How the ‘Temptations of Jesus’ relate to everthing about you, society and the world

My friend, theologian Rob Knowles, who has featured on this blog before, has allowed me to publish his basic outline of the Temptations of Jesus and how they are a paradigm for every Christian disciple of Christ.  PDF available here:  The 3 Temptations of Jesus Christ.

What we will find here, is a profoundly insightful hermeneutical work on something that (big assumption alert) close to all readers of the Bible kind of skim over, and I write this placing myself firmly in that category.

Rob has kicked me up the exegetical backside with this excellent study, and if it’s too long for you to read, I make no apology save that this is one of the very ‘conditions’ that will be exposed in the study.  If this doesn’t get your interpretive juices flowing, I don’t know what will.

I hope you enjoy….


The Temptations of Jesus Christ: Explanation

1. Overview and Preliminary Points
The temptation narratives occur in the Synoptic Gospels (Mark, Matthew, and Luke), but not in John, and are only present in embryonic form in Mark. Matthew preserves the original order of the temptations, whereas Luke alters the order because Luke’s focus is often on the temple, and so he wishes to emphasize the temple by putting the temptation that features the temple last. Below, as in the Bible study, we will follow Matthew’s ordering of the temptations.

First of all, we may note that commentators stress that Mark’s account of the temptation of Jesus may hint at parallels and contrasts between Jesus’ temptation and that which was suffered by Adam and Eve. If Adam and Eve fail to resist the tempter, with the result that Paradise becomes a wilderness, then the Second Adam enters that wilderness, resists the tempter successfully, and so restores the wilderness to its original paradisiacal condition.

Second, commentators also stress that Matthew’s and Luke’s temptation narratives parallel and contrast with Israel’s testing in their desert wanderings, where many argue for this inter-textual relationship with respect to Mark as well. If Israel were baptised in the Sea of Reeds, Jesus was Baptised in the Jordan; if Israel was then tested in the Sinai, Jesus was then tested in the Negev; and if Israel went on to inherit a Promised Land, and a Ministry (in the case of the Levites), Jesus went on to inherit the Kingdom of God and a Ministry too. The contrast comes in that whereas Israel failed to resist Satan, Jesus succeeded. The desert, then, as a harsh place of testing, is also God’s place of preparation for the reception of inheritance. Israel’s failure to resist temptation delayed – but did not ultimately overrule – God’s fulfilment of divine promise.

Third, in 1 Corinthians 10 Paul parallels the Christian experience with Israel’s desert wanderings. Thus, by implication, Jesus’ temptation experience tells us something about Christian experience too. As we are tempted, so Jesus was tempted. As Israel often failed the test, so we often fail the test. But, if this is so, how can we see ourselves – our failures – in Israel’s behaviour? And how can we see ourselves – our successes – in Jesus’ behaviour? How do the relevant passages of Scripture interpret us?

Fourth, John the Baptist also tells us that Jesus will baptise us “with the Holy Spirit and fire” (Matt. 3:11; Luke 3:16). But, if fire signifies refinement, or discipline, and if the desert signifies the place where God refines and disciplines us, then we may even draw parallels between seasons of discipline within the Christian life and the temptation narratives. As Jesus was tested for a season, so we – having received a baptism of fire into a season of discipline – after we have “suffered for a little while” will be “made strong, firm, and steadfast” (1 Peter 5:10). And St. Peter should know, for he himself was handed over to Satan, the sifter, to be sifted like wheat, where sifting, like fire, is a purification or refinement motif. And if even apostles are handed over to Satan during special seasons of discipline – (and Satan cannot be made to “flee”, even by exorcists, during such seasons) – then will God not hand us over to Satan as well when we need a specific “sifting” kind of discipline? Of course he will! And during such times, will not the devil tempt us in every manner possible? Of course he will!

And, of course, fifth, if Christians experience discipline individually, then churches experience it corporately according to Revelation 2 and 3, as the risen Lord specifically states. The Bible is not individualistic, unlike us modernists, and so can mean groups when we think only of individuals. According to one Old Testament scholar, what would have struck Jesus’ original Jewish audience as hilarious about the rich man deciding to build bigger barns for his grain was the fact that he decided what to do by himself, rather than by taking it to the elders and the community.

