So, friends, here is Jesus walking alone in the desert, being tempted by…something. Someone. A demigod? A monster? A representative of a collective hatred? A personification of an idea? A theological prompt?
We should probably do a recap at this point. What I’ve been trying to pin down is the distinction between the work of John the Baptist and the work of Jesus. As I said a couple posts ago, I think there is a difference between the ministries of John and of Jesus. John clears the road, and Jesus travels it. And I laid out what I think is the nature of John’s clearing of the road: I don’t believe John’s ministry is about directly saving souls, but is instead about identification and demarcation. That means John’s job would not be to usher sinners into freedom from sin (else John would only be a lesser Jesus), but to show them that such freedom even exists, because it’s not a given. And because John provides a vision of a better and coming future, those who accept that vision would have eyes to see the Light when it shines.
And now, friends, after much sword-swallowing and juggling of chainsaws, we’ve finally come to the remaining question: If John’s baptism of repentance is not true freedom, but only the ability to recognize true freedom when it arrives, what is left for Jesus to do? Or in other words, if Jesus’ primary means of granting freedom is not to call sinners to repentance (because John has already done that), then what is it?
And naturally, that brings us to Jesus walking in the desert. Perhaps it doesn’t seem so natural on the surface, but again, the devil is very much in the details:
Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, left the Jordan and was led by the Spirit into the wilderness, where for forty days he was tempted by the devil. He ate nothing during those days, and at the end of them he was hungry. — Luke 4:1-2
Luke doesn’t directly tell us why Jesus is in the desert/wilderness (and neither do any other writers in the Bible), but the assumptions are pretty easy to make. There’s a direct parallel to Israel’s wandering for 40 years before entering the Promised Land. And as Luke later describes, Jesus has a habit of isolating himself in lonely places to commune with his Father in preparation for difficult things (Luke 5:16). But here is where I believe we must choose our path on a theological fork. It is here, friends, where we must choose whether or not to acknowledge the reality of Mr. Scratch.
Luke 4:1-2 says plainly that Jesus is “tempted by the devil,” but our choice on the theological fork depends upon who/what we think “the devil” is. It may seem a bit dramatic to call this a theological fork in the road, but I don’t believe we can overstate the importance of what’s happening here. Remember my thesis: Jesus’ work is not only greater, but other than the work of John the Baptist. Traveling a road is not the same as building it.
Here, friends, are what I consider to be the two prongs of the fork. 1) If the devil is a personification of evil, then Jesus has come to free us from the causes of that evil, from the hearts of stone in everyone from the cranky old man next door to the tyrants who create systems of oppression and murder on a national scale. 2) If the devil is a person, a monster, a demigod, someone lesser than the Father but nevertheless powerful, someone who conducts his principalities and powers to hold dominion over the earth, then Jesus has come to free us from…Mr. Scratch?
Folks, we have to pause for a moment, because you may or may not have noticed that there could actually be three prongs on this theological fork. That third prong would state that Jesus’ primary means of bringing freedom is propitiation, covering up our sins in the eyes of God, covering us with himself so that God can accept us. There are two reasons this third prong doesn’t factor into my exploration of this passage:
First, if you use the phrasing I’ve been using throughout these last few posts, we run into something grotesque: If John’s baptism of repentance is a way of proclaiming that freedom is coming, and Jesus is the means of that freedom, then what is Jesus freeing us from? If propitiation is the means, then wouldn’t the Father be the object? Many theologians for many centuries have contorted themselves into systematic knots tackling this subject, and I have absolutely no desire to dig into that here. But with the line of thinking that I’m pursuing — Jesus’ traveling of the road is something wholly other than John’s preparatory clearing of it — it doesn’t fit.
Second, and more importantly for my purposes here, there simply is no mention of such an arrangement in this passage. There’s no mention of any arrangement. There’s no equation here, no jigsaw puzzle, no balancing act, no tit-for-tat. The only dynamic we can point to with any certainty, is a battle:
And I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and hers; he will crush your head, and you will strike his heel.” — Genesis 3:15
But whatever you believe about why Jesus became man, I hope you’ll stick with me a little longer, friends. Even if you believe firmly that Jesus brings us back to the Father by satisfying his wrath (i.e. penal substitution), I think there’s much to be gained from this passage — not just about the character or qualifications of Jesus as the Christ, but about the way this fallen world functions and how it sucks us in deep.
Either way, as far as Luke 4:1-13 is concerned (and, I think, the rest of Luke), I believe there are two prongs on the fork that the text asks us to consider: either the Devil is a symbol for our sin and our separation from the Father, or the Devil is a concrete being with a dominion that must be broken.
I think it’s safe to say that the former is the dominant line in modern, western theology, whereas the grotesqueries of the latter are, well, grotesque. There’s a lot of systematic theology to support a battle against ourselves (Lloyd-Jones’ version supports this view, with a one-page dip into penal substitution near the end), whereas a battle against a domineering tyrant with a name and a history and a future is not only unfashionable but far too compromising, far too undignified, far too childlike to warrant the waste of a perfectly good incarnation. Regardless of our own views of the atonement, I think Gustaf Aulen said it best back in 1931, only two years before Hitler became Chancellor of Germany:
No other aspect of the teaching of the Fathers on the subject of Redemption has provoked such criticism as their treatment of the dealings of Christ with the devil; primarily on this ground, their teaching has been commonly regarded as unworthy of serious consideration. The judgment that Anselm marks a great advance on the early church doctrine rests chiefly on this, that he is regarded as having overcome the idea of a transaction with the devil, as well as the grotesque idea of a deception of the devil. Nothing is more common than to find the patristic teaching dismissed with an impatient shrug of the shoulders, as mere puerilities, or sharply rated as ethically intolerable. — Christus Victor, Ch 3
But regardless of what theologians past and present may believe about the Incarnation and the Atonement, there’s is one thing, friends, that we can say for sure: both Matthew and Luke think it’s worthwhile to describe Jesus’ encounter with Mr. Scratch as a concrete event fixed in time, as a battle between two distinct personalities, as an exchange of choice words in a contest of wills. And in the next post we’ll see that it’s in the details of that battle — the three temptations — where I believe we’ll finally see just how Jesus plans to follow the road that John built for him.