Jesus was led by the Spirit in the wilderness where for forty days he was tempted by the devil
The most important thing to remember about the devil, in all circumstances, is that the devil is a liar. Albeit at times he is a very subtle one. The lies which the devil tells often seem highly plausible, even at times more desirable than the uncomfortable truth. Each of the temptations which Jesus faces emerges from the devil’s lies.
The first temptation that confronts Jesus emerges from his immediate circumstances. He has spent 40 days in the wilderness. The whole time he has been there he has eaten nothing. Unsurprisingly then, he is famished.
The devil said to him, “if you are the Son of God, command this stone to become a loaf of bread.”
The devil’s lie is that if Jesus suffers he cannot be God’s Son. The devil lies when he makes a claim in which he suggests that suffering and a close relationship with God are incompatible. The suggestion is that a relationship with God confers some kind of privilege.
One of the dangers for the people of God is to believe that they are special. And that this specialness can be used for our own benefit to make us more comfortable in the world. Perhaps the most glaring example of succumbing to this temptation is what is sometimes called “Prosperity Gospel.” This refers to that part of the church which preaches that if you are faithful, faithful enough, wellbeing, as the world defines it, will be yours. This generally means that if you given money to the preacher of this gospel you will get more money in return. Right away I guess we can see that for what it is: snake oil. It’s a con. Yet sometimes there is not a little self-interest in our believing and in our praying. The thought is hard to resist that there ought to be some immediate benefit from being one of God’s people. That because of our relationship with God we really ought to be spared the discomforts and indeed the suffering that might arise in this life. This is the devil’s lie, that suffering for God’s people is somehow avoidable, that being God’s people confers a privilege that spares us from suffering, that our faith and our prayers can be used for ourselves, and that our wishfulness can be satisfied. “Our will be done”
Jesus finally resists that temptation and refutes that lie as he prays in the garden of Gethsemane. Jesus is human. Not unnaturally he is afraid of the betrayal, rejection, violence and death that are about to be inflicted on him. And he searches for a way in which it might be possible to avoid these things. But Jesus also knows that it is not what we want that really counts. And he knows that no part of his or our relationship with God spares us from suffering. For all the things that we might pray for there is only one prayer that is absolutely certain to be answered: “Not my will but your will be done, O God.” That is the prayer that provides the means to pass through the suffering of the cross and into the kingdom of God
If the first temptation seems in a way relatively trivial, emerging from the situation which Jesus finds himself in. The second is the most grandiose, megalomaniac of all.
To you I will give their glory and this authority; for it has been given over to me, and I give it to anyone I please. If you, then, will worship me, it will be yours.
The devil’s lies are multi-layered. First; that he has authority in the world. Next; that he would give it to anyone else. And finally; that any bargain struck with a liar like the devil could be relied upon. None of it is true Even if Jesus did bow down to the devil there is absolutely no guarantee that the devil would keep his end of the bargain, even if he could. But the truth is what he offers is not his to give in any case.
The people of God have been given a vision of the world as it should be. And a role in bringing it about. That is the kingdom of God and the mission of the Church. Except that vision feels are very long time in coming. Nothing seems to change. And the methods which we have to hand, the methods which Jesus has given us: prayer, loving our neighbours, repentance and forgiveness, seem ineffective. It is hard to be patient in a world filled with so much pain and sorrow and unrighteousness. Perhaps if we had more control in the world, if it was our hands on the levers of power. We would be able to solve the world’s problems so much more quickly. This is the devil’s lie, that it is effectiveness which counts, that the ends justify the means. We might tell ourselves a Christian ruler, sitting on the world’s throne would be so much better than the current governments of the world. So what, if a deal has to be struck. So what, if some small injustices are committed. So what, if it takes just a little coercion and violence. If the world is better for it what’s the harm.
