Tag Archives: Devil

Matthew 4: 1-11 The Temptation in the Wilderness

Ivan Kramskoy, Christ in the Desert (1872)

Matthew 4: 1-11

Parallel Mark 1: 12-13, Luke 4: 1-13

1 Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. 2 He fasted forty days and forty nights, and afterwards he was famished. 3 The tempter came and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.” 4 But he answered,

“It is written, ‘One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.'”

5 Then the devil took him to the holy city and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, 6 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.'”

7 Jesus said to him, “Again it is written, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.'”

8 Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor; 9 and he said to him, “All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.” 10 Jesus said to him, “Away with you, Satan! for it is written,

‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.'”

11 Then the devil left him, and suddenly angels came and waited on him.

Even though a chapter division is introduced between the baptism scene at the end of chapter three and the temptation at the beginning of chapter four these scenes are connected. Within liturgical churches the perceived separation between these scenes is heightened by the traditional reading of the baptism scene after the end of the Christmas season and the temptation scene several weeks later during the first Sunday in Lent. Matthew and Luke share a common telling of this scene (although Luke modifies the order we find in Matthew probably due to Luke’s focus on the temple as being central to the narration of Jesus’ story) both keeping the placement in the narrative with Mark but adding the content of the temptation Jesus undergoes.

Jesus is led by the Spirit into the wilderness, a softening of the language we find in Mark where Jesus is literally ‘thrown’ into the wilderness (using the same term that Mark uses for casting out of demons). Throughout this temptation we are linked to the baptism by the location, the wilderness, the action of the Spirit of God and the continuity of the title used throughout the two scenes, Son of God. Previously the wilderness provided a place of revelation where the Spirit of God and the voice from heaven pronounce Jesus’ identity now it provides a place where Jesus’ identity is challenged. The wilderness will be a place of divine guidance, care and revelation but it is also a place of deprivation, isolation and challenge. Yet, this temptation seems to be if not divinely orchestrated at least an intentionality of movement by the Spirit of God and Jesus. It is a place where danger and revelation will hold hands, to use O. Wesley Allen’s phrase. (Allen, 2013, p. 39) Yet, there is also an element of, for a time, being isolated by God and entering into the suffering of that isolation as the wilderness of temptation becomes a place where the kingdom of heaven’s advent is both prepared for and resisted.

The forty days and forty nights in the wilderness that Jesus fasts prior to the temptation is frequently noted in paralleling the forty years that the people of Israel spend in the wilderness, a time where the people transition from being the slaves of Egypt to the people of the LORD the God of Israel. While the sojourn of the people of Israel is a time of divine guidance, care (providing food and water throughout their journey) and revelation (both the giving of the law and the creation of the tabernacle) and Jesus being identified with Israel is one of the accents within the identity that Jesus will bear there is also a close tying to the story of Moses in this scene. While Moses is not tested by the devil in the manner, we hear in Jesus story he has two forty-day periods on Mount Sinai where he receives the law (see Exodus 24: 18) and intercedes for the people after the incident of the Golden Calf. The intercession for the people after the Golden Calf is like the language of this scene:

He was there with the LORD forty days and forty nights; he neither ate bread nor drank water. And he wrote on the tablets the words of the covenant, the ten commandments. (Exodus 34:28)

Not only is he receiving the law to bring to the people, a parallel we will soon see in the sermon on the mount, but it is also during this forty days on Mount Sinai where Moses goes to make atonement for the people. Jesus, we learned in Matthew 1: 21 is one who will save the people from their sins. I believe this scene want us to hear an echo of Moses going up Mount Sinai to intercede for the people, Moses will say,

“Alas, the people has sinned a great sin; they have made for themselves gods of gold. But now only forgive their sin—but if not, blot me out of the book that you have written.”  Exodus 32: 31-32)

This scene in Exodus (Exodus 32-34) is a scene where God reveals God’s glory to Moses, where the covenant between God and Israel is renewed and God chooses to dwell among the people again. One of the links we may be encouraged to see here is a time where Jesus also initiates a time of fasting to restore the relationship between God and the people of God.

