Jesus, Temptation and Christology

by Peter Sandstrom


As noted in our first issue, it is our intention at Pietisten to take seriously David Nyvall's proposal to continuously revise the creeds, recognizing that they "must be kept young." A similar call was recently restated in the Netherlands by Catholic theologian Edward Schillebeeckx: "In every age we must try to embed the faith in a new culture. That is the delicate task of hermeneutics — the reacculturation of the Gospel. This is the only possible way, in a new period, to believe in the same Christian faith." (Colin Murphy, "Who Do Men Say That I Am?", The Atlantic Monthly, Dec., 19S6, p. 39.) In this spirit we want to engage in the current worldwide dialogue concerning Christology. In so doing we hope to encourage further participation in that theological discussion by members of the pietist community.

We reenter this Christological conversation at a time when it seems to be heating up again. Over the past decade Schillebceckx and his fellow Catholic theologians, Hans Küng and David Tracy, have been major contributors to the field. Yet the past year alone has seen new significant publications from a variety of sources, among them Jaroslav Pelikan, E. P. Sanders, and Thomas Sheehan, All the above individuals have been among those included in a surprisingly extensive coverage by a seemingly intrigued secular press. Among a few current examples of this interest were cover articles for the Atlantic Monthly and the New York Times Sunday Magazine, and book reviews in The New Republic and The New York Review of Books. The Press and other media have also been reporting some of the casualties of the current debate. While theologians no longer seem in danger of losing their lives as a result of their Christological and other theological inquiries, the risk of losing their employment has been a real one. The removal of Hans Küng from his teaching position by the Vatican was widely noted as have been the frequent threats to Schillebeeckx and to certain American Catholic thinkers and leaders. American evangelical faculty members have suffered similar fates and the inheritors of the pietist movement have not been immune either. Christology is a risky business.


The gospel text of the pericope for March 9 is Matthew 4:1-11 and is a potent source for such Christological conversation and is the point of departure for this study. The story of Jesus' wilderness temptation is startling and dramatic; it raises significant questions both from what it does and does not say. Its context alone begins to speak of both its status and its intrigue. The story appears in Matthew, Mark, and Luke and in each of these gospels (the synoptics) is always placed in close proximity to two other important events in the life of Jesus. These three events are always placed in the same order: the baptism of Jesus by John the Baptist, Jesus' wilderness temptation, and the commencement of Jesus' public ministry. Outside of these three gospels the situation changes markedly. The gospel of John includes an account of the baptism but the wilderness temptation is not mentioned. In all of Paul's letters none of the three events are ever referred to.

Among the three gospel accounts of the temptation there are both similarities and differences. Some important aspects held in common are the association of the Spirit with driving or leading Jesus out to the wilderness, the time period of forty days, and the temptation by Satan. Of great significance is that in each of the three texts the temptation story follows an account of Jesus' baptism which includes Jesus hearing a voice out of heaven calling him "my beloved son". In light of this it seems reasonable that, as far as the story is concerned, Jesus is led out to the wilderness to grapple with the implications of what he has heard from the voice: what does it mean to be called God's son? Considering that this story made it into each of the first three gospels which were put to pen and paper, sometime after 70 A.D., we can with more certainty say that at least for the Christian community of the last quarter of the first century, the questions of what it meant to call Jesus the son of God and what it meant for Jesus to struggle with that name were very important questions indeed. My assumption in this study is that to struggle with both of those questions continues to be of vital importance to us as well.

At this point some of the differences between the three gospel texts need to be considered. Of the three, Mark is by far the shortest story needing a mere two verses to give its summary account. Mark includes no mention of fasting and no verbatim of a dialogue between Jesus and the Tempter, as are found in both Matthew and Luke. Yet Mark does refer, as the other two do not, to Jesus being with the wild beasts. Mark also notes, unlike the other two, that when the Tempter left, it was, as Waldenström translates it, "for the moment". As noted above, Matthew and Luke both include an extensive dialogue between Jesus and the Tempter, but the orders of the three temptations involved are different as are some other elements of the dialogue. Matthew also mentions, as Luke does not, but as Mark does, that after the temptation Jesus was ministered to by angels.

