Monday, July 07, 2008

Thoughts from the Wilderness

Author's note: this post was written about a week ago while I was sitting offline at the airport. Please excuse the lateness in my getting around to posting it.

I'm sitting here in the Seattle Tacoma International airport, reading from the Gospel according to Matthew, and I've just finished the following passage:

[4:1]Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. [2]And after He had fasted forty days and forty nights, He then became hungry. [3]And the tempter came and said to Him, "If You are the Son of God, command that these stones become bread." [4]But He answered and said, "It is written, 'Man shall not live on bread alone, but on every word that proceeds out of the mouth of God.'"

[5]Then the devil took Him into the holy city and had Him stand on the pinnacle of the temple [6]and said to Him, "If You are the Son of God, throw Yourself down, for it is written, 'He will command His angels concerning You'; and 'On their hands they will bear You up, so that You will not strike Your foot against stone.'" [7]Jesus said to him, "On the other hand, it is written, 'You shall not put the LORD your God to the test.'"

[8]Again, the devil took Him to a very high mountain and showed Him all the kingdoms of the world [9]and he said to Him, "All these things I will give You, if You fall down and worship me." [10]Then Jesus said to him, "Go Satan, for it is written, 'You shall worship the LORD your God, and serve Him only.'" [11]Then the devil left Him, and behold, angels came and began to minister to Him.

It is important to note that immediately (vs. 12, in fact) following this dialogue, Jesus Christ begins His earthly ministry. What struck me as particularly noteworthy about this passage was the nature of the three temptations that Satan offered Jesus. First (v. 3), Satan appeals to Christ's physical needs and desires: make food, and eat it. Christ, of course, rebuffs this temptation through the use of Scripture. Second, Satan appeals to Christ's intellect: logically, Scripture says this, so you're set. Again, the judicious application of Scripture provides the way of escape from this temptation. Finally, Satan makes an appeal to Jesus' pride and glorious nature: follow me and the Earth can be yours. And finally, Scripture once again comes through in a pinch.

My first insight (undoubtedly an unoriginal one) was the apparent necessity for Christ to overcome His fragile, temptation-prone human Self before truly beginning His ministry. He did this by defying the physical needs of the body, the "rational" intellectual pursuits to which man is prone, and the desire for earthly glory in the place of glory in the hereafter. In fact, in Matthew's Gospel, it's our first glimpse of Christ in action. Very telling indeed.

Secondly, this occurs immediately after Christ's baptism at the hands of John the Baptist (3:13-17). This demonstrates the very Christian notion that justification precedes sanctification, in that Christ was baptized and declared "good" by God the Father prior to His rejection of typical human failure. A common stumbling block to those who might otherwise seek Christ's love is a sense of unworthiness that must somehow be overcome prior to conversion rather than after (one of Satan's most powerful tools, no doubt). This demonstrates the fallacy of that thinking.

Finally, and perhaps this is a bit of a stretch, but it appears to me that this might be prefiguring the three aspects of the Trinity. First is the physical, human aspect, which is the Christ made manifest in the flesh. Second is the intellectual side, which I see as the Holy Spirit: that aspect of God who inspired men (lit. "God-breathed", from the Greek πνευμα, breath, also spirit, as in Holy Spirit, Αγια Πνευμα) to use their intellects to create Scripture and great, God-glorifying works. Third, there is the idea of the greater Glory, rulership of Heaven and Earth, and that Glory comes from the Father alone. Thus Satan attempts to co-opt or subvert each aspect of the Trinity, each of which Christ perfectly deflects in turn.

Oh, and since He used Scripture and Scripture alone to accomplish this, score one more point for sola Scriptura. Booyah!

This post was cross-posted at Mazurland.



Anonymous Marty said...

The temptation of Christ is a rich source of themes for sermons. I've heard some good ones on the topic over the years, usually involving some trio of interlocking arguments or themes regarding the nature of Christ's person and his mission. I like your thoughts on this, Ben, though as you say, I suspect it's not original. Here's another thought that's probably not original. The three things that Satan asks Christ to do he actually would do on his own (or, rather, the Father's) terms. Christ turns our hearts of stone into the Body of Christ (his Church) through the Eucharist, which is bread become His Body. Christ did "throw himself down from a high place". By submission to the will of the Father, the Son of God he was publicly executed. Yet he was raised up. And finally, Christ is King of the World and shall return in glory.

IN my theological musings, I had wanted to try to jam the whole Priest, Prophet, King triad into the temptation story, but I couldn't think of a way to neatly do it.

There are also many prefigurations of the Trinity in the Old Testament, some of which have been the inspiration for great works of art. One, a copy of which hangs in my church, is the 14th Century Trinity of Rublev, which depicts the feast under the tree at Mamre (Gen 18:1-16)

8:24 AM  

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