The Testing/Tempting in the Dessert

This coming Sunday is the First Sunday in Lent. In yesterday’s post we took an in-depth look at the possible meanings of the two words translated as “tempting” (v.1 and v.7) – both their positive and negative connotations. Today we consider the focus of the temptation agenda.

It is helpful to consider this story as being “both-and:” Jesus is tested by his heavenly Father so that Jesus knows what is “in his heart” at the same time Jesus is tempted by Satan to be other than fully obedient to God.  We should note that Jesus is led by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted/tested (v. 1). This is a softening of Mark’s account where the Spirit “throws Jesus out” into the wilderness (Mk 1:12). Lest there be any concern, as Boring (163) notes: “… [Jesus’] submission to temptation is not an accident or a matter of being victimized by demonic power, but is part of his obedience to God.”

The focus of the “testing” agenda is indicated by the devil’s first two suggestions (vv.3,6) – “If you are the Son of God.”   There could not be a more clear connection to the last verse of the preceding chapter: “And a voice came from the heavens, saying, This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased’” (Mt 3:17). That very relationship is not under scrutiny. Rather the demonic suggestions explore, given that relationship, what ways are appropriate to act and how can the devil take advantage in order to drive a wedge into the relationship.   For example, there was an expectation that the Messiah would produce a lavish miracle of manna in messianic times.  Is this an appropriate response by Jesus? If Jesus does such a lavish miracle, the people’s expectations can be derailed from salvific to political power. If Jesus refuses, then how can he be the messiah as he does not meet our expectations.

What is the divine expectation? It is because of the filial relationship of love and obedience that God the Father will ultimately ask Jesus to give up his own life for the life of the world.  The real test is not here in the Galilean wilderness.  This is but a prelude to what occurs in the holy city of Jerusalem during Jesus’ Passion and Death.  There are echoes between the two locales:

Galilean wilderness
If you are the Son of God (vv.3,6)
tempting of angelic deliverance (4:6)
Get away, Satan (v.10)

Jerusalem – the Holy City
if you are the Son of God (27:40)
the right to call upon a host of angles for deliverance (26:53)
Get behind me, Satan! (16:23) when Peter tries to dissuade Jesus from Jerusalem and death on a cross

R.T. France suggests that the key to understanding this story is found in Jesus’ three responses – all from Deuteronomy 6-8 a part of Moses’ address to Israelites before their entry into the promised land. It is significant that this section begins with the great Shema, the daily prayer of all true Israelites: “Hear, O Israel! The LORD is our God, the LORD alone! Therefore, you shall love the LORD, your God, with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength” (Dt 6:4-5).

In Moses’ address, he reminds Israel of their 40 years of wilderness experience which was a time of preparation and of proving the faithfulness of their God. Among the things the Israelites, the children of God, should have learned is

  • not to depend on bread alone but rather on God’s word (Dt 8:3),
  • not to put God to the test (Dt 6:16), and
  • to make God the exclusive object of their worship and obedience (Dt 6:13).

Now another “Son of God” is in the wilderness facing those same tests and learning so perfectly what Israel had so imperfectly grasped. At best Israel’s occupation of the promised land was a partial and flawed fulfillment of the hopes they carried to the banks of the River Jordan.  But this new “Son of God” will not fail and the new “Exodus” will succeed because this Son loves his Father with all his heart, his soul and his strength.  Jesus is the fulfillment of Israel and will become the one through whom God’s redemptive purpose for the world is fulfilled.

Image credit:The Temptation in the Wilderness, Briton Rivière (1898) | Public Domain

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