Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. He fasted forty days and forty nights, and afterwards he was famished. The tempter came and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.” But he answered, “It is written, ‘One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.'” 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.'” Jesus said to him, “Again it is written, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.'” Again, the devil took him 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 you, if you will fall down and worship me.” Jesus said to him, “Away with you, Satan! for it is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.'” Then the devil left him, and suddenly angels came and waited on him. Matthew 4:1-11
There are hundreds of stories about people who make deals with the devil, of which Faust is probably the most well known. Usually these stories end badly for the deal-makers, although some of the more modern variations on the story have the protagonist outwitting the devil in some way. There’s the short story of the devil and Daniel Webster, the musical Damn Yankees, and of course, the bluegrass song “The Devil Went Down to Georgia”. Joseph Campbell and C S Lewis might say that when similar stories pop up again and again in different times and places, that’s because there’s an underlying truth to them.
Matthew, Mark, and Luke tell us that Jesus’s encounter with the devil took place right after his baptism and affirmation by God as “my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased“. Before beginning his public ministry, Jesus needed to decide exactly how he ought to go about that ministry. And so he goes into the wilderness alone, away from the distractions of everyday life, to think and to listen for God’s direction. But before he hears the voice of God, he hears another voice, a voice that is not from God.
The voice of the devil takes advantage of Jesus’s hunger and suggests that he use his superhuman power to turn rocks into food. Not only would that alleviate his immediate physical distress, it would assuredly yield great results if he duplicated the trick for others. And feeding hungry people is a good thing, right? And it would certainly get people’s attention quickly, and garner him a lot of followers. (That’s exactly what happened later when, out of compassion, Jesus multiplied the loaves and fishes for a hungry crowd that had come to hear him)
But Jesus said no to this idea. Although he was deeply concerned about people’s physical needs (see Matthew 25) he knew that there was more to his mission than being a one-man food bank. “Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.” I’ve often heard it said that the purpose of this quote was to say that there are things in life that are more important than food, but I think there’s more to it than that. God’s words, as recorded again and again in both the Law and the Prophets, tell us that taking care of those marginalized by society is not an option, but an imperative. Those who have should share with those who have not. And it’s not just an individual, but a corporate responsibility. God will judge rulers and societies by how well they live by these words. Jesus knew that God had already told people how societies ought to function, but that they mostly ignored or disobeyed those instructions. “These people come near to me with their mouth and honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me.” A one-man, or even a one God-man relief operation wasn’t the answer. The hearts of many would need to be changed, the law “written on their hearts” before the kingdom of God could begin to spread exponentially. Jesus foresaw a time when his followers would do even more in the way of helping people than he had been able to help during his short time on Earth.
The voice of the devil also suggested that Jesus could jump off a tall building in the middle of town, then supernaturally float to the ground and land unharmed. That would get the attention of a lot of people, right? They would pay attention to someone who could perform a stunt like that, yes?
But Jesus said no to this idea too. “Do not put the Lord your God to a test“. This scene reminds me of “King Herod’s Song” in “Jesus Christ Superstar” where Herod taunts Jesus to “prove to me that you’re no fool; walk across my swimming pool” Demanding signs from God is not only arrogant, it’s ultimately ineffective. In the stories of the Exodus, Moses found that to be true again and again. Pharaoh remained unconvinced by Moses’s staff turning into a snake and most of the plagues.The children of Israel seemed to have had extremely short attention spans, for in spite of witnessing multiple supernatural events, kept whining and complaining. As Jesus told in the parable of the rich man and Lazarus, even the most spectacular miracle is insufficient to overcome confirmation bias. People will deny any evidence that does not conform to what they want to believe is true.“If (people) do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, they will not be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.” Paul made the same observation when he wrote to the Corinthians that “Jews demand signs and Greeks search for wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles“
It’s also interesting to me that in this particular temptation, the devil quoted Scripture to try and get Jesus to go along with him. But Jesus knew Scripture well enough to recognize a passage taken out of context and used manipulatively , and Jesus responded with a Scripture passage of his own that was more relevant to his decision-making. One of the reasons I’m so passionate about trying to convince people to read and study the whole Bible is because I think Biblical ignorance is one of the best tools in the devil’s toolbox. Just to take one example…how long was slavery justified on “biblical” grounds? Did you know that there was once a “slave Bible” that contained passages like “slaves obey your masters“ but omitted all the passages that “might incite rebellion” such as Galatians 3:28 not to mention the entire book of Exodus? That was a devilish use of the Bible, and unfortunately there are many more examples of the Bible being used in devilish ways.
The voice of the devil then makes an offer he thinks Jesus won’t be able to refuse. If Jesus will pledge allegiance to the devil, then the devil will make Jesus king of the world. Then Jesus will have the power to control everybody and everything. That would be a good thing, right? Jesus could make all the laws, so everybody would have to behave themselves or else. Jesus could redistribute the world’s resources any way he saw fit. And being Jesus, all his decisions would be loving and just and fair. The world would be a much better place with Jesus in charge!
But Jesus said no to that tempting offer too, referring to the first commandment. Idolatry doesn’t always come in the form of a golden calf. Idolatry is anything in which you place your ultimate allegiance and trust. Now, as in Jesus’s time, the most common idols are money, power, and pleasure. “No man can serve two masters“, Jesus warned his disciples. In Matthew’s context, Jesus was speaking specifically of money, but the warning can be generalized to other idols too. The way of the cross- the way Jesus took- is diametrically opposed to the way of power and control. (Jesus), “being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death— even death on a cross!” Counterintuitively, Jesus’s refusal to use his power and “come down from the cross” resulted in him becoming (as Obi-wan-Kenobi might put it) more powerful than anyone could imagine. “Therefore God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.”
The sayings “power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely” and “the ends don’t justify the means” don’t come from the Bible, but those concepts are at play here in the deals the devil tries to make with Jesus. Jesus said “no” to any kind of devil’s bargain, and I think it’s incumbent upon his followers to do likewise. Real, lasting change won’t come through the love of power, but the power of love. Jesus has shown us the way. And that’s good news to me.