When Jesus Faced Temptation

When Jesus Faced Temptation

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Jesus found himself stepping deeper into the wilderness, almost with a sense of compulsion. Everything had changed with his baptism—his work would begin in earnest now. The words the Father had spoken reverberated in his head, and he wondered aloud, “But what sort of Son am I to be, Abba? And how will I demonstrate that to your people, that I am your beloved and only begotten Son?” He needed clarity, a vision from G-d. In the past he had fasted and prayed many times, and as he thought of doing the same now, images of Moses and Elijah on the mountain came to him, and he suddenly realized that this fast must be lengthy: forty days of preparation.

On the eve of the last day of his fast, Jesus sat in the shade of a rock. His tongue was swollen, his belly was tight, and he barely had the strength to crawl out from the shade to drink from the stagnant pool of water nearby. His whole body ached, and when he looked down at his withered limbs he shuddered. “One more day,” he muttered. He turned to prayer once more, increasingly sensing that the vision would come, that his task would become clear.

On the fortieth day, he slowly woke up and pulled his thin covering closer around him. The sun was already quite high. As he looked up to determine the hour of the day so he could say morning prayers, he suddenly saw a blinding flash of light that seared his eyes. Hesitantly opening them again, he saw a figure—an angel of light, surely! Was his fast about to end? Would this messenger give him the vision from G-d?

In Need of Bread

But as soon as he heard the sibilant hiss of this figure’s words, he knew this was not his Father’s messenger. He heard the mockery and the challenge in the voice as well as the words: “If you are the Son of G-d, then turn these stones into bread.” Jesus glanced at the stones scattered close by, and his stomach groaned. How was he to respond to the challenge? Surely it was a test of his character, of his identity, and he must not fail it. Yes, he had access to the Spirit’s power and, heaven knows, he was sorely tempted to produce some food. After all, had not G-d miraculously provided manna for Jesus’ ancestors in the desert? And he was hungry. But his identity—not bread—was the issue here. What kind of Son would he be? What purpose would his power serve? If he was indeed going to fulfill all righteousness like a true Israelite, then to get through this trial, Jesus needed to rely on the Word of G-d and the Spirit of G-d, the same two resources available to any pious person. He pushed himself slowly to his feet, and faced the vision of light that stood before him.

Through cracked lips, his voice rasped, “It is written, ‘People don’t live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from G-d’s mouth.’” As he spoke these words, his mind returned to the generation that had wandered in the wilderness. Daily, they had received manna, teaching them to rely on G-d to provide the necessities of life. Even as his stomach growled in protest, Jesus determined to do what Israel had not. Praying for daily bread showed that one relied on G-d. G-d had led Jesus into this fast, and G-d would be the One to break it.

Atop the Temple Mount

Without warning, the vision changed. Now Jesus saw the temple precincts and, utterly disoriented, he found himself standing on the pinnacle of the corner of the temple, overlooking the Kidron Valley. The voice came again. “If you are the Son of G-d, then you can surely throw yourself down from here; for it is written, ‘He will command his angels and they will lift you up in their hands so that you will not strike your foot against a stone.’” Now the voice coming forth from the light was hurling Scripture back at him, like a weapon. But Jesus, in his heart, did not believe he had been called to use his power gratuitously, or for his own protection, or to prevent his experiencing the painful consequences of poor human choices. And why was this angel urging him to rely on angels for his rescue, when he need not put himself in danger in the first place? He looked down to see the throngs in the temple courtyards, and had a vision of himself descending gently from on high to land safely in their midst. What would such a demonstration of power in this place—the very heart of his people’s life—do for his standing among them? Then he knew the nature of this test. With a smile, he turned to address the figure again.

Worship God Alone

“On the other hand, it is written, ‘You shall not put the Lord your G-d to the test.’” Jesus felt deep gratitude for the presence of the Advocate with him, strengthening him to oppose the schemes of the Adversary. But relief was fleeting, as the vision changed yet again. Now Jesus seemed to be standing upon Mount Hermon, the tallest mountain anywhere near Galilee. From here he could see without limit in all directions. The Adversary moved in for the kill. “All this I can give to you, if you will just bow down and worship me.”

Barely able to stand, Jesus found the weight of this temptation almost overwhelming. The thoughts came rushing in. How easy it would be to free G-d’s people, if suddenly I was the ruler of this world. I could accomplish all I wanted for G-d’s people, immediately and at no cost. Except the cost that would come with betraying his Abba, his G-d, just as his people had done over and over again throughout their history. Now understanding fully who this angel of light was—the ruler of this fallen world—Jesus set his face like flint, and summoned what strength he had left to reply, “Away from me Satan, for the Scripture says, ‘You shall worship the Lord your G-d, and him only shall you serve!’” What kind of beloved Son would he be if he betrayed his Father, the only proper object of human worship, by worshiping such a lesser being as the Adversary? No matter what the Adversary could offer.

As quickly as the vision had come, it disappeared. Jesus found himself drenched in sweat and ravenously hungry, still lying in the dirt on top of the mount he had ascended to pray forty days earlier. Despite his hunger, it was his exhaustion, his need for rest which prevailed. The last thing he remembered before falling soundly asleep was the presence of some other beings of light—angels—attending him. He must have passed the test. G-d had come to his aid and he had been faithful. As he was closing his eyes, he thought to himself, Henceforth, I must live as, and present myself to others as, the Son of Man: truly human and yet also more than human, like the Son of Man in Daniel. I must constantly remind myself to live within my human limitations, limitations of time and space and knowledge and power, the limitations of mere mortals. Only so, will the sons and daughters of humankind be able to follow me and imitate my pattern of life. Only so, will I avoid the trap of appealing to one or another set of preconceived notions of what “the anointed one,” the ultimate son of David, must be and do. Only so, will G-d prevail and save his people from their sin.

This entry is an excerpt from The Gospel of Jesus by Ben Witherington III. Get it from our store here.


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