Tempting the Son of God: a missional reading

Have you heard about the guy who is being sued for raising his hand after someone in shouted “Is there a doctor in the house?” Turns out that the guy was a Ph.D, in Situational Ethics no less.

Did you know that for $10 you can mail away to get a degree. I received an email to this effect a while back. And there are many different degrees offered through this program. Bachelors, Masters, Ph.D. I have to admit though, the one I was most drawn to was the Master of the Universe. I’m not sure, but maybe that’s why I got an M.Div – you know, a Masters of Divinity. I guess I figured if it’s too ambitious to try and to control the whole universe, I ought to at least see about controlling the one who does. Some of my classmates took another route, I’m sure you’ve heard of them, the D.Min (pronounced demon) students?  

Titles can be confusing. It seems that we come to them with our own lists of associations and connotations, our own ideas about what is entailed, and these don’t always pan out. In our text today, there seems to be some confusion about one of Jesus’ titles, namely Son of God. I’m sure we have some ideas about what such a title entails. Israel had an idea of what if meant that they were called the Son of God. And Satan sure had some thoughts. In this post we are going to take a look at how Jesus gives that title, Son of God, it’s true meaning.

Luke 4:1-13
1 Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, left the Jordan and was led by the Spirit into the wilderness, 2 where for forty days he was tempted by the devil. He ate nothing during those days, and at the end of them he was hungry.  3 The devil said to him, "If you are the Son of God, tell this stone to become bread."  4 Jesus answered, "It is written: 'People do not live on bread alone.'"  5 The devil led him up to a high place and showed him in an instant all the kingdoms of the world. 6 And he said to him, "I will give you all their authority and splendor; it has been given to me, and I can give it to anyone I want to. 7 If you worship me, it will all be yours."  8 Jesus answered, "It is written: 'Worship the Lord your God and serve him only.'"  9 The devil led him to Jerusalem and had him stand on the highest point of the temple. "If you are the Son of God," he said, "throw yourself down from here. 10 For it is written:  " 'He will command his angels concerning you to guard you carefully; 11 they will lift you up in their hands, so that you will not strike your foot against a stone.'"  12 Jesus answered, "It is said: 'Do not put the Lord your God to the test.'"  13 When the devil had finished all this tempting, he left him until an opportune time.

Let’s take a look at the context. 

First, we have to keep it in mind that we are reading the Gospel of Luke, and Luke has a fairly specific notion of God’s divine plan of salvation. According to Luke, God was working out his plan in distinct periods, and in each period God had his chosen people, or person to work it out through. The periods were Israel, Jesus and Church. Our text today is right on the beginning of the Jesus phase. Jesus is God’s man in the world. Israel is fading, Jesus is raising and it was Jesus’ baptism which really kicked it off. At Baptism Jesus received two things. First, the empowerment of the Holy Spirit, which descended on him in the form of a dove. And Second, he was given God’s endorsement, and called “My Beloved Son”. 

After the Baptism story, Luke does something unusual and inserts Jesus’ genealogy. Unlike Matthew’s genealogy which only goes back as far as Abraham, Luke traces his lineage all the way back to Adam, whom he calls, the son of God. So now with God’s approval, the title of Son and a genealogy of destiny, Jesus is ready to begin his public ministry, but it’s here that Satan shows up. Before Jesus enters public ministry, he is tested to see what the trajectory of his ministry will be, tested to see what shape his empowered ministry of divine Sonship will take. And this defining moment is to take place in the wilderness, over a period of 40 days. It is no accident that this parallels Israel’s 40 years in the wilderness, where they were tested, and found wanting, as we’ll see. It is no accident, because Jesus is not the first one to be called the Son of God. This title had been given to Adam, and it had been given to the people of Israel. With that bit of context, let us look more closely at each temptation. 

Temptation #1: “If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become bread” Satan said. Here Satan isn’t questioning whether Jesus is the Son of God, but more saying “Since you are the Son of God...why don’t you go ahead and use that power and privilege for yourself?” Here we get an idea of what Satan seems to think Sonship entails...privilege and power for personal benefit. “Since you are blessed, you should satisfy your hunger.” 

