Last time I was talking about Jesus’ temptations in the wilderness. In a nutshell, the first temptation was about us expecting Divine Intervention to satisfy our worldly needs (transforming stones into bread.) The second one in Matthew’s gospel also appears to involve Divine Intervention. But it is not the same because the motivation is different. And if Jesus was tempted that way, then we are in the same peril.
Matthew 4:5-7 Then the devil takes him to the holy city, and sets him upon the edge of the temple, and says to him, If thou be Son of God cast thyself down; for it is written, He shall give charge to his angels concerning thee, and on [their] hands shall they bear thee, lest in anywise thou strike thy foot against a stone.
Jesus said to him, It is again written, Thou shalt not tempt [the] Lord thy God.
At first, the biggest difference between this temptation and the first one seems to be one of intensity or blatancy; as if the devil were upping the ante. If the first temptation was about expecting God to intervene, this one seems to be about forcing God to intervene.
And that is true. If you go up to the roof of a tall building and jump off, and expect God to save you – because He loves you – you are daring Him to act. You are, as Jesus said, tempting God; that is, putting Him to the test.
But I think there is more to it than that. We know exactly what Jesus had in mind when He gave His reply because all his responses are taken from Deuteronomy , between chapters 6 and 8. This response about testing God is in Deuteronomy 6:16 Ye shall not tempt Jehovah your God, as ye tempted him in Massah.
So, what happened in Massah?
As Moses led the Israelites out of Egypt, they crossed the desert of Ciyn, a wasteland in the southwestern part of the Sinai Peninsula…
Exodus 17:1-7 And all the assembly of the children of Israel journeyed from the wilderness of Sin, according to their journeys, at the command of Jehovah; and they encamped in Rephidim; and there was no water for the people to drink.
And the people contended with Moses, and said, Give us water, that we may drink! And Moses said to them, Why do ye dispute with me? Why do ye tempt Jehovah?
And the people thirsted there for water; and the people murmured against Moses, and said, Why is it that thou hast brought us up out of Egypt, to kill us and our children and our cattle with thirst?
And Moses cried to Jehovah, saying, What shall I do with this people? Yet a little, and they will stone me! And Jehovah said to Moses, Go on before the people, and take with thee of the elders of Israel, and thy staff with which thou didst smite the river, take in thy hand, and go. Behold, I will stand before thee there upon the rock on Horeb; and thou shalt strike the rock, and there shall come water out of it, that the people may drink. And Moses did so before the eyes of the elders of Israel.
And he called the name of the place Massah, and Meribah, because of the contention of the children of Israel, and because they had tempted Jehovah, saying, Is Jehovah among us, or not?
The sin of the people was not that they thirsted, or even that they got angry about it… Their sin was that they decided God’s plan was not good enough for them.
They decided that God’s plan, via Moses’ leadership, was really meant to hurt them: thou hast brought us up out of Egypt, to kill us and our children and our cattle with thirst. And they were not going to believe otherwise unless God “stepped up to the plate” and proved otherwise.
That is the essence of tempting God: When we decide we know better than God and we are not going to change our mind unless He proves Himself.
And yet, even as we think that (or maybe even say it) we miss the contradiction that a “god” that can be coerced into action by a puny human being is no God at all… certainly not the God who created the whole universe.
Now, because God was in the middle of training His children there in the wilderness, He went ahead and gave them water but did so in a way only the creator of the Universe could. Following His instructions, Moses struck a rock at Horeb and water came out of the rock.
Now, because of the verbal imagery of Psalm 78 where, in recounting this event, the Psalmist says that God “split the rocks in the wilderness” to give them water, we often imagine that the rock actually split and water came out from some hidden reservoir underground. But the word used in that psalm from the Hebrew root baqa, is also used in Genesis 11 when the all fountains of the deep “burst forth” to cause the flood. There, in Genesis, nothing was literally “split.”
I believe the same of the two instances in the wilderness. Nothing was split or broken. Those were not natural waters. The waters simply “broke through” from wherever they were, into the presence of the children of Israel, right though the surface of solid rock. Now, that is a miracle that the children of Israel could not have even imagined (or do themselves).
So, how does tempting God – in that sense – apply to Jesus?
What would have happened if Jesus had jumped off the pinnacle of the Temple and angels had swooped in to carry him down to a soft landing right before all the Jews assembled there?
Wouldn’t they have, then and there, proclaimed him to be the Messiah?
Of course! That’s what most of them were waiting for: A mighty Messiah armed with the power of Heaven to come and give back to Israel the dominion it deserved. I mean, everybody knew the Scriptures; whether they had studied them themselves or they had heard them in the synagogue. Everybody knew how the Messiah would come…
Daniel 7:13-14 I saw in the night visions, and behold, there came with the clouds of heaven [one] like a son of man, and he came up even to the Ancient of days, and they brought him near before him. And there was given him dominion, and glory, and a kingdom, that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve him: his dominion is an everlasting dominion, which shall not pass away, and his kingdom [that] which shall not be destroyed.
