I call upon You, Lord, God of Abraham and God of Isaac and God of Jacob and Israel, You who are the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the God who, through the abundance of your mercy, was well-pleased towards us so that we may know You, who made heaven and earth, who rules over all, You who are the one and the true God, above whom there is no other God; You who, by our Lord Jesus Christ gave us the gift of the Holy Spirit, give to every one who reads this writing to know You, that You alone are God, to be strengthened in You, and to avoid every heretical and godless and impious teaching.

St Irenaeus of Lyons, Against the Heresies 3:6:4

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

THE PROVING GROUNDS: A Different Take on the so-called Temptation of Christ

As the heading suggests, I’m cautious of the title “the temptation” for its restrictive connotations. The ‘the’, in ‘the temptation’, seems to indicate that the whole of Jesus’ cosmic level struggle against Satan, sin, and the wicked world system in its defiant rebellion toward God is summed up in the forty days and nights in the wilderness. We know, however, that this is not the case. There are, perhaps, even greater problems if we are to place the accent on the ‘temptation’ of ‘the temptation’, as it averts attention away from the event’s divine purpose in God’s redemptive program and poises our focus on merely a single perspective and design for the event, namely Satan’s. In so viewing it, from the vantage of Satan’s schematic purposes, we are bound to be deprived of much of the critical theological content and the particularly messianic nature of the trial.

Probation is, I believe, the best designation for this inaugural event in Jesus’ Messiahship, for it better represents the Father’s design, the Son’s dealings, and the Holy Spirit’s “driving” (Mk 1:12). And it is these that form the intention or purpose underlying the entire experience. Moreover, probation resonates with the allusive OT paradigms the gospel writers were both assuming and including: Adam’s probation in the Garden (per Lk, and maybe in Mk as “he was with the wild beasts...[harmoniously perhaps?]” 1:13; cf. Is 11:6—9; 32:14—20; 65:25; Hos 2:18), and Israel’s first exodus in all three of accounts, which is obvious from Jesus’ citations from Deut 6 and 8. Thus, the weight and results from the failings of both Adam and Israel, as ‘sons of God’ who were created to accomplish all God’s will on earth, were coming to bear on the only Son of God, the second Adam, the true Israel. His obedient submission to the Father throughout this probative period would thus test and prove what kind of Messiah he would be, therefore, determining the entire course of redemption. The meaning of the wilderness experience of Jesus was the means of demonstrating and defining the Father’s purposes for the Son’s Messiahship, being conferred upon Jesus at the baptism through the Holy Spirit’s anointing and the Father’s declarative pronouncement (“My Son...well pleased”). The Son, upon successfully passing this probative period through submission and suffering (Deut 8:2), would enter into the Father’s messianic mission as Victor in the full power of the Spirit.

The broader context of the passage in all three gospels is, in general, identical: (1) the baptism/Father’s pronouncement; (2) the 40 days in the wilderness; and (3) Jesus’ victorious return onto the public scene, “in the power of the Holy Spirit,” to begin his messianic mission. This consistency is coupled with language in every account that clearly connects the baptism to the probation. The authors, then, intend the two to be treated as a unit; the latter can only be understood in light of the former.

The voice of the Father at the baptism not only declared Jesus’ Sonship, but also defined it. The words: “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased” brings together to critical strands of messianic expectation from the OT. “This is my beloved Son...” is surely drawn from Ps 2:7, which describes Yahweh’s coming Anointed One, the hope and fulfillment of the everlasting Davidic covenant. It is more than mere coincidence that the very next verse of this Psalm (v. 8) speaks of the Father’s promise to the Son, “Ask of me, and I will make the nations your heritage, and the ends of the earth your possession.” Thus, it should not surprise us that Satan’s final assault (per Mt) came in a similar form to the very same promise. It is not as though Satan’s offering Jesus the same thing (Mt 4:8—9) as the Father, “the nations...their glory,” was tempting in itself. Consider the weight of this dilemma—seemingly same promise, one from the Father of Light, the other from the father of lies. It appears the there would be little, if any, struggle in the rational mind when faced with such a choice. But Matthew treats this as the climax of the battle; the very point on which redemption swings. But how can this be?

This question draws us back again to the Father’s voice at the baptism, namely to the second clause: “...with whom I am well pleased.” This allusion points back to Is 42:1ff, a passage that Matthew cites directly in 12:18—21, as does Luke, twice (1:79; 2:32; with allusions in Acts 3:26; 4:27). The opening pericope of this chapter (Is 42:1—9) begins a section of Isaiah known as the suffering Servant songs. Here Yahweh’s Servant is identified with a role of suffering, meekness, and humiliation, one that finally ends in the disgraceful death in Ch. 53, an end administered by none other than the Servant’s “well pleased” Father. This depiction of the hoped for anointed Messiah, although an accepted vein within 1st century messianism, seems to stand in stark contrast, if not out right contradiction, to the exalted, victorious anointed Davidic King of Ps 2! These two streams of messianic hope—humiliation-Servant/exaltation-King—converging in the same figure were formerly inconceivable in Jewish eschatology. However, it is precisely this paradox that informs a right understanding of the wilderness phase of Jesus’ Messiahship and answers the question above regarding Matthew’s final temptation. Concerning the question, the weightiness of Satan’s offer of the glory of the nations was to seemingly grant Jesus his rightful exaltation as the Messiah, thus attaining, at least in part, the end goal of his messianic work while altogether avoiding the demanded humiliation, suffering, and death that were part and parcel of the Father’s plan for his Son/Messiah. Thus, the questions facing Jesus at every point in the wilderness probation were, what kind and, whose Messiah would he be?

This, I believe, explains best the perspective and burden of Jesus in the crisis. The perspective of the Father, as this would be, for his Son, a time of testing, trial, that is, probation. Even Satan’s perspective is best illuminated from this angle. Satan’s primary objective was not to bring uncertainty directly upon Jesus’ Sonship or even his sinlessness; but, at first subtle then in sudden desperation, an attempt to derail or, better, abort the Father’s plan to establish his Messianic King, his kingdom, and consequently destroy the very works of the Devil himself (I Jn 3:8). Satan’s awareness of the ultimate doom he would face as a result of Jesus’ success, which began principally at the end of the wilderness probation, is also revealed in his citation of Ps 91:11—12. While Satan rightly observes the promise of special providence for the trusting One of Ps 91, he must too have been fully aware of the promise of v. 13 as well, “...the serpent you will trample underfoot!” (cf. Lk 10:19; Mk 16:18; Gen 3:15).

Unlike Adam, who failed in a state of perfection; Jesus, cloaked in humiliation, came out unscathed from his struggle on a sin torn battlefield! More than that, Adam’s success would have kept him from suffering loss; Jesus’ success first recovered Adam’s loss, and then gained the Messiah’s mantle. Hence, in the desert wilderness Jesus proved what was in his heart—humble, absolute trust in the Father’s promises—the kind of submissive obedience God requires of all people, yet never given by a person before, was offered up by Jesus in the harshest of conditions, thus gaining his Messiahship and our much needed righteousness! Our True Joshua, leading us in to conquer the Promise Land (II Cor 2:14)!

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