Jesus replies: “One does not live by bread alone” which he quotes from Deuteronomy 8:3. At this point I want to explain something. Each of Jesus’ replies to Satan’s temptation are quotations from Deuteronomy chapters 6-8. This isn’t because Jesus happened to read Deut. 6-8 in his morning devotions that day. Jesus is doing something very deliberate by quoting from this passage. These chapters of Deuteronomy are retelling the Law, with special reference to the failures of Israel when they were in the wilderness. 

The point is this: Jesus is responding to Satan’s temptations with the truths which Israel had failed to demonstrate in the wilderness. In other words, the temptations which Jesus--Son of God--was facing in the wilderness, were the same temptations which Israel--the Son of God--had faced in the wilderness.
Ok, so back to the first temptation. Satan suggests that Jesus use his Sonship to manipulate God and his circumstances so that he can satisfy his hunger. This is the same temptation that Israel failed when they cried out against Moses in hunger saying “Oh how we used to enjoy the food in Egypt, and now were out here starving.” And God acquiesced to their lack of faith, he provided manna, bread from heaven. And so Jesus responds to Satan’s temptation by quoting from Deut. 8:3. Let me read to you the whole verse: 

3 He humbled you, causing you to hunger and then feeding you with manna, which neither you nor your ancestors had known, to teach you that people do not live on bread alone but on every word that comes from the mouth of the LORD.
Jesus had learned the lesson, and he would not use the privileges of Sonship to serve his own ends. Jesus showed that his ministry of Sonship would not be self-serving. 
Temptation #2 “If you, then, will worship me, it will all be yours.” Obviously Satan is enticing Jesus with the prospect of worldly influence. Now we have to remember that in Luke 1 the angel told Mary that Jesus would reign and that his kingdom would have no end. Here Satan tempts Jesus to get on with it. 
“Isn’t what’s really important that you rule, Jesus? Does it really matter how you get there? Isn’t faster better, Jesus? Doesn’t the ends justify the means?” 
Satan urges him to seize his rightful inheritance, with a little shortcut, and a little compromise, and a little idolatry. Israel faced this temptation of idolatry too, and they failed, creating a golden calf to worship. Jesus’ replies: “Worship the Lord your God and serve only him.” Here we see that Jesus’ ministry of Sonship will not include compromise, even for the ends which God intends. The Son of God will not compromise for the sake of influence. 
Temptation #3 “If you are the Son of God...throw yourself down from here... “He will...protect you.”” This is the first time that Satan has posed his temptation in the words of Scripture, perhaps warning us against the naiveté of believing that Scripture alone, pure and simple, will always lead us to the truth. In fact, Scripture can and has been interpreted in many ways, and interpretation is key. Jesus rejects Satan’s interpretation, and rejects this third temptation. 

For Jesus, this temptation is to manipulate God into sparing his life. It’s as if Satan is saying “You’re God’s favored son, he wouldn’t let you die in Jerusalem!” Satan was tempting Jesus to manipulate God into allowing him to evade his sacrificial calling; death in Jerusalem Jesus’ reply is forceful “Do not put the Lord your God to the test.” He quotes this from Duet. 6:16, where Israel is reminded that it had tested God when it murmured about thirst at Meribah. Israel had failed to trust God. Fearing their own extinction they had tested to see if God would provide water for them. Jesus rejects this temptation. He will not evade his sacrificial calling as the Son of God. He shows us that being the Son of God means accepting one’s sacrificial calling. 

The story concludes with Satan departing in shame – Jesus has been victorious. He has resisted the temptations that tripped up Israel. The Sonship of Israel was characterized by failure and fear, by attempting to manipulate God, testing him, mistrusting him, demanding protection from him. But Jesus, as the Son of God, rectifies these, and redefines divine Sonship, setting a completely different trajectory for his identity as God’s Son. 

What does it mean that Adam, Israel and Jesus are all called the “Son of God”? Divine Sonship entailed at least two things: It meant authority, temporal and spiritual. And it meant intimacy in relationship with God.  

Satan knew both of these, and it is these privileges he was trying to get Jesus to exploit. But he would not. Because Jesus understood that being the Son of God was not only a position of privilege, but of responsibility. The Son was not chosen merely to receive God’s blessing, but to distribute it. The Son of God is God’s redemptive agent in the world. The Son of God is God’s redemptive agent, God’s person in the world.  