In other words, Adam and Eve, Israel, Jesus, individual Christians, and Christian churches all experience baptism, testing, and inheritance. It is a revealed pattern for what spiritual life is. If spiritual life, positively speaking, is love for God and neighbour, then spiritual life, negatively speaking, is about resisting material self-empowerment or “self-feeding” in relation to the physical appetites, about resisting spiritual self-empowerment or seeking to “control God” or god-like power in relation to being rescued from our predicament in this world, and about resisting sociological self-empowerment or seeking to “enthrone self” or “exalt self” socially or competitively, whether overtly or covertly.

To these three temptations we now turn, because we have fallen into them very badly. And as one famous Welshman once said: “There’s no news… like bad news”.

2. The Temptations Themselves
Having made our preliminary points about the temptation narratives more broadly, we may turn to the temptations themselves. How do they relate to us today? What is their significance? Are we successfully resisting the three temptations, and if not, then how are we falling?

In my view, the three temptations are of increasing depth and subtlety, and so our commentary will become slightly larger as we move from the first temptation to the second temptation, and slightly larger again as we move on to the third temptation.

First Temptation: “Live for Material Self-Empowerment” (“Self-Feeding”)
Satan’s first temptation directed at Jesus tells Jesus to prove that he is the Son of God by miraculously turning desert stones into bread in order to meet his hunger. Jesus’ fast, though, like all fasts, and particularly like those of Moses and Elijah, was intended to seek God’s intervention for the commencement of a season of restoration, in response to being led by the Holy Spirit into such a fasting and a seeking. For Jesus to break the fast, then, would have been for him to go against the leading of the Holy Spirit.

Moreover, for Jesus to break the fast would presuppose that life could be gained outside of consecration to God, when in fact life – (including food but not reducible to food) – is provided by God’s word of life and power in the context of communion and covenant with God. In Matthew 6 we read that the “pagans run after all these things” thinking that, through material provisions alone, life can be gained independently of God. Whilst, to them, this seems to be the case, the reality is that God’s word of life and power provides for everybody – though the pagans, in their panic over this matter, hoard resources so that some people don’t have enough.

Jesus’ attitude, when faced with the desert, and with what might seem to be the impossibility of any providence, simply trusts that God will provide for his needs at the point when God says the fast is over. This happens when angels attend to Jesus’ sustenance after the fasting and the tempting are over.

Israel, though, grumbles against the Lord because they do not believe that God will provide for them in the desert. Even when God proves them wrong, they hoard manna and gather it on the Sabbath “just in case”. Their relationship to the provision is wrong in other ways, too: since it is their focus, they desire it to be more elaborate than necessary, craving meat. Adam and Eve, too, desired food other than that which was provided. That is, once we are out of communion with the Creator, our relationship to the creation, to what we might call the material or physical order, becomes distorted.
Similarly, modernism reduces reality to the “material” that constitutes “nature”, but then becomes distorted in its relationship to it in its humanistic naturalistic materialism. Rather than seeking a relational kingdom of love, modernism seeks a material utopia of material excess, which has grave consequences for most people in the world, and even for the few that have too much. The theologian Jürgen Moltmann speaks of “fortresses of wealth planted in a sea of mass misery”. Modernism, or humanistic naturalistic utopianism, is thus direct obedience to the first temptation, and is occult. Its adherents actively pursue consumerist material excesses so that they can then deploy and boast about symbols of wealth-oriented living in order to attain the preferential treatments and privileges of social standing and status. Thus, they actively pursue material inequality in order to gain social inequality, in direct disobedience to the second commandment.

Even Christians are not immune to such a distorted relationship to the material order. Individuals, including Christians, even become addicted to their own material, physiological body chemistry: serial house-purchasing, addiction to being the centre of attention socially, addictions to shopping, to exercise, or to computer-gaming are less obvious “substance-abuse” examples of addiction to scenarios that generate “feel-good” body chemistry. Alcoholism, gluttony and drug abuse are obvious examples, but should not be used as scapegoats to hide from exposing more subtle addictions. People can even be “used” or dehumanized into performing roles in relation to us designed only to stimulate our own body chemistry: pornography is an obvious example, but “celebrity-culture” is a similar “self-enthroning” activity that involves addiction to certain feeling states in a manner that presupposes a disastrous and idolatrous disconnect from God and from communion and covenant with God.

