The way we picture God matters. Our beliefs about what God is like shape us in more ways than we imagine. We are tempted to worship gods who appeal to us, hoping that they will give us the satisfaction we’ve been seeking. When we have false visions of God, however, we lie to ourselves, eventually assimilating these lies and becoming incapable of seeing the truth.
I am reminded how the Israelites claim the Lamb rescues them from Egypt only to soon after worship the golden calf in the wilderness. The story is not only about worshipping an idol but about worshiping God in improper ways. The Israelites are not attempting to worship another God; their sin is worshipping God in an inappropriate way. They do not yet fully know God’s character. Feeling stuck, they decide to fashion God like themselves, mitigating the absence they sense and hoping to stave off their fears. They are self-sufficient yet in need of a special revelation from God. After this incident, the Israelites are given a glimpse of God’s character; His name and attributes are revealed to them. The first expression of God’s character conveys His compassionate love toward the undeserving. To those listening, God is expressing how they can fulfill their deeper desire for Him.
I’m sure we all know the story about Jesus in the wilderness of temptation (Matthew 4:1-11). After being publicly affirmed by God, Jesus goes into the wilderness to work out the implications of His mission. It’s an episode in the life of Jesus that recalls God leading the Israelites into the wilderness, where they experience tests of thirst and hunger, question God’s presence, and commit idolatry by worshipping the golden calf (Exodus 16; 17; 32). When Jesus is led into the wilderness to contemplate His newly confirmed heavenly vocation, He faces satanic suggestions and assaults. While He emerges from the trying ordeal with a newfound authority, we should not see Jesus as authoritative in a secular sense. His is an authority that implies an intimate relationship with the Father and reveals something unexpected about God (Matthew 3:17). All three temptations faced by Jesus involve false notions about God—each is an attack on His character. The story shows Jesus’ most salient characteristics and how He views God.
In the first temptation, Jesus is enticed to use cheap miracles—stones turned into bread—to prove His identity as God’s Son. Jesus could have put an early end to the ordeal with this “get out of trouble free” card. Some likewise want to use God as needed, like a divine butler responding to our every beck and call. Such people want God to immediately fulfill their needs each time they find themselves in a precipitous or stony spot and thus use God for their own self-absorbed ends. We hear this in the social justice cry: give the hungry masses bread and keep doing so through programs and welfare. Jesus, however, says this is not God’s way. Man does not live by bread alone. Though it’s good to give the poor a steady supply of bread, people can’t live without the nourishing virtue of God’s word. The words of God are not just a set of values held by religiously opinionated people; they are part of His character. God does not attempt justice apart from worship. To be truly human is to feed the hungry soul. Worship can be summed as justice, a moral living that trusts God and looks out for the well-being of others.
Next, Jesus is challenged to jump off the temple’s pinnacle to pridefully assert His rightful place—another shortcut to recognition as God’s choice, but one that would require being saved from a fall to declare the arrival of redemption. The Israelites want God to satisfy their curiosity with signs and wonders to prove that He exists and will deliver them from every obstacle. We may be tempted to seek a god who will amaze us, proving his existence through miraculous signs. People love a good show, but God cannot be coerced to convince the world. God is worthy of worship because of His character, not because He satisfies our cravings for signs. Jesus likewise does not pridefully assert His rights. Jesus believes in a God who does not force people to understand Him but appeals to open hearts and minds.
Lastly, the enemy offers Jesus the kingdoms of the world if He will only bow down. This final test offers something Jesus really wants—to bless the world and reclaim it for the glory of God. In the beginning, God indicates that Israel’s desire to be a kingdom like other nations includes rejecting Him as king. Jesus, however, refuses to bow to this temptation. God does not use worldly power and privilege to rule over others. Ruling the world is not achieved through politics. Religions sometimes worship might and power while pretending to worship God, but Jesus worships God alone, even if it means facing a cross. Jesus provides a different view of how power and kingdoms work. It is a matter of worship, a matter of the kind of being God is. We are to worship Him and bow to His authority alone by revolutionizing our image of God after the divine similitude.
Jesus does not use His identity for His own gratification. He does not need applause or affirmation from the crowd. He does not focus on status or have a jaded view of power. Jesus refuses to shape His mission according to popular notions about God. Rather, as the gospels describe, He is moved with compassion. That’s who God is. That’s His character. The miracles Jesus performs and the actions He displays are all acts of compassion, performed to show that God is doing something different through Him. Jesus feeds the hungry God’s way—not at the expense of impoverished souls. Jesus performs miracles God’s way—not simply to entertain the masses or prove Himself. Jesus also becomes the rightful king God’s way, though not by an easy transfer of power. Only through a costly self-giving love that defeats the lies people believe about God can He take the kinship from the darkness of satanic reality.
The temptations of Jesus are our temptations too. We are tempted to see God not as His true character but as one who meets our every need and softens our every landing. When we ignore the darkness, pretending that the devil is not lurking in the shadows, the tempter drives a wedge between us and our view of God. He tempts us with physical gratifications that bring temporary comfort, with a pride that appeals to our intellect, and with things that can be possessed (1 John 2:16). Jesus lives by listening to the voice of His loving Father over all the other voices competing for His attention. His example shows us how to live. By forsaking all forms of false piety and power, we reorient ourselves to God’s compassion and justice. To follow Jesus is to refuse to surrender our compassion or our convictions. It is to stand firm on the timeless truths of God’s word, even when our society disagrees. Whenever we are tempted to believe that God is absent, we must remember who God is.
Craig Ashton Jr.