The First Temptation(s) of Christ: The Trial of The Ego

The First Temptation(s) of Christ: The Trial of The Ego April 1, 2022

In this short series I am looking at the three temptations of Christ as recorded in Matthew 4:1-11. In part 1, I considered a possible temptation that occurs prior to Jesus’ going out to the desert. This is a kind of “proto” temptation, a temptation within a temptation. This is the test of having to wait and be tested at all. It comes when one feels absolutely ready to start the mission God has called one to do but then is confronted with a long period of waiting before one can do it.

In part 2, I looked at the first temptation by Satan in the desert. This is the trial of the physical body. When the body is attacked, our will is put to the test. How we confront moral temptation when in a weakened physical state matters tremendously to our witness to the reality and goodness of God. The call to be like Christ is not for the faint of heart. It demands courage.

In this third essay I consider the second of Satan’s temptations. This temptation occurs at the pinnacle of the temple in Jerusalem and is very different from the first. This temptation is not a trial of the body but of the ego or psyche. In this test, Satan tries to get Jesus not to doubt God’s plan for Him, but rather to think He (Jesus) can actualize that plan apart from God–that he can become the “exalted Messiah” in His own power and in his own way. It is this desire for exaltation that we too must all confront.

The Public Nature of the 2nd Temptation

Some rabbinical sources thought that Herod the Great’s second temple in Jerusalem was the tallest building in the world. Further, Jerusalem was considered by the Jews to be the center of the world, not just the Roman world, but the actual cosmos. In addition, Satan’s temptation of Jesus to throw himself from a high place, in order to prove that God would protect him, could have been given in the desert. Certainly there would have been cliff faces high enough from which Jesus could have hurled himself in a life-threatening way. Finally, if Satan wanted Jesus to throw himself down somewhere where people could see it happen, then obviously the temple in Jerusalem was the most fitting sight for such a public display.

And thus the transportation to the pinnacle of the temple seems to be done for these reasons: its very public nature and its theological and historical significance. Enough commentators have pointed this out to make it a likely conclusion. The Devil wanted to tempt Jesus to openly demonstrate His glory. He [the Devil] needed an audience for this particular temptation.

Consider then, what might happen if someone threw themselves from the top of the Washington monument today only to be scooped up by a cohort of luminous, celestial beings at the last second? What would the gathering crowd in the D.C. mall think at seeing such a spectacle? It seems reasonable to assume that instant celebrity would be conferred upon this very real superhero.

Of course the analogy breaks down given modern technology and advance techniques in magic and illusion. But for a first-century audience, the reaction to someone being whisked away at the brink of death might very well have been something like: “this man must be a god– a divine being, worthy of our allegiance and our worship!” In other words Jesus would indeed have become an instant celebrity. He would truly be “Jesus Christ Superstar,” if saved in such fashion (a similar temptation occurs while Jesus is on the cross, see Luke 23:35-37). If Satan were to succeed, Jesus’ messianic credentials would be validated right then and there. In this offer of instant fame, however, lie the essence of one of Satan’s greatest deceptions.

The Lure of Fame: Rise and Fall Stories and The Human Heart

The allure of fame and quest for fortune are at the heart of many of mankind’s best stories. It is one of a handful of seemingly universal literary themes that most cultures have thought necessary to propagate from generation to generation–both for entertainment value and moral pedagogy. These stories of the pursuit or quest for fame, from the Homeric epics to medieval Germanic Minnesang to typical Hollywood “road to glory” movies, are often accompanied by a second theme, the subsequent fall from grace. There are thus two versions of this common literary theme: “Rags to Riches” and “Rags to Riches to Rags Again.”

Of course, one can wrestle with the idea of whether such stories exist only in some nominalistic way, as purely social constructs meant for entirely pragmatic ends. If so, then these stories are not universal or necessary, they are merely contingent. We could write new stories and even eliminate these popular themes from existence if we wanted. If this is the case, then the interpretation of this passage becomes much more difficult–not to mention the interpretation of any passage of any text. For this view would imply that this story about Jesus is not relevant to all people at all times, but only to Jesus’ people in their particular place and time. If so, we can simply read it for entertainment value, perhaps, and then go about our busy day.

The alternative view, however, would suggest that these artistic renditions mirror something far more real than the mimesis itself–something embedded in the very fabric of an actual human nature. Given the inescapability of these narratival themes, and other theological commitments, I obviously incline toward this view. In doing so, I reject the post-modernist notion that there are no grand stories, no “meta-narratives.”