Thus, we should not only reject modernist consumerist materialism as an ideology (since it has killed hundreds of millions of people): we should even reject any form of “Christianity” that threatens to assimilate the Gospel to our own material concerns, since this is to fall into the first temptation, and into a gross error.

Second Temptation: “Live for Spiritual Self-Empowerment” (“Controlling God”)
In the second temptation that Satan directs towards Jesus, Satan asserts that since God will not rescue Jesus – either from the highest point of the temple in the vision, or from the desert as the place where Jesus is having the vision – then in order to effect a rescue Jesus will have to force God’s hand of rescue by throwing himself down. Satan asserts that since the Scripture states that God will protect Jesus, then this is a sure way to effect divine rescue “on demand”.

For Jesus to have obeyed this temptation, however, would have been for Jesus to have broken the revealed pattern for priestly interaction with God. Just as breaking the fast prematurely would have meant Jesus transgressing his role as the prophetic messiah as prefigured (most of the time) by Moses, then for Jesus to try to force God’s hand of rescuing power on his own terms would have meant Jesus transgressing his role as the priestly messiah as prefigured (most of the time, when he wasn’t making an idol) by Aaron. Similarly, in the third temptation, for Jesus to have succumbed to seeking social self-exaltation would have meant that Jesus would have transgressed his role as political messiah, as prefigured (most of the time) by David.

That is, Jesus, as true messiah, is following revealed patterns. To obey God is to follow God’s ways or patterns. No place is this more true than in the case of priesthood. The priest must follow the precise divinely-revealed protocols for how to relate to Almighty God. This is not to say that we do not have many freedoms in Christ – of course we do! But even in passages like Acts 15 and Galatians 5, which free us from legalistic obligations, some practices are still very much “out of bounds”. Thus, in Acts 15, we are warned against sexual immorality and against eating food sacrificed to idols, and in Galatians 5, we are warned against seeking justification as though it were through works of self-righteousness according to a distorted non-relational version of God’s law.

Jesus, then, as the highest priest of all, is not going to fall for the oldest sin in the book: seeking to manipulate God to powerfully intervene and rescue on demand, on one’s own terms, or according to one’s own patterns. God is not a system or machine that can be reduced to a button that we press to get what we want. God has his own views on matters, and these views are always right. Our views and perspectives on matters, by contrast, are always distorted. Therefore, we should pray, yes; we should even pray with a certain faithful attitude of expectation. But we must not try to order God about. Nor is God impressed by religious rituals designed to “secure” fixed results. Rather, in calling us to prayer, God seeks to involve us in what he already knows is best. Our prayers, then, are to constitute a developing interaction with God. As we grow in maturity, our prayers align more and more with God’s will, and become more and more effective – though God may give us some amazing prayer-answers early on in order to encourage us to persevere in learning to pray. If you want prayer answers, pray what the true prophets are praying!

Israel, though, became frightened in the desert when Moses was a long time coming down the mountain. So, they built a golden calf “to go before them” in the desert – that is, to shepherd them, protect them, and rescue them from their ongoing predicament. Aaron’s complicity in making the golden calf, however, later had tragic consequences in that his sons, perhaps copying his presumption, sought to relate to God according to their own pattern, offering unauthorized fire, which had the result that they were killed. Thus, the temptation is that when we face a dangerous predicament, we too either seek to create our own god to rescue us, or seek to manipulate the true God to rescue us on our own terms on demand. Really, these are two aspects of the same sin, since even seeking to manipulate the true God is to reduce him to a machine that serves us, which is really a matter of creating a false god for ourselves, but pretending that we are dealing with the true God.

Adam and Eve, too, were told by Satan that they were in a kind of predicament that they needed rescuing from. They were told that they were being controlled by a God who wanted to keep them ignorant and subordinated to him. As it happens, this is a standard pattern in cases of power-abuse: keep folks ignorant, like trusting children, through infantilising culture, through marginalising of intellectuals, through discouraging education and reading, through endless repeating of “the basics” – and through whatever justifies such domesticating practices. Satan, though, projected this, his own sin, onto God, and then told Adam and Eve that if they followed the formulae of eating from the tree of knowledge, then they would be rescued from their supposed predicament through a gaining of wisdom and power. That is, Satan tempted Adam and Eve with the promise of god-like power and wisdom, apart from God, through a mechanism or formulae. The sin encouraged by the second temptation was implicit in the serpent’s strategy in Eden.

