Thursday, June 23, 2005

This is a Test (Getting to Know Jesus One Chapter at a Time, Part 5)

(Matthew, chapter 4) (I've been looking at Jesus, one chapter at a time through the eyes of the Gospel of Matthew and personally, using Eugene Peterson's The Message translation to do so. Today, I'm presenting only a portion of the fourth chapter.]

From the high of being proclaimed by the heavenly Voice, " Son, chosen and marked by my love, delight of my life" at the end of chapter 3, Jesus is "taken into the wild by the Spirit for the Test" at the beginning of this chapter.

The Test--or the Temptations--would be administered by the Devil. Devil is one of several names given to the leader of God's (and humanity's) demonic adversaries. The name in Greek is Diabolos. (From which we derive, diabolic, of course.) The name literally means Accuser.

Christians today believe that the Devil often accuses them of being evil, with the aim of driving them to hopelessness, long after God has forgiven them, out of regard for His charitable love and their repentance.

The Devil relies on our emotions, seeking to make us disregard facts. God's love is a fact. God's forgiveness for those who seek it in Jesus' Name is a fact. But because we may still feel guilt or even feel shame for our sin or even our contemplation of the possibility of sin, the Devil accuses us of being disingenuine or hypocritical. But our rightness with God depends not on our feelings, but God's actions and God's decisions. Jesus is the definitive sign that God has decided for us.

Gerald Mann, the wonderful Texas Baptist pastor, sometimes is asked by people, "How do I know that I'm not going to hell?" "I don't know who's going to hell," he replies. "But I do know that those who don't want to go to hell aren't going." He has a point: It's only those who are utterly indifferent to the states of their relationships with God who turn a deaf ear to God and are heedless of the Tests that life brings their way.

To prepare for His Test, Jesus fasts. Why? Fasting, when rightly motivated, is one way for us to empty ourselves of dependence on anything but God.

Fasting from food for spiritual reasons may be a particularly powerful tool for us in cultivating our relationships with God in America today, when obesity is growing to epidemic proportions. Often, we eat not because we're hungry, but to seek comfort, to occupy time and energy that could be spent on loving God or neighbor, or to fill voids in our souls of which may not even be aware.

It may also be good for us to fast from other things. Fasting from time on the computer could be helpful to some of us. Others might fast from watching television or going to sporting events. It isn't that there's anything wrong with any of this stuff, any more than there's anything wrong with food. But it is possible, as Saint Paul writes in another part of the New Testament, for a perfectly acceptable or good thing to be sin for us because its power over us drives a wedge between God and us.

Think of fasting in this way: It's like tuning out the static that prevents you from hearing the radio station you want to hear. When we fast, we tune out our overdependence on otherwise good things in order to tune in on God.

Jesus fasted for forty days. Then came His three-part test.

First, the Devil told Jesus to turn "stones into loaves of bread." Notice, that Michael Jackson's and Lionel Richie's old song notwithstanding, Jesus did not do this. The test here, of course, was that Jesus would use His power not for others, which is what He'd come into the world to do, but for Himself. Jesus refused.

Second, buttressing his case with a quote from Psalm 91, the Devil urged Jesus to jump from the pinnacle of the temple in the Holy City of Jerusalem. (The Devil really is diabolical, quoting Scripture to incite rebellion against God's will.) But Jesus is ready for this assault, reminding the Devil of a passage in Deuteronomy in which we're told, "Don't you dare test the Lord your God." Here, the Devil was testing Jesus' willingness to rely on God the Father in the pursuit of His mission. The Devil was daring Jesus to test and prove God's faithfulness. But Jesus was saying that God has nothing to prove and that besides, "party tricks" prove nothing.

Third, the Devil offers Jesus the kingdoms of the world if Jesus will just worship him. In a way, this is the most diabolical of all the temptations. Jesus had come to bring the kingdom of God into the world. The Devil had these earthly kingdoms to give, booty Jesus could have received without having to go through betrayal, arrest, flogging, humiliation, and death. But had Jesus received the earthly kingdoms without His cross, we all would have died in our sins and separated from God forever. Jesus couldn't accept this. "Beat it, Satan!" Jesus says. (Satan is another name for the Devil, borrowed from the Persians.)

Several points about the temptations:

(1) The fact that Jesus, the perfect sinless Savior of the world, was tempted demonstrates that being tempted to do wrong isn't something for which we should feel guilty. (The Devil, the world, and our sinful selves will accuse us of being guilty, simply because we've been tempted. But it's a big fat lie!) Being tempted is a byproduct of our humanity. When we're tempted, we need to rely on God, knowing full well that He understands and is ready to help us. In Jesus, the New Testament book of Hebrews says, "we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who in every respect has been tested as we are, yet without sin. Let us therefore approach the throne of mercy with boldness, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need." (Hebrews 4:15-16)

(2) What was Jesus' strategy for dealing with temptation? He didn't wait until temptations came His way. He prepared beforehand, knowing full well that they would hit. He prepared in two basic ways: (a) He knew the Scriptures. Notice how He was able to counter the Devil's perversions of the Old Testament with a thorough knowledge of the Bible Himself. Anybody can take isolated passages of Scripture and twist them to perverted, selfish ends. But when you have a thorough knowledge of God's Word, you have a built-in spiritual lie detector. You know more than passages of Scripture, you know the God behind the Scripture. (b) He was dependent on God. That was why He fasted.

(3) One last point. My grandmother used to say that it was easier to "be good" when you're older than when you're younger. That was completely wrong, I think.

If God-enfleshed, Jesus Christ, wasn't exempt from temptation, what makes us think that any of us are so exempted, just because we've attained a certain age?

If anything, the temptations grow the older we become. In our middle years, having either attained a certain degree of success or oppressed by a sense of personal failure, a feeling of entitlement may overtake us. (There are those feelings again!) As we grow older, the sense of entitlement will, if we're not careful, grow.

The phrase, "It's my right..." can be used to justify even the most monstrous of acts and basest forms of dishonesty.

No one is exempt from temptation. No one!

I'll deal with the rest of this chapter in my next installment of this series.

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