This post-modern view is simply false. With each foray into supposed chaos, and with every attempt by the cultured illuminati to portray reality as an incoherent, disconnected and meaningless scattering of things, culture is inevitably drawn back to those stories that point to the eternal and the common. Culture is drawn back to them, because they speak to us about the way things are. It is these images and plot lines that we all innately recognize as true, accurate and pregnant with meaning. As such, the meta-narratives give expression to the meta-physics.

This being the more plausible view, one subsequently recognizes that a fundamental aspect of our shared human nature just is the desire for fame and the longing for celebrity. We crave attention from the time we are born. The means to attain that attention become more sophisticated as we develop and mature.

While today it seems our attempts at celebrity have become more like the infantile machinations of our childhood years, nevertheless those attempts are still made. Perhaps what it takes to be a celebrity today, in contrast to 60 or 70 years ago, is far less–the price of celebrity status being incredibly cheap compared to that of past generations. Call it “celebrity inflation.” Still, the granting of celebrity to even the most untalented among us does not negate the ever-present longing for it.

In fact, the willingness to ascribe celebrity status to more and more people, regardless of actual talent or genuine accomplishment, simply supports the underlying reality of this desperate human need. Our culture of affirmation is abundant evidence of the universality of the desire, which itself is evidence for a shared nature. However, how does the desire for fame among human beings relate to God?

A Celebrity God?

The Bible says that God is jealous for His own name. In other words, God, like us, also desires fame. This might cause us some dismay, at least initially. After all, it seems so unlike God to want or need recognition. Many skeptics, Richard Dawkins for one, have taken issue with especially this aspect of God’s character. Dawkins reading of the “Old Testament” God portrays God in a very anthropomorphic light, to say the least:

The God of the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction: jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving control-freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully.

Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion [emphasis added]

But God’s jealousy and His desire for fame are categorically different from their human versions (as are all things with God). In the Old Testament God is jealous for His name, this is true. In fact, God’s name is even called “Jealous” in the Bible:

Behold, I make a covenant. Before all your people I will do marvels, such as have not been wrought in all the earth or in any nation; and all the people among whom you are shall see the work of the Lord; for it is a terrible thing that I will do with you.

“Observe what I command you this day. Behold, I will drive out before you the Amorites, the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites. Take heed to yourself, lest you make a covenant with the inhabitants of the land whither you go, lest it become a snare in the midst of you. You shall tear down their altars, and break their pillars, and cut down their Asherim (for you shall worship no other god, for the Lord, whose name is Jealous, is a jealous God), lest you make a covenant with the inhabitants of the land, and when they play the harlot after their gods and make your sons play the harlot after their gods.

Exodus 34:10-16

Nahum Sarna, in his commentary on Exodus, points out, however, that the Hebrew word itself makes explicit the difference between God’s jealousy (or His “Impassioned-ness”) and human jealousy:

The limitations of language necessitate the application to God of phraseology that typically belongs in the human sphere. The present epithet ‘el kanna’ is most frequently translated ‘a jealous God,’ a rendering that understands the marriage bond to be the implied metaphor for the covenant between God and His people. God demands exclusive loyalty from Israel, and, according to this interpretation, His reaction to their infidelity is expressed in terms of human jealousy. It should be noted, however, that the form kanna’ is used in the Bible solely of God, never of a human being, a distinction that testifies to a consciousness that the emotion referred to differs qualitatively from the human variety.

Sarna, Exodus, 110

But how is it that God’s jealousy, which relates to the glorification of His name (i.e., His fame), is qualitatively different from man’s jealousy?

Two Ways God’s Fame is Different From Our Own

First, God’s desire for attention is, on the one hand, purely for our sake. God’s jealousy demonstrates His love for us and His interest in our lives:

Whether one renders kanna’  as ‘jealous’ or ‘impassioned,’ the term emphasizes that God cannot be indifferent to His creatures and that He is deeply involved in human affairs. It underscores the vigorous, intensive, and punitive nature of the divine response to apostasy and to modes of worship unacceptable to Himself.

Sarna, 110

As the maximally great Being, which entails maximal goodness, there are two things God cannot do. First, God cannot authorize His creatures to give their utmost attention, that is, their adoration, to something other than Himself. If God allowed or endorsed the worship of something other than God, our desire to worship would never be satiated and our capacity to be loved never fulfilled.

To give the fullness of our selves to something which is not God is to give our selves over to either something which cannot handle the weight of that burden (like when we give our selves over to another person) or to something which has purely malicious intentions towards us (like Satan). And so for the sake of the greatest of His creatures, for the sake of humanity, God must promote His own name and His own glory. To do otherwise would make Him not good and, therefore, not maximally great.