Four examples of this same kind of sin, encouraged by Satan, will help illustrate what we are talking about:

First, there is obvious witch-craft or occult magic. Here, spiritual power is sought to perform specific tasks “on demand” through the practice of certain ritualistic formulae, sometimes involving spells. There is a mechanical cause and effect about it: do the formulae, get the result – at least at the level of aspiration.

Second, there is the less obvious example of what we called modernism above. Modernism argues that humanity exists alone, faced by the hostilities of “nature”. Therefore, in order to survive, humanity must exalt itself over “nature” and tame its hostilities by an imposition of a utopian designer-reality – including (ultimately) genetically modified disease-immune hybridised or “trans-human” “designer-selves”. Through a science that seeks to cross the boundary between serving God and becoming “god”, modernism seeks to overcome the curse by eating from the tree of knowledge, unwittingly obeying Satan in Genesis 3. Rejecting the restored Eden of the heavenly kingdom, modernism telescopes the notion of the perfect city forwards in time into this present era, recasts it in materialist terms, hoards resources in order to build it after the patterns revealed by fallen builder angels (worshipped by Masons – and, yes, this is standard angelology), but in doing so futilely seeks to commandeer a corner of God’s building site for, “unless God builds the house, its labourers build in vain”. Thus, in seeking rescue from the hostile “desert” of “nature” in which Cain’s descendents are doomed to wander, modernism seeks god-like power, on its own terms, through the ritual or mechanism of occult science (i.e. science that seeks to gain god-like power without God), in order to build the “Cosmopolis” (i.e. a city-state that conforms to, and yet also masters, the “nature” of the cosmos in which we live) or utopia that will constitute its final “rescued” state, as it seeks – like Satan – to conquer the heavens in its very own space odyssey – a form of self-enthroning bid for divinity that replaces eschatological pilgrimage. Modernity, then, despite its protestations of being secular, is really a religion of occult science: it seeks eternal life (i.e. longevity) through the tree of knowledge, not through the tree of life.

Third, in forms of Christianity that unwittingly assimilate the Gospel and discipleship to the second temptation, there is the example of legalism. Legalism seeks to secure, “on demand”, God’s powerful rescuing act of cleansing from sin and inclusion in communion with God through the mechanism or formulae of religious works that, as it happens, do not conform to the law of love, or “right-relating”, but to a distortion of God’s law that turns it into a non-relational rule-based precursor to “right-relating” that, as it happens, is policed by demons. But of course it is! It is obedience to a Satanic temptation to “get right with God” on wrong terms that insult the cross!

Fourth, in other forms of Christianity that also unwittingly assimilate the Gospel and discipleship to the second temptation, there is the example of distorted charismatic religion. Distorted charismatic religion invokes religious formulae to “guarantee” that God will powerfully act in certain rescuing ways “on demand”. The usual examples of formulae include assertive declarations, “speaking over”, catharsis-seeking escalations of shouting or of “ever-freer” expression or trance, “agreeing together that it will be so”, and so on. Normally, those who put on the most impressive displays of this kind are considered the most mature and spiritual. And, of course, there are plenty of spirits who are happy to oblige such cultures – Kundalini being just one of them that Andrew Strom rightly points out. The problem, moreover, is only exacerbated by the fact that these cultures typically suppress more advanced forms of biblical discipleship, and thereby suppress the theological criteria that enable false spirits to be discerned. Of course they do! They obey the second temptation, and so let in the demons – the same demons who then discourage us from maturing into the biblical discernment required to uncover their covert operations.

It may seem odd to group together overt occult magic, modernist utopianism, religious legalism, and distorted charismatic religion, but they all follow the same basic pattern: (a) act out the formulae or mechanism; (b) invoke the power of God or god-like power that will rescue us “on demand”; (c) wittingly or unwittingly welcome in the demons in the process. No wonder Jesus didn’t succumb to the second temptation!

