The Temptations of Christ


There is probably no episode described in the gospels that causes more wonderment or questioning than the temptations that Jesus underwent in the desert. While the earliest account, which is probably that ascribed to Mark, tells us that the Spirit “drove” Jesus into the wilderness to be tempted, Matthew and Luke soften that by saying that Jesus was “led” by the Spirit into the desert to fast for forty days, and only then was tempted. In contrast, John’s gospel, the last to be written, although it gives the longest account of Jesus’ encounter with the John the Baptist along the Jordan River, avoids even mentioning the fact that Jesus was actually baptized, nor does it mention the subject of the temptations at all.


This growing avoidance points to a curious fact: as Christianity spread, the tendency was not to deny the divinity of Christ, but to avoid, as much as possible, the fact that he was fully human, and that he could be tempted just like we all are.  In fact, the first major heresy that had to be condemned was called “Docetism” (from the Greek word that can mean “to seem” or “to appear”) which held that Jesus wasn’t really human but only looked like he was.  Nevertheless, despite that early condemnation, this same tendency has persisted.  Each Sunday we still solemnly profess in the Nicene Creed that Jesus Christ is “one in being with the Father” (we will soon be saying “consubstantial” again come next fall), but we hardly ever, and in fact never during Mass, recite the words of the Council of Chalcedon, that Christ is also “consubstantial with us” or of the same nature as ourselves in his humanity.  Maybe this is something that we will need take for granted when we say he became “incarnate”; otherwise, it will end up leaving us wondering how he could have been tempted at all.


Next, we have the problem of explaining the nature of those temptations themselves.  While some may take them at face value (Satan appearing as a human or maybe as a beast of some sort), others would see it as a case of Jesus having some kind of visions or hallucinations—how else can you be shown “all the kingdoms of the world in one instant”?  However it happened, Jesus is first bidden to turn a stone or stone (Matthew gives us only one stone while Luke has it in the plural) into bread.  Obviously, after forty days of fasting, Jesus must have been very hungry. Yet in both Matthew’s and Luke’s account, the object is not to satisfy just his own hunger but to answer the challenge “If you are the Son of God…”, in other words, to challenge the truth of what was revealed to Jesus and his associates at the time of his baptism in the Jordan. Indeed, what did the title “Son of God” really mean?  Did it mean that he was the long-awaited Messiah, and if so, how was he to come into his promised kingdom?  Was it to be through a highly popular program of miracle-working, feeding the multitudes, so that they in turn would try to make him a rival to Herod or even to Caesar?  We know, from what the gospels tell us, that this was the reaction of the crowds to his multiplication of the loaves and fishes, and that Jesus later found himself having to flee from any such idea.


If so, this in turn explains the next temptation, which in Luke’s account was to worship Satan and thus to share in all the “power and the glory” granted to him.  But granted by whom?  It doesn’t say, but obviously, if Jesus really did have political ambitions, the way to fulfill them would have been to cozy himself up to those in power, which at that time would have meant one thing, to ally himself with Rome. In other words, the alternate temptation to the first was now not so much oppose worldly power but court it, or as another age would put it, “If you can’t beat them, join them” — a temptation that would-be religious leaders have seldom been able to escape, even today.


Finally (and this is where, at least psychologically speaking, the sequence of temptations in Luke’s account makes the most sense), Jesus finds himself in the great temple in Jerusalem and is tempted to “throw himself down” from its highest point, something which would have surely been suicidal unless God’s angels were to intervene and bear him up “lest he so much as dash his feet against a stone”.  Apparently, this was a temptation to “tempt God” or force God to resolve whatever doubts Jesus may have had as to what his mission on earth might be.  If so, it was, in a very real sense, a “crisis of faith — which in the gospel sense of that word means a loving trust in God.


That Jesus himself, whom the Epistle to the Hebrews calls our “forerunner” or our “leader” in the contest of faith had to undergo such temptations is, I think, itself a test of the authenticity of our own beliefs.  Do we really believe that God shared the same human condition as we experience in all its uncertainties and sufferings in order that we too may find our way back to, or even eventually share in, God’s own life? If not, then I fear that we have missed the main point of Christianity.


R W Kropf   3/3/11                                                                                              Temptations of Xp.doc   11-03-03.html