On the Nature of Temptation

Then Jesus was led by the Spirit into the desert to be tempted by the devil.

Matthew 4:1

What a juicy statement by Matthew, coming immediately after Jesus’ baptism. The Spirit compelled Jesus to leave the peace of the dove for the isolation of the desert, forcing an attack upon his very nature. We dare to consider the implications of such, the chiefest being the nature of our own temptations.

Both the gospel of Mark and the gospel of Luke, in their counterpart tellings of this moment, do not say quite the same thing as Matthew. Mark, in particular, has a very harsh, forceful approach to this encounter: the Spirit impelled Jesus to the wilderness, but not necessarily to be tempted, even though temptations occurred there. Matthew’s language is very specific: the Spirit led Jesus into the desert so that that Jesus would be tempted. Details matter, and Matthew’s telling of this story, as one of Jesus’ apostles and eyewitnesses, would have certainly been more flavorful, and perhaps even more precise. It is possible Matthew heard Jesus once say that God himself, via the Spirit, led Jesus to temptation. But the text of Matthew provides no clues why this had to be so.

Also, it’s difficult to believe that this happened because Jesus had just been revealed as God’s Son and thus was made to experience an exclusive testing. The theology of the New Testament attests that all believers are “sons of God”. While translations and scholarship often focus on the supposed lack of inclusivity in Paul’s words in his letter to the Galatians, his use of this phrase makes much more sense when we see the treatment of Jesus in Matthew 4. “Sons of God” are led into temptation by God and received by the devil.

The devil, though, is a showstopper here, a mysterious being complicit in the Spirit-led temptation of Jesus, created for this specific purpose. Listen to the words of John in the final book of the New Testament:

15 And the angel said to me, “The waters that you saw, where the prostitute is seated, are peoples and multitudes and nations and languages. 16 And the ten horns that you saw, they and the beast will hate the prostitute. They will make her desolate and naked, and devour her flesh and burn her up with fire, 17 for God has put it into their hearts to carry out his purpose by being of one mind and handing over their royal power to the beast, until the words of God are fulfilled. 18 And the woman that you saw is the great city that has dominion over the kings of the earth.”

Revelation 17:15-18 (emphasis mine)

Some background is necessary here. In Revelation 17, the prostitute, whose dual identity is both the city of Rome and any nation or government that has systematically oppressed the people of God, is devoured and burned by the beast. Verse 17 states that God gave this authority to a beast, who is consistently seen as evil in Revelation. Verse 17 also teaches, quite clearly, that there is no antithetical being with mechanisms and desires to overthrow God’s reign. Everything serves God’s purposes. Even the devil, the recipient of Jesus in Matthew 4:1.

Whatever we think about Matthew 4:1, then, it’s enough to say that God thought this testing and tempting of Jesus was appropriate.

Nik Ripken is a missionary and author. In his book, The Insanity of God, Ripken recounts his first experience with underground house-churches in China, where he learned the value placed upon persecution and testing in the Chinese house-church movement. After spending time with a twenty-five year old leader of one of the churches, Ripken’s host pulled him aside and said this about the young leader, “He’s going to be someone God can use in a powerful way someday. But you cannot trust what he says now; he hasn’t been to prison yet.”

Ripken continued,

This was an attitude that I would encounter often in China. Personal trust and respect for spiritual maturity were often in direct proportion to the amount of suffering that had been endured for the faith.

The Insanity of God, page 228.

Later, Ripken wrote,

One of the house-church leaders actually asked me, “Do you know what prison is for us? It is how we get our theological education. Prison in China is for us like seminary is for training church leaders in your country.”

The Insanity of God, page 231.

Matthew’s juicy statement is not an anomaly. It a purposeful look at the designs of God who sees value for his “sons” in these moments, and who controls the one who visits us with testings.