Immediately following his baptism, Jesus is led into the desert by the Spirit in order to be tempted by the devil. Jesus passed the tempter's first test by refusing to turn the stones into bread. Instead of using his messianic power for his own personal gain, Jesus denied himself and chose to trust God to provide. Guided by his commitment to the sacred scriptures, Jesus countered the adversary's temptation with the ancient words: "It is written, 'One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.'"
Seeing that Jesus is committed to trusting God, the tempter tries another tactic. If he can't get Jesus to sin through lack of faith, he'll seek to get Jesus to fall because of his great faith by attempting to turn Jesus' faith into reckless presumption. In effect, he says, "So you trust God, do you? How much do you trust God? Enough to place your life completely at risk? Enough to place your safety completely in God's hand? If you really trust God, jump from a great height. For if God is truly trustworthy nothing bad can ever happen to you. Right? Isn't that what the scriptures teach?"
This test could not be more relevant. Many people hold to some version of this: If God exists, nothing bad should ever happen. God should intervene with a miracle at every possible sign of danger or God is shown to be unloving.
The Peril of the Pinnacle
In the second test, the devil takes Jesus to the pinnacle of the temple in the midst of the Holy City of Jerusalem. The temple was the tallest building in the area and the pinnacle was probably the corner wall that jutted out of the hillside, overlooking the valley below. The temple was the religious center of the nation of Israel. It represented the very presence of God, the place where divine protection was most assured. Many Jews also expected the Messiah to make himself known at the temple (see Malachi 3:1).
From the heights of the temple the tempter says to Jesus, "If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down. Prove your faith in God in the most sensational and obvious way possible. Remove all ambiguity about your identity by taking the ultimate leap of faith. How could the Father let anything bad happen to the Beloved Son? After all, it is written, 'He will command his angels concerning you,' and 'On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.'
"Not only would jumping from this great height prove your faith, it would also help you achieve your mission. I mean, what an entrance! What better place than the temple for the messiah to prove his authenticity through an irrefutable demonstration of power. The gathered crowds will be dazzled by your awesome feat. After all, isn't that what they expect, that God's chosen messiah will come with dramatic displays of power giving unarguable proof of God's salvation? Come on! You owe it to God, to yourself, and to the people to do this!"
Jesus sees through this "proof of God's love" for what it is: testing God. He remembers that the Israelites put God to the test in the desert when they felt God was failing to meet their needs, exclaiming, "Is the Lord among us, or not?" (Exodus 17:7). The harsh climate of the desert and their lack of ease and comfort led them to test God - to doubt God's good will toward them.
Jesus countered the tempter with another word from sacred scripture: "Again it is written, 'Do not put the Lord your God to the test.'" Testing God is not trusting God. "To put God to such a test is not an act of trust but evidence of the lack of it. Confidence needs no experiment, no proving." What would we think of a spouse who constantly demanded proof of their partner's love? What would we think of a child who constantly tested the love of its parents? We would come to think that the spouse and child really did not trust - that their constant tests were evidence of a lack of trust.
The only reason for putting God to the test is doubt and disbelief. For Jesus to have jumped would have meant that he doubted God and thus found it necessary to test God's love and care by demanding that God do sensational and extraordinary acts as proof of God's care and concern.
This test sheds light on discerning truth, our assumptions about power, the nature of faith, and what it means to prove love.
Discerning Truth. Temptation works through deception, and therefore, it is not always easy to identify. A test would not be a test if it were easy. And temptation can come through the most innocent circumstances and seemingly harmless means.
In this second temptation, the devil comes as a theologian, interested in scripture and its practical relevance for daily living. The devil is not disguised as a theologian; he is a theologian. He is very interested in conversations about the things of God. Why? To draw people away from faith.
Make no mistake about it: The powers of evil are very interested in theology. I think some people believe that when we gather together to discuss theology we are free from temptations. Nothing could be further from the truth. The greatest treasures are open to the greatest abuse. The great potential for the sacred scriptures to ennoble and inspire holy living is matched only by its great potential to mislead and harm others in the name of God - the highest authority possible. As the philosopher, theologian, and mathematician Blaise Pascal noted, "Men never do evil so completely and cheerfully as when they do it from a religious conviction."
Scriptural authority can be abused. But Jesus' response to the potential for scriptures' abuse is not the complete rejection of religion, but rather, the right use of the scriptures. Jesus countered the devil's "It is written" with another "It is written."
The danger of abusing scripture is great. Princeton philosopher and theologian, Diogenes Allen warns,
So it is not enough, when you need guidance, just to know some passages of the Bible and be able to quote them; Satan knows that isn't enough. He quoted it to tempt Jesus into evil. We too can be misled by Scripture used as a cover to justify evil. We must know the Bible well enough to avoid such a misuse. Jesus did.
There is a danger in isolating texts and disregarding the whole. You've probably heard the joke about the man who seeks to determine God's will by flipping through the Bible and pointing to a verse. First, his finger lands on the verse, "Judas hung himself." Thinking this must be a mistake, he tries it again and finds the words, "Go, and do likewise." Alarmed at this, he tries one last time and lands on the text: "What you do, do quickly."
We need a working knowledge of the whole of scripture's story as well as the details. The fact that scripture can be abused does not call for the abandonment of scripture, but a greater knowledge of it, so that we can minimize our abuse of it.
Assumptions about Power. We must also continual question the assumptions we bring to scripture. Jesus rejects the assumptions behind the tempter's interpretation of scripture - assumptions that power must be overwhelming and sensational in order to be effective.