With all these connections and links to various images from the scriptures it can become a little overwhelming as we wonder: Who is Jesus? Is he God with us? David? Moses? Israel? Son of God? The Son of Man? The Christ? And ultimately Matthew feels we need all these titles and linkages to attempt to convey the fullness of who Jesus is and what his story means for those who hear it. Matthew is willing to use the rich language of the scriptures he inherits to attempt to paint his portrait of Jesus for the church to learn from and to follow. In the previous chapter I mentioned two great scriptural rivers that flow into the deep sea that is Matthews gospel (Isaiah specifically and the prophets in general along with the Psalms specifically and wisdom literature in general) but now I want to highlight a third river that flows through the landscape, one that has provided nourishment and hope and now as it reaches its goal in the gospel will be also be a part of the advent of the kingdom of heaven, the law (or Torah). As mentioned above, Jesus is one who becomes linked with Moses and the law in the Sermon on the Mount, but it is also worth noting here because the three quotations that Jesus makes during the temptation all come from the law, specifically the book of Deuteronomy.

Perhaps before we can begin the actual scene of temptation, we need to discuss the antagonist in the scene who is called tempter, devil and Satan. We view the world differently than our ancestors in the time of Matthew and we often don’t see our world as inhabited by devils and demons the way we find in the gospels. Philosopher Charles Taylor uses the language of the porous self in the earlier enchanted world to talk about this reality, where the porous self is vulnerable to spirits, demons and cosmic forces and these forces (both good and evil) actively inhabit the world and possess people within it. With evil forces active in the enchanted world affiliation with a power that could triumph over these forces was an important part of life, and for those within the sphere of Christianity and Judaism that force was God. In Taylor’s language:

Perhaps the clearest sign of the transformation in our world is that today many people look back to the world of the porous self with nostalgia. As though the creation of a thick emotional boundary between us and the cosmos were now lived as a loss. The aim is to try to recover some measure of this lost feeling. So people go to the movies about the uncanny in order to experience a frisson[1]. Our peasant ancestors would have thought us insane. You can’t get a frisson from what is really in fact terrifying you. (Taylor, 2007, p. 38)

That people believed in evil forces being personified in the devil and demons during the time of Matthew is not controversial, the controversy is how we as ones living in the disenchanted world we have inherited from modernity can talk about the devil and the demonic. One approach is taken creatively by C.S. Lewis in The Screwtape Letters where he ascribes the disenchanted world to the action of the devilish forces themselves. As the fictional devil Screwtape writes to a devil who is still learning how to manipulate humans:

Our policy, for the moment, is to conceal ourselves. Of course this has not always been so. We are really faced with a cruel dilemma. When the humans disbelieve our existence we lose all the pleasing results of direct terrorism and we make no magicians. On the other hand, when they believe is us, we cannot make them materialists and sceptics. (Lewis, 2017, p. 203)

Others may attribute social, psychological, or cultural reasons to explain the belief of the devilish and demonic forces in the gospel. The rational bias of the enlightenment encourages us to live within a world separated from the spiritual world or devils and angels, but I refuse to excise from the gospels the critical forces on opposing sides of the kingdom of heaven. Personally, I am all to aware of the persistence of evil in the world in ways that go beyond rational explanations of systemic evil or other modern explanations. Even though I may have never encountered evil personified in either the devil or a demon I am inclined to walk between the two options that C.S. Lewis states at the beginning of the Screwtape Letters: I neither disbelieve their existence nor do I exercise an unhealthy interest in them. (Lewis, 2017, p. 183)

The Spirit has led Jesus to a place where he is to be tempted, and there is an intentionality to this scene as the kingdom of heaven is brought into conflict with one who claims to be able to give all the kingdoms of the world. This conflict sets the stage for everything afterwards, this is the moment when we realize that the tempter is unable to tempt the one who has come to confront him and that the devil is powerless in the presence of the Son of God. The devil’s power here may appear incredible, but ultimately it derives its strength from those he is able to tempt into allegiance to him. Jesus shows us how to read scripture in a way that resists temptation and delivers us from the evil one, Jesus perhaps is led into temptation to show us how the law (Torah) helps us resist the promises of the devil. Yet, perhaps this scene also binds the strongman (see Matthew 12: 29) for immediately after this scene Jesus will announce the kingdom of heaven is at hand, demons will recognize him for who he is (Matthew 8: 28-31) and the forces that have bound people whether demonic or illness will be overcome.

The first temptation, turning stones to bread, begins with the situation of the forty days of fasting and the hunger that Jesus experiences. Jesus’ answer pulls on Deuteronomy 8: 2-3:

Remember the long way that the LORD your God has led you these forty years in the wilderness, in order to humble you, testing you to know what was in your heart, whether or not you would keep his commandments. He humbled you by letting you hunger, then by feeding you with manna, which neither you nor your ancestors were acquainted, in order to make you understand that one does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of the LORD.

