By Harris Franklin Rall
What a tumult must have filled the soul of Jesus after his baptism! The day of Jehovah was at hand, the day to which his people had so long looked forward. The powers of evil were to be overthrown, the rule of God was coming. And he was to be the Deliverer, the King! The turning point in the world's history had come, and it centered now in this young carpenter from the Galilean village. With this overwhelming conviction there had come to Jesus a new sense of the presence of God with him and in him. What followed was inevitable: "The Spirit driveth him forth." Jesus must be alone with God and with the task that God had given him. And so he goes a little farther out into the wilderness, away from John and the crowds that were coming and going. He had been called to the task and fitted for it; now he must face the question as to what the task meant. What was to be his work as the Messiah? How was he to bring in the Kingdom?
Jesus Facing the Issue
The Meaning of the Forty Days. —Nothing would be more crude or more false than to imagine that Jesus was driven into the wilderness by some blind force that he could not resist, that he was turned over to the powers of evil for a while, and that he thus underwent a kind of formal trial before beginning his work. Jesus was going aside to meditate and pray, as he did so often in his later life. The Spirit that drove him was the same inner spirit that sent him to the mount of transfiguration and to Gethsemane. Only here he was facing for the first time clearly and fully his whole life-question, and he needed not one night, but many days. In the end the prayer became a great conflict and before we can understand Jesus' life we must see clearly the issue involved in that struggle.
Jesus and the Popular Hope. —Simply stated, the issue was this: What was Jesus as Messiah to do with the expectations of the people? We have already studied the outlines of this hope as held by most of the people. The kingdom of God was to be the kingdom of Israel, the triumph of Israel over her enemies. Before that came there was to be a final conflict, a last assault by Israel's foes in which these were to be overthrown. Then would come the new age with wonderful prosperity and happiness. Jerusalem would be the capital of the earth and all nations would be subject to her. The idea of the Messiah fitted into this. He was to be a figure of majesty and power, working wonders, leading Israel's forces, smiting the enemy. We see how narrow and faulty this dream was. It was national and selfish; the people thought only of Israel. It was largely external; they thought of material blessings and political triumph. They had not seen that the real enemy was not Rome, but sin and unrighteousness. All this was not a matter of theory nor theology with the people; it was the question of a practical program. Men were looking for a leader against Rome. The party of the Zealots was coming into power, summoning the people to rise. How serious it was history shows us. A generation later these people who had rejected Jesus followed the mad leadership of these Zealots, and Jerusalem went down in a terrible struggle where the city suffered as much from the folly and strife within her walls as from the awful vengeance of Rome. The question that Jesus faced was not that of his own thought about the Kingdom. He could have no sympathy with such ideas as these. But what was he to do over against such a people? Under such conditions, how was he to begin his work and lead it to success?
His Conflict with Evil
The Inner Struggle Depicted. —The story of this struggle is given to us in that picture form which is used throughout the Bible to set forth spiritual realities. The devil appears to Jesus and bids him turn stones to bread. He carries him to a pinnacle of the temple and tells him to cast himself down. He takes him to the summit of a mountain and bids Jesus worship him. To literalize all this is to miss the real meaning of this wonderful story. How could Satan carry Jesus hither and yon, or how could Jesus suffer this? And how could any real temptation come from any Satan that appeared in body? As a matter of fact, Jesus is setting forth a great inner struggle in this picture form. In the same way we hear him say to Peter later, "Get thee behind me, Satan"; and to his disciples, returning from their victorious mission, "I beheld Satan fallen as lightning from heaven."
The First Question: How Make Himself Known? —The story of the temptation reveals the three questions that occupied the mind of Jesus during this time. The first question was how should he make himself known to the people as Messiah? how persuade the people that this unknown young man was the long-awaited deliverer? They would look for some wonder at his hand. To go to Jerusalem, when the multitudes were present at some feast, to cast himself down unhurt from one of its lofty pinnacles before their eyes, would not that establish him at once? Was it not written in the Scriptures,
If he was the Messiah, God's Son, then he had nothing to fear from such a deed.