Is it any wonder that the Pharisees, steeped in the Scriptures, kept asking Jesus to do exactly the same thing that the devil asked him to do? “Prove yourself with signs from Heaven.”
Matthew 16:1 And the Pharisees and Sadducees, coming to [him], asked him, tempting [him], to shew them a sign out of heaven.
John 2:18 The Jews therefore answered and said to him, What sign shewest thou to us, that thou doest these things?
But Jesus didn’t.
Because that is not what believing in the Love of God means. If I am only willing to believe in God when He proves Himself to my satisfaction, he is not really God.
But what is wrong with a miracle?
Do you love your wife because she can do miracles? (Wouldn’t that be coercion?)
Do you love your child because he can do miracles? (Wouldn’t that be coercion?) (There’s a frightening classic Twilight Zone episode about that.)
Miracles are not what Love is about. And Jesus made that clear. Jesus did not demand that we believe based on His miracles.
More than once, Jesus healed people on the Sabbath, and He was challenged for it.
John 5:16-21 And for this the Jews persecuted Jesus [and sought to kill him], because he had done these things on sabbath. But Jesus answered them, My Father worketh hitherto and I work.
For this therefore the Jews sought the more to kill him, because he had not only violated the sabbath, but also said that God was his own Father, making himself equal with God. Jesus therefore answered and said to them, Verily, verily, I say to you, The Son can do nothing of himself save whatever he sees the Father doing: for whatever things *he* does, these things also the Son does in like manner.
For the Father loves the Son and shews him all things which he himself does; and he will shew him greater works than these, that ye may wonder. For even as the Father raises the dead and quickens [them], thus the Son also quickens whom he will…
Notice how His enemies are focused on the miraculous healings (because they happened on the Sabbath, when no one is supposed to work.) But Jesus’ response throughout is that what He is doing is The Father’s work: work being the Greek word erga. And this choice of word is important because this is the Gospel of John where the word John repeatedly uses for miracles is the word signs, that is, the Greek semeia.
There is no denying that Jesus performed miracles; but what He expected people to recognize were the “works of God”. In fact, He says this explicitly:
John 10:37-38 If I do not the works (erga) of my Father, believe me not; but if I do, even if ye believe not me, believe the works (ergoi) , that ye may know [and believe] that the Father is in me and I in him.
John 14:10-12 Believest thou not that I [am] in the Father, and that the Father is in me? The words which I speak to you I do not speak from myself; but the Father who abides in me, he does the works (erga). Believe *me* that I [am] in the Father and the Father in me; but if not, believe me for the works’ (erga) sake themselves. Verily, verily, I say to you, He that believes on me, the works (erga) which I do shall he do also, and he shall do greater than these, because I go to the Father.
What works is Jesus talking about?
The works of Salvation.
He already said that, back in John 5, when He said: For even as the Father raises the dead and quickens [them], thus the Son also quickens whom he will… He is talking about giving us eternal life. That was His focus from the very beginning (John 3:16).
He told His disciples…
John 15:20-24 Remember the word which I said unto you, The bondman is not greater than his master. If they have persecuted me, they will also persecute you; if they have kept my word, they will keep also yours. But they will do all these things to you on account of my name, because they have not known him that sent me.
If I had not come and spoken to them, they had not had sin; but now they have no excuse for their sin. He that hates me hates also my Father. If I had not done among them the works (erga) which no other one has done, they had not had sin; but now they have both seen and hated both me and my Father.
What works is Jesus talking about?
Is God the Father doing visible miracles every day to get us to believe in Him? If not, what did Jesus mean when He said in John 5:17, My Father works to this day? The answer is: The Father is working on our Salvation. Because as 2 Peter 3:9 says, It is not His will that any should perish.
Jesus is working on the same thing, in the same way… working on our hearts.
In Jesus’ rebuke of His enemies in John 10:37-38, He is not talking about the miracles (signs) He performed, He is talking about the Word that He spoke, which came directly from the Father and which all who sincerely want to hear that Father will hear and believe. It is the same Word that He chose us (John 15:16) to proclaim. And it is in that sense that us, all of us as the worldwide Church can do “greater works” (John 14:12) than He did… Because our harvest field is as wide as the world and it is 20 plus centuries long.
There is nothing wrong with a miracle but miracles were not Jesus’ credentials…
Because Love will never coerce with power.
The temptation to be Somebody
So, what was Jesus’ temptation about? It was about abandoning the Father’s plan: the Father’s definition of the Savior Messiah…
You see, for the Pharisees to focus on the prophecies of the Warrior King Messiah, they had to ignore a whole bunch of other prophecies: those about the suffering servant in Isaiah.
