By Elizabeth Prata
In Matthew 4:3, at the Temptation of Jesus, the devil said to Jesus,
And the tempter came and said to Him, “If You are the Son of God, command that these stones become bread.”
In Matthew 4:6, at the temptation of Jesus, the devil said to Jesus again-
“If You are the Son of God, throw Yourself down; for it is written: ‘HE WILL GIVE HIS ANGELS ORDERS CONCERNING YOU’; and ‘ON THEIR HANDS THEY WILL LIFT YOU UP, SO THAT YOU DO NOT STRIKE YOUR FOOT AGAINST A STONE.’”
Why did the devil say, ‘If’? We know that the devil and his unholy angels knew that Jesus is the Son of God. (Matthew 8:29, Mark 3:11). They knew He is the Lord Most High. (Mark 5:7) The Holy One of God. (Mark 1:24). And satan is the ringleader of them all, and he certainly knows who Jesus is.
One reason satan perhaps used IF, is maybe satan wanted to create doubt in Jesus’ mind as to the faithfulness of the Father. That’s what satan does, bring doubt and confusion. He did it to Eve. We also know satan is full of pride, even planning to boot God from His throne and place his own throne higher than God’s. So perhaps satan thought he had enough skill and power to create doubt in Jesus’ mind, like he did with a third of the Host of Angels that chose to follow him instead of God. If Jesus doubted for even a second, Jesus would have sinned and it would be game over.
But I have a theory that I think is even more plausible than satan’s potential effort to create doubt in Jesus through the Temptation.
Pride. Pride is a powerful sin, and the first sin found in heaven. (Ezekiel 28:15). It caused a rebellion in heaven and the disgrace and exile of satan and all the fallen angels who chose to follow him. It is an even more potent weapon in satan’s hands against us puny humans here on earth, who have no advantage of being angelic powerful beings who personally have seen God and His works. We are mere creatures living in the finite world and are polluted through and through with sin- pride among them.
If you are in a situation where someone is competitive against you, or passive-aggressive, or behaves in any other not quite proper way toward you, often they will appeal to your ego as a put-down. A peer might try to gain an advantage over you by saying, “If you have all the experience you say you do, then you should be able to handle leading this project.” A bratty sibling might say, “If you’re as smart as you always say you are, then go ahead and show me…” Kids on the playground say things like, “If you’re not a scaredy cat, then go across the monkey bars!” If…if…if.
These are appeals to our ego, which at root is pride. When we’re issued a challenge like that, unfortunately we display a knee-jerk reaction that is a cover for our defensiveness. We want to defend our honor, our skill, our reputation, so we succumb to the challenge. We want to overcome the taunt. ‘Yeah, I’ll show that guy!” When we do, the challenger wins.
I think that is what satan was trying to do. Not get Jesus to doubt IF he was the Son of God, because they both knew that He is, but to goad Jesus into defending himself, which, of course, would take his focus off God.
But the challenge was not between satan and Himself. It was between satan and God. Satan is at war with God, and he was simply using Jesus as a point of attack in this long war. Jesus knows who He is, He IS God, AND he is the Son of God. (Don’t ask me how that works, it just is.) Jesus has no pride. He has no ego. He submitted completely to the will of the Father and was/is content to carry that out. He did it perfectly. As it pleased the Father to crush His Son, it pleased the Son to be crushed.
How could the King of Glory who voluntarily left His abode in heaven to become incarnated in finite flesh and willingly emptied Himself, have pride? Have an ego that could be goaded? When someone has a great deal of sin they often see that same sin in others. Satan is blinded by his own pride and his own lust to become king of the universe. He likely thinks everyone else is competing for place, has pride-driven ego, and can be taunted. And why not? It works on humans every day. So at the Temptation, why not use the trusty ego-taunt on human Jesus? A Jesus that satan already believes he will overcome someday? (Isaiah 14:13-14)
Jesus is so firmly rooted to the word of God (He IS the Word) that He does not need to prove anything to anyone. He is perfect in every way, no sin found in Him. He is not defensive. He is not goaded. He is not insecure. Even in cleansing the Temple, he wasn’t out of control, He stopped to braid a horse whip first, then righteously cleansed the temple with zeal for His Father’s house.
Our lesson is that we must also rest in our identity. We are in the Father as one of His children. We must be rooted in the Word, not the world. We don’t succumb to taunts to prick our ego like, “If you’re really a loving Christian you’d…” or “If you really believe what you say, then do what I ask…” “If you’re not a hypocrite then you would…”
We need to be strong in our identity, certain of the promises of God, calm and patient with mockers. We don’t need to prove things to scoffers, or overcome taunts, or be defensive. If we remember our heavenly home and all the glory and joy that awaits in eternity, we can withstand the tiny pricks of a scoffer for now.
Look how satan ends up. For all his power (given to him by God) and all his persuasive abilities, all the chaos and damage he’d caused, he will end up an insignificant worm at the bottom of Sheol:
Nevertheless you will be brought down to Sheol,
To the recesses of the pit.
Those who see you will stare at you,
They will closely examine you, saying,
‘Is this the man who made the earth tremble,
Who shook kingdoms,
Who made the world like a wilderness
And overthrew its cities,
Who did not allow his prisoners to go home?’
And sadly many of those who taunt us or challenge us with “If-statements” will also be brought down to Sheol. At those tempting moments, we have an opportunity to display a Christ-like reply to those people, as Jesus did to satan, and perhaps the Spirit has elected such a one to be struck by our love and certainty of the goodness of God, and be saved from that pitiful eternity. But first we have to slay that ole pride at the root of our ego.