A little Scripture helps the ‘medicine’ go down

I have been provoked by the quoting of Scripture in the mouth of ‘the adversary’ when confronting Jesus in the temptations. Three intertwined temptations related to mammon, religion and power. Interrelated because they impinge on one another, and are seldom ever totally separate. The Scriptures are a dangerous set of writings as can seemingly bend them for my own purposes. The three take place in three separate locations: the wilderness (the journey through with enough but not an over-abundance) hence a good place to throw the temptation of abundant provision; the high mountain to see whatever oikoumene (imperial domain) might be appealing to us to be the king of the castle over; and then the Temple (religious context) – the context in which the Scripture was quoted by the adversary.

In Revelation (the book that corrects our sight) the wilderness was the place where Babylon was manifest (Rev. 17:3) to John; unless we learn how to navigate the wilderness it is unlikely we will see Babylon manifest. Likewise it was at the top of the mountain that John saw the New Jerusalem come down (21:10) and we are going to be tormented by the seemingly eternal existence of Babylon unless we can refuse status, domination and hierarchy.

So to the temptation where Scripture is quoted:

Then the devil took him to the holy city and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, saying to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down, for 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.’ ”

This is the temptation in the temple. God is with you in a unique way. Always this is what seems to be the signs that surround those who can tell us the way to go. God is with them, thus proving they are beyond me. Or… God anoints the person who is embodying the great rejection of heaven (the king); the disciples (not the 11 but the 12) come back with ‘even the demons are subject in your name’. Says a lot about God; does not speak about the approval of deviant behaviour or position.

There are those who carry the presence of the Lord in unique ways – that is the nature of the anointing… but super-stardom is not the way of the kingdom.

One of the big concerns I have is when the three temptations come together in a way that ‘a three-fold cord is hard to break’… Economic promise, political power and religious uniqueness, then add to that the quoting of Scripture. Warning bells sound!

Temptations of Jesus – their loci

A little Latin in the title… got to go steady as I could get quite excited about my linguistic abilities! Anyway, back to earth, and that is the real point about this post: the temptations of Jesus take place not simply on earth but they are located in three different specific situations. The order that the temptations are reported differ slightly in Matthew and Luke, with the latter two switching order (Matt. 4:1-11; Lk. 4:1-12). The first in the sequence they both agree on, that of economic temptation and it takes place in the wilderness. I term it economic but it is wider than that – it is the quick escape from the trouble one is in with personal economic benefit. Work – something that Scripture defines at its core separate to economic issues – was a creation mandate before and after the fall. The temptation is that of personal and wider benefit through an exploitation of creation that does not involve (biblically-defined) work. Biblically-defined work is not centred on monetary benefit – that is present in some aspects but not at the core.

It takes place in the wilderness, the god-forsaken place, the unfruitful place, the place of testing (where God tests us… and we put God to the test!). Jesus quotes Scripture in reply to the devil:

Remember the long way that the Lord your God has led you these forty years in the wilderness, in order to humble you, testing you to know what was in your heart, whether or not you would keep his commandments. He humbled you by letting you hunger, then by feeding you with manna, with which neither you nor your ancestors were acquainted, in order to make you understand that one does not live by bread alone but by every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord. The clothes on your back did not wear out, and your feet did not swell these forty years. Know, then, in your heart that, as a parent disciplines a child, so the Lord your God disciplines you (Deut. 8:2-5).

The connection of the forty days in the wilderness and the forty years is clear. The spies who went into the land and the majority came back with a negative report were present in the land for 40 days – as a result Moses said that the people would be in the wilderness for forty years. That process of being in the wilderness was to:

  • humble them
  • test them so as what was in the heart was revealed
  • to demonstrate that God would provide for them

SO THAT (and here we come to Jesus’ quote) they might know that bread was not the provision for life but God’s word to them on an ongoing basis.

We need bread, and are taught to pray for provision of bread for each day, but to set our hearts on basic provision when there is something much higher to go for. (I appreciate where there is real physical hunger and famine that a focus on bread for today is not wrongly placed. That is not the audience in mind with the Gospel stories.)

I label this temptation as economic – it is also into exploitation of resources without appropriate labour. Stones to bread is the start of an inappropriate business supply. It is not uncommon that those who set their vision toward ‘business’ will find themselves in the desert and with offers to progress that involve compromise. The economic is to humble, test and to find faith in the goodness of God with provision.

The second temptation (Luke’s order) is regarding political power. I have written in a previous post that the use of the term oikoumene has to be understood as the offer of the Imperial structures of the day being colonised to serve God! There is something so incompatible about Imperial rule (the top elite who promise blessing to one and all (who comply) but the flow of resources is in reality back to the ones at the top) and the work of the kingdom that comes to honour the least and the last.

This temptation takes place at the top of a high mountain. Beware of mountains! They might give sight, but we have to be careful what we do with what we see, and Jesus’ work was to raise the valleys and bring down the mountains.

