The temptation to compromise
Jesus was tempted to short-circuit God’s plan.by Randy Good
Don’t think it wasn’t tempting. To turn stones into bread to eat, be notoriously rescued by angels and control the kingdoms of the world were not hypothetical cases or empty suggestions. They struck at the body and soul of Jesus.
Satan—the serpent, deceiver, tempter—is real and made Jesus real offers, offers designed to derail Jesus from his relationship with and from his mission. Though addressed to Jesus, the Son of God, Jesus endured the temptations as a man, fully human. He had available to him only what every believer has: a secure relationship with God as loving Father, the Scriptures and the Holy Spirit. Jesus limited himself to these resources for our sake: “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who in every respect has been tested as we are, yet without sin” (Hebrews 4:15). His temptations were as true and agonizing to him as ours are to us.
After 40 days without food, Jesus was famished. Satan invited him to doubt his Father’s willingness and interest to provide for him. Jesus refused. Next, Jesus was tempted to prove God’s love and care, to test his Father’s willingness and interest by acting presumptively. Again Jesus refused.
Since Jesus did not turn aside from his dependence on and submission to the Father, Satan knew the third temptation must be baited with something enticing and potent, something that lined up with Jesus’ heart.
“Then the devil led him up and showed him in an instant all the kingdoms of the world. And the devil said to him, ‘To you I will give their glory and all 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 all be yours’ ” (Luke 4:5-7).
What was the bait here? The kingdoms of the world ultimately belong to Jesus anyway.
Revelation reveals that everything will be redeemed and delivered to God. Satan’s invitation to “worship me” could have meant not instead of but along with your Father.
For now the capacity to delegate authority has been delivered to Satan, Prince of this world. Jesus did not dispute this. Satan grants this authority to whomever will use it, or, rather, uses deception to entice its use for his own ends. Greed, usury, subjugation, revenge, imperialism, bitterness, rebellion, genocide—all originate from Satanic influence. Satan coaxes the hearts of those in positions of power in the world so that those evils don’t seem evil. They seem justified, for some perceived greater good. Even those with good hearts, maybe even especially those with good hearts, are susceptible to the temptation to compromise, just as Jesus was here.
This is where it gets tricky. The deceiver appeals to a good heart to do a good thing for a seemingly good reason, in the wrong way or at the wrong time. He offers something good in exchange for what is best, especially when receiving the best requires waiting. In Genesis, Abraham was tempted to provide for himself an offspring when God’s promise seemed slow in coming. He gave in to the good notion of gaining a son, Ishmael, at the expense of waiting for Isaac, the son of God’s doing.
Satan was making Jesus a bona fide offer. The structures, the infrastructures, the wealth, the power, the influence—“You can make use of it all, Jesus, however you want. Just give me some credit.” This was not a temptation to own the kingdoms but to use the kingdoms for a great good. Imagine what Jesus, the gentle Shepherd, the Prince of Peace, could have done for the world with that offer. War, oppression and slavery—abolished. Sickness, hunger and poverty—wiped out. Pollution and wastefulness—outlawed. Perfect ethics, laws, justice and peace, right?
In control of the authority and glory of the kingdoms of the earth, Jesus could have effected the systemic changes we all long for. Under his influence, we could have a world with a near perfect environment—socially, politically, economically, ethically. Don’t think he wasn’t tempted.
Why didn’t he do it? It was a good plan, but was it a good enough plan to accomplish God’s ultimate purpose in God’s way? No. In resisting the devil’s scheme, Jesus obeyed God’s best, even though it required anguished waiting.
If it were God’s ultimate intention to bring about the redemption of humankind by the alteration of the world’s systems, structures and ethics, by the redistribution of power and wealth (as good as that might be), he would have done it. Jesus was given the opportunity, and he would have commanded his followers to follow him in redeeming the faultiness of the world’s way of doing things and bring in the kingdom by renovation, alteration and adjustment. He would have worked at issues and ethics until the whole world was set up to operate according to God’s virtues. He would have made the kingdoms of the world into a God-like kingdom. It sounds wonderful.
But Jesus understood something deeper, something that led him to declare, plainly: “My kingdom is not from this world. If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over …” (John 18:36).
God, in his kindness and generosity, started us out in a perfect kingdom, Eden, and we still broke relationship with him and with each other—all instigated by the tempter and enacted by us in our desire to be independent. Do we really think that adjusting the fallen world’s ways to the ways of Jesus will change hearts? Isn’t it the other way around? Changed hearts will change circumstances. Satan’s temptation to Jesus was to settle for the grand vision of an externally arranged world peace at the expense of the grander vision of our restored relationship with God, which would require Jesus’ cross, death and resurrection to secure our reconciliation with God and provide a true peace, a personal peace beyond our worldly understanding.
This is not to say that living out our faith and costly redemption in practical, courageous ways is a waste of time. We are salt and light, a preservative, a flavoring, an antiseptic and a testimony to the truth. Get involved. Stay involved. Be salty. But be careful not to settle for mere structural change when what matters ultimately is heart change.
Jesus was tempted to take all that was good and use it for the wrong end—to misuse his power, glory and kingdom. Jesus turned to Satan and dismissed him: “Begone, deceiver. I will not bow to your way. I will bow to the way of the Father only, which is redemption in my blood.” Systems and structures—authority and glory even at their best—do not change hearts. The indwelling Spirit of Christ changes hearts so that they are at home in another kingdom, not this one, no matter how redecorated it is.
Near the end of Jesus’ earthly life, when Satan tempts Peter to see the sense of a good thing—the preservation of the life of Jesus—and blinds him to the nonsense of a better thing—Jesus’ death on the cross for us—Jesus again responds: “It’s not going to work, Satan. Get lost.” How does the temptation to compromise come into our lives? What does it look like? How does it feel? How do we discern the demonic offer of something good when God longs for something best? What do we do with the grief and longing for the good thing?
Our Shepherd Jesus suffered with all this. And he not only endured but was victorious. He not only withstood Satan’s best shots but utterly defeated him. It is finished. Perhaps we must ask ourselves if we are tempted to strive to accomplish the good offer Jesus rejected; or if we receive and resonate with his obedient and accomplished task on the cross.
Randy Good is pastor of Taftsville (Vt.) Mennonite Fellowship.
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Randy Good is pastor of Taftsville (Vt.) Mennonite Fellowship.