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Sinning Gods and the Temptations of Christ

March 8, 2014

This is the text of the message I present for the chapel service at Huntington University on Friday, March 7, 2014. Comments about a professor at Moody Bible Institute are not intended as criticism of the institution itself. The Biblical text for the sermon is Matthew 4:1-11.  

Over thirty years ago, when I was a student at Moody Bible Institute, I had an assignment to write about the temptation of Jesus. In my undergraduate way, I argued that the text of his temptation showed that Jesus could have sinned. I based that interpretation on another New Testament passage, Hebrews 4:15: “We do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin.”

I must confess that I have long been baffled by that verse in Hebrews. My temptations have tended towards acts of envy, anger, hatred, lust, pride, and gluttony. Jesus’s temptation was to turn rocks into bread. What is that? I have never seen the temptation of turning rocks into bread as being tempted as we are, so I’ve often wondered about the unrecorded instances of temptation in Jesus’s life, those times when he had been tempted as we are. When he cleared out the temple of the money changers, did he want to use anything more than his handmade whip? Would he have liked to hit someone with a shovel? Could Jesus have been tempted by physical desire for Mary Magdalene … or for his teenaged disciple John? When Jesus did his miracles, did he ever once think that taking seven loaves of bread and feeding 4000 people would make him look really cool?

We are never told. But if Jesus could never have sinned, I wondered why we would be told about the temptations at all. I suppose that if I could turn rocks into bread, I would get a big head about it. But let’s face it: to be tempted to turn rocks into bread is not to be tempted as I am. At the very least, to my thinking, the temptation had to be at least possible and real for the temptation of Christ to mean anything.

My professor at Moody did not see the temptations this way. In fact, in his comments on my essay, he labeled the view I argued for as heretical. It was the first time in my life that any argument I had ever made was called heretical. This professor’s argument was that God cannot sin, that sin is the opposite of all that God is, that Jesus is God, and that if Jesus could have actually sinned, then he could not be divine. To this professor, the purpose of the temptation narrative was only and entirely to demonstrate Jesus’s divinity, not to show that he could have any real potential interest in turning stones into bread. If there is a lesson for us in the temptation narrative, according to my professor, it is that we should resist temptation following Jesus’s example; the point of the narrative is that Jesus quoted Bible verses to face down temptation.

Memorizing scripture is not, by the way, a bad idea for resisting temptation. Following up on my recent writing about anger, I have been working on James 1:19-20: “Let every person be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger; for the anger of man does not produce the righteousness of God.” It is good advice when you want to rage against something posted on Facebook.

However, years after getting that essay back, I realized that the professor himself overlooked something: A sinning god was normal during the time of Christ. As I have reviewed several ancient mythologies, it seems that all of the gods and goddesses of the ancient Greeks, Romans, Babylonians, and Canaanites were sinners. Think about these examples:

In Babylonian mythology, Apsu had been the ruler of all the gods and of the underworld oceans until he was killed by the god Ea. The god Anshar is both brother and husband to the goddess Kishar. Marduk the creator god, torments the goddess Tiamat, and fights a war to gain supremacy before forming and populating the earth.

In Greek mythology, Zeus had lovers both female and male, both divine and human. Dionysus, the god of wine, had the human Pentheus dismembered when he tried to prevent people from worshipping him. The god Apollo was vengeful and had multiple lovers. Most of the sinning Greek gods were taken up by the Romans.

The gods and goddess of ancient Canaan included Molech, who required human sacrifice by burning, Asherah, the queen of heaven, who seems to have been prideful, and Chemosh, the destroyer, who permits his worshippers to become slaves when they anger him.

Christians sometimes think that ancient peoples created sinning gods to excuse their own sinful behaviors. However, as we learn about the sins of the gods, we find that their wrongs were often committed against their own worshippers. How many of you have read the ancient Greek tragedy Oedipus Rex? In the story of Oedipus, we find that his fate is set by Apollo’s hatred even as he is an infant. Nothing Oedipus can do will free him from the doom Apollo has determined for him. Sinning gods are terrifying; their worshippers may never rest in certainty about their relationships to their deities.

The third temptation of Jesus is for power. To review, “The devil took Jesus to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor; and he said to him, ‘All these I will give to you, if you will fall down and worship me.’” Here we may wonder if the devil actually has possession of all the kingdoms of the world in order to give them to Jesus. What other Bible passages show is that the devil has authority, but not ownership, over this world. We see this every time Satan is called the prince of this world or the prince of the power of the air. Jesus rejects the devil’s offer, not by asserting his own ownership, but by asserting that he worships another, his Father. The answer to a temptation for power is not an assertion of a counter-power, but a surrender of power, an act of Jesus’s submission to his Father’s authority.

The question still remains what Jesus’s temptation has to do with us. Let us consider: our Old Testament reading for today, Psalm 32, is a confession of David, a king, of his sin. Many commentators read Psalm 32 as a confession for David’s sin with Bathsheba. That is not certain; however, we may assume that David’s sins generally could result from an abuse of his authority as king, whether it was his having Bathsheba’s husband Uriah killed or his having a forbidden census taken.

The temptations of Jesus are the temptations suitable for an ancient god. We might easily expect a Zeus, a Baal, a Venus, a Marduk, or an Asherah to accept any of the temptations and bargains that the devil offers to Jesus. Jesus’s temptation is scaled to his divinity. He is being tempted as a god. He resists it as a person, in his humanity, not by asserting his divine authority, but by submitting his humanity to the authority of his Father.

I, in my humanity, cannot resist a temptation scaled for a deity. Thank God, I’ll add, that none of us will ever face a temptation to rule the entire world. Even smaller, human-scaled versions of the temptation to rule just a portion of the world always lead to genocides and wars, such as we are seeing today in Syria, the Ukraine, the Central African Republic, and Venezuela.

But what about my own temptations, for any and all of the power I can reach? I do not think that the third temptation, for power, is the last temptation of Jesus in the Bible. Let’s look at one other encounter between Jesus and the devil, in Matthew 16. Right after he has confessed that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of the living God, Peter seems to become a temporary spokesman for Satan himself. Let us read from verses 21-27:

From that time on Jesus began to explain to his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things at the hands of the elders, the chief priests and the teachers of the law, and that he must be killed and on the third day be raised to life.

Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. “Never, Lord!” he said. “This shall never happen to you!”

Jesus turned and said to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; you do not have in mind the concerns of God, but merely human concerns.”

Then Jesus said to his disciples, “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will find it. What good will it be for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul? Or what can anyone give in exchange for their soul? For the Son of Man is going to come in his Father’s glory with his angels, and then he will reward each person according to what they have done.

I would propose that we consider this a fourth temptation, this time not of Jesus in his divinity, but of Jesus in his humanity, a temptation to choose not to die, a temptation we may all understand humanly. And here is where we connect with our God who was tempted, but without sinning. We learn from him that our souls are worth more than all that we may have in this world. And we learn, also, that to follow Jesus means to lose our desires to win in this world by our own power. I conclude, then, that this is how Christ, resisting real temptations we will never face, shows us the way to resist the temptations we always face. 

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