After being filled with the Holy Spirit at his baptism, Jesus is led in the wilderness. Through his responses to the temptations of the devil, he defines what it means to be called “the Son of God.”
1Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness, 2where for forty days he was tempted by the devil. He ate nothing at all during those days, and when they were over, he was famished. 3The devil said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become a loaf of bread.”
4Jesus answered him, “It is written, ‘One does not live by bread alone.’ ”
5Then the devil led him up and showed him in an instant all the kingdoms of the world. 6And 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. 7If you, then, will worship me, it will all be yours.” 8Jesus answered him, “It is written,
‘Worship the Lord your God,
and serve only him.’ ”
9Then the devil took him to Jerusalem, and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, saying to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here, 10for it is written, ‘He will command his angels
concerning you, to protect you,’ 11and ‘On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.’ ” 12Jesus answered him, “It is said, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’ ” 13When the devil had finished every test, he departed from him until an opportune time.
The Screwtape Letters by CS Lewis is one of my very favorite books about the demonic. It’s actually my only favorite book about the demonic, come to think of it. In the same way that CS Lewis writes the Chronicles of Narnia, it is a work of fiction, with deeply faithful echoes of Christianity and God’s work. Published in 1942, the story takes the form of a series of letters from a senior demon Screwtape to his nephew Wormwood, a junior tempter, full of advice for all situations as Wormwood does his job to smooth the road to hell, so that his “Patient” is not only tempted, but corrupted.
The devil’s main trick is deception and distraction. Uncle Screwtape reminds his nephew. “It is funny how mortals always picture us as putting things into their minds: in reality our best work is done by keeping things out.” Don’t think too hard. Don’t reflect back. Don’t pause and ponder. The demons try to curb the patient’s “fatal habit of attending to universal issues and withdrawing his attention from the stream of immediate sense experiences. Your business is to fix his attention on the stream. Teach him to call it “real life” and don’t let him ask what he means by “real”.
There’s really not a whole lot of info about the devil in scriptures – and what we do get comes from several very different sources and perspectives about the place of evil in the world. Scripture comes at the answer to that question from a variety of positions.
It has long been my belief that many Christians make too much of the devil and give the devil too much power. This story is the only mention of “the devil” outside of the parable of the sower in Luke.
Luke does mention Satan several times (10:18, 11:18, 13:16, 22:3, 22:31). As I understand it, ‘devil’ was rooted in Greek and ‘Satan’ was rooted in Hebrew, but I am not certain that Jesus/Luke used the words “devil” and Satan” interchangeably. The Greek understanding of the devil is much more dualistic, Good versus Evil in an eternal war which many religions reflect – whereas the Hebrew concept of Satan, is a bit more elusive and problematic. In Judaism, especially in the Old Testament, Satan and God are not equal powers opposed to each other, but Satan does provoke, test, and accuse humans before God – eventually and purposefully leading humans astray from God’s will.
God and the devil are not yin and yang. It’s not a competition between equals. Which is why I particularly like this Gospel because the way Jesus and the Devil interact is important for what we are to make of the devil. It is not God and the devil or satan or the evil one whatever you want to call him/it that are set in opposition. It is the devil and humanity.
God has given us the Spirit as the power to resist temptation, deception, and the lies of the evil one. But discerning the Spirit’s power versus the deception evil is tricky. The Spirit led Jesus into the wilderness, and that is where the devil finds him, in his exhaustion and hunger. It’s harder to discern the truth when you are physically depleted, perhaps the devil may catch Jesus in a moment of weakness.
And what the devil has to say sounds good, rationale, and appropriate. The devil uses the very words of scripture, twisted echoes of God’s word. It is the demons in scripture who know Jesus, and call him by his name and identity, even when the humans around Jesus can’t figure it out. The devil appeals to the human nature of Christ, while saying all the right words about his identity as God’s son. Twice (vv. 3,9) the devil begins his temptation by calling into question Jesus’ identity as the Son of God with the words “IF you are the Son of God” or in some translations – SINCE you are the son of God…. followed by a challenge to prove this identity with some miraculous display. A challenge to use that identity and power for his own benefit.
This is exactly how we are tempted and tested today. All of the lies that try to tell us we aren’t worthy or worth it. All the lies that tell us we need to be better, stronger, or prettier in order to be important, powerful, and self- sufficient. All of the lies that tell us we need to clean ourselves up in order to be presentable and worthy of God’s love. Those messages are all coming from somewhere at their source – and it’s not from your heavenly Father or his Son.
Sure, we are sometimes tempted to do dishonest things to get ahead, sure we are tempted to do things that break commandments, coveting and bearing false witness, etc… Those are little victories for the tester, the tempter, they get us to turn slightly off course, veering one way or the other. The word sin is Greek literally means to miss the mark. And if those temptations to sin make us miss the bull’s eye, the temptation to go it alone without God is firing the arrow the opposite direction of the target.
The challenge is to both take evil seriously, and to learn to discern between God’s voice and other voices – while at the same time, knowing that God’s victory over evil is assured, and our ability to resist that allure is promised by the power of the spirit.
Resist the voice that tells you that you are alone in the wilderness. The Spirit had led you to it, and the Spirit will see you through it. Amen.