I was involved in a Christian “accountability group” a while back that involved the predictable features: a short prayer to christen the meeting, a goofy icebreaker, a 30-minute teaching from the Bible filled with practical applications, followed by a time to take prayer requests (usually for health, relief from stress, and the occasional request for global or political concerns). A yummy snack polished off the evening.
We all walked away from the meeting with at least two comforting thoughts: (1) We felt good that we had done the Christian duty of meeting in a small group; and (2) We all were chewing on little nuggets of wisdom from God’s Word that would supposedly make life as a Christian a little bit easier.
Unfortunately, the time together lacked some crucial elements. First, our prayers were fairly perfunctory, lacking any real sense of engagement with the Divine. Second, none of us really opened up about problems we were having. Oh sure, one or two people mentioned how hard it is when “we” run into temptations, when “we” give into sin, but these admissions lacked any real sense of specific confession.
But my biggest frustration with the group was that we had treated the Bible more or less like a recipe book. A few walked away with new Scripture verses to memorize. Some walked away with principles about how to live. One or two of us walked away rather convicted about personal sin, with a renewed commitment to “try harder.” But somewhere along the way we missed the main narrative of the Bible as a whole: that it is not primarily a book of maxims about what we ought to do, but a grand story about what God has done. None of us walked away more in awe of that story. We went to the Bible to understand ourselves. We did not go to the Bible to see Jesus.
This is often how we treat the story of Jesus’ temptations in the Gospels, as a sort of primer on beating down the devil, a course in spiritual warfare. Of course, we cannot minimize the instructive value of this story. Jesus certainly is our model of how to live. But before He is our model, He is our Savior. And if we are going to capture the full weight of this narrative, we need to take a giant step back and see it in the grand scheme of human history.
Showdown in the Garden
She and her mate walk through the familiar glade, enjoying the life-giving fruit that grows in abundance all around them. There is a sort of supernatural, childlike happiness dancing through them as they think about the God who made them.
And yet something is different this day: something or someone else is watching them from the shadows.
When the serpent first appears she is uncertain about it. The man knows it right away: this is one of the many creatures he had identified in his explorations of the vast land of Eden. To his astonishment, and hers, the creature begins to speak.
“Did God actually say,” began the serpent, “ ‘You shall not eat of any tree in the garden’?” What a strange question. The woman is certain that the snake has been misinformed. “We may eat of the fruit of the trees in the garden,” she replies, “but God says, ‘You shall not eat of the fruit of the tree that is in the midst of the garden, neither shall you touch it, lest you die.’”
She remembers when her mate had first informed her of God’s decree. The land is lush with fruit, but there is one tree, a special tree, that God has marked out as off-limits. Knowing this, she has resolved to never even touch the fruit of that tree. Better safe than sorry.
But the serpent continues, “You will not surely die. For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.”
With the words of the tempter slowly churning in their minds, they step closer and closer to the forbidden tree. Three things consume the woman’s thoughts (Genesis 3:6):
First, the tree is good for food. As Eve gazes at the fruit she notices that it has the same nutritional value and is likely as sweet as any of the other trees in the garden. After all, isn’t this what the fruit is for: to be eaten? Her appetite for the fruit stirs in her belly as she and Adam take a step closer to the tree.
Second, the tree is a delight to her eyes. For some reason this tree now stands out more than any other tree. The fruit not only looks delicious, but beautiful. Though she can have any fruit in the garden, this tree now grabs all of her attention. Like a child told not to touch a hot stove, her curiosity about the tree grows all the more. And as the craving grows, they take another step closer.
Last, she believes the tree could make her wise. This pulls on her heart more than anything. The woman buys into the serpent’s lie. As she gazes at the fruit she wonders what it would be like to be “like God,” to be able to define good and evil for herself, to grasp at divine knowledge. Pride begins to swell. She and her husband take another step toward the tree.
She reaches up and plucks the fruit from the tree. Her mate stands next to her and says nothing. They both look intently at the fruit as she pulls it to her lips.
Jesus: The New Adam
The apostle John wrote about three unholy drives in our fallen world: “the lust of the flesh, and the lust of the eyes, and the boastful pride of life” (1 John 2:16, NASB). These are the same three thoughts that infect Eve’s mind that sad day in the Garden of Eden. Her flesh lusts for the taste of the fruit; her eyes lust after the delightful looking tree; her heart longs for the prideful position of being like God.
These are also the same three temptations that the ancient serpent presents to Jesus in the desert.
Luke’s gospel follows the account of Jesus’ baptism with a long genealogical record. Starting with Jesus, Luke works backwards through His human ancestors, tracing His bloodline back through David, through Abraham, through Noah, and all the way back to the garden: “the son of Adam, the son of God” (Luke 3:38). So as Luke begins to tell us of Jesus’ temptation experience, the reader’s mind has been intentionally pushed all the way back to the beginning of human history, to the first man.
As Luke’s temptation account unfolds, the reader might begin to see parallels between Jesus and our first parents. Like Eve, Jesus is first tempted with the thought of satisfying physical hunger: He is asked to turn stones into bread. Second, also like Eve, Jesus is presented a temptation of visual beauty: all the kingdoms of the world are paraded before Him in a panorama. Third, like Eve, Jesus is tempted with the pride of presumption: He is told to jump from the temple pinnacle so that God will summon His angels to catch Jesus.
In Luke’s telling of the temptation story, Jesus is succeeding where our first parents failed. He is not just the Son of God, He is the new Adam. Paul explains it this way:
“Therefore, as one trespass led to condemnation for all men, so one act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all men. For as by the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, so by the one man’s obedience the many will be made righteous” (Romans 5:18-19).
Adam’s sin is like an infection, and all born in his bloodline are infected. If the curse of sin and death will be truly broken, a New Adam needed to come. Connected to Adam, all are sinners, deserving of death. But united with Christ, people are ushered into a new humanity. Everyone born shares in Adam’s sin. All those who are born again share in Christ’s sinless life.
The temptation of Jesus is not just a training manual for us on how to defeat our own temptations. It is a story about the second Adam winning where the first Adam lost. It is about Jesus picking up in the desert the scepter mankind dropped in the Garden. We are meant to be swept up in the drama of Jesus’ victory, putting all our trust and confidence in Him as the head of a new humanity.
“Just as we have borne the image of the man of dust, we shall also bear the image of the man of heaven” (1 Corinthians 15:49).
Thoughts for Personal or Group Reflection:
1. Do you treat the Bible more as a recipe book of answers to your problems, or as a story book of God’s great plan to redeem mankind?
2. What ways do you see 1 John 2:16 playing out in your life? In what ways do you give into the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the boastful pride of life?
3. Have you ever thought of Jesus as “the new Adam,” the head of a new humanity? How does reflecting on this help you to love and appreciate Jesus more?