There is something else concerning the context and the setting of the story that I find especially interesting: in each of the three gospels the temptation of Jesus in the wilderness is presented as an unwitnessed event - throughout the narrative Jesus is quite without human company. This is then one of the few occasions in which an event in Jesus' life, as seen in the gospels, is shown to be without the testimony of witnesses. Drawing further attention to this point is the realization that the story immediately proceeding the wilderness temptation, Jesus hearing the voice from heaven calling him "my beloved son", is also portrayed as an event without witnesses! Only in John's gospel (which does not include this triad of events) is somebody else, John the Baptist, mentioned as having heard the voice. There is not even an account of these stories having been told by Jesus to anyone; they are simply presented as having taken place.

This unusual instance of two consecutive and linked unwitnessed events of the life of Jesus in the gospels raises some important questions. Did the events really happen at all? If they did, what actually happened? When and to whom did Jesus tell this story? Why did he tell the tale? How much of Jesus' story was included by each of the three gospel accounts? Why did Matthew, Mark and Luke include the stories in their gospels?

In order to respond to some of these questions it is necessary lo consider the dating of the three gospels, Following the assumption that Mark's gospel is the earliest of the three, the bare bones rendering of the baptism and temptation found in Mark calls for consideration of the possibility that the dialogue between Jesus and the Tempter found in Matthew and Luke is not original to the story Jesus may have shared with his disciples. Perhaps in the years following Mark's writing, Matthew, Luke or someone else from the Christian community wrote an d inserted the conversation between Jesus and Satan. This practice of commentary, which in this case was a commentary on Mark's text, is called midrash. Surely Mark's haunting little account could not help but elicit much questioning and speculation

Another possibility is that some, most, or all of the dialogue is original to Jesus' recounting of the events to his disciples. If this is the case it is a fascinating and rare opportunity to witness Jesus engaging in spiritual autobiography. From my own reading and consideration of the texts, I choose an interpretation of the story that proposes that the events of Jesus hearing a voice at his baptism and of his consequently going out to the wilderness were real occurrences in his life. Further, I find it likely that much of the substance of his reflection and temptation revolved around the three specific issues noted in Matthew's and Luke's dialogues with the Tempter.


On to the story itself. It should not be at all surprising that, after having heard a voice from heaven calling him "my beloved son" , the first two temptations Jesus is faced with should start with the words, "If you are the Son of God...". Something had happened at the baptism. Jesus seemed to be unavoidably faced with at least four crucial questions: Who am I? Am I the Son of God? What does that mean? What shall I do? If it is Jesus who decides to face the questions, it is the Spirit that is credited with choosing the place where Jesus will do so - he goes out to the wilderness.

Jesus isn't doing anything new here. Throughout Israel's history individuals had gone out to the wilderness to confront God's word to them. This process was especially associated with the prophetic tradition. Prophets from Moses to Elijah had met God in the desert. Yet it was not only God whom they met, they also met themselves. More to the point, it was in the wilderness where they became themselves. This wilderness time of becoming and self-discovery was not limited to prophets or to individuals. Of supreme importance is the fact that the nation of Israel itself became a people through its time of wandering in the wilderness during its exodus from Egypt. Matthew is very aware of this as he writes his story of Jesus' temptation, indeed, he patterns his whole gospel by comparing Jesus' life to that of Israel's life in Exodus. This pattern, however, must make us alert, especially when thinking Christologically, about how Matthew is using the temptation story for his own editorial purposes in constructing his gospel.

So it is that Jesus goes out to the wilderness in search of himself and perhaps to become, himself. The danger here, as was discovered by Israel and by the prophets, is that when you spend extended time in solitude and self-examination, you come face to face with your most glaring weaknesses. You may see yourself at your most deluded, your most sinister or your most finite — that which was hidden shall be brought into the open. Jesus seems not only to know this but to encourage it. He initiates his experience with an extended time of fasting — forty days worth. The intensity of this extreme effort under the conditions of the desert, at most, brings one to and past the brink of hallucination and insanity, At the very least, it unleashes the forces of the subconscious and Jesus, by his fasting, invites the assault. He seems to dare them to come. They came.