Second, however, is that God cannot force us to worship Him. As early as the 2nd century, theologians like Irenaeus of Lyon, affirmed the fact that God has made us with a genuinely free will:

This expression [of our Lord], “How often would I have gathered thy children together, and thou wouldest not,” set forth the ancient law of human liberty, because God made man a free [agent] from the beginning, possessing his own power, even as he does his own soul, to obey the behests (ad utendum sententia) of God voluntarily, and not by compulsion of God. For there is no coercion with God, but a good will [towards us] is present with Him continually. And therefore does He give good counsel to all. And in man, as well as in angels, He has placed the power of choice (for angels are rational beings), so that those who had yielded obedience might justly possess what is good, given indeed by God, but preserved by themselves. On the other hand, they who have not obeyed shall, with justice, be not found in possession of the good, and shall receive condign punishment: for God did kindly bestow on them what was good; but they themselves did not diligently keep it, nor deem it something precious, but poured contempt upon His super-eminent goodness.

Irenaeus, Against Heresies, Book IV.XXXVII.1

Thus, while God can give us His commands and court us in various ways, most poignantly in the person and work of Christ, He cannot force us to glorify Him or acknowledge His worthiness. As such, He can only be jealous for us as a loving husband is jealous for his wife. He cannot coerce us in the way an abusive husband forces himself upon his wife. That is not love but control.

The second way that God’s fame is different from our own relates to God’s eternal nature, or His attribute of aseity. God, the only uncreated Being, cannot actually share the full glory that comes with being the source of all other things with the things that have been sourced by Him. God is unique. He is sui generis. God being God has been and will always be distinct from His creation, for nothing in creation is its own source.

In ontological terms, God is the only necessary Being. All other beings (to include, probably, abstract objects) are merely contingent. As such the worship or adoration of anything other than God is the worship or adoration of something contingent, dependent, unnecessary and mutable. In modern times we tend to focus solely on God’s moral attributes, that is, His communicable attributes. Further, in more recent times, we even narrow those moral attributes down to a select few, like God’s love or His kindness.

However, for prior generations these metaphysical considerations would have been weighed quite heavily in grasping why God’s fame, and His subsequent worthiness of worship, is qualitatively different from human fame or worthiness. After all, how can the Eternal One share His attribute of “uncreatedness” with the created? It is a logical impossibility. How can the infinite God share His infinite properties with that which is finite? It is logically impossible. And so on.

I would suggest, further, that it is high time we Christians begin to think in metaphysical terms again. If, for any reason, to put ourselves back in our right place (which is much lower than we would like to believe).

Jesus Redeems Our Need For Fame

In understanding God’s fame and our human desire for it, and how they differ, we now get a better grasp of what Jesus is doing for us, when he resists this particular temptation. By resisting Satan’s temptation at the Temple, Jesus does what we so often fail to do: he finds His validation in God and not in Himself, or, in the human nature He shares with us. All of Satan’s temptations in the wilderness, at the outset of God’s great rescue plan, are meant to break trust between the Son and the Father. Yet again, Jesus defeats Satan by reaffirming what the Father has already spoken: “It is also written, Do not test the Lord your God.”

Moreover, Jesus will be exalted in the end, although Satan does not realize this. Jesus will accrue all fame and all glory to Himself, but He will do it in the way the Father has determined it. Jesus will receive glory in accordance with the Father’s plan and not in accordance with the desires of His human flesh. Paul tells us after Jesus’ death and resurrection that He is now the most exalted among all creatures, even though it was through Him all creatures were made:

Make your own attitude that of Christ Jesus,

who, existing in the form of God,
did not consider equality with God
as something to be used for His own advantage.[a]
Instead He emptied Himself
by assuming the form of a slave,
taking on the likeness of men.
And when He had come as a man
in His external form,
He humbled Himself by becoming obedient
to the point of death—
even to death on a cross.
For this reason God highly exalted Him
and gave Him the name
that is above every name,
10 so that at the name of Jesus
every knee will bow—
of those who are in heaven and on earth
and under the earth—
11 and every tongue should confess
that Jesus Christ is Lord,[b]
to the glory of God the Father.

In resisting the Devil on our behalf, Jesus opens the way for this part of our nature to be redeemed. When we come into the Body of Christ, becoming adopted sons of God, we can resist the age-old temptation to fame and self-glorification that has spelled the downfall of so many. Also, when we seek God’s glory first, and not our own, we, like Jesus, will be glorified. For, as one pastor has said, when God is most glorified we are most satisfied. C.S. Lewis put the idea of “divinization” this way:

The promise of glory is the promise, almost incredible and only possible by the work of Christ, that some of us, that any of us who really chooses, shall actually survive that examination, shall find approval, shall please God. To please God…to be a real ingredient in the divine happiness…to be loved by God, not merely pitied, but delighted in as an artist delights in his work or a father in a son—it seems impossible, a weight or burden of glory which our thoughts can hardly sustain. But so it is. 