Jesus finally resists that temptation and refutes that lie as he is crucified. The placard that is placed above Jesus’ head on the cross tells the truth without realising the truth that it is telling. It says: “This is Jesus, King of the Jews.” This is what the Romans understood when the Chief Priests told them that Jesus claimed to be Messiah, that is Jesus is God’s chosen one, the one who will bring about God’s kingdom. That is the truth which refutes the devil’s lie. The world does not belong to him and neither the glory nor the authority are his to give. The devil is a usurper and anyone who rules in Christ’s place usurps God’s kingdom. And the place where the glory and authority of God’s kingdom are truthfully shown is the cross. Jesus’ crucifixion refutes the lie of “effectiveness.” It denies the validity of the methods that lead to and include injustice, coercion and violence. Prayer, and love of neighbour and enemy, and forgiveness and repentance, and truth telling are the methods which God gives. They demand of us patience. But they are the only ones which lead through the cross to the kingdom of God
The relationship between Jesus and the Father is one of trust. Jesus knows that the Father has chosen him, and has given him a mission to fulfil. He knows that God will allow nothing to prevent the fulfilment of that mission.
If you are the Son of God throw yourself down from here.
The devil of course can make his lies seem credible by backing them up with scripture He says to Jesus:
For it is written (that is: in scripture) “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.”
The devil’s lie is that God won’t allow Jesus to die. He claims that there is nothing which even Jesus could do to derail what God is doing in and through him. He plants the idea that doing God’s will could come at no cost to those who would do it, that is is somehow possible to live at peace with those who resist and refuse God. He lies that the grace of God is cheap – even at no cost
Religious freedom seems like a good idea. After all it is quite unreasonable for people to suffer for what they believe. However religious freedom turns out to be quite corrosive of Christian discipleship. It tempts us to think that no one should suffer for being a Christian, that the grace of God can be had without a price, that it should be and can be possible to live at peace with the world. And we end doing our best to accomplish this by accommodating ourselves with the society and the culture and the politics that we are surrounded by. We begin to imagine that it is possible to live at peace even with those who deny and resist and reject God. And that it is God’s will to keep us safe from that This is the devil’s lie The same lie that suggests angels would bear Jesus up before he was dashed to death at the bottom of the temple having flung himself from its pinnacle.
Jesus finally resists that temptation and refutes that lie from the cross. Jesus refuses to put God to the test. The chief priest want that proof from Jesus. Their thinking is that the messiah cannot die, that the grace of God cannot come at such a high price, that if Jesus did die, then he could not be the Messiah. They taunt Jesus as he hangs on the cross.
“If you are the Messiah, the holy one of God, come down from the cross and we will believe you.” Jesus stays where he is. The grace of God comes at a price. Jesus does die, with a cry of despair on his lips: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” The grace of God is not cheap. The grace of God is that costly. It cost God the death of Jesus to bring us to him. The only way to be open to the grace of God is to take up our cross and follow Jesus into that death. But it is this that brings us back to God the way to the kingdom of God leads through the cross
Of course we might be tempted to dismiss the devil as a piece of mythological thinking and speaking we should have grown out of. But the devil’s lies are still out there. And anyone who persists in telling them is, in some sense, the devil. The temptations which Jesus faces in the wilderness set out the lies, whoever it is that is actually telling them, which those who would do God’s will must resist and deny. The temptations never disappear. And those temptations remain the same because those lies are still told and remain unchanged: That a relationship with God confers a privilege that would spare us from suffering in this world; That ruling in this world is more effective in bringing about a good end than waiting on God’s reign; That following Jesus, doing God’s will, God’s grace can come at no cost, least of all the cost of martyrdom. All of those are falsehoods. But all of them remain at the root of the temptation which Christians, as Christians continue to face. To be a follower of Jesus is to take up our cross – in denial of the devil’s lies – and follow Jesus to death at Calvary. Which is the only way to the salvation which God offers at Easter.
The Devil’s Lies by Christopher Wood-Archer is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 4.0