesus and his Friends, believes that the vague and ambiguous discourse is one of the strongest arguments for the authenticity of John. While Carson thinks the theological freight in these three chapters is direct and clear, he writes, “In referring to historical events placed ahead of the Discourse, they are amazingly sketchy. Someone who was out to manufacture a Farewell Discourse after the events would in all likelihood have succumbed to the temptation to be far more precise than Jesus in the days of his flesh often chose to be.”

Women witnessing to Jesus’ resurrection
In Surprised by Hope, N. T. Wright remarks that the presence of women as principle witnesses of Jesus’ resurrection is arresting and strange. For women were simply not regarded as credible witnesses in the ancient world, whether we like it or not. They are, significantly, dropped from Paul’s account of the resurrection in 1 Corinthians 15, because they were “apologetically embarrassing.” Yet, in each of the Gospel accounts, they are front and centre; Wright goes as far as calling them “the first apostles.” This is quite a convincing argument for an extant oral tradition of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection before Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians. Wright finds these features compel any serious reader or historian to take the four Gospel accounts seriously, as early accounts and not later inventions.

The Single Story Behind Numerous Sources
Four EvangelistsIn a work I frequently find myself returning to, The Founder of Christianity, C. H. Dodd notes that even though the authors of the Synoptic Gospels drew on different traditions a single narrative thread can be traced through them. Dodd argues that this proves a story about Jesus from the earliest days of the church existed, when memories of his ministry were fresh. The Evangelists are committed to that story, with its strange details yet without embellishment, “The tone is one of sober, unemotional realism, allowing the events to make their own impression by their inherent weight.” Consider Luke’s stated purpose for writing, unless he set out to grossly mislead his readers and at the same time open himself up to serious criticism, he was offering an account of what had recently taken place. And despite his varied sources, one of which was undoubtedly the Gospel of Mark, the same credible story of a historical man called Jesus is told.

Why Acts? Luke’s Purpose for Writing the Sequel

Luke-ActsWhat are we to make of the book of Acts? There is no other book like it in the New Testament, bridging the Gospels and the Epistles. Most agree that it is a precious aspect to the beginnings of the Christian church, Calvin wrote of it as a “great treasure”. F. F. Bruce went as far as to call it a source book of highest value for the history of human civilization. But above these generous compliments, Acts is a vital contribution to our understanding of the apostolic church and spread of Christianity from Jerusalem to the ends of the earth (Acts 1:8; Luke 24:47). Though it is a carefully structured, meticulously written history, garnering eye-witness accounts, Acts is much more than a mere window into the past. For the book does not simply inform us; it transforms and challenges us.

But how does Acts do that? In his Gospel, Luke reports that he set out to provide an orderly account of what had been accomplished among them, so that Theophilus might have certainty of the things he had been taught (Luke 1:1-4). The Acts narrative begins by saying ‘in his previous book he dealt with all that Jesus began to do and teach(Acts 1:1-3). So Acts covers what Jesus continued to do and teach, through the apostolic witness. Luke-Acts consists of two volumes forming a single work, so the primary purpose of Acts cannot be considered in isolation from Luke’s Gospel. In Luke-Acts we see “the beginning of the gospel, the establishment of salvation in the ministry of Jesus and the proclamation of salvation by the early church” (F F. Bruce). Therefore, it is unavoidable that Acts is evangelistic, proclaiming salvation in Jesus Christ to its readers, who may not have witnessed Jesus or his apostles’ ministry first hand.

The purpose of this two volume work is to call its readers to repentance, which is almost always seen as the result of preaching in Acts (see 2:38; 3:19; 17:30; 26:30). Luke puts great effort into recording sermons that were preached by those in the apostolic church. As Calvin has noted, they touch on sound and pure doctrine, the great mercies of God, the grace of Christ, our hope and blessed immortality, God’s calling, repentance and the fear of God. Far from simply retelling the story of the God’s fledgling church, Acts invites its readers to hear those sermons afresh and respond to them in faith and repentance. As Jesus Christ is preached, from Judah to Samaria and to the ends of the world, we are enveloped in the expanding kingdom that reaches into all four corners of God’s world.

