"The Empire Strikes Back" – Christus Victor (Part 3)

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As the opening chapters of the Gospel of Luke recount the reaction to the birth of Jesus by Zechariah and Mary, or by Simeon and Anna, there is only one conclusion the reader could draw. Jesus of Nazareth is the long-awaited Messiah, the one who would deliver Israel from the hands of its enemies and redeem the nation. The Lord has come to save His people!

The next set of stories in Luke focuses on Jesus’ baptism and temptation. What connects those two events? It is His identity as “the son of God.” Jesus was pronounced “the son of God” at His baptism, and the devil’s temptation began, “If you are the Son of God.”

Rich in its nuances, the title “son of God” has three important Old Testament connections. First, it immediately brings to mind David and the kings who would come after him, those to whom God promised, “I will be to him a father, and he shall be to me a son” (2 Sam. 7:14; see also Psalm 2). Second, it brings to mind “Adam, the son of God,” as Luke describes him at the conclusion of Jesus’ genealogy in Luke 3:38.  But probably the most important connection to draw is with the nation of Israel itself.  Remember how God described Israel in His commission to Moses? “Thus says the LORD, Israel is my firstborn son” (Ex. 4:22).

The Wilderness of Judea, the scene of the temptation
The Wilderness of Judea, the scene of the temptation

Can you think of any connection between Israel as God’s “son,” and Jesus as God’s son? Consider the events of Luke 3 and Luke 4. Jesus is baptized, at which time God declares, “You are my beloved Son” (3:22). Then Jesus goes “in the wilderness” where He is tempted for 40 days (4:1-2).  Just asIsrael, God’s son, came through the waters of the exodus and then went into the wilderness of testing for 40 years, Jesus – God’s son – came through the waters of baptism, and then went into the wilderness to be tested for 40 days. Jesus is re-enacting the story of Israel itself, taking the place of the very nation He came to deliver (and incidentally, the same point could be made regarding His baptism – He was identifying with the very sinners He came to save).

This also sheds light on why Jesus responded to the temptations as He did. In the case of all three temptations, Jesus cited passages from the same book – Deuteronomy. Think about the circumstances of that second giving of the Law. Deuteronomy consists of Moses’ farewell speeches to the people of Israel at the end of the 40 years in the wilderness. As Israel stood poised on the Plains of Moab, preparing to begin its work of conquest, Moses reminded the nation of its need to be tested so that it would learn to rely on God, and not itself. And now, as the son of God is preparing to begin His work of conquest, He experiences the same test – but unlike Israel, He prevails! And indeed, we could expand this same point to draw a sharp contrast with the first “son of God,” Adam, who was also tested – but not in a wilderness. He was tested in a lush garden surrounded by trees with all sorts of food to eat, save one. Yet he failed.

This brings to mind another character we need to add into the mix – “the devil” (Luke 4:2). The same sinister force that ultimately precipitated Adam’s downfall was once again at work, once more trying to drive a wedge between God and His son. “If you are the son of God, command this stone to become bread” (Luke 4:3). What do you think the devil was trying to accomplish with this question? I would suggest that the devil was not casting doubt on whether Jesus was the son of God, but rather, the devil was conceding that identity, with the goal of exploiting it. “You are the son of God! Since that is the case, you deserve better than going hungry. Use your powers to make bread for yourself and eat!” In other circumstances, miraculously making bread or eating would not have been wrong for Jesus. But if His vocation was to take Israel’s place, to learn the lesson of humble reliance on God through going hungry, then indeed it would have been wrong to use His own powers to feed Himself (see Deuteronomy 8:1-3).

Each of the temptations was in some way an attempt to turn Jesus against God. If you are a Star Wars fan, you will remember the scene in which Darth Vader tries to turn Luke to the “dark side.” That is exactly what the devil is doing here – he is trying to thwart the Lord’s Anointed by undermining His humble trust in doing His Father’s business.

But this suggests something vitally important in connection with Israel’s failures. The same adversary that faced Jesus (and Adam) must have also been at work against the corporate “son of God.” When Israel turned away from God in the wilderness, and indeed all throughout its history, lurking in the shadows behind Israel’s rebellion was Satan.

After all, why did Israel go into exile? Simply because the political winds of fortune changed and Assyria or Babylon outmaneuvered it? No! Israel’s real problem all along was sin! And that means the real enemy was not ultimately Assyria, Babylon or Rome, but Satan.

Which means that true victory, true liberation must deal with the real issue and the real enemy. And what we read in Luke 4 is the first round of this ultimate showdown between the Son of God and Satan. In this light, you could entitle the story of the temptation as “The Empire Strikes Back” – except in this case, it is the world’s true King fighting back, sending the adversary to flight, and beginning His mission to redeem the nation.