One of the best illustrations of the progressive nature of temptation is found in the Jungle Doctor stories. The story in question is called ‘The Small Wisdom of Feeding Vultures’. ‘A small monkey called Tichi was once fascinated by the curves of the dangerous beaks of vultures. A vulture landed near Tichi in the family tree. Tichi stared at every inch of its foul body. When no one was looking he threw it some food, then clapped and shouted, “Be Gone!” Next day two vultures came and landed near Tichi. Again he threw food to the vultures before clapping and shouting, “Be Gone!” Soon more and more came to the tree and Tichi was now scared so he started to throw stones at the big birds. As the week went by the vultures no longer stood at a distance from Tichi. They grew bolder and bolder and drew closer and closer. Some were above the little monkey. Some were below. More and more began to circle ahead. Tichi started to clap and scream frantically. But eventually there were too many. The vultures alighted and there was one final shrill cry as the monkey was devoured.’
Today is the Third Sunday in Lent and traditionally one of the stories from the Bible we think about is Jesus’ battle with temptation (Luke 4:1-13). Jesus is on his way back from being baptised in the River Jordan (Luke 3:21,22). It had been an amazing time – the baptism, the voice from Heaven, the Spirit’s anointing – but now, instead of engaging in the amazing deliverance ministry God had anointed him for (Luke 4:18,19) he is immediately ‘led by the Spirit into the wilderness and for forty days he was tempted by the devil’ (vs.1,2). A few weeks ago we were thinking of how Israel had some amazing ‘mountain top’ experiences of God, but how all their battles/victories were won in the valley! Have you noticed that whenever we have some kind of ‘mountain top’ experience – following Jesus through the waters of baptism, or hearing and responding to God’s call, or experiencing a fresh infilling of the Holy Spirit – almost inevitably we find that experience being tested in some way? Oftentimes, instead of finding ourselves launching out into seeing something incredible being accomplished by God through us, we find ourselves (like Christian in Bunyan’s Pilgrims Progress) into the valley of despair, the slough of despond, being tempted by the devil?
By the way, do take the devil seriously! C S Lewis (the great Christian apologist), in his Screwtape Letters, suggests that there are two equal and opposite errors into which we can fall about the devil. One is to disbelieve in his existence, and the other is to believe and to feel an excessive and unhealthy interest in him. The thing to hang on to in all of this is that if we are truly a woman or a man ‘in Christ’ then we have nothing to fear. As the Apostle John tells us, ‘Greater is he (Christ) who is in us, than he (the devil) that is in the world’ (1 John 4:4). Just as Jesus was victorious over the devil when in the wilderness so we too can be victorious through Christ!
We also need to note, however, that Jesus didn’t overcome the devil, or these particular temptations, by getting into some kind of discussion/debate with the devil (like Eve did in Genesis 3) about the validity or other wise of the particular temptation. Every time Jesus countered the devil by quoting scripture back to him. He took up ‘the sword of the Spirit which is the word of God’ (Ephesians 6:17) – the only offensive weapon in the whole armour of God – to fight off the devil! The devil will always outwit us if we rely on our own reasoning powers, but he can’t cope with the truth of God’s word! Whilst Jesus’ battle with temptation was in one way specific to him, in another way there is something universal in them for us all.
The first temptation was to reduce the Gospel to a social gospel: ‘If you are the Son of God, tell these stones to become bread!’ (v.3). This wilderness was not covered by sand but by little bits of limestone that looked exactly like small loaves of bread. On top of this Jesus was ‘hungry’ (v.2) because had nothing to eat for days, so this particular temptation had a very personal element to it. More to the point, however, it was a temptation for Jesus to prove that he was indeed the Son of God by bribing people to follow him by providing them with material gifts. In effect the devil was saying to Jesus, ‘If you want people to follow you, use your wonderful power to give them material things!’. Jesus’ response was to quote Deuteronomy 8:3 and remind the devil that ‘People can’t live by bread alone’ (v.4). The Gospel is a holistic gospel – it covers our physical, mental, social, emotional and environmental needs as well as our spiritual needs – but a purely ‘social gospel’ is never enough. Men and women do need (like Nicodemus) to be ‘born again’ of God’s Spirit (John 3:3).
The second temptation was to live a life of compromise: ‘I will give you all the kingdoms of the world – and the power and glory that goes with them – if you worship me!’ (vs.5,6). The devil filled Jesus’ imagination with a vision of the whole civilised world bowing the knee to Jesus (without the cost of the Cross being on the agenda). We know of course (because we have read that wonderful hymn of the early church in Philippians 2:5-11) that what was on offer here would one day be fulfilled for Jesus – that a day would come when ‘every knee would bow, and every tongue confess, that Jesus is Lord’ – not because the devil gave it to Jesus (it was never his to give) but because God the Father (to whom it does all belong) will bestow it on his Son. But here was the temptation to strike a bargain with the devil. To settle for a life of compromise. To settle for ‘a religious life’ of sorts but without the cost of the cross! Does this kind of temptation ring any bells? The temptation to settle for the lower rather than the higher road. To offer God less than our best. Jesus quotes Deuteronomy 6:13; 10:20 in response: ‘You must worship the Lord your God – only him must you serve!’ (v.8).
The third temptation was to try and force God’s hand: ‘If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here [the pinnacle of the Temple in Jerusalem] … God will command his angels to protect you’ (vs.9,10). There is so much in this particular temptation alone that we could spend time on. The temptation to perform a spectacular, but pointless miracle in order to compel wonder and belief of a certain kind – albeit a somewhat shallow belief based on signs and wonders rather than dedicated discipleship? The misuse of the Bible in order to justify twisted and perverse views (as the devil did here in responding to Jesus’ use of Scripture by quoting from Psalm 91 himself)? But essentially the major temptation here was to try and persuade Jesus to ‘jump the gun’ by sacrificing his life here, rather than on Calvary! Jesus knew that his Incarnation would ultimately lead to his Passion. He knew that his birth in Bethlehem’s manger would end in Calvary’s cross. He knew that his primary purpose in life was to atone for human sin through his sacrificial death (John 10:14-18). Here, the devil seeks to see that death precipitated knowing full well that such a premature death would not force God’s hand but undermine the very act of salvation that Calvary would achieve! Despite misreading 2 Peter 3:11,12 we cannot ‘hurry along’ God’s plans and purposes. We can only faithfully seek to ‘keep in step with the Spirit’ (Galatians 5:25), although even that requires prayerful patience and persistence. No wonder Jesus’ response to the devil is to quote Deuteronomy 6:16): ‘You must not put the Lord your God to the test!’ (v.12).
Luke rounds off the narrative with the devil decisively beaten. He had ‘finished tempting Jesus in every way’ (v.13 NEB). Jesus had not yielded. In the very next verse we are told that having come through this time of trial, ‘Jesus returned to Galilee full of the power of the Holy Spirit’ (v.14). What the devil intended for evil, God turned to good! This does not mean that from this point on Jesus was not subject to further temptation. Luke tells us here that having tempted Jesus with ‘every kind of temptation, the devil departed from him until another opportune time’ (v.13). But time and time again Jesus came through these times of testing victoriously. And it will be the same with us. We too will be tempted and tested but we too can come through them all the stronger. Looking on the bright side we must be doing something right if the devil is so bothered by us!
Nevertheless (perhaps with vultures in mind), we still need to be on our guard. Remember the old Chinese proverb that says, ‘You can’t stop the birds flying over your head … but you can stop them building nests in your hair!’