Third Temptation: “Live for Social Self-Empowerment” (“Self-Exaltation”)
Satan’s third temptation is where he tells Jesus that he will give him all the kingdoms of the earth if Jesus will only worship him. If the first temptation focuses on distorted relating to the material realm and material self-empowerment, and if the second temptation focuses on distorted relating to the spiritual realm and spiritual empowerment, then the third temptation focuses on distorted relating to the social realm and on social empowerment.

If Jesus had yielded to this temptation, however, then he would have failed to become the Davidic political messiah that he still is. Now, of course, Jesus was not the political messiah that Israel had in mind. And we may doubt that Jesus is the political messiah that modern-day Zionists have in mind as well. But Jesus is still a Davidic King. In fact, he is the King of kings and the Lord of lords. Ironically, by resisting Satan’s temptation to give him all the kingdoms if only he would worship Satan, Jesus received all the kingdoms from God, since they were not in fact Satan’s to give, but God’s. Because Jesus humbled himself, he was exalted. If he had exalted himself, he would have been humbled, for “it is not honourable to seek one’s own honour”.

Similarly, David resisted honour when it was offered to him prematurely by Saul. And in his own desert wanderings, David saw himself as “a flea”, a “dog”, and not a great king. Of course, when he was rejected, left in need, and slandered by Nabal – who saw David as a runaway slave on some kind of autonomy bid away from his masters, rather than as somebody who had been hard-shouldered, forced into exile, and then actively pursued – then David almost sinned by avenging himself against Nabal in an act of self-vindication. But, even then, David listened to sense when Abigail dissuaded him from committing such an act. And, sure enough, because David refused to avenge himself, God did it for him, killing Nabal.

Jesus, likewise, “entrusted himself to him who judges justly”, and submitted to death on a cross. And, again, because he did not take power for himself, he was given it by God, so that now, “all judgment has been entrusted to the Son”. Satan, though, tempts Jesus, and us, to take social power for ourselves – for Satan knows that this is an entirely different mode of being to humility, a mode of being that God hates.

It is interesting that whilst John’s Gospel does not include the temptation narrative that is in embryo in Mark, fully present in Matthew, and then modified in Luke, it still includes instances in which people, perhaps unwittingly following Satan, try to tempt Jesus. One such example comes from Jesus’ own brothers. Thus, in John 7, we read:

1 After this, Jesus went around in Galilee. He did not want[a] to go about in Judea because the Jewish leaders there were looking for a way to kill him. 2 But when the Jewish Festival of Tabernacles was near, 3 Jesus’ brothers said to him, “Leave Galilee and go to Judea, so that your disciples there may see the works you do. 4 No one who wants to become a public figure acts in secret. Since you are doing these things, show yourself to the world.” 5 For even his own brothers did not believe in him. 6 Therefore Jesus told them, “My time is not yet here; for you any time will do. 7 The world cannot hate you, but it hates me because I testify that its works are evil. 8 You go to the festival. I am not [yet] going up to this festival, because my time has not yet fully come.” 9 After he had said this, he stayed in Galilee. 10 However, after his brothers had left for the festival, he went also, not publicly, but in secret (John 7:1-10).

That is, Jesus’ ‘brothers did not believe in him’, in who he really was. They saw Jesus as able to do miracles, yes, but also as somebody who: (a) simply “wanted” ‘to become a public figure’; and who (b) should therefore take responsibility for his own publicity, his own “rise to fame”. That is, (c), they saw Jesus as somebody who wanted ‘the world’ to love him.

Jesus, though, was not somebody who was “motivated to use self-publicizing strategies (miracles in this case) in order to become a public figure (or celebrity) who was loved by the world”. Even if Jesus had had this motive, it would have been unrealistic since the world could not love him but, rather, “hated” him for exposing its ‘evil’. That is, when it came to “self-publicizing exploitation of the Spirit’s power for the purposes of social self-exaltation unto celebrity”, Jesus was not interested. In the face of this temptation to misuse divine power, Jesus remained passive. Such an autonomy-drive grounded in distrust in God was beneath him.

