So what is the deal with Lent?
That's the question we started to try to answer this week in our Lent Bible study as part of our Dive Deeper Bible studies. The story of Jesus' temptation in the wilderness is an important part of our lent liturgy. The 40 days and nights that Jesus fasts are symbolized in the 40 days of lenten preparation leading up to Easter. All three synoptic gospels include this story (Matthew, Mark & Luke), and John takes elements of the three trials and includes them in other stories in his gospel. So we have to ask, what is the purpose of this passage? Why is it so important that all four gospel writers take elements of it and include it in their accounts? I think there are four different meanings that we can draw from this passage that shed some light as to why it is so important for us to revisit each year.
It connects us to Jesus
This is one of the first times in Matthew an d Luke's gospel accounts where we are really able to connect with Jesus. Jesus undergoes a period of testing or temptation just like we do. The miracles that Jesus is about to perform in the rest of the gospel highlight his divinity, but his ability to suffer, and to be tested, tell us something about his humanity. Throughout the gospel stories we see Jesus experience the full range of human emotions, from rage to sadness. We see him have to eat, sleep, and drink, and have to succumb to his bodily needs. Here in this passage we see him face trials and tests just like us, we too are tempted to stray away from God. Having these common points makes it easier for us to have a relationship with Jesus. God becomes relatable when he takes on human flesh and this story helps drive that point across.
It tells us something about the role that Jesus will fulfill
Matthew & Luke both contain longer accounts of Jesus' testing in the wilderness than Mark does. Taking into the consideration the larger tradition of the passage, not just being in Luke but also in Matthew, I think this passage tells us something about who Jesus will be. In Matthew's gospel, we see a parallel between Jesus & Moses/Israel. Just like Israel, Jesus is set apart from the beginning, Israel to be God's holy nation while Jesus is called the son of God. Moses and Jesus' lives are both threatened by kings when they are infants, Moses by Pharaoh and Jesus by Herod. We see Jesus move into Egypt, just like Israel does during the famine. Immediately before this passage, Jesus is baptized in the Jordan river, Israel has to cross "through the waters" of the Red Sea before being taken into the promised land. Now, Jesus spends 40 days and nights in the wilderness to be tested, while Israel spent 40 years in the wilderness being tested before they could enter the promised land. We also see Jesus quote scripture from Deuteronomy which coincides with Israel's time in the wilderness. While up to this point in the gospel accounts we see Jesus' story paralleling Israel's history, here is where we will see them begin to diverge. Israel has a history of disobeying God, falling away and then God sending a prophet or an opposing nation to turn Israel back to him. Jesus on the other hand, will go on to follow God's laws and sacrifice himself for all of humanity.
It tells us how to combat temptation.
Each time Jesus is tested/tempted he quotes scripture as a response to the temptation. A strong foundation of scriptural knowledge gives us something to rely on when our own will is weak. It connects us to a larger tradition and empowers us to live in accordance with God's will.
It tells us something about the substance of Jesus' ministry (and what our ministry should be about)
Jaroslav Pelikan Jr. wrote an article titled "The Temptation of the Church: A Study of Matthew 4:1-11," and in it Pelikan writes about how the temptations Jesus faces in the wilderness are similar in nature to the temptations that the Church faces today.
1st Temptation: Miraculous or Teaching?
In the first temptation, Jesus is asked to turn a stone into a loaf of bread, which would be a miracle. So why does Jesus rebuke Satan here when later on he will go on to perform miraculous things like healing the sick, making the blind see, walking on water, and raising the dead? Because it is also a test of what his ministry will be about. The point of Jesus' ministry was not the miracles that he performed. In the synoptic gospels, he even tries to hide his miracles some. After healing people, we often see him tell them to go and tell no one. Scholars refer to this as the "messianic secret." Jesus does not want people to follow him because of the miracles he does but instead because of the lessons that he teaches. In our ministry today, do we focus more on the production value and the miraculous thing to look at or do we pour our energy and efforts into the substance of things, the teaching?
2nd Temptation: Do we take shortcuts?
For the second temptation, Satan offers up a straight trade, if Jesus worships him then the world will be his. When we think about what Jesus aims to accomplish, to draw people into a right relationship with God, wouldn't that control of the world make it easier? If he has control of the whole world, instead of a few disciples in a small part of the Roman Empire, then his message can spread to everyone and all can be saved through his teachings. This is a test that the church continued to face during times of persecution. Christians were asked to offer up a small sacrifice to the emperor or to the head god of the state religion, in addition to their worship of God (Yahweh), and many people did. Jesus responds saying, "Worship the Lord your God, and serve him only." The claim which God makes on us is an exclusive and an absolute one, God doesn't ask us to be practical or sensible or successful, he only asks us to know that he is God alone and to worship him. Today, are we tempted to take short cuts even if we have the best of intentions to glorify God in some way with it?
3rd Temptation: Do we place holy things above God?
In the third temptation we see a culmination of the holy. Jesus is taken to the holy temple, in the holy city, and is quoted holy scripture, which says that holy angels will protect him. Jesus responds by mentioning the one holy thing not present in the temptation, God. Jesus says, "It is also written: 'Do not put the Lord your God to the test.'" Often times our deepest temptations to sin come not from what Pelikan calls our "lower desires," but from our desires to be holy. Often times we take good things and give them an improper priority. We elevate the Bible, the church, and tradition to a place where we do not allow ourselves to listen for what God would have us do. We have to be willing to let go of good things, in order to follow the new things that God may be calling us to do. The church has to constantly be a source of change, and if we hold on to our traditions more than we hold on to our mission to make and nurture disciples of all nations, then we have missed the mark.
Something to think about this season of lent.
In your own life, how would you respond to these three temptations of ministry? How can you draw closer to God so that like Jesus you too can withstand temptation? What is something you need to give up, or something you need to take on in order to do that?