Jesus' Answer. —Here in the very first temptation the whole question of his work was involved. Jesus' clear spiritual vision saw through these specious suggestions, and he knew that they came from the Evil One. As to the success of such a plan, no doubt it would win him a following at once; the people were waiting for some such wonder-worker who might do the impossible thing and overthrow Rome. But such following would be merely outward; it would hinder his real work rather than help it. Beyond this lay the deeper question: Was it right toward his Father? It might seem at first like a great act of faith, thus to throw himself upon God; it was, in fact, a tempting of God, an effort to force him instead of trusting in him. And Jesus remembered the word: "Thou shalt not make trial of the Lord thy God" (Dent. 6. 16).
How Establish the Kingdom? —Close upon this followed . the other question: How should he establish his kingdom? He knew that the Kingdom was to be one of righteousness, and not of earthly power. And yet if he was to accomplish anything at all, must he not ally himself with those who held the places of power in the nation? How could he hope to do anything if the leaders of the people were against him? It was true these leaders did not share his vision; they were earthly in their hopes and selfish in their plans. But why not make some concession at the start, and then teach them the higher truth later? Why not accept the kingdoms of the world now, and then set up the kingdom of righteousness? With the same clear vision Jesus perceived that this was the prince of this world trying to lead him astray. To follow such a plan was to trust something besides God. "Thou shalt worship the Lord thy God," was his answer (Deut. 6. 13).
Shall He Save Himself? —These questions were not the matter of a moment. With other like thoughts they must have occupied the mind of Jesus throughout these days. Absorbed with them, he had taken little thought of food, and at the close he found himself weak with hunger. Thus the last temptation came. He had been conscious since his baptism of a new power. Now was his hour of need, why not use this power to save himself? Why not turn some of these stones to bread? Was not the Messiah necessary to the Kingdom? Must he not save himself if he was to save men? To these suggestions of doubt and evil Jesus' answer came sure and clear. Bread is not all; life itself is not all: obedience to the will of God is a man's real life. "Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceedeth out of the mouth of God" (Deut. 8. 3).
The Meaning of His Work
The Plan of Work. — These were not the last temptations that Jesus had to meet. The same questions come to him again and again, but from the position here given he never wavers. Here at the beginning he decides what his work is to be and how it shall be done. (1) He will gain his followers not by doing wonders, but by the quiet work of teaching that shall win men's hearts and minds. To that end we see him sometimes refusing to work miracles, again bidding men be silent about his deeds of healing, and himself making no public declaration of his Messiahship until toward the end of his life. (2) He will not seek for any external power. He does not ask for any of the kingdoms of the world, and he will make no compromise to gain the support of those who are in positions of power, (3) He will avoid no danger for himself that comes in the way of his work, and he will use no power to save himself. His one concern will be to do his Father's will; what comes of this he will leave with his Father.
The Way of the Cross. —Bid Jesus know at this time that the death of the cross was to cut short his work after but a little while? What he thought about his death at this time we do not know; what he said later of another matter probably applies here: "No man knoweth, not even the Son." But whether he saw the end yet or not, he had already chosen the way. The way was to be that of service in absolute obedience to the Father and in perfect trust, no matter what the cost to him might be.
"Three things are made clear by this story: (1) the spiritual insight of Jesus. How clearly he sees the principle at stake! What all other men are saying does not confuse him or lead him astray. (2) The moral victory of Jesus. Whatever powers may oppose him, whatever danger or apparent defeat may threaten, he trusts only in God and will obey him alone. (3) The human life of Jesus. He is victorious in temptation, but he is not untempted." In this bit of autobiography Jesus revealed to his disciples his own conflict and the secret of his life. To the student of that life it is a key to all that followed. To the Christian disciple it is a story that is beyond price, bringing his Master near to him in human need, and pointing the way of victory for all that will follow.
Directions for Study
Read Matthew 4. 1-11.
Review rapidly the main points in the last two lessons. In imagination follow Jesus from the time he hears the news of John's preaching. Consider the deep impression made by John's message, and what Jesus appreciated in that message; the effect upon Jesus when he saw the response of the people to John; the revelation to Jesus of his own calling as the Messiah; and the baptism of the Spirit.
As you study each temptation, ask what this meant in relation to Jesus' work and how it became a real temptation to him.
Note the three principles of Jesus' work suggested above, and illustrate them from later events in his life.
Set forth the character of Jesus as revealed in this story.