I've always had a hard time trying to imagine Jesus really, truly, being tempted. Maybe it stems from my childhood and the emphasis on the perfection of Jesus. Maybe it was the fact that I really enjoyed stories of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table as a kid. I had this mental image of Jesus as a knight doning the "Armor of God" and the wimpy little darts of the enemy bouncing off him like toys. This Jesus wouldn't really be tempted. It may have looked like he was, but there was no way that any of those puny little darts threatened Sir Jesus the Perfect.
Things got a little more complicated for me as I got to know the Bible a little better. In seeking to battle my own temptations, I remember memorizing this verse from the book of James: "Each person is tempted when he is lured away and enticed by his own desire." (James 1:14). And then there's this verse in Hebrews that goes a little further in describing Jesus' temptation: "For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin." (Hebrews 4:15) By implication, then, are we to deduct that since Jesus was tempted in every respect and that true temptation comes from our own sinful desires, that Jesus had sinful desires? Is there a chink in your armor Sir Jesus?
As I read today's passage, I am not really bothered too much by these questions (though they may interested to ponder). Instead, I am struck by the manner in which the enemy comes to attack Jesus. One of the many depictions of Jesus in movies is a CBS mini-series called Jesus, starring Jeremy Sisto (a strange choice, in my opinion). While the film-makers definitely took some artistic license depiction of of the temptation, I think they got at the theological meaning of the temptation pretty well. (You can see it on youtube here. Fast forward to 8:50 for the beginning of this scene.) In it, the tempter appears to Jesus first as a beautiful woman, then as a well-dressed, distinguished man (a little bit the stereotypical slick, used car salesmen, but a good looking guy nonetheless).
The tempter first appeals to Jesus' human limitations. He is hungry. His body needs nourishment. He could turn stones to bread. When that doesn't work, he shows Jesus the multitude of hungry people in the world. If he won't turn the stones to bread for himself, maybe he will for those people. The temptation is this - perform a little miracle Jesus. Feed them with your miraculous powers. You can meet all their needs.
The second temptation is this - Jesus you just need a better public relations team, some more effective and strategic marketing. The people aren't going to listen to you because you have no credibility, no platform. Throw yourself down from the top of the temple. Let God send angels to put on a little show of your power. Then, they would listen to you. Then you would have a platform. They'd be eating out of the palm of your hand, Jesus.
The third one is the real test. "I could give it all to you, Jesus. Power. Authority. Control. A kingdom. That's who you are, right? The king of Kings. Bow down to me and I'll give it all to you. I'll help you live up to your calling and be the man you were created to be."
In essence, the temptations boil down to this: "Jesus, I'll give you exactly what you want - food to feed the hungry, people that will listen and follow your every word, a world where you will reign as king and lord. And guess what . . . you don't even need that whole cross thing to accomplish it." Yes, this is the temptation for Jesus - the temptation of fulfilling his mission by shortcutting around the cross.
This is our temptation as well. Jesus calls us to take up our cross and follow after him daily. For those that do, Jesus promises new and abundant life; rest for the weary; healing for the mind, body, and soul. The temptation, however, is to pursue those things apart from the cross, apart from the provision of God in Jesus. The temptation is to look for them in the ways of this world, in the things of this world. But that is exactly what it is - a temptation, following our our own desire above God's desire. Let us remember those accompanying words from the book of James, "Blessed is the one who remains steadfast under trial, for when he has stood the test he will receive the crown of life, which God has promised to those who love him." (James 1:12)
Prayer: God, I acknowledge my temptation to take hold of your promise in y way, according to the way of the world. Help me to follow Jesus to the cross so that I may receive your reward in your way and your time. As I follow you into the wilderness, I call on your Spirit to strengthen me as your Spirit strengthened Christ. Amen.