Tempted in every Way as We Are

The author of Hebrews makes the bold and startling statement that Jesus was tempted in every way as we are yet he did not sin. (Heb. 4: 15) In our experience, when we are tempted, we sin sooner or later. We can be greatly encouraged that when we experience temptations, we know that Jesus knows from the inside what we are going through. That Jesus resisted the temptations can give us hope, even as we fail again and again.

The only thing in Hebrews that hints at how Jesus actually experienced temptation is the moving account of how Jesus cried out with tears to his heavenly Abba, the one who could save him from death; a clear allusion to the Garden at Gethsemane. (Heb. 5: 7) Matthew and Luke flesh out Jesus’ temptation a bit more in two similar, compact, narratives at the beginning of each Gospel.

These archetypal narratives are rightly assumed to provide insight into what is fundamental to temptations as we experience them. Taken as a group, they seem comprehensive: sensuality, human relationships, and relationship with God. What is common to all three temptations is manipulation, although each temptation deals with manipulation at a different level. The temptation to manipulate creation gets at the heart of the ongoing ecological crisis we face. Perhaps the crisis and its perceived scarcity sharpens our temptation to grab and hoard what we can before somebody else hogs it all. The temptation to power is straightforward enough but devious when actually dealing with people when fear of vulnerability tempts us to make pre-emptive strikes of power against them. As the author of Hebrews makes clear, Jesus felt this temptation most sharply in Gethsemane when he embraced his vulnerability and commended himself to the will of his heavenly Abba. The temptation to throw himself from the temple is directly manipulating God. Perhaps Matthew chose to put this temptation in the middle to show that this is the heart of all temptation as all manipulation is ultimately manipulation of God.

With each temptation, Jesus responded by referring back to his heavenly Abba. Rather than being absorbed in the need for bread (a legitimate need after forty days of fasting!), Jesus broadened his scope to being fed by the words of his heavenly Abba. As an allusion to the manna in the wilderness, we are reminded of how Yahweh curbed avarice by only providing the amount that was truly needed each day and no more. With the temptation to power, Jesus responded that he would serve his heavenly abba and not his own temptation to manipulate people to his own ends. With the temptation of presumption, Jesus straightened out the distortion in the way Psalm 91 was used by the devil by insisting that trust in his heavenly Abba did not mean testing him in any way. Rather, the verse truly means that we should rely on our heavenly Abba to sustain us when and how He wills.

This recipe for resisting temptation seems simple and, in a way, it is. Jesus’ responses to the temptations invite us to relax in God and let God and God’s angels bear us up in God’s way and in God’s time. But it is difficult when actually dealing with the material world and even more in dealing with other people. Relaxing is the thing we least want to do when we feel threatened by others exerting power against us. This is why we have the season of Lent as a time to focus on the discipline of relaxing into God, seeking to make it more of a habit than it has been up to now, knowing, as Hebrews tells us, that Jesus is the pioneer, the one going before us, in this very discipline. Most important: Jesus commended himself to his heavenly Abba most deeply when he was on the cross and Hebrews tells us that Jesus was raised so as to be the great high priest who intercedes for us.

See also On Living with Temptation

A Sign that will be Opposed

Simeon’s prophecy over the baby Jesus on the occasion of the child’s presentation in the temple, the Nunc Dimittis, has brightened the service of Evensong throughout the Anglican Communion for centuries. It is inspiring to hear that the salvation represented by this child has been “prepared in the presence of all peoples.” It is all the more inspiring that this child is a light to all nations but is also glory for his own people Israel. (Lk. 2: 31–32) That is, this child will unite all people in the embrace of salvation. The countless musical settings of these words magnify their effect, starting with the hushed entrance of “Now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace” then swelling to a brief but overpowering climax with “To be a light to enlighten the Gentiles and to be the glory of thy people Israel,” with the word “glory” often drawn out to dramatic effect. Historians might doubt that an old man made such a prophecy, particularly since it fits the author’s theology so well, but such doubts need not dampen the encouragement these words give us.

But then, Simeon makes a darker and more enigmatic prophecy. The child in his arms is “destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed.” (Lk. 2: 34) This seems to be a contradiction and retraction of the first prophecy. How can Jesus unite all people, Jews and Gentiles if he is opposed by, apparently, everybody? Simeon gives us a hint when he says that “the inner thoughts of many will be revealed.” But this hint is far from self-explanatory. We can begin to make sense of this tension when we think about our reactions to suggestions that we try to get together with other people and learn to get along. The idea sounds great until we think of some of the people we have to get together with. What often happens in such situations is that the people who hate each other unite and gain up on the person who suggested they get together. It is worth noting that, for all the musical settings of the Nunc Dimittis, these following words have been rarely set to music, if at all. As my comments about the fate of one who would unite people suggests, this prophecy points to the cross, which is the culmination of Jesus being opposed, and yet it is from the cross that Jesus becomes a light to the nations and the glory of Israel. There are, once again, many ;powerful musical settings of the Passion. This second prophecy also embodies Luke’s own theology. John, in his Gospel, articulates this tension with his use of the word doxa which means both honor and shame. As with John’s Gospel, Luke uses the prophecies of Simeon foreshadow the end of the Gospel where glory and shame are closely intertwined.

We can see all these themes laid out in Luke’s narrative of Jesus’ inaugural sermon. As soon as Jesus finished speaking, Luke says: “All spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth.” (Lk. 4: 22) But then immediately some people murmur that he is just the carpenter’s son. Jesus responds by reminding his listeners of foreigners who were healed by Elijah and Elisha. Next thing we know, all of the people who had just been admiring Jesus try to hurl him over a cliff. The suggestion that some Gentiles might have received grace from God was apparently unpalatable to them. This incident, of course, is another preview of the end of the Gospel. One could say that the inner thoughts of the people in the synagogue were revealed. What inner thoughts are revealed in each one of us as we ponder the implications of Jesus being both a light to the Gentiles and the glory of his people Israel?