The fundamental issues throughout the temptation: Who is the God who Jesus will serve? Who provides what is needed? And what will Jesus’ title Son of God mean for the way he conducts himself? Jesus again takes on the role of Israel being tested not only by the devil but also demonstrating his obedience to God, being humble and keeping the commandments. The harkening back to this scene in Deuteronomy reminds the hearer with scripture tuned ears that God is the one able to provide bread in the wilderness, and while Jesus will later multiply loaves and fishes, ultimately God is the one who provides what is needed. Jesus enters this space of divine silence and devilish temptation awaiting the word that comes from the mouth of the LORD, and perhaps, to use imagery from the gospel of John, he is that word spoken to the devilish temptation.

Consistent throughout all the temptation is also the challenge of the way Jesus inhabits the title Son of God. Like the serpent in the garden of Eden he attempts to lure the one into believing that God would not deny that which is desirable to one who could be like God. Yet, unlike Eve and Adam, Jesus is not swayed by these words and will not be the Son of God by anyone else’s terms.  Much like the mocking tone of “You are the Christ” sung by King Herod in Jesus Christ Superstar there is a mocking of the way Jesus chooses to embody being the Son of God in Satan’s challenge.

The second temptation introduces a movement away from the wilderness to Jerusalem at the pinnacle of the temple. The proximity to holy space or the ability to quote scripture does not guarantee that one will read scripture correctly, as later conflicts within the temple will demonstrate. Here even the devil in this space uses scripture but uses it incorrectly. The quoted verses are from Psalm 91: 11-12, and as we heard previously the Psalms is one of the major texts that Matthew will use to talk about who Jesus is, but here even the devil can use the Psalms to talk about who he believes Jesus should be. The implied challenge for Jesus is to demonstrate his trust in God and demonstrate that trust through expecting God to rescue Jesus amid trouble. The angels will wait on Jesus after the temptation, but here they are absent, here in this place of temptation (even though they are at the pinnacle of the temple) the divine voice is silenced by the tempter’s words and even scripture is used as the devil’s tool. Yet, Jesus continues to demonstrate a way of reading scripture that models for Israel and the church how to resist temptation. Again, Jesus responds from the law (Torah) and again Deuteronomy speaks:

Do not put the LORD your God to the test, as you tested him at Massah. Deuteronomy 6:17

The testing at Massah refers to Exodus 17 where the people quarreled with Moses and demanded water, Massah is means test so there is a play on words within this verse in Deuteronomy. Jesus continues to embody what Israel was meant to be by refusing to test God even amid temptation. This temptation also echoes at the cross when Jesus is taunted, “If you are the Son of God, come down from the cross.” (Matthew 27: 40)

The final temptation takes place on a high mountain, typically a location of revelation for Matthew, but now the revealer is the tempter claiming dominion over all the kingdoms of the world and offering them to Jesus if he will worship him. Jesus is invited to claim power but at the cost of his identity, no longer is the title, “If you are the Son of God” used because to worship the devil would be abandon that identity. Perhaps within this temptation is the close association of earthly power with those anointed to be kings, which also is the context of Psalm 2 which echoes in the baptismal scene in the previous chapter.

I will tell of the decree of the LORD: He said to me, “You are my son; today I have begotten you. Ask of me, and I will make the nations your heritage, and the ends of the earth your possession. You shall break them with a rod of iron, and dash them in pieces like a potter’s vessel. Psalm 2: 7-9

Jesus is offered here the ends of the earth as a possession and the nations as a heritage, but the one offering is not the LORD, but instead the tempter. Many people will expect Jesus to model his life on those who claim worldly power, but the kingdom of heaven will be different, just like the nation of Israel was to be different than Egypt of Babylon or Rome. Even Peter will later rebuke Jesus when he talks about undergoing suffering and being killed and receive similar words, “Get behind me Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; for you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things” Matthew 16: 23.

Jesus answers the devils by referencing Deuteronomy 10: 20,

You shall fear the LORD you God; him alone you shall worship; to him you shall hold fast, and by his name you shall swear.

This also refers to the first commandment (Exodus 20: 1-6, Deuteronomy 6: 6-10) where the people are to have no other gods and to worship on the LORD their God. In combination with this quotation Jesus also dismisses the devil. Jesus says, “Away with you, Satan” and the devil leaves. Jesus casts him out like he will later do with the demons. When the devil departs the angels arrive and wait on him. Somehow the devil’s presence made the angelic presence unavailable. Jesus had to enter this space to cast Satan out of it. The tempter has been thwarted, the strong man who claims power over the nations has been bound and the angels minister to Jesus as we approach the announcement of the kingdom of heaven’s arrival.