The devil assumes that the Son of God would want to turn stones into bread for personal gain. The devil also assumes that the Son of God would want to quickly amass committed followers with a sensational entrance by jumping from the temple. He assumes, "Because you are the Son, you should do these things." "Jesus replies, 'Precisely because I am the Son, I will not do these things.' Such deeds would be contrary to the very essence of his sonship. Instead of proving that he was the Son, to do them would prove that he was not!"
It is enticing to think of power as spectacle. Don't we all want a faith that is absolutely irrefutable, based on sensational powers that clearly demonstrate the truth, the glory, the power of what we believe? Don't we long for celebrity endorsements of our faith? Don't we love when athletes, politicians, artists convert to the faith? Doesn't this celebrity star-power prove the truth of what we believe?
But how is God's work proved? Is it through sensational, overwhelming feats of power or through patient, humble works of love? Is it through the greatness of artistic and political achievements or the meekness of a servant? Jesus redefines the meaning of greatness and power. Greatness, as the world understands it, does not necessarily give God glory (see 1 Cor. 1:26-31). The kingdom of God is extended to those who are poor in spirit, to those who are meek and humble in heart.
The tempter enticed Jesus to go the way of irrefutable power, the way of sensationalism. The greatness of God's kingdom is not expressed in sensational works of power but in the simple acts of humble, self-giving love.
The Nature of Faith. Perhaps the most challenging part of the second test is what the tempter implies by quoting Psalm 91. The tempter implies that God must always protect God's people. The implication is not simply that God will carry people through dangers but that God must remove all dangers or God is not good.
This temptation lives on when we assume God owes us extra protection or special favors because of our righteousness. It is expressed when we demand that God perform sensational and extraordinary acts as proof of God's care and concern. It is also evidenced when we are shocked that a good person is suddenly struck down by a terrible disease or accident.
Without realizing it consciously, we sometimes make our security a test of God's reality or of his love. We assume without saying it even to ourselves that in some specific matter or other we expect God's protection. This may become apparent to us or to others only when we ourselves become stricken by a disease that leaves us crippled. It may come to light when a heart attack makes it questionable whether we may ever again be able to lead the kind of life we had always taken for granted. Our assumptions about God's care may come to the surface for us when we lose a child or have a miscarriage. Our faith in God is suddenly gone. We seem to have been abandoned. The world now seems completely altered: it is now cold and indifferent, when before it had seemed supportive. We may then discover that we had all along expected God to give us security. We had assumed that if there is a God, he must protect us. We discover that we had assumed all along that if God does not care enough for us or for those dear to us to protect us, then the words, "God loves us as a Father," are empty. If we aren't protected, we conclude there is no God.
Do we assume, without fully realizing it, that a loving Father would not let harm come to people who are devoted to him? Is this a realistic assumption? Can we truly face suffering tragedy and loss if we deny its very possibility? Will we stop believing in God if we experience a devastating accident or a disastrous illness? If we have anything less than a long, prosperous life? And if this is the case, doesn't it prove that God is a means to an end - that we desire security more than we do a living and dynamic relationship with God?
Faith does not give us complete control over our lives. Faith is not a warm security blanket that keeps the monsters away. God is not a magic wand that enables us to control the world for our personal safety. We do not believe in a God who removes all dangers, but rather, in a God who carries us in and through all our trials.
The Proof of Love. If Jesus had succumbed to the devil's temptation and sought immunity from the dangers of life, he would have failed to identify with people of faith in a fallen world that must learn to trust God.
Had he demanded an immunity from harm, had he made stipulations about which losses or tragedies would show there was no loving Father, he could not have pioneered a trail for us to follow. He would have expected to be spared from living under the same circumstances as we do. We are exposed to danger, suffering, and loss. He resisted the temptation to use his special powers, his special relation with the Father to gain or demand immunity from such exposure.
God promises to deliver us from evil, to be with us in our troubles, and carry us through to the end of our lives, and beyond. But the fact that nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ is no reason to believe that we won't face trials and challenges (Romans 8:35-39). God's love is not proven by a carefree life. God does not promise to protect us from reality.
The dangers from which the angels will protect the just are dangers against which there is no natural escape, evils which no reasonable care or foresight can avert. The snare of the hunter, the arrow that flies by day, the pestilence that infests the darkness: these are symbols of such evils, for the snare is hidden, the arrow comes swiftly from afar, and the pestilence hides under the darkness. But where ordinary means are available and sufficient, we are not to expect miracles. St. Paul tells us, "If a man will not work, neither let him eat." If our Lord wishes to descend from the temple roof. He must walk down the steps.
Jesus will not leap from the pinnacle of the temple to test God's faithfulness. This would be self-destructive and foolish. But he will take a leap of faith at the cross - the ultimate act of self-giving - and no miracles will stop the suffering. He will not test God by leaping from the pinnacle, but he will trust God by descending into the darkness of abandonment and death.
It is this act of self-giving suffering love that proves the love of God for us! For the proof of God's love is not found in God working miracles to protect us from every danger, but in God's willingness to descend into the darkness of sin, evil, and death in order to carry us and bear us through all evil.
 Gerald Vann, The Devil and How to Resist Him (Manchester, New Hampshire: Sophia Institute Press, 1957), 20.
 Diogenes Allen, Temptation (Cambridge, MA: Cowley Publications, 1986), 34.
 Allen, Temptation, 36.
 Allen, Temptaion, 42-43.
 Allen, Temptation, 44.
 Vann, The Devil and How to Resist Him, 134.
© Richard J. Vincent, 2010