Isaiah 42:1-3 Behold my servant whom I uphold, mine elect [in whom] my soul delighteth! I will put my Spirit upon him; he shall bring forth judgment to the nations. He shall not cry, nor lift up, nor cause his voice to be heard in the street. A bruised reed shall he not break, and smoking flax shall he not quench: he shall bring forth judgment according to truth.
None of that sounds like a conquering king.
Isaiah 42:4-7 He shall not faint nor be in haste, till he have set justice in the earth: and the isles shall wait for his law. Thus saith God, Jehovah, he that created the heavens and stretched them out, he that spread forth the earth and its productions, he that giveth breath unto the people upon it, and spirit to them that walk therein: I, Jehovah, have called thee in righteousness, and will take hold of thy hand; and I will preserve thee, and give thee for a covenant of the people, for a light of the nations, to open the blind eyes, to bring forth the prisoner from the prison, them that sit in darkness out of the house of restraint…
How is He going to accomplish this?
Isaiah 49:5-6 And now, saith Jehovah, that formed me from the womb to be his servant, that I should bring Jacob again to him; (though Israel be not gathered, yet shall I be glorified in the eyes of Jehovah, and my God shall be my strength;) —and he saith, It is a small thing that thou shouldest be my servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob, and to restore the preserved of Israel; I have even given thee for a light of the nations, that thou mayest be my salvation unto the end of the earth.
Yes, throughout the prophecy there are echoes of the promised restoration, but there is a price that will be paid…
Isaiah 49:7 Thus saith Jehovah, the Redeemer of Israel, his Holy One, to him whom man despiseth, to him whom the nation abhorreth, to the servant of rulers: Kings shall see and arise, princes, and they shall worship, because of Jehovah who is faithful, the Holy One of Israel, who hath chosen thee.
Jesus knew all along this is what was awaiting Him:
Isaiah 50:4-6 The Lord Jehovah hath given me the tongue of the instructed, that I should know how to succour by a word him that is weary. He wakeneth morning by morning, he wakeneth mine ear to hear as the instructed. The Lord Jehovah hath opened mine ear, and I was not rebellious; I turned not away back. I gave my back to smiters, and my cheeks to them that plucked off the hair; I hid not my face from shame and spitting.
Isaiah 53:1-7 Who hath believed our report? and to whom hath the arm of Jehovah been revealed? For he shall grow up before him as a tender sapling, and as a root out of dry ground: he hath no form nor lordliness, and when we see him, there is no beauty that we should desire him. He is despised and left alone of men; a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief, and like one from whom [men] hide their faces;—despised, and we esteemed him not.
Surely *he* hath borne our griefs and carried our sorrows; and we, we did regard him stricken, smitten of God, and afflicted. But he was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities; the chastisement of our peace was upon him, and with his stripes we are healed.
All we like sheep have gone astray, we have turned every one to his own way; and Jehovah hath laid upon him the iniquity of us all. He was oppressed, and he was afflicted, but he opened not his mouth; he was led as a lamb to the slaughter, and was as a sheep dumb before her shearers, and he opened not his mouth.
That was the price to be paid: The life of the Messiah for the life of God’s children.
He who was, from the beginning, the Almighty Creator, King of the Universe, the ultimate definition of Somebody, chose to become a Nobody so that He could die for Everybody.
He had to be that paradox: the God-man. Indistinguishable from every other human being, yet speaking with the Voice of God; the heir of infinite power in the body of a simple carpenter that could be spit upon, beaten, tortured… and all the while did not lift a finger to defend himself.
It is no wonder that all Pilate could say, when he brought him out beaten, mangled, bloody before His accusers, was Ecce Homo… Behold the man… as if to say, “This man – if you could call this a man – is what you have been fretting about?”
The Word became flesh and dwelt among us… as a Nobody. And the devil meets him in the wilderness, as He is weak and tired and hungry, and he offers to make Him Somebody.
Have you heard a voice offering you the same temptation?
We all will. It is the temptation to be Somebody: to be important, powerful, a mover and shaker, the decision maker; the leader not the follower, the hero not the loser, the famous, the envied.
Some look for that power in money, others in politics; others in the power they have to influence people (on the web), or the power to inflame them into doing their bidding, to stir them up even to crimes… all for the thrill of hearing them say “we love you”, or adoringly call out my name.
But I don’t have to be Somebody to do the job for which my Master saved me.
On the contrary, the less you can see of me, the less you can hear of me in my words, the more clearly you will see and hear Jesus. I always loved these words of John the Baptizer: “He must increase but I must decrease.”
Maybe this is why I have always loved this poem by Emily Dickinson:
I’m Nobody! Who are you?
Are you – Nobody – too?
Then there’s a pair of us!
Don’t tell! they’d advertise – you know!
How dreary – to be – Somebody!
How public – like a Frog –
To tell one’s name – the livelong June – To an admiring Bog!