By S.D. Gordon
The University of Arabia.
The Jordan led to the Wilderness by a straight road. A first step without slipping leads to the second. Victory opens the way to fresh struggles for higher victories. The perfect naturalness of Jesus is revealed here, His human naturalness. He had taken the decisive step into the Jordan waters. And while absorbed in prayer had become conscious of a new experience. The Spirit of God came upon Him in unusual measure. The effect of that always is to awaken to new alertness and vigor every mental power, as well as to key up every moral resolve. Jesus is caught at once by the grasp, the grip of this new experience of the wondrous Spirit's control. Keenly alive to its significance, awakened anew to the part He was to perform, and to a consciousness of His peculiar relation to God and to man, He becomes wholly absorbed in this newly intensified world of thought.
Under the Spirit's impulse, He goes off into the solitude of the wilderness to think. And in this mood of deep absorption, with every faculty fully awake and every high moral impulse and purpose in full throb, came the temptation with the recorded climax at the close.
There came an intensifying of all His former consciousness, and convictions, regarding His own personality and His mission to mankind, as absorbed from the Hebrew parchments, with the undercurrent, lying away down, of a tragedy to be met on the way up to the throne.
Jesus was a man of great intensity. He could become so absorbed as to be unconscious of other things. As a boy of twelve, when first He caught fire, He was so taken up with the flood of thoughts poured into His mind by the temple visit, that for three days and two nights He remained away from His parents, simply absorbed in the world of thought awakened by that visit. He could remain forty days in the wilderness without being conscious of hunger. The impress of that forty days mentally remain with Him during the remainder of His human life. Intensity is possible only to strong mentality. The child's mind, the undisciplined mind, the mind weakened by sickness or fatigue goes quickly from one thing to another. The finest mental discipline is revealed in the greatest intensity, while yet all the faculties remain at normal, not heated, nor disturbed by the discoloration of heat.
He withdrew into the wilderness to think and pray. He wanted to get away from man that He might realize God. With the near flaming footlights shut out, He could see clearly the quiet upper lights, His sure guides. These forty days gave Him the true perspective. Things worked into proportion. He never lost this wilderness perspective. The wilderness means to Him alone with God, the false perspective, the flaming of near lights, the noise of men's shuffling feet all gone. And when He went out among men for work, that wilderness atmosphere went with Him. And when the crowds thickened, and work piled up, and dangers intensified, off He would go for a fresh bit of improvised wilderness.
The temptation follows the natural lines of man's powers. Man was made with mastery of himself, kingship over nature and all its forces, and utter dependence, even for his very breath, upon God. While made perfect in these, he would know them fully only through growth. He had three relationships, to God, his fellows, and himself. His relation to God would keep true the relation to himself, and adjust the relation to his fellows. Keeping God in proper proportion in the perspective keeps one's self in its true place always. Utter dependence by every man upon God would make perfect harmony with his fellows. The dominion of nature was through self-mastery, and this in turn would be only through the practice of utter dependence upon God.
Now all sin comes under this grouping, the relation to God, the relation to others, within one's self. Temptation follows the line of exaggeration, misuse, misadjustment, wrong motive. It pushes trust over into unwarranted presumption. Dominion over nature crosses the line into the relation to other men. Fellow-feeling gives way to an ambition to get ahead of the other man and to boss him. Proper appetite and desire become lust and passion. The dominion that man was to have over nature, he seeks also to have over his brothers, so crossing the line of his own proper dominion and trespassing on God's. Only God is to have dominion over all men. Where a man is lifted to eminence of rule among his fellows he is simply acting for Somebody else. He is not a superior. He is a servant of God, in ruling over his fellows.
John's famous grouping of all sin as "the lust of the flesh, lust of eye and pride of life," refers to what is out "in the world." It touches only two of these three: sin in one's self and in relation to his fellows, with the dominion line out of adjustment. Out in the world God has been left clean out, so the phase of trust isn't touched upon by John.
Jesus' temptation follows these natural lines. Improper use of power for the sake of the bodily appetite; to presume on God's care in doing something unwarranted; to cross the line of dominion over nature and seek to control men. For, be it remembered, Jesus was here as a man. The realm of the body, the realm of religion, the realm of wrong ambition, these were the temptation lines followed then, and before, and ever since.