I want to take the word "temptation" very seriously. As I interpret it, something which is tempting is something which is very close to what you really want to do or be, in the same general direction, otherwise it is not very tempting. That which is one hundred and eighty degrees away from your desires is no temptation. In this sense no thing or no one that is your opposite can pose much of a temptation for you. As Bonhoeffer said, "Only friends tempt." Who, then, is this Tempter who comes to meet Jesus in the wilderness? At the very least it is someone who has come at Jesus' invitation. For it is Jesus' actions, prompted by the Spirit, that has drawn the Tempter out. On the basis of what has been said above, I would propose that the Tempter is someone who in some very significant ways is quite close to Jesus. This can mean a variety of different things. For the purposes of the story itself, I think Matthew views Jesus and the Tempter (or Satan) as two individuals who are in some sense both heavenly beings. They have connections that go beyond the human. As we have discussed it among our editorial staff, the Tempter is someone who, like the serpent in this week's Hebrew Bible lesson and like Jesus, is very arum: naked, shrewd, and open (we are indebted to David Hawkinson for making us aware of the significance of the word arum).

Past this point, my interpretation, my hermeneutic, is even more my own. I am persuaded, though, that it is quite consistent with the word given us in Matthew's text. The written text of Scripture demands that we interpret, make sense of, fill in the gaps and provide perspectives. In my reflection on this story which is both dramatic and subtle, the following interpretation has seemed to me to be very close to the center of the texL It appears that the Tempter that Jesus meets in the wilderness is none other than Jesus himself, that self of Jesus who lived primarily in the depths of his subconscious and who at this critical juncture in Jesus' life needed to be heard from. Jesus, at the urging of the Spirit, goes out into the wilderness and opens the gates and draws this Tempter out for a major confrontation. The questions of the hour for Jesus are "Am I the Son of God?" and, "If I am the Son of God, what kind of Son shall I be and what shall I do?" The significance of these questions for Jesus cannot be overstated. The answers he gives to them will determine the nature, style and outcome of his ministry. There are several possible alternatives here that he could pursue. That many of them lead to death is no secret to Jesus. He knows what the fate of reformers has been in recent Palestinian history, especially if they happen to be of the long line of Gallilean messianic figures. Jesus has been wrestling with these alternatives and he and his Tempter-self have strong opinions on the subject.

It appears that the nature of the three specific temptations posed to Jesus by the Tempter center around the nature and uses of power to achieve the purposes of the Son of God. The first temptation's timing is appropriate to its content. Jesus has just finished his forty day fast and, in a classic piece of understatement, Matthew writes, "and afterwards he was hungry". Jesus has already decided to eat and only then does the temptation come. So the question posed by the Tempter to Jesus is not concerned with if and when Jesus shall eat, but rather with how Jesus shall eat. Why is the matter of how a Son of God satisfies his hunger so important? "If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread." The Tempter knows that Jesus, as the Son of God, is not going to be concerned about his own hunger alone. Jesus is one who will care about the others who are without adequate food. If Jesus could make bread out of stone then he will have means to feed not only himself, but all the hungry around him, and then some! This is a real temptation for Jesus because it is so close to what he really wants to do. What Son of God would not want to help feed the world and give it new life? The real stone wall standing in Jesus' way is that he does not have the power to make stones into bread — he simply cannot do it. Herein lies the deeper temptation with the Tempter's first challenge: If Jesus cannot in fact make bread from stones, if he does not possess such power or magic, is he really the Son of God, and even if he still is, what good is he?

Jesus' answer to this temptation is to share the words from Deuteronomy 8:9. It is a fascinating response in terms of what it does and does not say, "It is written, 'Man shall not live by bread alone, but from every word that proceeds from the mouth of God.'" Deut. 8:1-10 is a summarizing of Israel's forty years in the wilderness, recalling the themes of obedience, discipline, and God's provision and promise, especially God's providing food and clothing and. finally, a land that would provide such resources for living. In this story, Jesus compares his position to that of Israel's: if God provided food for the people in the wilderness, so shall I be provided for by God and not by my own power of magic. More importantly, though, while food is necessary, it is not ultimate and it cannot by itself provide life. Life itself finds its source and sustenance in God's word — this is what will be central to Jesus' work. What will not be central is an attempt to feed the world, something that Jesus does not have the power to do. What is relevant here is that, faced with the limits of his power, Jesus is not dissuaded from his mission nor from his direction. He continues on his way and gives no indication that he no longer considers himself to be the Son of God; he concedes to no association of the Son of God with power. What is very interesting, though, is that the question, "If you are the Son of God..." is not responded to at all! In referring to himself, Jesus casts his response in terms that do not speak of divine sonship in any way, but rather speak in quite human terms: it is not "the Son of God" but "Man" who shall not live by bread alone.

