Fred B. Craddock is professor of preaching and New Testament at Candler School of Theology in Atlanta.
This article appeared in the Christian Century, February 28, 1990, p. 211, copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.
It was this serving, suffering, dying Jesus whom God vindicated by raising him from the dead. A church too fond of power, place and claims would do well to walk in his steps.
Still wet from his baptism in the Jordan, "Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. And he fasted 40 days and 40 nights, and afterward he was hungry" (Matt. 4:1-2) . With these words Matthew addresses those who gather for the first Sunday of Lent. What Matthew proceeds to tell us about Jesus’ wilderness tests (4:3-11) is a multilayered story. At the deepest level lies the story of Adam and Eve and the serpent’s proposal that they become like God (Gen. 3:5) . Next are the accounts of Israel’s 40 years of wandering and being tested in the wilderness (Deut. 8:2) . Even closer to the experience of Jesus is that of Moses who was with the Lord for 40 days and nights during which time he neither ate nor drank but was taken to a high mountain and shown all the land as far as the eye could see (Deut. 34:1-8) . Matthew tells the story of Jesus’ desert struggles to highlight his relationship to our forebears in Eden, the history of Israel, and the prophecy that God would raise up among the people one like Moses (Deut. 18:18) .
The impact of the story, however, lies not in its echoes of earlier biblical records. Most readers don’t need commentaries to resonate with what is going on in the life of Jesus. Nor is the story preserved to satisfy the historical curiosity of those who might wonder what happened to Jesus immediately after his baptism. Rather, the account directly spoke and speaks to a church whose own faithfulness is forged again and again in the desert. Notice: Jesus is not tempted because he has departed from God’s will. Jesus is in the desert because he was led by the spirit. Take a poll among the churches: it’s usually the obedient and not the disobedient who are struggling, being opposed and tested. The disobedient seem to have a knack for locating the cushions.
Second, temptation indicates strength, not weakness. One is tempted only to do that which lies within one’s capacity. The greater one’s capacities, the greater one’s temptations. The fierceness of Jesus’ desert struggle is testimony to his power.
Third, temptation does not usually involve an obvious or undisguised evil. We first convince ourselves that an endeavor is reasonable and promises good results before we put our mind and hand to it. The scene before us is not a cartoon of Jesus debating some horned creature with a fiendish face who smells of sulfur. Jesus is wrestling with the will of God for the ministry now before him and is presented with three avenues. All three have immense possibilities for good. Recall the lure to Adam and Eve:
"You will be like God." Could any goal be loftier? There is no hint of sin or shame. So Jesus has before him three excellent offers: Turn stones to bread. In a world of unbelievable hunger, why not? Leap from the pinnacle of the temple. In a world callous to sermon and lesson, why not a coercive shock into belief? Enter the political arena. In a world of slavery, war, oppression and disregard for life and rights, why not?
Fourth, Matthew presents temptation not as a private morality game but as a contest about the shape and nature of ministry. Jesus will soon preach good news to the poor and release to captives, relieve the bruised, cleanse lepers, and heal the blind and crippled. Of course, he will be opposed immediately. Forces that traffic in human misery and reap huge profits from the poverty of others will try any means to turn him from such a ministry. The world hardly has changed. Every church engaged in the ministry of Jesus knows painfully well that there is another team on the field and it is often surprising and disappointing to learn who their members are. Of course, churches that do not extend themselves in addressing human need seldom if ever face opposition.
Jesus survives the test in the desert and moves into ministry in Galilee. And how so? Not simply by quoting Scripture (Deut. 6:13; 6:16; 8:3) , although the Scriptures were for him an enormous source of strength. The sword of the spirit is the Word of God (Eph. 6:17) . Neither was Jesus’ victory in the desert achieved by denouncing the tempting offers. On the contrary, in the course of his ministry he did feed the poor, he did perform wonders among the people, his ministry did have and continues to have enormous political impact. Rather, Jesus’ response to every test was to refuse to try to be like God or to be God. As Paul put it, he "did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant" (Phil. 2:6-7) . He did not use the power of the spirit to claim exemption or to avoid the painful difficulties of the path of service. He did not use God to claim something for himself. And it was this serving, suffering, dying Jesus whom God vindicated by raising him from the dead. A church too fond of power, place and claims would do well to walk in his steps.
Jesus’ temptations did not end in the desert. Again and again he was tested. "Avoid the cross," said his close and well-meaning friend Simon. And, of course, there was Gethsemane. With the church, the story is the same; testing never ceases. This is why we gather frequently and pray: Our Father in heaven, let your name be hallowed. Your will be done. Give us bread for today. Lead us not into temptation. Deliver us from the evil one.