The Temptation in the Desert: Jesus Won’t be the Hero

The Temptation in the Desert: Jesus Won’t be the Hero March 18, 2019

Stories of Jesus, from Temptation to Cross

Jesus, a devil complete with wings, and the temptation in the wilderness.
In this form the devil doesn’t have much chance of success with Jesus. Jesus’ real temptations probably took a different form.

Matthew’s and Luke’s Gospels give us an overture of highly symbolic, largely non-historical stories of Jesus’ infancy and childhood. Then, ignoring the largest, so-called hidden, part of Jesus’ life, they pick up the story with an account of Jesus’ baptism by John. The baptism story sounds realistic, except for God’s voice coming out of the sky. Next both evangelists go into a story that sounds like plain fantasy. The spirit leads Jesus into the desert to face temptation by Satan.

I’m continuing a series of “Stories of Jesus and the Character of God” after a long break. It will look at a few episodes of Jesus’ journey from Temptation to Cross. The series looks at Jesus for clues to what God is like. This is the 13th in the series. Developing Table of Contents for the series here.

In Matthew and Luke we get all sorts of details about the temptation. There are some rocks around, which Jesus could turn into bread. The devil gives Jesus a vision of the whole world and offers to put Jesus in charge with only one condition. The two characters fly away to the top of the temple, where Jesus has a chance to make a name for himself by hurling himself down and surviving. (Mark, who wrote the first Gospel, just says Jesus was tempted in the desert with no details.)

An unlikely story

I suppose a story that sounds like fantasy could still be factual, but I do believe that the prior scene, the baptism, is basically historical and the second is not. The baptism story gets support from the argument from embarrassment. It was embarrassing for the first Christians to admit that Jesus was baptized by John, so they would hardly have made up that story.

The baptism has something else going for it that the temptation story does not. If Jesus’ baptism really happened, there were lots of people around to see it and tell about it. (Whether they heard a voice from heaven or not is a matter that the Gospels themselves have different takes on.) In the temptation story there is no one around except Jesus and the devil, and I can’t imagine either of them telling anyone about it. That counts pretty strongly against this story’s being historical.

A true story

Still, a fantastic, made-up story can have something important to say about the real, historical Jesus. Surely Jesus, through his public career, was aware of more than one possible way for his life’s work to go. He would have rejected some perhaps very tempting ones and accepted another not so appealing.

The story may also say something about Jesus’ followers. The things that Satan tempts Jesus with—ease, power and the glory of heroism—symbolize temptations for the crowds and even Jesus’ closest friends. They wanted a savior who would help with the daily struggle for life’s necessities, give dramatic proofs that God was on their side, lead Israel in triumph over her Roman occupiers. The apostles didn’t mind the thought that they might have some high positions in the new administration.

The early Christians found the means to obtain a truer vision of Jesus and resist these temptations—perhaps only when Jesus’ death made them seem awfully unrealistic. Matthew and Luke put this new insight into a story about Jesus and Satan. By writing that way they were able to say something important about Jesus and about temptations that everyone faces.

Giving in or resisting the temptation

What if the temptations actually had occurred just as the gospels say, and what if Jesus had said “Yes” all three times? With Satan’s support he could have made quite a mark, maybe even ruled the known world for as long as he lived. He would likely have raised capable children to inherit the throne. Would he have any followers today, though?

I don’t think so. He and his heirs might have been the best possible rulers. But they would not have changed anything that matters to the devil, especially not any hearts. Satan would still be the ruler of the world. If that sounds too mythological, our ruler would still be visions of success and glory that often strike us as the most important things in the world.

The devil tempted Jesus with the vision of being a popular hero, being successful, being in control. Sometimes the devil worked on this temptation through Jesus own disciples. The same temptations can seem pretty appealing to us. Jesus had a different vision. It was the opposite of being popular, being successful, being in control. When we feel things slipping out of our control, we like to imagine that, especially then, God is in control. Jesus is our main clue to who God is. Maybe God is more like Jesus than we would like.

Image credit: Tate via Google Images

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