Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Matthew 4: Why Those Temptations? A Messiah of a Different Flavor

In order to understand any passage in the Bible it must be interpreted according to the grammar, history, and literature of the time. A great example of a passage whose understanding hinges on the surrounding political culture is the temptation of Jesus by the devil in Mathew 4.

First, it must be understood that “messiah” was more than a spiritual term. “Messiah” was a political term for a political office. Calling someone a messiah was like calling them “President” or “General” or more specifically “King”. Following a false messiah was not dangerous simply because of his wrong doctrine. Following a false messiah would have military consequences.

As a result of this, the devil’s temptations (challenge) of Jesus’ messiahship are not random. Every reader of Mathew’s gospel would have heard an internal Jewish political debate in each question asked of Jesus, a debate about the kind of messiah he was to become, about how he would assume rule.

For comparison sake, take Herod’s assumption of power as an example. He left Israel to go to Rome. While there he pandered to the powers that be and was granted his office as “king of the Jews.” Add to this the fact that there was an officially sanctioned cult that worshiped the Roman emperor as divine and one can quickly see how heinous an act this would appear to be. Herod patronizes the very symbol of paganism to obtain his power over God’s people, the tangible kingdom of God itself.

When the devil says to Jesus, “worship me and I will give you all the kingdoms of the world,” every Jew would have thought of Rome, and its abominable worship of its emperor, and how its emperor seemed to be able to bequeath power to anyone. Would Jesus assume his reign by allying himself with Rome? By answering no Jesus commits himself to be the rival of Rome and every Jewish authority set up by Rome. This is a dangerous and radical answer. The comic part of this episode is that the narrative seems to imply that Caesar is the devil.

Likewise, each of the other temptations of Jesus hint at a typical means to power that Jesus flat out refuses. The zealots who wanted to revolt against Rome wanted an invincible messiah in the order of Judas Maccabaeus of the century before. To this the second question of the devil is aimed. If the angels will not allow messiah to get hurt, then he certainly cannot be defeated in battle. But if Jesus is not going to deliver the oppressed people of God from Rome, then what kind of deliverance and liberation will such a ruler bring? What relevance could he have to the real suffering of God’s people? This is the struggle within the text.

The first temptation presented to Jesus is perhaps the hardest for us to understand, because it is so close to how we understand the ministry of Jesus. The starving destitute of the land wanted their bellies filled. They read stories of the exodus from Egypt when, at the word of Moses, bread appeared in the wilderness as manna. Since Moses predicted that God would raise up someone after him that would be like him (Deut 18:15), the people began to expect the coming messiah to duplicate the miracles of Moses. This is why the only miracle that every gospel takes room to mention is the feeding of the 5000. If Jesus turned a stone to bread at the devil’s behest, it would be more than just a temporary miracle to sustain his body. It would be a statement about who would love him, and from whom his power would derive. To be crowned messiah by the sheer popularity among the masses, however, was no more appropriate than the people’s choice of a king in 1 Samuel 8. Jesus would not receive his power from the crowd, or by conquest, or by the current crown. Only the Spirit himself could rightfully christen Jesus.

If this story were to take place today in America, Jesus’ campaign manager would come to him and say, “Okay, Jesus, since you are the rightful next ruler, do you want to run as a Democrat or Republican?” To which Jesus would reply, “Neither.” His campaign manager would then criticize, “Independent then? You really want to do that?” Jesus would then answer, “Nope.” At this point every one of us would begin to wonder about his campaign strategy and have serous reservations about him. Every one of us would begin to wonder about the kind of leader he was trying to become and whether he really wanted to become a leader with influence. “How are you going to do it then, Jesus? How are you going to assume power if you won’t win it, or take it, or buy it?” And that is the anxious question Mathew wants to leave with his readers. He wants us to feel the tension, to experience the doubt, to hear the audacious claims of Jesus and wrestle with them.

2000 years later and thousands of miles away, it is easy to assume that it should have been easy for Jews to recognize that Jesus was messiah in fulfillment of prophecy. This is simply not the case. Jesus deliberately cast himself in contrast to many of their messianic expectations. This is the challenge of faith. Can we follow a hungry and vulnerable man as if he were invincible and bountiful?

So how does Mathew repaint the role of messiah? How is Jesus supposed to assume rule? A modern reader might quickly assume that Jesus’ kingdom is a spiritual kingdom and that his rule is not a political rule, but this would be alien to Mathew’s portrayal. Mathew conspicuously highlights John the Baptist’s apocalyptic expectations in the chapter before. The scriptural quotations in the mouth of John the Baptist about the advent of God and messiah are decisive, dramatic, and tangible. The mountains and valleys will level before the advance of God. Jesus will separate the people for blessing and for judgment as one separates chaff from wheat with a winnowing fork. Jesus, having been effectively crowned by the Holy Spirit in his water baptism, now advances forward. The underlying assumption is that his rule and judgment will be as miraculous as the manifestations of the dove and voice from heaven, that his opponents will fall dead by the mere verdict of his mouth, and that everything will be accomplished by the direct supervision and intervention of the Holy Spirit. A great verse that capture this exact theme is that of Zechariah 4:6 where the temple of God will be rebuilt, “Not by might, nor by power, but by my Spirit says the Lord.”
Jesus seems to have a radical and imminent eschatology in which Daniel 7:13-14 would be realized: 
I kept looking in the night visions, And behold, with the clouds of heaven One like a Son of Man was coming, And He came up to the Ancient of Days And was presented before Him. "And to Him was given dominion, Glory and a kingdom, That all the peoples, nations and men of every language Might serve Him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion Which will not pass away; And His kingdom is one Which will not be destroyed. (NLT)

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