I have always loved that Jesus was fully human while here on earth. His miracles are amazing too, but I have often reveled and found comfort in the fact that he fully experienced life. This helps me to be in relationship with him.
As I was rereading a familiar passage, though, I realized that I haven’t always given him proper credit for TRULY being human and carrying on the ministry God set before him. You see, while I have read Matthew 3:13-4:11 about Jesus’ temptation in the desert many times, I have never really believed that Jesus was truly tempted—maybe because I know that he was also fully God during that time in the desert or because it’s hard for me to believe someone could forgo food for forty days and so I discount the story a bit, or more likely because the things Satan presents to him just don’t seem that tempting to me.
Yet Matthew 4:1 clearly says, “Then Jesus was led by the Spirit into the desert to be tempted by the devil.” So I decided to look at what would be tempting to Jesus about Satan’s offers. I am not a Bible scholar, but what this questioning led me to really changed how I look at this story.
I noticed a pattern in Satan’s ploys. First he targets a weakness that relates to Jesus’ circumstances, and then he targets a weakness that could hinder Jesus’ upcoming ministry.
First, Satan said, “If you are the Song of God…tell these stones to become bread” (Matthew 4:3). Jesus was hungry! So the obvious temptation Satan was playing on was that Jesus really really wanted food. I get desperate and cranky if I have to wait a few hours for my meal; I cannot imagine forty days! But I wonder if this was also tapping into a more internal temptation for Jesus; Satan was baiting him to use his powers for his own benefit. When Jesus resisted this temptation, he set a pattern that would continue through his ministry—he used his gifts and abilities to serve others. Period.
Second, Satan took him “to the holy city and had him stand on the highest point of the temple. ‘If you are the Son of God…throw yourself down. For it is written: He will command his angels concerning you, and they will lift you up in their hands, so that you will not strike your foot against a stone’” (Matthew 4:5-6). Poor Jesus was weary and perhaps daunted by the path before him. He was physically exhausted after his desert vigil in a way I cannot fathom, and it must have been so tempting to just fall and let the angels carry his burdens. He was about to begin a ministry that would consume his every waking moment, make him the object of ridicule and dangerous persecution and then lead to the most painful death imaginable. As he revealed in Gethsemane later in his story, he wanted the cup of death to go away. The temptation to pass it off must have been there from the beginning. In resisting this temptation, he chose to bravely move forward as a man who would rely on God and yet not shirk his place in the story of salvation.
Finally, Satan moved them “to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor. ‘All this I will give you…if you will bow down and worship me’” (Matthew 4:8-9). Honestly, this is the one that took me the longest to wrap my head around, because this one seems like such a foolish move on Satan’s part. Of course Jesus is not going to bow down to you, Satan! What were you thinking? And yet, we know that of all the things Satan is, foolish is not one of them. And also, this temptation was the one that Jesus most strongly reacted to, which suggests it was the one that may have hit home the hardest. The fact that Satan first showed him all the kingdoms of the world gives me a clue. Jesus was lonely. He had been alone for over a month, and when he looked at his future, he saw more loneliness. As he surveyed those kingdoms, he had to have known that he was going to be a big disappointment to many of the people living there. They expected a Messiah who would charge in, defeat their enemies, put the Jews in a place of honor and then lead them like a mighty king. But that was not God’s plan. Jesus was setting out to preach an unpopular message of humility and service and weakness in order to be strong in the Lord. While his upcoming Beatitude sermon would be well received by his followers, it was in direct contrast to what the religious people wanted to hear. Looking forward again in the story to Gethsemane, we see Jesus’ desperation for true companionship and how even his closest friends failed him. The path before him was one of loneliness, and Satan played on his desire to please the masses.
Jesus’ ability to resist these temptations in such a weak physical state gives me strength and confidence in my ability to do the same with his guidance and provision. I can resist temptation even when I am hungry, weary and lonely. I can resist the urge to serve myself with my gifts and abilities and instead serve others with the way God made me; I can resist the urge to flee when things get hard and painful, and instead move forward on the path God has called me to walk no matter how daunting it is; I can resist the urge to please others over pleasing God even when that will lead to loneliness and perhaps ridicule. I will not always succeed in this, because I am not God, but I can follow Jesus' example, because he was real…he was here…he was fully human.
May you be fueled with the confidence of Jesus’ example today. May you be filled with comfort, knowing that Jesus truly faced what we face. For when he was in trouble, he turned to the same God we serve:
“God is our refuge and strength, an ever-present help in trouble. Therefore we will not fear, though the earth give way and the mountains fall into the heart of the sea, though its waters roar and foam and the mountains quake with surging…The Lord Almighty is with us; the God of Jacob is our fortress” (Psalms 46:1-7).