The going into the wilderness was planned by the Holy Spirit. He was in charge of this campaign of Jesus to win back the allegiance of man and the dominion of the earth. Jesus yielded Himself to the control of the Holy Spirit for His earthly mission, even as later the Holy Spirit yielded Himself wholly to the control of the exalted Jesus for His earthly mission.
Here the Spirit proves Himself a keen strategist. He drives hard at the enemy. He forces the fighting. A decided victory over the chief at the start would demoralize all the forces. It would be decisive of the whole conflict, and prophetic of the final outcome. Every demon possessing a man on the earth heard of his chief's rout that day, and recognized his Victor, and feared Him, and knew of his own utter defeat in that of his chief. Having gotten the chief devil on the run, every sub-devil fled at Jesus' approach.
The Spirit would show to man the weakness of the devil. The devil can do nothing with the man who is calmly set in his loyalty to God. This new Leader of the race was led up to the dreaded devil that men might know for all time his weak spot. The poison of those fangs is completely neutralized by simple, steady loyalty to God. But the rattles do make a big scary noise.
It is safe to go where the Spirit of God leads, and not safe to go anywhere else. The wilderness, any wilderness, becomes a place of victory if the Spirit of God be leading there. Any temptation is a chance for a victory when the Spirit leads the way. A man's controlling motive determines the attractiveness or ugliness of any place. To Jesus this wilderness barren was one of the mountain peaks. Its forbidding chasms and ugly gullies and darting snakes ever afterwards speak to Him of sweet victory. The first great victory was here. He made the wilderness to blossom with the rose of His unswerving loyalty to His Father. And its fragrance has been felt by all who have followed Him there. To the tempter it was a wilderness indeed, barren of anything he wanted. He quit it the first chance he could make. He would remember the beasts and serpents and dreary waste. For here he received his first death-thrust.
Every man whom God has used has been in the wilderness. The two great leaders before Jesus, and the great leader after Him, had each a post-graduate course in the University of Arabia. A degree in that school is required for those who would do valiant service for God. Only so can the eyes and ears be trained away from the glare and blare of the crowd. They needed it, we need it, for discipline. He, the matchless Man, for that too, and that He might make it a place of sure victory for us.
Earth's Ugliest, Deepest Scar.
Jesus is the only One of whom we are told that He was led up to be tempted. He was the leader of the race for the regaining of the blurred image, the lost mastery and dominion. He Himself bade us pray not to be so tempted. He out-matched the tempter. Any one of us, alone, is clearly out-matched by that tempter. But we may always rest secure in the victory He achieved that day. Only so are we safe.
It is noteworthy that the place of the temptation was chosen by the Spirit, and what place it is He chooses. Mark keenly, the tempter did not choose it. He was obliged to start in there, but he seized the first chance to get away to scenes more congenial to himself.
The wilderness is one of the most marked spots on the earth's crust. That remarkable stretch of land going by swift, steep descents almost from Jerusalem's very door down to the Dead Sea. It was once described as "the garden of God," that is, as Eden, for beauty and fertility, like the fertile Egyptian bottoms. For long centuries no ghastlier bit of land can be found, haggard, stripped bare, its strata twisted out of all shape, blistering peeling rocks, scorching furnace-heat reflected from its rocks, swept by hot desert winds, it is the land of death, an awful death; no life save crawling scorpions and vipers, with an occasional hyena and jackal. Here sin had a free line and ran riot. It ran to its logical conclusion, till a surgical operation--a cauterization--was necessary to save the rest. Earth's fairest became earth's ugliest. It is the one spot where sin's free swing seamed its mark deepest in. The story of sin's worst is burned into the crust of the earth with letters over a thousand feet deep. This is sin's scar: earth's hell-scar.
There is no talk of the glory of the kingdom here. Yet there had been once. This is the very spot where that proposition on smaller scale was made to a man in a crisis of his life, and where, lured by the attractive outlook, he had chosen selfishly. This is the wilderness, sin's wilderness, whither the Holy Spirit led Jesus for the tempter's assault. No man does great service for God till he gets sin into its proportion in his perspective.