Thus, if Satan suggested to Jesus that sociological advancement came through devil worship, then Jesus’ brothers suggested to Jesus that sociological advancement came through manipulating people through self-publicity. The concerning point that emerges from this observation for our Western culture today is that its pervasive practice by which people attempt to achieve social advancement through manipulating others through self-publicizing practices of image-construction and image-editing is at least consistent with devil-worship. For sure, very few are involved in overt occultism. But then again, it seems that Satan’s own definition of devil-worship could be consistent even with public office “on show”, or even with what many in our society today would call “ordinary life, aspirations, and getting noticed”.

Thiselton’s exposition of Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians is important at this point, and deserves attention – not least because scholars agree that Thiselton is the world’s foremost expert on this epistle. Thiselton argues that Paul’s bone of contention in 1 Corinthians is that the Corinthian Christians have assimilated their religion to the social climbing or careerism of the times. Christians would seek prominence by displays that used their gifts of the Spirit, yes, but in ways that sought celebrity through seeking to impress patrons – patrons who would then lift them up into higher positions of status and power.

Such status-seeking, power-seeking Christians would thus “play to the gallery” to win “audience applause”, in the hope that this would impress those they desired as patrons. Also, such status-seeking, power-seeking Christians, in order to win such applause and please such patrons, would preach an audience-affirming or audience-pleasing message, as well as a message that affirmed their desired patrons and their interests and factions, and a message that commended themselves to those patrons, interests, and factions. Thus, such socially-climbing Christians would distort the transcendental biblical gospel message into a local “what their itching ears want to hear” testimony about self, about patrons, interests, and factions, and would then dress this up as “the true Gospel”. Basically, Christianity was turned into a colossal “selfy”, into an autobiographical message about self, and not primarily a message about Jesus.

Of course, one’s testimony has a place in witnessing, but this place is tertiary in importance. Jesus’ Gospel story takes priority; then that of the corporate body of God’s people over history, beginning with the biblical Israel and the apostolic church; and lastly one’s own experience or testimony.
The bombshell that Thiselton then drops, though, is that precisely the wrong behaviours just noted above have now come to dominate contemporary “postmodern” church. Christians exploit Christian religion, turning it into a big “selfy” (our term, not Thiselton’s), purloining the gifts of the Spirit in order to put on self-publicizing displays in order to ongoingly create an ever-more-edited image of themselves, an ever-more crowd-pleasing patron-pleasing “what their itching ears want to hear” “localist” message, in order to promote their own ecclesial career-advancement. Basically, the church is being hijacked by show-offs who want attention. The result is jealousy, factions, division, strife, and disunity.

Thiselton, following Paul, then contrasts this abuse of Christian religion with true Christianity. True Christianity is: Christ-centred, not self-centred; and cruciform in its sacrifice of oneself and of one’s own image, status, and power for the advancement and empowerment of others. Christianity lifts up the other, not the self. The result is loving fellowship, a proper use of the gifts of the Spirit, and much more unity.

Naturally, as in Corinthian times, the “postmodern” church is merely copying the culture of its day. Today’s postmodernity is a two-fold response to the failure of modernism’s attempt to construct technological utopias in the real world. The “good” side of the postmodern is a multi-faceted critique of modernism. But the “bad” side of the postmodern is a mechanism for the denial of modernity’s failures – the environmental, humanitarian, economic, political, and philosophical disasters created by modernity. Thus, “bad postmodernism” seeks to dissolve the historical testimony to modernity’s failures by dissolving the texts that convey such testimony. This de-stabilizing of historical texts by the more “post-structural” side of the postmodern then allows a flattened so-called “neo-pragmatic democracy” to develop – a democracy that is flattened because it disallows past voices of wisdom that might challenge its present voices of pragmatic power. The rhetoric of the “democratic” thus becomes a thin veil for socially-engineered consensus.

All this, of course, becomes a theatre of manipulation in which the “right-relating” of the apostolic biblical paradigm is displaced by the “political expedient manipulative relating” of the political Bible-suppressing paradigm. A lack of serving of others is masked by an edited image that says “here at such-and-such, we always seek to place the customer first, and offer only the finest products” – an edited image that everybody knows is all about self-promotion and not about the customer. Thus, nothing is ever followed-through or rigorously checked, for it is image-construction in the moment that is most important. On the one hand, pensioners are left bewildered and un-helped by a myriad of competing systems that don’t work properly. On the other hand, every one of those systems tirelessly constructs images that say how great they are. Engagement with the image replaces engagement with the reality.

