For Us Today
Christ was speaking to all people living after his birth. Because of this, it is worthwhile thinking about the meaning for his words in terms of there message to us. Some of the article in this site do this. This article looks specifically at his first word in the Bible from this perspective.
Letting Go and Doing What is Needed
Christ's first words in Matthew were to John the Baptist.
In the KJV it says:
Matthew 3:15 Suffer [it to be so] now: for thus it becomes us to fulfill all righteousness.
The alternative translated more directly from the Greek says:
"Let it go now because being conspicuous the way for us to fulfill every virtue."
The general sense of his statement is for John not to worry about what is proper and to do what is necessary. On one level, Christ is telling John that his baptism is for them to complete what is required by the law and perhaps by prophecy. As a message to us, it says something more.
This statement tells us:
- We must accept our lives, the world, and what is happening right now.
- We must be seen clearly to do what our situation requires.
- Our goal should be to complete everything that our purpose in life requires.
The First Temptation of Christ
The next words in the NT were spoken to the Devil in response to his temptations in the desert. They provide the keys to his entire teaching. These words are provocative because unlike almost all of Christ’s words in the Gospel, these words are recorded, but they were not witnessed by anyone. How did they survive? There is only one explanation: Christ made a point of telling his followers the story. Of all the things he must of thought and did when he was alone, this is the only story (along with his prayers in the Garden of Gethsemane) that he felt should be passed down despite the fact there were no witnesses.
Why? Let us look at his words in response to the temptation to find out.
When tempted with turning rocks to bread, the KJV offers his response as:
Matthew 4:4 It is written, Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds out of the mouth of God.
Our alternative is:
"It has been written, "Not upon a loaf alone is he going to thrive, this man, but though every saying being poured out from the mouth of God."
This is the beginning for Christ’s use of bread as the metaphor for the physical realm and physical needs. It is also the start of his theme connecting the cycles of the physical, intellectual, emotional, and the spiritual, where the physical is just one step in the cycle that leads from spirit to spirit.
We start with the temptation to get stuck on the physical. So what is Christ saying about how we meet the challenges of our physical needs? To trust our ancient wisdom not the cravings of our body and that our life really comes from the outpouring that touches us of the foundation of existence.
However, like most of Christ's statements, this statement raises even more questions about the nature of human life and the nature of existence. What is that outpouring from existence, those words of God? Christ himself is described as the Word made flesh. The Holy Spirit is described as God's outpouring. There are deeper mysteries here that Christ answers later in his teaching.
As a hint of things to come, think about Jesus's use of the term "bread." What is the bread of life? Bread is the center of a stream of metaphors that connects seeds, to the growth of plants, to the harvest of grain, to the kneading of yeast into bread, to the bread itself, to bread becoming flesh, to flesh becoming spirit. Remember, hayaw means to exist, but it also means "to become." One thing that sets Christ's words apart from the way we talk is that he always sees the becoming of things, not just their existence. God is a verb, not a noun.
In the Gospels, unlike several ancient religions that influenced early Christianity (notably Zoroastrianism) portrayed the physical as bad and the spiritual as evil, but Christ doesn’t do that. Notice he doesn’t say that men live by the spirit alone. For Christ, the temptation is always getting stuck on the physical and not seeing physical needs as part of a whole that includes the spirit.
The Second Temptation of Christ
Christ answers his second temptation in the KJV with the words:
Matthew 4:7 It is written again, You shall not test the Lord thy God.
Our alternative is:
"Once more, it has been written, "No, you will not test a master, that Divine of yours."
In the first of Christ's test, he and we are asked to trust that our spiritual needs are as important than our physical needs. In this second test, we are asked to trust that God is working in the absence of proof. This is the "emotional" test: a test beyond the nature of our comfort level.
This question of "proof" is, of course, the big question that agnostics pose: why doesn't God (the existing one) prove his existence beyond all doubt? Why doesn't he make the choice easy and comfortable? Here, Christ gives the answer: reality is not subject to proof. We are on earth to be tested by God. We are not here to test God. The relationship is, by definition, asymmetric.
We live in a universe in which nothing is provable. In science, theories can be disproved, but they cannot be proven. Every current scientific theory is a placeholder until a better theory can be found. We can know the truth of some statements, but we cannot know the truth about reality. The most obvious truths about reality down through history (the sun rises, the earth is flat, etc.) have been proven false time and time again.