Power to be and authority over the works of the enemy are the kingdom connection of power and authority; power to implement and authority over people is the parody used by Imperial structures.

The quote from Jesus (Deut. 6:13) is in the context of (I paraphrase) ‘once you were slaves, do not forget when you are no longer slaves and you have resources that you move away from the God who sets prisoners free. God’s focus in on those who are enslaved… do not enslave others’.

The third temptation takes place in the Temple – the religious sphere. Jesus suggests that if we respond to accolades in the religious house that we are putting the Lord God to the test (Deut. 6:16).

Some people focus on one of the above spheres – economic, power or religion. Jesus was subject to all three temptations, for Imperial rule will pull all three together. Backed by ‘divine’ authority / right (even when a regime is ‘atheistic’ this is present with the transcendent right of ‘no god’… but usually considerably more sinister when a belief in ‘god’ is present) there is a system of rule that will bring about a distinct divide between those who have and those who don’t: economic oppression. The wilderness we are tested; the mountain we are open to lust; and in the Temple we can domesticate god to be our servant.

Economic, religious and political rule

There are many ways in which the temptations of Jesus can be viewed. We can certainly learn from them at a personal level, but the temptations are the temptations that the agent of the kingdom had to face. Although ordered slightly differently in Matthew and Luke the same three are recorded.

  • Turn the stones into bread.
  • Throw yourself down from the Temple.
  • Bow and you have all these kingdoms (and Luke specifically the ready-made Imperial system).

The response to the ‘stones into bread temptation’ was that Jesus was called to a deeper source of sustenance – to every word that came from heaven; the response to the ‘throw yourself down’ was not to put the Lord to the test; and the response to the ‘offer of the kingdoms’ was to worship and serve God’.

I suggest we can look at the first temptation as an economic one, to gain sustenance and resource through an abuse of miraculous power; the second as a religious temptation with God serving the pre-set agenda with protection; and the final one as a political rule temptation with the marrying into the system to exercise a ‘godly’ agenda.

What a trio, and a trio that are intertwined, a three-fold cord that is not easily broken. A trio that one could argue could have served the ‘kingdom’ agenda and enabled the message to be spread quickly and efficiently.

I have heard too many times ‘that is just the way it is in business / economics’. Yes, I guess it often is, but if to that statement is brought the ‘every word’ that comes from God we really do need to see an adjustment. From the exposure of (all varieties of) ‘consumerism’ in Gen. 3: ‘I saw, I desired and I consumed’; to the prohibitions not to maximise profits; to the command to care for the ‘widow, alien and orphan’; to the appointment of Judas to look after the money bag. Every word seems consistent, and Jesus certainly hit that big one on the head.

The religious agenda is where we have a vision and God will back it up. And back it up he often does, with the very clear example of the anointing of the king for Israel so that they might be like the other nations. He backs it up cos he goes where we go (after all he also walked out of Eden with them), and then there comes a time when he does not back it up and we end up perplexed. When he does not we are to open our eyes to where we have served religion and the ever so polished up religious agenda.

Of course, politics and what I have written on the political nature of the Gospel is so key, and I consider that Jesus broke the economic power structures so that he could then clearly observe the economic exploitative system that ‘robs widows of their houses’ was being undone when it sought to swallow also the last coins of a widow, leading him to prophesy the end of an era that had deteriorated into religion and exclusivity (rather than faith and inclusivity) so that the likes of Paul ‘apostle to the nations’ could spend the last days in Rome. From economics through religion (that had swallowed the economic exploitative system) to the ungodly marriage of religion and politics being pulled apart… so that there might be the hope of ‘the kingdom of this world becoming the kingdom of our Lord and Messiah’.

In Ukraine all three of these powers are manifest. A re-ordering of the world of economics is at hand, with the big ‘winner’ being the Imperial power of China who has no need to enter the current conflict at a military level, but is winning the war economically. Sanctions are a response, but we as body of Christ, have to pull deeper, drop down lower. Economic sanctions imposed by a Western ideology that has bowed at the feet of ‘the invisible hand of the market’. I am pro-sanctions (but what do I know?) but as always I consider there are keys within the body of Christ, and those keys are closer to home than we might realise.There is a battle religiously, with views of Christendom being at the forefront, and of course that of political rule.

We need great help from heaven. Angels coming. Angels holding back advancing forces; causing confusion, opening prison doors. (Thanks to this understanding through a conversation with Elly Lloyd.) Unashamedly ask the Lord to send angels, for Jesus was attended to by angels in that wilderness battle.

We are in global shifts. We have to lift our eyes as well as express the pain. And as we lift our eyes we will see body of Christ shifts. Not pushed to the margins. Nor seated at the centre. But both hidden and visible within the place that has sought to displace God with economic, religious and political rule.

The big questions of Ukraine and what are we to do are beyond me. The personal questions are present as always.