Jesus was tempted. Temptation, the suggestion to wrong, must find some point of contact within. Therein consists the temptation to the man. Without doubt there was a response within to the temptations that came to Jesus. Satan always throws his line to catch on a hook inside. The physical sense of hunger responded to the suggestion of getting hold of a loaf. The unfailing breath of Jesus' life was trusting His Father. For the way a thing should be done, as well as for getting the result, He trusted His Father. This trust, underlying and permeating His whole life, furnishes the point of contact for the second temptation.
The ruling of a world righteously--not for the glory of reigning, ingrained in us, but for the world's good and betterment--was ingrained in Jesus by His birth, and fostered by His study of the Hebrew scriptures, and by the consciousness of His mission. Here is the point of contact with the third temptation. At once it is plain that there is nothing wrong here in the inward response. For instantly it was clear that a response of His will to these outer propositions would not be right, would be wrong, and so these points of contact were instantly held in check by His will.
"Every temptation" was brought, we are told: "tempted in all points." This does not mean that every particular temptation came to Jesus, but the heart, the essential, of every temptation. Every temptation that comes to us is along the line of the three that came to Him. By rejecting the first of each line He shut out its successors. By accepting the first of a series of temptations a man opens the way for the next, and so on. Temptations come on a scale descending. There are the first, the initial temptations, and then all that follow in their train. Rejecting the first stops the whole line. Not only that, but stops also the momentum, terrific, downward momentum of the whole line.
The first temptation is the door through which must pass all other temptations of that sort. If that door be opened these other temptations have a chance. If that door be kept shut, all these others are kept waiting. Temptation is always standing with its pointed toe at the crack of the door, waiting the slightest suggestion of an opening. This first temptation is always the likeliest of its class to get in. It is not always the same, of course. It is subtly chosen to suit the man. Jesus kept these doors rigidly shut, key turned, bolts pushed, bar up, chain hooked. So may we.
The tempting is to be done by "the devil." That is his strong point, tempting people. It is one way of recognizing some of his kin. It is a mean, contemptible sort of thing. He had fallen into a hole of his own digging, and would pull in everybody else. He is never constructive in his work, always destructive. Best at tearing down. Never builds up. His allies can often be told by their resemblance to him here. Jesus is to be tempted by this master-tempter. He is going to prove to all his brothers that the tempter has no power without the consent of the tempted. The door into a man has only the one knob. And that's on the inside.
Waiting the Father's Word.
Quite likely the form of the tempter's words suggests the upper current of Jesus' thought. "If thou be the Son of God." Jesus was likely absorbed with His peculiar relation to His Father, with all that that involved. The tempter cunningly seeks to sweep Him off of His feet by working on His mood. It is ever a favorite method with the tempter to rush a man. A flush of feeling, the mood of an intense emotion tipped over the balance with a quick motion of his, has swept many a man off his feet. But Jesus held steady. There was no unholy heat of ambition to disturb the calm working of His mind.
Why "if"? Did Satan doubt it? Is he asking proof? He gets it. Jesus did not need to prove His divinity except by continuing to be divine. He proved best that He was Son of God by being true to His Sonship. He naturally acted the part. We prove best that we are right by being right, not by accepting captious, critical propositions. The stars shine. We know they are stars by their shine. Satan would have Jesus use His divinity in an undivine way. He was cunning. But Jesus was keener than the tempter was cunning.
"Get a loaf out of this stone. Don't go hungry. Be practical and sensible." The cold cruelty of Satan! He makes no effort to relieve the hunger. The hunger asked for bread and he gave it a stone. That is the best he has. He is a bit short on bread. He would use the physical need to break down the moral purpose. He has ever been doing just that. Sometimes he induces a man to break down his strength in religious activity. And then he takes advantage of his weakened condition. Even religious activity should be refused save at the leading of God's Spirit. It will not do simply to do good. The only safe thing is to do God's will, to be tied fast to the tether of the Spirit's leading.
