Thursday, April 10, 2008

3 theological temptations

Matthew 4 reveals that Jesus experienced three temptations in the desert. His first was the temptation to turn stones into bread. This was more than just a temptation to satisfy his own hunger. It was a temptation to be the ultimate provider for all who were hungry.

Theologically, this temptation manifests itself in the materialism of the "social gospel." The lie buried deep within this temptation is that the physical needs of the masses is the most important need. Churches and denominations experience this temptation today. This temptation is especially strong in more liberal churches that tend to emphasis social justice issues.

Jesus responds to this temptation by reminding Satan that the real hunger inside people is not just for bread, but for the Word of God. Jesus never rejects people's real physical needs. And on more than one occasion he becomes the provider of bread and fish for thousands of people. But Jesus resists this temptation by bringing to light the deeper human need.

His second temptation was to fall down from the temple and be saved by angels catching him. If he were to pull off this miracle right in front of all the religious elite at the Temple, he would instantly be upheld as the Messiah. The temptation here is to become the leader of the religious elite by way of the miraculous.

Theologically, this temptation manifests itself in the sometimes Montanist-like charismatic views of the manifestation of the Holy Spirit. The lie buried deep within this temptation is that miracles give birth to faith and should, therefore, be the primary mode of evangelism. This view often misuses scripture and slips into a sort of "spiritual elitism" based on who has had certain manifestation of the Spirit and who has not. This temptation is especially strong in churches that tend to be Pentecostal or charismatic.

Jesus responds to this temptation by reminding Satan that no one should put the Lord to the test. God should not be treated like a miracle vending machine. Miracles and manifestations of the Spirit are not the litmus test of spiritual maturity or power. Jesus often did miracles, signs, wonders and healings. The early church often experienced the various manifestations of the Holy Spirit. But miracles never produced faith. They merely affirmed and strengthened existing faith. Doubters still doubted even after the miracles. And Jesus healed among the common people. It wasn't ever a show for the religious elite so that he could be their leader. His miracles were often a sign to the people that the Kingdom of God had come.

His third temptation was to be the political ruler of all the kingdoms of the world. It was a temptation, essentially, to be Caesar. All Jesus had to do was bow down and worship Satan in order to have all of that power. This was a temptation to take a short cut to being the King of Kings and Lord of Lords. It was an offer of power without going through the cross. It was a political temptation that required submission to Satan rather than to God the Father.

Theologically, this temptation manifests itself in the tendency to marry the church with politics and the tendency to try to bring about the spread of the gospel by force. The lie buried deep within this temptation is the idea that if Christians have more power in society, the gospel will reach more people. Historically, the gospel spreads more through subversive, underground movements than it does through political power. We see the damage of falling to this temptation in things like the Crusades and the Inquisition. This temptation is especially strong in conservative churches who reject the historically Christian principle of "separation of church and state."

Jesus responds to this temptation by telling Satan to leave. Jesus is clear that he will worship and serve God the Father only.
Jesus refused the seduction of power. And he refused the compromise of having a "short-cut" to honor. Jesus knew that it wasn't the first who will be first but the last who will be first. Jesus stayed on the path that requires submission and sacrifice before honor and exaltation. Jesus was the King. He already ruled the earth, but his coronation was yet to come.

We see these temptations still bombard the Church today. Jesus faced these different distortions of his messianic role with the truth of scripture and by maintaining intimacy with the Father. We as the Church must do the same.


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