This impossibility of proof becomes one of the themes of Christ's life. Throughout his teaching, despite his many miracles, Christ said again and again that no "sign" would convince people who do not want to believe. Every miracle in our own lives can be explained away as "merely" natural or "merely" a coincidence. No matter how big a wonder we are confronted with--and the universe itself is as big as wonders come--we do not have to believe in anything. Belief is always left to our choice. The world is constructed exactly that way because our testing (not God's) is its only purpose. See how this comes together with Jesus's quote of scriptures?
We can never know of God's existence with certainty. Not only is this the way the universe is set up: it is a mistake for us to even try.
The fact that the universe is designed (or we are designed) to keep the answer to this key question ambiguous gives away the game. No matter how much we learn, we must choose to believe in God or not. Currently, science recognizes that there are about twenty variables in physics, whose values could be anything, but which are finely tuned to allow life. Absent a belief in God, the only explanation is an infinite number of universes so that one could have this combination of values that allow us to observe them. This is called the "anthropomorphic principle," which is kind of funny because it purpose is to give us the ability to think that we are the highest power in the universe. Science does not allow us to choose between an incomprehensible divine cause and some simple physical explanation for the universe. Instead, it allows us to choose between two infinities: a physical one or a spiritual one.
Uncertainty is the essence of freedom. The fact that we cannot test God, cannot test our version of faith, and cannot test what we think God wants us to do, gives us freedom. God will not smite us if we step out of line. We can cross the line. We are free.
How do we know where the line its? Christ's answer to all his tests makes it clear. He begins each with "It is written." Certainly, in saying this he was referring to the lesson of the old testament, but he may have also been referring the all the ancient wisdom of humanity. There is a clear convergence of all the ancient religious books on morality. This code is written in the human heart. We may get confused at a given time and place. Even an entire generation can get confused by the lies of the world, but the knowledge the is preserved and survives generation after generation is the truth.
In this temptation, Christ moves to our emotional needs, which is the realm of relationships, and the temptation of wanting recognition. Christ is tempted to prove his place in the world, the importance of his relationship to God. Here, Christ describes the nature of reality: we cannot test God because the purpose of the world, the purpose of the cycle of needs, is to test and perfect us. We will never find absolute proof for anything: we must choose what we believe and how we act. We are made free because God, that is, the spirit is hidden from us. Our relationships, even with other people, are never certain. Our relationships motivate us, giving us emotional reasons to act, but Christ always contrasts the social justification of relationships, that is our need for recognition from others, with the spiritual justification which must be taken on faith.
The Last Temptation of Christ
Christ response to this temptation is recorded in The KJV as:
Matthew 4:10 Be gone, Satan! for it is written, ‘You shall worship the Lord your God and him only shall you serve.’
Our alternative is:
"Withdraw opposition! For it has been recorded: 'To a master, that Divine of yours, you shall bow down and to him only alone are you going to serve.'"
From the emotional, we move to the intellectual needs. Wealth and power are the temptations here. They are the symbols that Christ uses consistently for intellectual success, the sticking point of our intellectual journey toward spirit. In this line, Christ tells us the purpose of life: to fulfill God’s special purpose for us. This is specifically contrasted in this temptation with all the worldly wealth. The three parts of this temptation, physical needs, emotional needs, and intellectual needs become the enduring theme of Christ’s message, where we must progress from the spiritual to the physical, emotional, and intellectual to return again to spirit.
Christ tells us that our purpose in life is simply following God's plan for us. There is an interesting parallel here between worshiping our opponents and worshiping earthly wealth and power. As we discuss in the article on this verse Matthew 4:10, there is a connection in Jesus's language between worship and slavery. We are either slaves of God or slaves of our mistakes of worshiping wealth and power. Christ often casts status in society as one of our biggest enemies. His view is simple. Our testing is over when we come to realize that only God is worthy of homage and we should serve God above all others.
The challenge with obeying Christ's words here is knowing how we best serve God, that is, knowing what God's mission is for us personally. Christs three tests provide us a guide. First, we must seek our personal fulfillment by serving our spiritual needs rather than our physical needs. Second, we cannot expect any certainty or proof in divine matters. This leads us finally to simply honoring God by doing our best to serve Him.
It is interesting that this particular challenge is tied with the temptation of earthly power because it seems like those most willing to do evil in God's name are those who are seeking early power and more concerned with politics than with God. An interesting test for any person who claims to be representing God is seeing how actively they seek earthly wealth and power. By definition, such a person has failed the third test. Similarly, a person that seeks physical gratification has failed the first test. A person who seeks proof and certainty in life fails the second test.