[1] A frisson is a sudden feeling of excitement or thrill

 

Revelation 12 The Woman and the Dragon

Saint Michael bronze statue at San Miguel Church (Manila) The Regal Parish and National Shrine of Saint Michael and the Archangels

Revelation 12

1 A great portent appeared in heaven: a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars. 2 She was pregnant and was crying out in birth pangs, in the agony of giving birth. 3 Then another portent appeared in heaven: a great red dragon, with seven heads and ten horns, and seven diadems on his heads. 4 His tail swept down a third of the stars of heaven and threw them to the earth. Then the dragon stood before the woman who was about to bear a child, so that he might devour her child as soon as it was born. 5 And she gave birth to a son, a male child, who is to rule all the nations with a rod of iron. But her child was snatched away and taken to God and to his throne; 6 and the woman fled into the wilderness, where she has a place prepared by God, so that there she can be nourished for one thousand two hundred sixty days.

7 And war broke out in heaven; Michael and his angels fought against the dragon. The dragon and his angels fought back, 8 but they were defeated, and there was no longer any place for them in heaven. 9 The great dragon was thrown down, that ancient serpent, who is called the Devil and Satan, the deceiver of the whole world — he was thrown down to the earth, and his angels were thrown down with him. 10 Then I heard a loud voice in heaven, proclaiming,

“Now have come the salvation and the power and the kingdom of our God and the authority of his Messiah, for the accuser of our comrades has been thrown down, who accuses them day and night before our God. 11 But they have conquered him by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony, for they did not cling to life even in the face of death. 12 Rejoice then, you heavens and those who dwell in them! But woe to the earth and the sea, for the devil has come down to you with great wrath, because he knows that his time is short!”

13 So when the dragon saw that he had been thrown down to the earth, he pursued the woman who had given birth to the male child. 14 But the woman was given the two wings of the great eagle, so that she could fly from the serpent into the wilderness, to her place where she is nourished for a time, and times, and half a time. 15 Then from his mouth the serpent poured water like a river after the woman, to sweep her away with the flood. 16 But the earth came to the help of the woman; it opened its mouth and swallowed the river that the dragon had poured from his mouth. 17 Then the dragon was angry with the woman, and went off to make war on the rest of her children, those who keep the commandments of God and hold the testimony of Jesus. 18 Then the dragon took his stand on the sand of the seashore.

The previous chapter gives us a key to understanding the unfolding images of the second half of Revelation when the twenty-four elders proclaim:

The nations raged but your wrath has come, and the time for judging the dead, for rewarding your servants, the prophets and saints and all who fear your name, both small and great, and for destroying those who destroy the earth. (Revelation 11: 18 emphasis added)

Up through the first eleven chapters of Revelation the cycle of the seals and trumpets may have caused destruction, but the desire was for those who were opposed to God and who were a part of the forces destroying the earth to see the Lord’s wrath, to hear the witness of the faithful and to repent. Now the narrative shifts decisively against those forces that are destroying the creation. The battle begins in chapter 12 with Satan being cast out of heaven and culminates with the casting of Satan into the lake of fire in Revelation 20.  Revelation in these chapters is revealing how the struggles the faithful are enduring are a part of the epic struggle between good and evil and how their faithful witness to the crucified and risen Jesus and their perseverance until the end is a part of the larger ways in which God’s kingdom overcomes the destructive forces aligned with the devil.

Revelation 12 is organized around three scenes with the critical scene in the middle. Scene A (1) runs from verse 1-6 and deals with the woman who gives birth and the dragon who wants to destroy her child. Scene B deals with the dragon being expelled from heaven by the angel Michael. Scene A (2) returns to the dragon pursuing the woman and making war on her and all her children. So visually the organization would look like:

Scene A (1) The woman in labor pursued by the dragon
Scene B The dragon is cast out of heaven
Scene A (2) The dragon makes war against the woman

