Matthew 4:1-17, The Lord's Temptation and Choice

Trinity Sunday

[May 18, 2008] Trinity Sunday (today) comes right after the church is baptized in the Holy Spirit to carry out its mission of witnessing to Christ. On the day of Pentecost, not only were the disciples filled with the Holy Spirit, but they also baptized three thousand more disciples in water. Jesus told them to make disciples of all nations and baptize them into the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, “teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you” (Matthew 28:19-20).

The name of the Trinity is the name into which we are baptized. Baptism is in the Spirit, the water and blood. It is the martyr’s pledge (1 John 5:4-8). We bind ourselves to the strong name of the Trinity unto death, and we signify it by dying to our own life in the waters and rising with Christ. Now we are ready for the Christian life.

So the Trinity is the reality (the name) into which God places us when we believe—or rather, so that we can believe—by placing us into Christ (2 Corinthians 1:21-22; 1 Corinthians 1:30; Romans 6:3, etc.). The Trinity is also the faith that we confess. It is the content of our faith, the summary and synopsis of our faith, the “rule of faith” as the early church called it, and the framework of the church’s teaching. It is what defines us as Christian believers. If our faith does not take the form of the Trinity, it is not Christian.

The Trinity is the summary and synopsis of the church’s faith: the name for the sake of which we have renounced ourselves, and into which we have been baptized, and for which we are willing to die, and do die daily. The Trinity is thus an appropriate theme for the Sunday that begins the rest of the church year—the “green season” during which we grow in the garden of the faith through the teaching of the Gospel until the end of November, when we begin again.

The Baptism of Jesus

It seems appropriate then, that we begin by going back to the baptism of Jesus. The story of Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness is a continuation of the story of His baptism, which we know by simply reading the gospel sequentially. Jesus heard of John’s baptism “unto repentance” and responded by undergoing baptism Himself. If He was the sinless Son of God, why would He need to undergo a baptism of repentance? It was the beginning of His particular obedience unto the Father, the form that His obedience must take if it is to be obedience. It was a decisive act of obedience, a particular dedication of Himself to the Father’s will.

What was the Father’s will for Him? As we heard Him say last Sunday, it is to give up His soul (Matthew 20:28). Your soul is your self, your feelings and thoughts and will, your opinions and appetites and passions, that which is your own, that you identify with, your identity with yourself. It is your life, and to give it up is to die. His soul was most holy and sinless. There was not a thing wrong with it. Yet He was going to sacrifice it to God as an offering of love. He was going to lay down His soul, let it go, surrender it, deny it, even renounce it. What begins here at His baptism reaches a climax in the Garden of Gethsemane (26:36-46) when He takes the cup of suffering that is the Father’s will—“not my will by Thine be done”—the conclusion of which was His death on the cross.

Here begins His path of obedience, and the Father responds by empowering Him for that path with the Holy Spirit who descends on Him at that moment and with His own proclamation, “THIS One, this ONE is My Son, the Beloved, in whom I have found My delight.”

What happened at that moment? I think it was a revelation to Jesus, an opening of the heavens, in which, by His complete denial and transcendence of His human ego, He identifies completely with His divine “hypostasis”—that is, who-He-is originally, God the Son, before He took on His human nature—so that He can now take on His human nature in pure obedience and surrender to God’s will.

For Him this is how His path begins. Here is why it matters to us: it matters because He calls us to the same obedience. In fact, when we believe and are baptized, we are signing up for it, whether we know it or not. His is the obedience to which we are called. But unlike the army, once we have signed up for it, there is no resigning, no quitting, no leave, no discharge, no retirement. There is only AWOL, by which you only drag things out, for He will find you (He never loses sight of you). This sounds like bad news, but it is really Good News—for we give up our aluminum foil for gold bullion. What we cling to we do not really want.

Undoing the Sin of our First Parents

The first thing that the Spirit does is lead Jesus into the wilderness. Mark’s gospel says that the Spirit drives or thrusts Him into the wilderness. Before He can begin His work, His decision and resolve, His initial act of obedience must be tested and thus sealed.

