Mysteries of the Bible

"Unanswered Questions of the Bible"

“You Shall Not Tempt The Lord Your God”

Posted by foryourfaith on February 1, 2010

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No one will ever know exactly why or how the decision was made, but sometime after his thirtieth year, Jesus, a carpenter in the hill country village of Nazareth, trekked south and east to the Jordan Valley to be baptized by John. He thereby joined with John in the expectation of the coming of the Kingdom of God.

The Gospels proclaim Jesus as God’s Messiah, and they recount the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, emphasizing the elements of mystery and miracle that reveal the divine character of his mission. They tell how John the Baptist subordinated himself to Jesus and even felt unworthy to baptize him (Matthew 3:14-15). The Gospel of John does not even report that John the Baptist did in fact baptize Jesus, but only that he bore witness to him as “the Son of God” and “the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29, 34). The stress of John the Baptist as the “forerunner” of Jesus also helped to win over some of the numerous disciples of John who continued to follow Jesus’ teaching after his death (Acts 18:25; 19:1-7).

The Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke describe a remarkable epiphany that accompanied Jesus’ baptism. When Jesus emerged from the Jordan, “he saw the heavens opened and the Spirit descending upon him like a dove; and a voice came from heaven, ‘Thou art my beloved Son; with thee I am well pleased’” (Mark 1:10-11). Thus Jesus’ mission begins with the miraculous presence of God’s Spirit and the emphatic assertion of Jesus’ identity by God himself. As God had appeared to Moses in the wilderness, so too did Jesus begin his journey with an epiphany of God in the wilderness with John.

Another step, however, had to precede the beginning of Jesus’ ministry. The Synoptic Gospels tell that the very Spirit that Jesus received at baptism “drove him out into the wilderness. And he was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan” (Mark 1:12-13). Mark does not spell out what happened, by Matthew and Luke tell of a three-part encounter with “the tempter” or “the devil.”

The word “devil” translates the Greek word diabolos, which, like the Hebrew word satan, means “accuser” or “slanderer.” For the Gospel writers it did not conjure up images of red-suited demons or the satanic monsters of later imagination. In fact, the Gospels leave this “accuser” remarkably undefined, allowing the reader to see him only through his challenges to Jesus’ identity as the Son of God.

As Israel spent 40 years being tested in the wilderness, and the prophet Elijah spent 40 days in the Sinai, where, at Mount Horeb he heard the voice of God, so now Jesus spent 40 days of fasting and trail in the barren wilds of Judea. Matthew and Luke both record the same three temptations and in both Gospels the focus is on Jesus’ identity as “Son of God” and on his obedience and trust in God.

Though physically weakened by fasting Jesus is indomitable in purpose. A story of temptation might be expected to include an account of inner struggle, of a mind divided over which way to go or what to do. The Gospel accounts, however, choose to depict only the barest hints of psychological struggle after Jesus’ 40 days of fasting.

Rather, what the Gospels describe is a formal, almost stylized confrontation between Satan and the Son of God. The tempter begins without the least hint of subtlety, “If you are the Son of God . . . . “ He directly challenges the identity that God himself had confirmed at Jesus’ baptism. Jesus in turn responds only by quoting the Scriptures – “It is written.” In each case he cites a passage from Deuteronomy concerning a lesson that Israel learned during its trials in the wilderness. Through their link to the experiences of God’s people in the past, the three temptations take on a symbolic character. They are not only a new and unique experience for Jesus, but the temptations also link him with his people’s often unsuccessful struggles with such temptations in the past.

Thus the Gospel according to Matthew records: “Jesus said to him, ‘Again it is written, “You shall not tempt the Lord your God.”’ Again the devil took him to a very high mountain, and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and the glory of them; and he said to him, ‘All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.’ Then Jesus said to him, ‘Begone, Satan! For it is written, “You shall worship the Lord your God and him only shall you serve.”’ Then the devil left him, and behold, angels came and ministered to him.”

The temptation to turn stones to bread may point to the human inability to trust God in ordinary life, to pray simply, “Give us this day our daily bread,” and trust God’s word. Perhaps it was also a temptation for Jesus to use miraculous powers in a self-serving manner.

The temptation to receive from the devil “all the kingdoms of the world” may point to Jesus’ rejection of political messiahship. It focuses on trust in God’s future – “Thy kingdom come” – and a commitment to worship and serve God alone.

The temptation to leap from the pinnacle of the Temple in Jerusalem suggests that God refuses to be the object of a controlled experiment; he will not be put to such a test. God’s name must be hallowed. The trials ended with Jesus, strengthened by the angels themselves, turning back to the people to begin his work.


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