There are a couple ways to interpret the figure of the woman: she could be viewed as Israel, as the church or as Mary. Ultimately these approaches are not mutually exclusive and interpreters throughout the history of the church have seen her in multiple ways. If she is Israel, then allegorically she is giving birth to Jesus, the child who the dragon wants to destroy, and the twelve stars could be the twelve tribes of Israel. The woman also could represent the church as the people of God. As we have seen earlier in Revelation, John has no trouble speaking of the church in terms of Israel’s vocation and promises and even Victorinus, who wrote the earliest known commentary on Revelation in the third century, the woman encompassed both Israel and the early church. (Koester, 2014, p. 525) If it is interpreted as the early church exclusively then the twelve stars become the twelve apostles allegorically. Finally, the story of the birth could be a cosmic explanation of the birth of Christ from Mary, his mother. This approach was favored especially as the Catholic church developed a high Mariology. As I mentioned above these approaches are not mutually exclusive: the church is viewed by John as having a vocation that is described in the same terms as the people of Israel had their vocation described and Mary has often been represented as the mother and representative of the church as a whole. In my reading I do see this being the case: the woman is Mary, but she is also by representation the whole people of God who the dragon is attempting to persecute. The dragon works through Herod the Great to bring a threat to Mary’s child and she is snatched away to flee through the wilderness into Egypt, but it also represents the displacement of the people of God who are also scattered by the oppression they feel. Mary’s story viewed in this light becomes their story and their story is linked to hers. They become, with her, a part of the cosmic drama unfolding as God begins to deal with the forces that are destroying the earth.

The dragon is named as the Devil and Satan. There are countless narratives in the ancient world of the conflict between and hero and a dragon, where the dragon represents the terrifying forces of uncontrollable destruction but here there is a difference. For example, in the Greek story of Leto and Apollo being pursued by the serpent Python or the goddess Isis being pursued by Typhon may have a similar pattern of a serpent creature attempting to destroy a goddess or god, but the specifics of the stories vary greatly. Ultimately the seven headed dragon is the source of all the forces that oppose the will of God and the coming of the child and that the beasts in the next chapter will derive their power from. Yet, the dragon here is cast out of heaven which both initiates the process that will ultimately lead to the dragon’s destruction but also increases its wrath and influence upon the earth.

The middle scene where Michael and his angels fight against the dragon and defeat them provide the interpretive key for both this chapter and the rest of Revelation.  As Craig Koester can succinctly state:

Then a heavenly voice announces the victory of God, the Lamb and the faithful and warns that the devil is furious because he has only a short time left in which to work (12:10-12). The point is that the evil one does not rage so fiercely on earth because he is so powerful, but because he is losing and desperate. Satan lashes out like a caged and wounded animal before his final defeat. (Koester, 2014, p. 555)

The banishment of Satan from heaven is a demonstration of the limits of the power of his malice but it is still a woe to those who must deal with his attempts to persecute them on earth. I’ve used a historical example when talking about this with members in my congregation: during the Civil War the decisive battle was ultimately Gettysburg, the war would rage on for years after this battle, but the Confederate army’s strategy would be dictated from that point onward by the superior manpower and logistics of the Union. The only way there could have been a different outcome after Gettysburg was if the Northern states decided the war was too costly or no longer worth fighting. Here in Revelation we are to see that the dragon has already been defeated, and it only took an emissary of God to cast down the great dragon. The conflict may continue for those who are aligned with God’s will and who are faithful to the Lamb, but the final victory is certain.

The woman returns in the final scene and becomes, along with her children the object of pursuit by the dragon. Yet now both heaven and earth work against the dragon. The woman in the vision is given the ability to fly away into the wilderness where she is protected for a time, and times and a half time. Even the earth itself works to protect the woman by opening its mouth to swallow the flood that the dragon pours out to attempt to overwhelm her. This is truly a cosmic struggle where the earth itself resists the forces that have set out to destroy the woman and the rest of creation.

This chapter, like the previous chapter have several parallel images with Daniel 12, and these images will figure heavily in the coming chapters of Revelation. Here two images reflect directly on this chapter: at the beginning of Daniel 12 we have the emergence of Michael.

“At that time Michael, the great prince, the protector of your people, shall arise. There shall be a time of anguish, such has never occurred since nations first came into existence. But at that time your people shall be delivered, everyone who is found written in the book. Daniel 12: 1

Michael is the guardian of the Jewish people in Daniel who rises to protect them during their persecution. Here Michael’s action on behalf of the woman/Israel/church/people of God sets in motion the beginning of the end for the Devil, but also in doing so initiates a time of great suffering for those on earth. The time of the woman’s residence in the wilderness also echoes the time, two times and a half time of Daniel 12: 7. In addition to the two images from Daniel 12, the casting of the stars from the heavens by the dragon also echoes Daniel 8: 10 when a blasphemous horn grows as high of the host of heaven and throws down some of the stars to the earth. Revelation takes several of these images from the book of Daniel and they become language used to describe this cosmic battle between the forces that are opposed to God and the creation and the forces that may seem small and insignificant, the woman and her children, but ultimately are aligned with the forces of God and heaven and whose victory will eventually come.