And this makes perfect sense. Abraham and Israel were chosen and called to be a blessing to the whole world. Sure, they enjoyed privileges and blessings of land and offspring, but these were merely the tools that God had given them in order to be his redemptive agents. But they failed. Instead of using the privileges of divine sonship for good, they used them to demand their own wellbeing from God. 

So let me state it one more time: being the Son of God means being God’s redemptive agent in the world, the vessel of God’s presence and work in the world. Now, let’s go back to what I said in the beginning about Luke’s understanding of God’s plan of salvation. Remember, it had three phases: Israel, Jesus and the Church. Jesus took on the mantle of being God’s chosen instrument in the world at baptism, but at the coming of the Holy Spirit this mantle was passed to the church. 

Therefore, the church is now God’s redemptive agent in the world. Of course! and this is why we are privileged to be called sons and daughters of God. We are privileged with spiritual authority and intimacy with God, but also given the responsibility to work on God’s behalf in the world for the good of others. The church is made up of the daughters and sons of God, God’s instruments in this world. And like Israel and Jesus before us, we face the temptation to use this position for our own ends. So as our churches seek to expand their mission and ministries, we need to keep in mind that, the church is God’s agent, endowed with privilege and responsibility. We must be on guard against these three temptations.  

Temptation #1: Like Jesus we must not use what God gives to serve our own needs, rather than trusting God we must invest financially and relationally outside of the walls of our churches. We must resist judgmentalism, which is the hoarding of God’s grace. We are not privileged merely to indulge our appetites. We are blessed to be a blessing, and we must not use what God gives merely to bless ourselves. We can not be consumed with our programs for us, fearing that God will not provide for our nourishment. We must trust God to provide for us.  

Temptation #2: Like Jesus we must not: make compromises with evil in order to achieve our God-given mission. 
A couple of years ago, Lindsay and I went to a time-share presentation, where they entice you with a no-commitment gift and then bombard you with 2 hours of coercive advertising. I walked away with two feelings. First, that our sales rep actually believed in his product. He believed that we would be happier, that our marriage would be stronger, that it was a good financial investment, to purchase their vacation plan. Second, I came away feeling that this company was willing to use any means necessary to get us to accept the life-giving benefits of their product. They would manipulate us emotionally, because it was for our own good. They could justify attempting to send me to the bathroom while they ganged up on Lindsay, cause it was really in our best interest. They didn’t mind using the “as a fellow Christian whom God is talking through” card, cause they were trying to enhance our lives.
We can’t do this with the Christian gospel, even toward kingdom ends. We must pursue kingdom ends via kingdom means. 
Growth and influence are not to be sought at any cost. ‘Godly’ ends do not justify ‘devilish’ means. We can not submit to the temptation to marketing a diluted Gospel in hopes of reaching more people. We can not justify stealing members from other churches to grow our own. We can not resort to emotional manipulation in hopes that some will come to Jesus. Godly ends do not justify devilish means.  

Temptation #3: Like Jesus we must not claim divine protection that keeps us from our sacrificial mission. We are not called to die for the sins of the world, but we are called to lay down our lives, lay down our time, lay down our space, lay down our resources, for the good of the world. We may be afraid of the death of our churches, of our denominations, but God is not afraid of our death. We must not value our survival above our mission. 

The PCUSA Book of Order has it right: “The Church is called to undertake its mission even at the risk of losing its life, trusting in God alone as the author and giver of life, sharing the gospel, and doing those deeds in the world that point beyond themselves to the new reality in Christ.” 

Let us rejoice that we are sons and daughters of God. Let us rejoice that we are God’s agents in the world. Let us rejoice that God has empowered us for this ministry by the Spirit. Let us rejoice that Jesus has shown us how to go about this ministry. And let us serve as God’s agents of redemption in this world,
  • not using what God gives to serve our own needs, but trusting the God who provides,
  • not making compromises with evil to achieve our mission, but honoring God in our means, as well as our ends, and
  • not claiming divine protection from our sacrificial calling, but taking up our crosses and following him, the Son of God.

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