Jesus was learning obedience by what he suffered.
The two had known each other a long time. The one said to his rival, “You came here for a kingdom. All this I will give you.” The prince of this world then led Jesus up to a high place and showed him in an instant all the kingdoms of the world. “Here it is. Take it.”
The person with Satan appeared to be a far cry from a king. He’d been exposed by day to the scorching sun and by night to the cold of these shadowlands. Only in his memory were pictures of home; this was a world with unending lines of men, women, and children crying for help. Even worse, Satan’s goal from Eden onward had been to eliminate this individual. So the devil worked his plan.
He might have said, “All by yourself . . . no followers, no money, no organization. How do you hope to influence people? Your father doesn’t seem to be taking very good care of you. Permit me to show you some other possibilities.”
So for the moment, flags and banners replaced Jesus’ flapping robe. Burned rocks of the wilderness of Judea became cut marble and inlaid wood. Sounds of court musicians replaced a keening wind. Royal kitchens dispensed aromas to his pinching stomach. Here the rustle of silk, there a tingle of fur. Gold coins spit out into boxes. The scent and voices of princesses mocked his loneliness. Flashes of bronze from rank on rank on rank of armor-clad soldiers illuminated Jesus’ empty hands. “Look, Son of God, here is art and color and organization and accomplishment . . . justice and music and order and activity and science and scholarship. You want a kingdom, Jesus? Take it from my hand. Right here, right now.
“Only avoid the cross.”
Some people comment on this episode as if Satan’s approach was clumsy and transparent. Was Satan’s temptation a feeble grab at power? Was it easy for Christ to contend with the idea that there might be a second way to royalty and glory besides yielding to his Father’s will? Was Satan’s temptation so pitiably obvious, subtle like a garish carnival midway is subtle? Or was this the most difficult obedience of all, that to be the Son of the Father means to wait upon the Father’s will and words?
Jesus was learning obedience by what he suffered (c.f. Hebrews 5:8). The only thing he possessed to defend himself were words from the Old Testament. He’d heard these and memorized these as a boy. A misstep now on this very high mountain meant calamity for all humanity. Impatience here meant the rapid unraveling of the promise the Father made in Eden, to gather to himself a family in spite of Satan.
In the other two temptations related in Matthew 4 and Luke 4, the unclean spirit had taken a swipe at the Father. To paraphrase: “If you’re going to save anyone, Jesus, I suggest you start by eating some food. Isn’t anyone looking out for you?” Satan also disparaged the servant-role he hated as he contemptuously remembered Psalm 91, “He will command his angels concerning you.”
Maybe the devil’s “If you are the Son of God” was not so much a denial of the fact. After all, the combatants both knew it was the truth. Rather, perhaps, “Since you are the Son of God. Act. Just avoid the cross.”
It had been the Holy Spirit, who gathers the church, who drove Jesus into the wilderness of Judea for this time of difficult testing: Fear, love, and trust in God above all things.
Jesus was keeping the First Commandment for you, Christian.
Living Hope Lutheran Church, Omaha, NE