Sunday, May 24, 2009

T is for Temptation of Christ

It's often hard to get a clear understanding of the nature of Christ. Truth be told, we never will this side of eternity, but in our journey of spiritual growth and maturity we are all too apt to swing too quickly to one side or the other in the attempt to understand The God-Man. Depending on mood, our place in life, what we need Christ to be at the moment, we may tell ourselves that he was a man just like we are, tempted, tried, and tired. Or we may regale ourselves with Revelation's stories of His soon coming triumphal procession when He will ride valiantly in, a Savior on a white horse, and take us out of this place of sin and misery. Either way, little do we actually come to realize about Christ when we tend towards one nature or the other in this manner. Rather, we would be wiser to examine how much we actually learn about ourselves, our nature to bring anything we cannot understand down to our level diminishing its glory, or our tendency to lift to the level of transcendence and flaunt our relationship to an All Powerful Being who will save us from ill. All in all, both are rather self-serving views.

But we have just acknowledged that we will not fully understand Christ's nature this side of eternity. How then can we right the wrongs of our fallacious idolization of one or the other of Christ's natures? By seeking the elements of both His humanity and His divinity in all aspects of His life, His work, His creation. By going after what the media once termed "a fair and balanced view".

The temptation of Christ is one of those stories that seems to most always be told from the point of view of Christ's divinity. The plot line: Christ is God, He cannot give in to temptation, He can do nothing but tell the devil off and put him in his place. Yet the moral of this story tends to be: See, Christ was tempted like we are too. His humanity is made a tag line, a very weak attempt at making us relate to Him. So what? So what that Christ was tempted like we are if He couldn't give in to temptation because He is God? In the end, the traditional telling of Christ's temptation does little to tell us about the characteristics and attributes of either of His natures.

The actual story picks up just after Christ's baptism by John in the Jordan River. In Matthew 3:16-17 the Spirit of God descends and speaks, "This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased." Then Christ was led by the Spirit into the wilderness for a forty day fast toward the end of which Satan comes at Him mocking His divine nature as revealed by the Spirit at Christ's baptism by essentially saying, "If you are the Son of God, prove it." Then appealing to His very human nature, which was at a point of weakness, Satan continued, "command these stones to become loaves of bread" (Matthew 4:3). In The Screwtape Letters, C.S. Lewis points out the fact that Satan is keen on the appeals of food to a man-sized hunger when Lewis ascribes to the chief demon, Screwtape, the swaying word, the brilliant temptation, "I struck instantly at the part of the man which I had best under my control and suggested that it was just about time he had some lunch." Just take a look around at the next meal time and you will see, men have a hearty appetite. Working men have an especially hearty appetite. And fasting men, well, I think you get the picture. Satan's first was a legitimate temptation. An appeal to the stomach.

According to Matthew 4, Satan's second move was to take Christ "to the holy city and set him on the pinnacle of the temple" (v. 5). What ensued was a dare. Maybe even a double-dog dare. Satan essentially said to Christ, "I dare you to jump off this building, you know it says in Scripture that your angels will come save you!" Is there worse a wound to manly confidence than a dare and a taunt? It is a part of man's nature to take up a good challenge. In one of John Kerry's saner moments he once stated, “That is what Americans do. We face a challenge—no matter how great—because we know that on the other side there is always hope.” This idea is not peculiar to Americans, any time a challenge is faced, a dare is taken up, it is in hope that coming out on the other side will make us a better person or give us a better position. Whether for valiant or for self-serving reasons it is in our nature to take a dare, therefore, Satan's second was a legitimate temptation. An appeal to confidence.

For the last temptation, Satan takes a no-holds-barred approach. He first took the mocking approach by challenging, "If you are the Son of God." In his second attempt he quoted Scripture back to Christ by siting, "they (angels) will bear you up, lest you strike your foot against a stone." Satan's last move is a somewhat desperate one, yet all too often effective with lesser men. "The devil took him (Christ) to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their glory" (v. 8). Splendor and true beauty strikes a cord even in the hardest of hearts. Satan acknowledged the vast span which laid before himself and Christ as glorious, moving, and beautiful, otherwise he would have never considered it a temptation to say to Christ, "All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me" (v. 9). Imagine it, the splendors of nature, the wealth of nations, the authority of all things offered to you. Oh what a pleasing pestilence the palatable potential for power provides. All mankind seeks it, all mankind longs for it. Satan's last was a legitimate temptation. An appeal to power.

Christ is the God-Man. Fully both. Neither one nor the other alone. It is a matter that has baffled the greatest of minds across the ages. It is incomprehendible, but just because we cannot adequately comprehend does not mean that we can avoid the hard intentionality of seeking to better understand. Satan came at Christ with legitimate temptations, appealing to His human nature at a time when He was weakened, tired, and hungry. And yet He was able to resist temptation, taking hold of a purpose and a plan greater than any self-serving endeavor a human could take up. In Him we too may rebuke the tempter. Christ is the Bread of Life, able to succor the weariest of hungering souls (John 6:35). Christ is the All Sufficient, giving true confidence and competence to set about the most challenging of endeavors (2 Corinthians 3:4-6). Christ is the Creator and Sustainer, placing the power of dominion on the least and the last (Psalm 8). In these truths we find the answer to our wonderings about the character and nature of Christ. In Him we find the balm to salve our putrid hearts. He is both God Almighty and Father. He is at once Creator of the Universe and Friend. Just as Christ knew who He was, remembering His Fathers declaration at His baptism, so too we must remember who we are—sons and daughters of God in whom He is well pleased. Why then would we settle for the paltry facade and the jealous impersonations of a fallen angel who has no authority to even offer the objects of his temptations. May we flee to no other refuge, wash in no other fountain, build on no other foundation, receive from no other fullness, rest in no other relief (Valley of Vision), because the Fount of Truth and Grace has been freely given to us as the heirs of Christ.

Since then we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God, let us hold fast our confession. For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin. Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need. —Hebrews 4:14-16

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