In the second temptation the theme is still power but has shifted from Jesus to God. If Jesus will admit to no special powers for himself, what docs he have to say about the power of God? More importantly, how will he act in accordance with his views on God's power? Matthew writes that the setting for this next temptation is the pinnacle of the temple in Jerusalem to which the Tempter has transported him from the desert. This peculiar image also tends to affirm the thesis that the battleground for these temptations is the realm of the subconscious. "If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down; for it is written, 'He will give his angels charge of you,' and 'on their hands they will bear you up, lest you strike your foot against a stone.'" How impressive that the Tempter, in this second round, has already changed tactics and is using scripture to formulate his question, just as Jesus had previously used it to make his response. More than a tactic, however, this exchange of scripture and interpretation — reminding us of the pietist method of asking "Where is it written?" — shows us again just how close this Tempter is to Jesus. Being in continuity with scripture is of vital concern to Jesus and the Tempter, and, as this dialogue shows and we already know from experience, this is not always easy to determine — to say nothing of being easy to live out.

Jesus responds directly, maintaining the scriptural study, with "Again it is written, 'You shall not tempt the Lord your God.'", quoting from Deut. 6:16. The Deuteronomy text refers to the people of Israel tempting or testing God at Masseh in the wilderness, where they were thirsty and where Moses touched the rock and produced water. This scene on the temple pinnacle may have reminded readers of Matthew's day of the attempt of Simon Magus to fly off the pillar for Emperor Nero. Simon Magus fell to his death. The temptation here is to test and judge God by whether or not God saves God's own Son from death under conditions that call for nothing less than magical manipulation of matter and energy. There is no indication in the response of Jesus or in the light of experience that says that stopping people from falling in midair is something that God does or even can do. The question posed to God by the Tempter here is, as it was to Jesus, "If you cannot do this are you really God, and even if you are,what good are you?"

Jesus' answer to this second temptation constitutes an important realization for him: if he proceeds on the way that leads him into the hands of his enemies, God either will not or cannot save him from death. God is not one who either denies death or spares people from it. God is, however, the giver of new life. Jesus will have to make his ultimate journey to Jerusalem in that faith.

The third temptation is set high up on a mountain overlooking all the kingdoms of the world. Gone are any more attempts to define the title, Son of God. The Tempter no longer even bothers with proposals of, "it is written...", for there is no scriptural justification for what he finally offers: "All these I will give you if you fall down and worship me." If a view is taken that the Tempter represents a separate and existent Satan, who is a real creature, then this temptation is an offer of the kind of power which apparently Jesus credits neither himself nor God with possessing. It is an offer of delusion. If, however, the Tempter is from Jesus' own self, then the temptation is even more subtle and vastly more dangerous: the temptation for Jesus to worship himself! To worship himself as "Son of God in power", to use the Apostle Paul's phrase. To worship himself could only lead to an assumption of power or, at the very least, a concerted effort to assume such power. It is an offer of self-destruction. Jesus' most important response to his wilderness temptation is now thrown in the face of the Tempter: "Begone, Satan! For it is written, 'You shall worship the Lord your God and him only shall you serve.'" Again from Deuteronomy, this time from 6:13. Jesus rejects outright the temptation of self-worship. His rejection of God's protection from death, and his rejection of self-worship have now freed him to commence his ministry!

Some Concluding Questions

While writers and artists have occasionally taken up the theme of Jesus' temptation it has been remarkably absent from the classic creeds and from much contemporary Christological consideration. If we assume that the story is accurate, then (as noted before), we must also assume that Jesus went out of his way to let at least one or more of his disciples know about his experience. If Jesus considered the story of his titanic struggle — to determine who he was and what his ministry would be and how he was seriously tempted to alter his course — to be of such importance that he wanted his followers to know about it, then perhaps the story and its implications about Jesus need to figure more centrally in our Christology.

The circumstances and content of the temptation also call for more thought to be given to what it means for Jesus to have a subconscious. What is the signiTicance of the subconscious when related to the Son of God? Further, how is having a subconscious connected to humankind being made in the image of God?

Finally, how is reflection on the nature of power essential to an adequate description of who Jesus the Christ is?