Show Me The Power!
In the first of this series I mentioned that Luke’s is the only Gospel in which the temptation at the temple is placed last. As Fred Craddock points out in his commentary, Luke modeled his Gospel after the life and ministry of Christ and so it made sense that his temptations should lead from home, to the world, and then to the temple in Jerusalem just as Jesus began at home, travelled throughout the countryside including some Gentile areas and ended up in Jerusalem (Craddock 1990). That is just where we find Jesus and the devil this morning, standing 150 feet up, at the pinnacle of the temple.
Why did the devil take Christ to Jerusalem? Jerusalem was the capital of the United Kingdom of Israel (at other times just Judah) and later of the Roman Province of Judea under Herod the Great. It is into Jerusalem that Jesus would ride to the cheers of the crowds on Palm Sunday; in an upper room in Jerusalem that he and his apostles would celebrate the Passover feast; from Jerusalem that he would be led up to be crucified on Good Friday; and to that same upper room that he would return after his resurrection.
Why did they go to the temple? The temple was his father’s house. It was the symbol and center of the Jewish religion; the house of God, the only proper place to make sacrifices to God. It is where the chief priests and many Pharisees, who would later take the role of Christ’s enemies, were to be found. It was the site of teaching, prayer, worship, sacrifice, cleansing, and absolution. They were on the pinnacle of the temple which, in Jesus’ time, would have been the top of the Holy Place, the most important part of Herod’s temple. This structure was open only for the priests to light the lamps and give incense offerings, and it housed the Holy of Holies which could only be entered once each year by the high priest on the Day of Atonement.
Why the pinnacle of the temple? In almost all religious traditions in ancient times, mountains and the tops of human-made mountains such as ziggurats and temples were considered to represent the seat of the gods and the place where people could find themselves closest to them. Moses met God on the mountaintop, Jesus frequently went up a mountain to pray, Jesus’ transfiguration was at a mountaintop, and Jesus was crucified on a hilltop. In colloquial speech we refer to moments of great revelation or closeness to God as ‘mountaintop experiences.’
So, what did this temptation mean? The temptation was a chance to show proof of God’s power, to avoid a 98% chance of death with a show of supernatural power and beings, God’s minions/angels. Would this produce real faith in those who were witnesses or would this sort of coerced faith be short lived and situational? As we have seen throughout the Old Testament God’s shows of his power through the plagues in Egypt, the holding back of the Red Sea, the manna and water from the rock in the desert, and his presence in the cloud on the tabernacle, led to great declarations of faith which were followed all too soon with challenges. ‘You are the one God, full of power, but what have you done for us lately?’
Having been shot down twice by Jesus quoting scripture, this time, the devil takes his temptation directly from scripture,
“‘If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here, for it is written, “He will command his angels concerning you, to protect you”, and “On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone (Ps 91:11-12).”
If you go to the Psalm you will see that he conveniently stopped his quote just before the part about defeating the serpent and crushing its head under his feet.
We have all sorts of assurances of God’s power and faithfulness in the Bible. In this morning’s Psalm we read of powers such as; forming light, creating darkness, bringing prosperity, creating disaster, making the earth, creating mankind, stretching out the heavens, marshaling their starry hosts, and making ways straight. We have assurances because we believe, but if we have to test it do we really believe, and then why should the promises still apply?
In his letter to the Corinthians Paul reminds people of Israel’s history of testing God who said, “you…have tested me these ten times and have not obeyed my voice (Numbers 14:21),” Paul wrote,
“We must not indulge in sexual immorality as some of them did, and twenty-three thousand fell in a single day. We must not put Christ to the test, as some of them did, and were destroyed by serpents. And do not complain as some of them did, and were destroyed by the destroyer. These things happened to them to serve as an example, and they were written down to instruct us, on whom the ends of the ages have come (1 Cor 10:8-11).”
Living Faith’s statement on unbelief states that, “For some today “God is an empty word indicating no reality they have ever consciously known. They do not believe there is a God (Living Faith 9.3.1).” These people, if seeking at all, are looking for proof that God is real in the worldly meaning of real. Something you can touch, see, feel. It next states that, “Many find it hard to believe in a loving God in a world where so many suffer. Unbelief threatens many with despair, the feeling that nothing really matters and that beyond this world is emptiness (Living Faith 9.3.2).”
Jesus answered the devil, ‘It is said, “Do not put the Lord your God to the test (Luke 4:12).”‘ Paul told the Corinthians, “We must not put Christ to the test (I Cor 10:9).” Like Jesus, we need to be resisting overfilling ourselves but allow the Holy Spirit to fill us, we need to resist grabbing for power over others and instead seek to serve, and we need to allow the assurances of God to be enough for us. We need not wait for pigs to fly.
“We have looked upon God in the sanctuary, beholding his power and glory. Because his steadfast love is better than life, our lips will praise him (Ps 63:2-3).”
Craddock, Fred B. 1990. Luke. Louisville, Ky.: John Knox Press.
Living Faith A Statement Of Christian Belief. 1984. Kelowna: Wood Lake Books Inc.