Jesus could have made a loaf out of the stone. He did that sort of thing afterwards. It was not wrong to do it, since, under other circumstances, He did it. But it is wrong to do anything, even a good thing, at the devil's suggestion. He would shun the counsel of the ungodly. The tempter attacks first the neediest point, the hunger, and in so far the weakest, the likeliest to yield. Yet it was the strongest, too, for Jesus could make bread. The strongest point may become the weakest because of the very temptation the possession of strength gives to use it improperly. Strength used properly remains strength; used improperly it becomes weakness. The strong points always need guarding, that the balance be not tipped over and lost. Strength is never greater than when used rightly; never greater than when refused to the improper use. The essence of sin is in the improper use of a proper thing.
The first step toward victory over temptation is to recognize it. Jesus' quick, quiet reply here touches the human heart at once, and touches it at its neediest and most sensitive point, the need of sympathy, of a fellow feeling. He said, "Man shall not live." The tempter said, "God." Jesus promptly said, "Man." He came to be man, the Son of man, and the Brother of man. He took His place as a man that day in the Jordan water. He will not be budged from man's side. He will stay on the man level in full touch with His fellows at every step of the way.
He was giving to every man, everywhere in the world, under stress of every temptation; with every rope tugging at its fastenings, and threatening every moment to slip its hold, and the man be lost in the storm, to every man the right, the enormous staying power to say, "Jesus--a man --such a one as I--was here, and as a man resisted--and won. He is at my side. I'll lean on Him and resist too,--and win too--in the strength of His winning."
Jesus says here, "My life, my food, the supplying of my needs is in the hands of my Father. When He gives the word, I'll do: not before. I'll starve if He wishes it, but I'll not mistrust Him; nor do anything save as He leads and suggests. I'll not act at your suggestion, nor anybody's else but His. Starving doesn't begin to bother me like failing to trust would do. But I haven't the faintest idea of starving with such a Father."
"Not by bread alone, but by every word ... of God." Not by a loaf, but by a word. When a man is where God would have him, he can afford to wait patiently till God gives the word. A man is never unsteadier on his feet than when he has gone where he was not led. "I go at my Father's word." "I wait for my Father's word." Jesus' study of the parchment rolls in Nazareth was standing Him in good stead now. Through many a prayerful hour over that Word had come the trained ear, the waiting spirit, the doing of things only at the Father's initiative. He could make bread, but He wouldn't, unless the Father gave the word. It was not simply that He would not act at the tempter's suggestion, but He would not act at all except at the Father's word. And to this Jesus remained true, whether the request for evidence came from the tempter direct, or from sneering Pharisee at the temple's cleansing, or from unbelieving brothers.
Life comes not through what a man can make, but through the Father's controlling presence: not through our effort, but through the Father's power transmitted through the pipe line of our ready obedience.
"Just to let thy Father do
As He will.
Just to know that He is true,
And be still.
Just to follow hour by hour
As He leadeth.
Just to draw the moment's power
As it needeth.
Just to trust Him. This is all.
Then the day will surely be
Peaceful, whatsoe'er befall,
Bright and blessÈd, calm and free."
Jesus held every activity, every power subject to the Father's bidding. Not only obedient, but nothing else. Waiting the Father's send-off at every turn: this is the message from Jesus that first tug, and first victory. Jesus had held true in the realm of the body, in His relationship to Himself.
Love Never Tests.
Satan shifts the scene. These wilderness surroundings grate on his nerves. The setting of this place, once first class, is now rather worn. He's famous at that. It's a favorite device of His; quick scene-shifting. A man wins a victory over temptation, but a quick change of surroundings finds him unprepared if he isn't ever alert for it, and down he goes before the new, unexpected rush, before he can get his wind. The tempter is not a fool, as regards man. That is, as a rule he is not. In the light of all facts obtainable about his career, that word might be thought of. Yet no man of us may apply the word to him. Not one of us is a match for him. We're not in the same class. In his keen subtlety and cunning he can outmatch the keenest of us; outwit and befool without doing any extra thinking. I am not using the word wisdom of him. We are safe only in the wisdom of our big Brother who drew his fangs in the wilderness that day.