Our alienation from God took place in the Garden of Eden when Adam and Eve were tempted and took the fruit that God had forbidden. That Garden reminds us of another Garden (Gethsemane) when the last Adam made a different choice. But here in the wilderness the temptation begins (for the temptation will continue—see Matthew 16:23). The devil comes as the tempter. He is no little demon or perverse thought. The devil was once the head of the pantheon of angels, and He is the root of our rupture with God. The temptation here is radical, fundamental and basic. It is the temptation to apostasy, to betrayal of God. For Jesus it was the temptation to undo the decision of His baptism.

For Adam and Eve the choice was between the Tree of Life (for which they apparently were still being prepared) and the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. To choose the Tree of Life means to live by the gift of God’s own life. They were cut off from this choice by a cherubim with a flaming sword. What was the other choice of the Tree of Knowledge? It is to choose to know good and evil oneself, to live on the basis of one’s own knowledge, to be independent and self-sufficient with respect to God. It is to attempt to do God’s will by one’s own know-how and strength. It is self-justification by means of the Law. It always end up with simply doing our own will in rebellion against God, whatever we think we might be doing (we always think we are doing the right thing, the “good,'”but we have rationalized our own will and are deluded.)

To undo this, Jesus rejects the Knowledge of Good and Evil and submits completely to God. In each temptation, the devil tempts Him to act on His own. In each case, He responds, “It is written.” Jesus may just be facing His own desires and thoughts, but in the last temptation the devil shows his face and Jesus declares him for who he is, “Go away, Satan!” Then it is settled, and the “strong man” is bound (see Matthew 12:29). Jesus overcomes him. Satan has no ground in His soul with which to work, and therefore no power over Him.

Satan, who is the prince of the world, would have no power over us either, if he had no ground in us. The cross of Christ takes that ground away from him. We died with Christ and need to account ourselves dead with Him and yield to the working of His death in our soul (Romans 6:6, 11; 8:13). Our identification with His obedience, not our own self-effort, is what frees us.

The Wilderness

But why the wilderness? It has a particular meaning in the Bible. We encounter the wilderness as a major theme in the exodus, when Israel left Egypt, and we encounter it again as a major theme when the prophets speak to the exiles in Babylon and speak of another exodus when they will return to the land promised to Abraham. We last encountered it with John the Baptist who appears in the wilderness and is the voice of one crying: “In the wilderness make clear the way of the Lord; make straight in the desert a highway for our God” (Isaiah 40:3). According to Isaiah this has to do with the exiles preparing for the coming of God after judgment. The baptism of John reenacts the crossing of the Red Sea.

The wilderness speaks of two things. In the wilderness we are separated from the world and its influences. Therefore, it is the place where we confront our own soul and encounter the world within us, the outside world that we bring with us, and it is where we meet the tempter, the prince of the world and, in this isolation from the world, we can see him for who he is—Satan.

In the wilderness we are also completely dependent on God. Israel must depend on God for food and water and for everything else. It is a matter of trust, not inaction (God is not opposed to hard work, but He does not want us to make an idol of it either). But in the Gospel according to Matthew Jesus would have us trust God for everything. He means it thoroughly, to the deepest level of our inner needs and the outermost extent of our social concerns. Satan tempted Jesus three times to act on His own, even if it is to use His divine power (first temptation) or to force God to act (second temptation). Though He would be ‘relying’ on God, He would be acting on the basis of what He thought was right—He would be using God, not trusting Him.

The Exile and the Temptation of the Zealots

Because of their disobedience, Israel never possessed the land that they were promised. The fullest extent of their possession was under David and Solomon, who were pictures of the coming Messiah, but after that it eroded and they finally lost their title to it when they were exiled to Assyria and Babylon. The prophets spoke of how Israel came under God’s judgment for their idolatry. They also spoke of the coming of God and how God was going to purify them by the sin-offering of the Servant of the Lord, and how through Him God was going to gather all Israel and fulfill all the promises He ever made to them.

A small remnant returned in the days of Ezra and Nehemiah, and resettled in the land, but this return was not the fulfillment of what the prophets spoke about. Israel was still in exile and needed to be patient, and they still are today.

