In the Matthean account (Matthew 4:1-11), the first test is to turn stones into bread. The second test is launch himself off of the top of the temple. The final test is to secure power through acknowledging Satan as the ruler of the world.
Traditional InterpretationsThis is a familiar story and I’ve heard numerous sermons and articles based on it, as I’m sure you have. I think that largely due to the individualized nature of Western Christianity prevalent through much of the world, the interpretation sand applications of this story has usually been at the individual level.
One such interpretation and application is that these three tests represent the major categories of temptations that individual Christians face: Just as Jesus was able to overcome, Christians, through faith in Christ, can find victory in all their tests.
Another line of interpretation focuses on Jesus’ use of scripture to counter his adversary in each test. The application is the need for Christians to “feed on God’s word,” a strong allusion to the first test.
Yet another exposition of this passage takes each one and expands them, possibly into a mini-series of sermons. The first is the temptation of appetite. The second the temptation of presumption. And the third, the temptation of power. Sins associated with each are described and the listeners exhorted to avoid them.
Some ProblemsWhile the individual-focused, traditional interpretations and applications aren’t wrong, and I think can be faithful to the text, I no longer think they are complete or even their original intent.
First, at their most literal sense, these temptations make no sense to anyone who isn’t divine or at least has the ability to call upon miraculous powers on demand. They also defy common sense and logic. For example, no reasonable person, however religious, is going to launch themselves off of the top of a tall building just to see if they will be miraculously saved.
Second, this passage does not appear to be concerned with individual, personal sins. Its concern seems to be with something larger, broader principles, and collectives of beings. Yes, Jesus is an individual, but the passage appears to depict him as representing something larger.
The second points to a third problem that I see. Most of us will never be in a position where the fate of the world is in our hands, or where we are called to prove some kind of anointing to a doubting public. In that sense these tests have no applicability to the majority of us.
A Collective ApplicabilityI think that the key to a better understanding of Jesus’ tests can be found in the texts which he quotes. All three are found in Deuteronomy (chapters 6-8). This section of Deuteronomy is where Moses is found warning ancient Israel, prior to their entry into Canaan, about the consequences of their failure to remain faithful to God, and where Moses gives injunctions on how to conduct their lives in obedience to God.
The key is this: the target of the tests is a collective, a group of people, a nation. Ancient Israel had failed these tests. But Jesus, representing a collective, succeeds.
The question then is this: who or what is the collective that Jesus represents? I think the answer is quite clear. It is the Church.
With that key, the interpretation and applications of the tests change. They are no longer about me individually, but the tests are still applicable to me personally because I am part of the Church. The ramifications of the tests are far greater now, because where as an individual my influence is fairly limited, the influence of the Church is far greater.
With that in mind, here is how I now read and apply the tests of Jesus in the wilderness:
First test: Where will the Church look to secure its relevance and perhaps its very existence?
Second test: Does the Church think it is somehow more privileged than everyone else in the world? That it is exempt from the usual rules and codes of conduct? That somehow God will step in and save it from natural consequences of poor decisions, deliberate or otherwise?
Third test: What foundation will the Church build upon as its basis for power and influence? Who will it partner with in order to seek to extend its domain?
I think this re-imagination and re-thinking of Jesus’ wilderness tests offers critical points to think about as Christians and their churches (aka, The Church) works through issues of relevance and influence in the 21st century.