He chooses shrewdly the spot for each following temptation. He's a master stage manager. He always works for an atmosphere that will help his purpose. He took Jesus up to one of the wings of the temple in the holy city. The holy city, and especially its temple, would awaken holiest emotions. Here it was that Jesus, as a boy, years before, had probably first caught fire. It is likely that He never forgot that first visit. Here everything spoke to Him of His Father. The tempter is skilfully following the leading of Jesus' reply. Jesus had given a religious answer. So He is given a religious atmosphere, and taken to a religious place. He would trust the Father implicitly. Here is an opportunity to let men see that beautiful spirit of trust. Here is a chance for a master-stroke. A single simple act will preach to the crowds. "You'll come down in the midst of an open-mouthed, admiring crowd." The devil loves the spectacular, the theatrical. He is always working for striking, stagy effects.
How many a man has yielded to the religious temptation! He is taken up in the air, and seems to float among ethereal clouds. It is better for us to live in the strength of Somebody else's victory, and keep good hard earth close to the soles of our feet, or we may come into contact with it suddenly with feet and head changing places.
The devil "taketh" Jesus. How could he? He could do it only by Jesus' consent. Jesus yields to his taking. He has a strong purpose in it. He was going for the sake of His brothers. The tempter cannot take anybody anywhere except with his full consent. He tries to, and often befools men into thinking he can. It's a lie. He cannot. Every man is an absolute sovereign in his will, both as regards God and Satan. God will not do anything with us without our ready consent. And be it keenly remembered that the tempter cannot. Here Jesus gave consent for His brothers' sake.
The tempter acts his part like an old hand. The proper thing here is some scripture, repeated earnestly in unctuous tones. Was it from this tempter that all of us religious folks and everybody else have gotten into the inveterate habit of quoting verse and sentence entirely out of connection? Any devil's lie can be proven from the Scriptures on that plan. If it was he who set the pace, certainly it has been followed at a lively rate. It was a cunning quotation, cunningly edited.
The angels are ministering spirits. On their hands they do bear us up. It is all true, blessedly true. But it is only true for the man who is living in the first verse of that ninety-first psalm, "in the secret place of the most High." The tempter threads his way with cautious skill among those unpleasant allusions to the serpent, and the dragon, and getting them under our feet, and then twisting and trampling with our hard heels. He knew his ground well, and avoids such rough, rude sort of talk. It was a cunning temptation, cunningly staged and worded and backed. He was doing his best. One wonders if he really thought Jesus could be tripped up that way. So many others have been, and are, even after Jesus has shown us the way. A dust cloth would help some of us--for our Bibles--and a little more exercise at the knee-joint, and a bit of the hard common sense God has given every one of us.
Did Jesus' wondrous, quiet calm nettle the tempter? Was He ever keener and quieter? He would step from the substantial boat-deck to the yielding water, He would cut Himself off from His Nazareth livelihood and step out without any resources, He would calmly walk into Jerusalem when there was a price upon His head, for so He was led by that Spirit to whose sovereignty He had committed Himself. But He would do nothing at the suggestion of this tempter. Jesus never used His power to show He had it, but to help somebody. He could not. It is against the nature of power to attempt to prove that you have it by using it. Power is never concerned about itself, but wrapped up in practical service. There were no theatricals about Jesus. He was too intensely concerned about the needs of men. There are none in God-touched men. Elisha did not smite the waters to prove that Elijah's power rested upon him, but to get back across the Jordan to where his work was needing him and waiting his touch. Jesus would wear Himself out bodily in ministering to men's needs, but He wouldn't turn a hair nor budge a step to show that He could. This is the touch-stone by which to know all Jesus-men.
He rebukes this quotation by a quotation that breathes the whole spirit of the passage where it is found. Thou shalt not test God to see if He will do as He promises. These Israelites had been testing, criticizing, questioning, doubting God. That's the setting of His quotation. Jesus says that love never tests. It trusts. Love does not doubt, for it knows. It needs no test. It could trust no more fully after a test, for it trusts fully now. Aye, it trusts more fully now, for it is trusting God, not a test. Every test of God starts with a question, a doubt, a misgiving of God. Jesus' answer to the second temptation is: love never tests. It trusts. Jesus keeps true in His relation to His Father.
The Devil Acknowledges the King.