Luke-ActsIn closing, Luke makes it clear that the success of the preached gospel came about because the Holy Spirit was at work through those proclaiming Christ (Acts 1:5, 8; 2:4; 6:3; 8:17; 10:45; 16:6; 20:23). Luke is emphatic that the progress of the Christian faith is due to the divine agency and work of the Spirit. In reading Acts we are encouragingly reminded that faithfulness to the message of Jesus and the effective superintendence of the Spirit will bring about faith in our hearers. This should give us confidence and challenge us to do as the apostolic church did, boldly preach Christ. The book is a detailed history, proclaiming Christ, calling its readers to repentance, and assuring the church that the Holy Spirit works powerfully through preaching the resurrected Lord, Jesus Christ.

Does Barabbas’ Release Illustrate Substitution?

Roman Trial‘When Jesus is held back for execution and Barabbas is set free we have a wonderful picture of substitution.’ Have you heard that before? I have. Perhaps you have even explained this element of Jesus’ trial as an illustration of his place-taking death, which secures release for the guilty. Again, I have. But after working carefully through John’s Gospel in our small groups this year, I am convinced that I was wrong. Substitution is not in view; it is not even an ancillary aspect of Barabbas’ release.

Similarly to Paul’s ‘living sacrifices’ in Romans 12 – which preachers readily tell us is a strikingly strange picture, when really it is not since all sacrifices would be brought to the alter alive (Jonathan More) – we give little thought to this passage in its literary context, hurriedly sharing the pre-packaged theology of substitutionary atonement and old sermons. However, with only a little digging into John’s Gospel we learn that Jesus is not pictured as a substitute for Barabbas. Obviously, Jesus is introduced to us by John the Baptizer as, “The Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world” (1:29, 36). Added to this, substitution is clear at points throughout the narrative: Jesus will lay down his life for his sheep (10:11) and his friends (15:13), perhaps in response to Peter’s predictably overzealous promise that he will lay down his life for Jesus (13:37); Caiaphas’ ironic prophecy that it is better for one man to die than for Israel to perish (11:50; 18:14); and Jesus commitment to drain the cup of God’s wrath on the cross (18:11). But Jesus’ messiahship is more than dying on behalf of God’s people.

Interwoven with Jesus’ identification as Isaiah’s ‘suffering servant’ is his authority and power that demands a response from the Jewish nation. As C. H. Dodd has said, in The Founder of Christianity, “zero hour” was upon Israel; “God was confronting men, more immediately, more urgently, than ever before, and an unprecedented opportunity lay before them.” When Pilate presents Barabbas and Jesus (18:39), offering the customary release of a prisoner at Passover, the opportunity and choice reaches its climax. And when they cry out, “Not this man, but Barabbas!” they reject God’s King (18:40).

Andreas Köstenberger, in his essay “What is Truth?”, suggests that a prominent Johannine theme is the trial motif. He proposes that while there is no Jewish trial recorded in John’s Gospel, we can view John’s first twelve chapters as a trial. Jesus comes before the nation of Israel and powerfully demonstrates his divine sonship and authority. Israel is confronting her God. He has come to his own (1:11), full of grace and truth (1:17), fully revealing Yahweh in fleshly glory (1:14, 18). From John’s prologue, the reader knows who Jesus is. And a little later Nathaniel proclaims, “The King of Israel” (1:49). Now, if we return to the Jewish leaders, clamouring in the streets outside of Pilate’s headquarters, we see what John’s purpose is: Will they recognise God’s Messiah? There is immense irony in Pilate’s antagonistic epithet, “The King of the Jews” (18:39). For Jesus truly is.

Roman TrialBut there is more to it. There is an even more striking irony in the Roman trial and the Jewish leaders’ rejection of Jesus. Quoting D. A. Carson, in The Gospel of John, “The chief priests, who would normally have nothing to do with Zealots and…armed rebellion,” request the release of an enemy of Rome over one whom Rome deemed unthreatening (18:36-38). Pilate, in the obverse, and similarly to the Jews, fears for his political position, releases a man who was declared guilty by Rome for murder and insurrection. His conscience and superiors may have allowed him to condemn an innocent man without impunity, but surely releasing a known rebel reveals a lack of political savvy. Finally, the Jews, after rejecting their Messiah in favour of a convicted criminal, exclaim, “We have no king but Caesar” (19:15). Köstenberger notes that this is a pyrrhic success for the Jewish leaders, for in gaining Pilate’s concession they have pledged sole allegiance to the Roman emperor. Confronted by the Son of God the Jews make their choice and it is not God’s Messiah.