Lewis, “The Weight of Glory”

Coda: Some Pastoral Reflection on Hollywood and the Church

I started this essay more than two weeks ago, but other commitments took me away from finishing it. In the meantime Will Smith’s slapping of Chris Rock at the Oscars has made headlines around the world. One might think that this is a trivial matter, especially given the ongoing war in Ukraine. However, while it is trivial in one sense, it is a quite significant matter in another sense. Smith’s slapping at this event, the central event of Hollywood celebrity culture, sheds great light on the current state of our culture, and on our perennial quest for fame.

One commentary by Candace Owens exposes, at least in part, some of the underlying reality that motivated Smith’s aggression. We live in a culture where men have lost any sense of what masculinity means. Men in America are as lost as the women that God gave them to love, guide and protect (yes, protect). In Owen’s commentary, she shows a clip of Smith on his wife’s, Jada Pinkett-Smith, show. In that interview, Will is interviewing his wife about her adultery! Yet he is not confronting her about it, he is acquiescing to it and, in fact, granting her the right to abuse him by explaining it away as her prerogative.

In one part of Smith’s interview with his wife, whose affair was with their son’s friend (a much younger man, I assume), Smith described in a joking manner, her adultery as a “transgression.” It was not meant to be serious. Yet even this humorous quip was taken as an offense by Pinkett-Smith, who quickly corrects her “husband.” It was not a transgression, she muses, it was what she did to “feel good” and to “learn more about herself.” And feeling good is the ultimate good in this culture, and happiness, according to Pinkett-Smith, cannot come from outside oneself.

Owens is right to say we should not persecute or prosecute Smith, but rather pity him. However, Smith can only hope that God will be so merciful. After all, in his failure to confront his wife’s sins, he has, just as his father Adam did in the garden, failed to protect her from evil. Conservative commentators may see Pinkett-Smith as the only wicked one in this strange consortium of “love.” However, even though Pinkett-Smith refuses to see the moral component of her actions, opting only to talk about her “emotional immaturity” (which is certainly quite true), her husband also fails to see his own moral transgression, that of failing to lead his wife in the truth about love.

In failing to lead his home and his wife, like so many of us (myself included), Smith enables his wife to do evil, both to herself and to the man she committed adultery with. In doing this, Smith recapitulates Adam’s original sin of enabling Eve to listen to the Serpent, instead of hearing and adhering to the Word of God.

I would normally not take issue with someone like Smith, who perhaps grew up in a Christian home but seems to no longer be a Christian. However, in another interview, Smith appears to claim the name of the “Lord,” referencing “the Lord” for his apparent success in Hollywood. This claim opens him up to admonishment in the name of the Lord. That is, assuming he means Jesus Christ, which appears to be the case.

But Pinkett-Smith and Smith’s marriage is hardly unique in a cultural space like Hollywood. And what is Hollywood except a machine of anti-culture and promiser of fame. How many young men and women have been sucked into the allure of celebrity through Hollywood over the last 100+ years? And what has happened to them? How many have lost their souls there and, in losing them, lost their marriages in the process. And how many of us, watching at home, have followed suit?

Given what Hollywood has been and continues to be, one is left to wonder what “power or principality” (Ephesians 6:12) rules over that place– the epicenter of where Satan’s second temptation of the Christ continues to play out. Sunset strip acts as the navel of the cosmos and the highest point of culture in our times, it is the pinnacle of the temple of the demon god who rules over this world.

But this elemental force of the air, this evil power, is not restricted to Sunset and Vine. It is a spirit that also permeates through the Church, especially evangelical churches in America. The principality of fame has caused the collapse of many churches, as “celebrity pastors” fall into Satan’s hands. Their failure to follow Christ’s example in the moment of trial usually results in the downfall of many. When those in leadership, unlike the Christ, break trust with the Father and His plan, they take many who have confused God’s message with His messenger into limbo with them. It is a sad, but very true, dynamic. And so Satan’s trial of the ego, the temptation to fame, lives on in both the Church and the culture in which it resides.



Featured image: Sandro Botticelli, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons





About Anthony Costello
Born and raised on the South Side of Chicago to a devout and loving Roman Catholic family, I fell away from my childhood faith as a young man. For years I lived a life of my own design-- a life of sin. But, at the age of 34, while serving in the United States Army, I set foot in my first Evangelical church. Hearing the Gospel preached, as if for the first time, I had a powerful, reality-altering experience of Jesus Christ. That day, He called me to Himself and to His service, and I have walked with Him ever since. You can read more about the author here.

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