Another swift shift of the scene. Swiftness is a feature now. In a moment of time, all the kingdoms, and all the glory of all the earth. Rapid work! This is an appeal to the eye. First the palate, then the emotions, now the eye. First the appetites, then the religious sense, now the ambition. The tempter comes now to the real thing he is after. He would be a god. It is well to sift his proposition pretty keenly, on general principles. His reputation for truthfulness is not very good, which means that it is very bad. Who wants to try a suspicious egg? He could have quite a number of capitals after his name on the score of mixing lies and the truth. He has a distinct preference for the flavor of mixed lies.
Here are the three statements in his proposal. All these things have been delivered unto me. I may give them to whom I will. I will give them to you. The first of these is true. He is "the prince of this world." The second is not true, because through breach of trust he has forfeited his rule, though still holding to it against the Sovereign's wish. The third is not true. Clearly he hadn't any idea of relinquishing his hold, but only of swamping Jesus. Two parts lie: one part truth--a favorite formula of his. The lie gets the vote. A bit of truth sandwiched in between two lies.
He asks for worship. Did he really think that possibly Jesus would actually worship him? The first flush answer is, surely not. Yet he is putting the thing in a way that has secured actual worship from many a'one who would be horrified at such a blunt putting of his conduct. We must shake off the caricature of a devil with pointed horns, and split hoof, and forked tail, and see the real, to understand better. From all accounts he must be a being of splendor and beauty, of majestic bearing, and dignity. His appeal in effect is this:--These things are all mine. You have in you the ingrained idea of a world-wide dominion over nature, and of ruling all men as God's King. Now, can't we fix this thing up between us? Let's be friendly. Don't let's quarrel over this matter of world dominion.
You acknowledge me as your sovereign. You rule over all this under me. I'll stand next to God, and you stand next to me. It's a mere technical distinction, after all. It'll make no real change in your being a world-wide ruler, and it will make none with me either. Each will have a fair share and place. Let's pull together.--The thing sounds a bit familiar. It seems to me I have heard it since somewhere, if I can jog up my memory. It has raised a cloud of dust in many a man's road, and blurred the clear outlines of the true plan--has raised?--is raising.
Jesus' answer is imperative. It is the word of an imperative. He is the King already in His Father's plan. He replies with the sharp, imperial brevity of an emperor, a king of kings, "Get thee hence!" Begone! The tempter obeys. He knows his master. He goes. Biting his teeth upon his hot spittle, utterly cowed, he slinks away. Only one Sovereign, Jesus says. All dominion held properly only by direct dependence upon Him, direct touch with Him, full obedience to Him. No compromise here. No mixing of issues. Simple, direct relation to God, and every other relation through that. No short cuts for Jesus. They do but cut with deep gashes the man who cuts. The "short" describes the term of his power, a short shrift.
When the devil has used up all his ammunition--. That's a comfort. There is an end to the devil if we will but quietly hold on. Every arrow shot. Not a cartridge left. Yet he is not entirely through with Jesus. He has retired to reform the broken lines. He'll melt up the old bullets into different shape. They have been badly battered out of all shape by striking on this hard rock. He's a bit shaken himself. This Jesus is something new. When he can get his wind he will come back. He came back many times. Once through ignorant Peter with the loaf temptation in new shape, once through His mother's loving fears with the emotional temptation, and through the earnest, hungry Greeks, and the bread-full thousands with the kingdom temptation. Yet the edge of His sword is badly nicked, and never regains its old edge.
But now he goes. He obeys Jesus. The tempter resisted goes, weakened. He is a coward now. He fights only with those weaker than himself. He doesn't take a man of his own size. Temptation resisted strengthens the man. There is a new resisting power. There is the fine fettle that victory gives. Jesus is Victor. The Jordan experience has left its impress. Every act of obedience is to the tempter's disadvantage. In Jesus we are victors, too. But only in Him.
Through Jesus we meet a fangless serpent. The old glare is in the eye, the rattles are noisy, but the sting's out. He is still there. He still can scare; but can do not even that to the man arm-in-arm with Jesus. Jesus keeps true the relationship to all men and to nature by keeping true the relationship to His Father.
Our Father, lead us not into temptation as Jesus was led. We're no match for the tempter. Help us to keep arm-in-arm with Jesus, and live ever in the power of His victory.