However, in between the Old Testament and the New Testament Israel grew impatient and tried to take matters into their own hands. They were somewhat successful, at least in overthrowing foreign rule, under the Maccabees. Later, in the New Testament there was a movement to do the same thing, a movement of Jewish nationalism. They called themselves Zealots (the organized movement was later), because they were zealous for God. They were impatient and decided that they needed to take matters into their own hands.

The temptations of Jesus all represent temptations to be this kind of Messiah. The first temptation is to feed the people—give them what they “need”—then they will obey God. Jesus refuses this temptation and insists (quoting Deuteronomy 8:3) that what people need is the Word of God, not material deliverance. God can provide our material needs if we obey Him. The church historically has chosen to protect people from the demands of the Gospel and satisfy them with bread instead (see Dostoevsky on this). Post-Christian society believes itself capable of saving man by meeting all his material needs through money and technology. Economic growth and technology are our new saviors.

The second temptation has to do with manipulating God, forcing His hand. This is that impatience that would speed up God’s timetable and make Him do what we think He ought. If Jesus would do this, He could attract the crowd. The church would also perhaps do something spectacular to get people’s attention to win the largest following. It is about numbers. At least you get them to follow you, but their hearts are far away from God.

The third temptation is the temptation of power. This is the political route. If Jesus would play the game, He can have influence and save the world. This temptation exposes the prince of the world. Power is idolatry. It always touches upon what we worship. The church also chose this route when it embraced political power in the days of the emperor Constantine and the Middle Ages and thereafter. It still takes this route when it gives itself a political role in democratic society.

Eventually Israel took the bait of the Zealots and God brought judgment on them as Jesus said would happen. In the book of Revelation, the beast takes up all these temptations to their full extent. He has absolute power, he performs wonders and miracles, and he provides all that the people need. Sounds great, but he is practically the incarnation of the devil.

The clue to the path that Jesus takes is Isaiah 9 that is quoted in Matthew 4:15-16. We are living in the time of judgment (this is the context of the previous chapters in Isaiah), but a great light has risen. This light of course is Jesus, but the world has not yet changed. We are living in the in-between time. The new world has dawned, it already shines, but the old still continues. We wait in patience.

The path that Jesus calls us to follow is to remain in exile and to be patient for His coming. We do this in the hidden power of His resurrection. Before the kingdom is established, we represent the kingdom as His church, His called assembly. But the kingdom has not yet come. We follow the advice of the prophets and serve whatever societies we find ourselves in (like Daniel) but we remain faithful to God no matter what, even if it means martyrdom (like Daniel).

The Kingdom

This is the outward aspect of the temptations. The inward aspect I have already described. In each case Jesus says, “It is written.” He gives up His own desires, His own reasonings, His own point of view, as holy and sinless as they are. He even refuses to use His capacity to perform miracles (by the Holy Spirit having come upon Him) or to use God. Instead He follows “what is written.” He steps out of Himself, as it were, in order to find His true Self (as He says in Matthew 16:25).

He calls us to do the same most explicitly in Matthew 10:38-39 and 16:24-26, but also throughout His call to discipleship.

In this way He takes away all ground from Satan and establishes the rule of God, the Kingdom of God in Himself. After renouncing the rule of His own ego, the Kingdom of God takes place in His own consciousness. Where He is, the kingdom of God is. He told the Pharisees in Luke 17:21 that the Kingdom of God was in their midst (not “within them”). When He leaves the wilderness and reenters the life of Israel, the prophecy of the psalms and Isaiah and John the Baptist comes true—God has come. It becomes true for Israel that “the Kingdom of the Heavens has drawn near.” It has drawn near in His own person.

What this means is that all who enter His sphere, the sphere of His own self-consciousness as the Son of God—by becoming His disciples—enter into the sphere of the Kingdom of the Heavens. (More on this next week.)

Whenever people now encounter Him, there is only one appropriate response, and that is to repent and enter the sphere that He embodies. There is for you only one way to do so, to turn to Him, to believe and to follow HIM.

Thus the ministry of Jesus begins.

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