In the church, this leads to the ugliness of post-doctrinal post-evangelical neo-pragmatism. Every public appearance is polished to perfection, but there is little or no reality behind the scenes. The reality is now the scenes, the show. Every inter-personal utterance is filled with affirming words and promises, but these seldom amount to anything. There is little or no “off-stage” community; little or no “follow-through” on promises. “Right-Relating” seems to exist “in the moment” but, over time, is not marked by faithfulness. It is mere artifice, mere imposture, mere semblance. Emails are responded to only if it serves personal image-construction or political advancement; “non-players” are patronized or ignored; cliques relate one way inside the clique, another way outside of it; flattery is the norm, but so is political manoeuvring that undermines competitors. Whole lives of ministry for God are suppressed by shepherds who feed only themselves. Love sums up the law and the prophets, and yet is entirely absent. And the widow, the orphan, and the leper condemn such false religion on the Last Day.

Meanwhile, proponents ape chat-show hosts and spiritual raptures. The social theorist Frederic Jameson speaks of “depthlessness, affectlessness, euphoric forgetting, nostalgic pastiche celebrating surfaces, Gothic rapture of the hysterical sublime, the glossy skin of hallucinatory exhilaration, the euphoria of intensities akin to the limits of figuration or depiction – like the Romanticist sublime without the revelation”. Not easy words to understand, admittedly – but deadly accurate.
And so, no wonder Jesus resisted Satan’s third temptation! It seems to be the worst of all, and is directly associated with devil-worship in the temptation narratives of Matthew and Luke. How unfortunate for the West; how unfortunate for politicized “selfy” religion; how unfortunate for skilled political players who hijack church for their own self-advancement: the cat is out of the bag, I’m afraid.

And, of course, in falling into the third temptation, we are merely walking in the age-old footsteps of Adam and Eve, and of Israel before us.

Adam and Eve existed in a time when other humans existed. No amount of hermeneutical manipulation can date the original Eden prior to the earliest hominids, who lived at least 100,000 years ago, and probably a few millions of years ago. If one believes in a literal Adam and Eve, then they were not alone.

But how, then, could they be unique – the start of our race, as the Bible seems to suggest? Four factors present themselves as possible solutions: first, it is possible that the latest major genetic modification to human-kind occurred around the time of Adam and Eve; second, some kind of primordial catastrophe could have wiped out many earlier humans, necessitating a new start (scholars are divided on whether this point can be deduced from Genesis 1); third, the Genesis account speaks of God wanting to farm the land – so Adam and Eve could be important in relation to the historical introduction of farming; fourth, Adam and Eve could be the first “spiritual” humans – they were created in communion with God, in Eden, where chaotic forces were held at bay by God’s presence, and so they lived far, far longer than surrounding tribes.

But why this digression? Well, if Adam and Eve were not alone, then Satan’s temptation that they could become “like God” must have had a sociological component to it. What is tempting about becoming “like a god”? It is the fact that one will then have power not only over the created order (cf. the first temptation), not only over one’s own predicaments (cf. the second temptation), but also over others (cf. the third temptation).

Israel, too, succumbed to the third temptation, in Numbers 14. When they had the chance to invade the Promised Land and wipe out the giant hybrids with God’s leading, sanction, and help, they refused. Later, though, after God had withdrawn the opportunity for them to take the land, they tried to take it by themselves, without God’s leading, sanction, and help, in an act of social self-exaltation. They sought to enthrone themselves over the Amalekites and Canaanites, by their own efforts – and received a good thrashing as a punishment.

So, too, will those who “love the seats of honour”, the self-enthroners who oppress others; so too will the Nabals and Diotrephes of this world who “love to be first”, who do not welcome the apostles or their teaching, and who hard-shoulder others and then slander them as individualistic defectors, or as those with “issues”. Such men and women “will be punished most severely”. Yes, that’s right: it’s the same old people committing the same old sins. No wonder Jesus resisted Satan’s third temptation – he’s seen it so often before, and spent much of his ministry exposing and condemning the social self-exalters – the very same folks who eventually killed him.

A brief Study Guide is available on request for personal or group study.

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