Earlier this week, we celebrated the Leavetaking of the Great Feast of Theophany, on which we commemorated the Baptism of the Lord and the revelation of the Holy Trinity at the Jordan River. It is this open manifestation of God that accords this feast the name Theophany; as Saint John Chrysostom says: “Why, then, is this day called Theophany? Because Christ made Himself known to all – not then when He was born – but then when He was baptized. Until this time He was not known to the people.” It was His baptism at the hands of the Forerunner that inaugurated the public ministry of Christ – a public ministry that will begin with the words recorded in the Gospels and which continue to reverberate through the centuries to this day with a call and a challenge that is meant to shake all of humanity out of a false sense of complacency and comfort: “Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand” (Matthew 4:17). According to Christ, there is something more than the joys and sorrows that inevitably accompany the natural cycle of life and death. Acknowledging this with thanksgiving, the very pinnacle of our communal worship of God in the Liturgy begins by “blessing” the Kingdom of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit in the opening doxology. Yet, before these powerful words are uttered in the Gospels—and before the Lord will begin His ministry of demonstrating the Kingdom of Heaven’s presence through His words and deeds culminating in the Cross and Resurrection—there is an event of tremendous significance that further prepares Christ for His messianic ministry: The Temptation/Testing in the Wilderness (Matthew 4:1-11; Mark 1:12-13; Luke 4:1-13). The nuances of the Greek word behind this event allows us to think in terms of “temptation” or “testing.” Perhaps we could say that Christ was tested when God allowed Him to be tempted by the devil. Either way – or with a combination of both terms – the forty days spent by Jesus in the wilderness will shape Him and His ministry to Israel and to the world by defining an image of the Messiah that He will reject and one that He will embrace.
It is highly significant that it is the Spirit who “led” Jesus “into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil” (Matthew 4:1). Nothing in the life of Christ is accidental. In all things He is led by His heavenly Father acting through the Holy Spirit, including this “face-to-face” encounter with the evil one. The austere and unsettling figure of the Grand Inquisitor of Dostoevsky’s famous Legend embedded in his masterpiece, The Brothers Karamazov, refers to the devil as “the dread and intelligent spirit, the spirit of self-destruction and non-being.” It is this dread spirit who will tempt Christ through the three questions that will test the fidelity of Christ to His unique messianic vocation as willed by His heavenly Father. Dostoevsky, through the tragic figure of the Grand Inquisitor, further reveals the power and non-human source of these powerful temptations, when the Inquisitor says in his monologue: “By the questions alone, simply by the miracle of their appearance, one can see that one is dealing with a mind not human and transient but eternal and absolute. For in these three questions all of subsequent human history is as if brought together into a single whole and foretold; three images are revealed that will take in all the insoluble historical contradictions of human nature over all the earth.” In other words, these three temptations were not “invented” or “made up” by the evangelists for dramatic effect. The very “perfection” of the temptations posed by the devil reveal their veracity.
And what are these three temptations? According to Saint Matthew’s account, they begin with the following as Jesus in fasting and experiencing hunger in the wilderness: “And the tempter came and said to Him, ‘If You are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread’.” This was followed by the second temptation to test God’s fidelity to Him after the devil “took him to the holy city, and set him on the pinnacle of the temple, and said to Him, ‘If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down; for it is written, ‘He will give his angels charge of You,’ and ‘On their hands they will bear You up, less You strike Your foot against a stone’.” The final temptation was grandiose and sweeping in its scope: “Again, the devil took Him to a very high mountain, and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and the glory of them; and he said to Him, ‘All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me’.” In Dostoevsky’s particular and profound interpretation of Christ’s encounter with the tempter in the wilderness, Jesus refuses to receive obedience through miracle, mystery and authority as represented in these three tantalizing temptations. By compelling human beings to believe in Him by overwhelming them with the miraculous; by exploiting a sense of mystery to attract human beings to follow him; and by appealing to the human need for security through external authority, Christ would have accepted and approved of a distorted understanding of human nature. In Dostoevsky’s understanding of Christ, as attainable as these “powers” may be for the Son of God, each one in its own way violates the gift of human freedom given to us by God and appealed to by Christ. It is for this very reason that Christ did not come down from the Cross as He was “tempted” to do by those who mocked Him. Even if freedom is a burden as well as a gift, it is the true vision of humanity created “in the image and likeness of God.” We, in turn, freely choose to follow Christ, the crucified “Lord of glory.”
Dostoevsky had his particular concerns when he resorted to the temptation in the wilderness to dramatize the dialectics of human freedom and coercion in an unforgettable manner in The Brothers Karamazov. Within the context of the Gospels, we can say that Christ had to overcome the temptation to be a particular kind of Messiah that was not in accord with the will of God. He was not declared to be His Father’s “beloved Son” at the Jordan River so as to be a militant Messiah who ruled through power. The words of God the Father at the Jordan were clear echoes from the Suffering Servant songs from the prophet Isaiah. And the Suffering Servant would heal us by His “stripes.” His very suffering would be redemptive. And therefore that suffering (on the Cross) was essential to the divine economy. To overcome such temptations as man, the Lord resorted to prayer and fasting in the wilderness – the spiritual weapons given to us all in the Church for precisely the same purpose in the “wilderness” of a fallen world: to strengthen the “inner man” against false and pretentious promises. We can accomplish this by relying on “every word that proceeds from the mouth of God” (DEUT. 8:3). We further heed the words, “You shall not tempt the Lord your God” (DEUT. 6:16). And we also follow Christ who reminded us: “You shall worship the Lord your God and him only shall you serve” (DEUT. 6:13). Christ refuted the evil one’s false counsel by the power of the scriptural word. Another clear lesson for us in our relationship with the Holy Scriptures. As the “root” of a new humanity, Jesus re-enacts the history of Israel, but He “passes” the type of test that Israel “failed” to pass in its earlier forty-year wanderings in the wilderness. In fact, as the New and Last Adam He reverses the effects of Adam’s disobedience through His faithful obedience to the Father. It may sound startling to us today, but Jesus was “perfected” precisely through obedience!
Our human will was healed by the human will that the Son of God assumed and united to His divine will in the Incarnation. Before the Garden of Gethsemane, the perfect expression of that healing through obedience may just be the temptation/testing in the wilderness. As the final temptation was beaten back by Christ, He was able to say to the tempter: “Be gone, Satan!” Our goal is to be able to rebuke the tempter with the same words when we are also tempted/tested – perhaps on a daily basis!
About the Author
Father Steven Kostoff is rector of Christ the Savior-Holy Spirit Church, Cincinnati, Ohio. He is also a member of the adjunct faculty of the theology department at Xavier University in Cincinnati, where he has taught various courses on Orthodox theology.