Note: This is part 4 of 5 in a series looking at the overall story of God’s plan, or redemptive history, as told across the breadth of Scripture and ancient Near East history. I am preaching this series as the beginning of my time serving as pastor of Foundation Baptist Church in Rosebud, Texas. Follow these links to read week 1, week 2, and week 3.
This past spring, I watched as the University of Virginia claimed a historic win against Duke University in the ACC championship game. I didn’t realize at the time I was also watching a young man named Danny disguise himself as a Virginia assistant coach in order to spend the entire game on the court. A basic ticket, a cheap suit and orange tie, and a bucket of confidence gave him a handshake with Coach K, a picture with the ACC trophy, and the memory of a lifetime. And it all worked because of how he looked, how he acted, and how we perceive power. We’ve decided as a society that power looks like a suit and a swagger. Possess these things, and no one can question you. As Deadspin author Barry Petchesky wrote of the incident, “Look like you know what you’re doing, and dress the part, and you can go pretty much anywhere.”
It was this same kind of power expected by the Israelites of Jesus’ day. Hundreds of years of being overshadowed by other nations’ wars and subjugation had the people longing for independence and the full return of God’s blessing. Some expected a great teacher, some expected the ultimate high priest, and some expected a warrior to break their chains. As Rome ruled Israel as the latest in the parade of conquerors, the people of God looked to the places of power for their liberation.
But out in the desert, a man stood on a mountaintop. Raised in the home of a simple laborer, his meager clothing would have stood out in the seats of power even before the wear and tear of the desert. As the dust swirled, he looked out on the splendor of all the nations, their power and ability to subdue on full display. All this would be handed over and subdued, if Christ would but bend his knee to Satan.
What did Jesus see when Satan showed him the glory of the nations, and what about it would have been tempting? Given how genuinely tempting it would have been to finally get some food or to prove to a crowded Jerusalem that He really was favored by God, I have a hard time believing Satan would have lobbed the softball of essentially inviting Jesus to take up the rockstar lifestyle of money and fame. Details are scant in the story, but the word choice is interesting. The Greek word doxa, often translated as “splendor” or “glory”, is more often used of God but here is used regarding the nations. When we read this, we should see the nations with not only their material riches, but also their power.
And, perhaps, in that power Jesus saw a way forward. He saw glory that could be used for His Father’s glory. Perhaps he saw the thousands upon thousands of slaves in Rome, or brutal military conquest, or the poverty of his hometown, or even injustice today, and a scepter with which He could end it all. Christ was tempted like the Israelites had been in 1 Samuel 8: to be like the other nations with a king in charge. They had been tempted to trust their protection and justice to an earthly king, and He could be that king, powerful to destroy all the unjust. Christ could give us the earthly justice we yearned for without enduring the cross.
But He didn’t. Because the cost was too high. Because even the best ends don’t justify evil means. Because He would rather take the long road of suffering than the short road to power in order prove His love for us and win us back. Because Jesus knew such a choice was true power, not kings, or thrones, or chariots, or presidents, or politics, or guns, or even a confident stride in a suit.
Here, at the climax of the story of redemption, we find ourselves turned around by a plot twist. We, both ancient Jew and modern American, expect a Messiah to destroy the things we don’t like and save us from their snares. We wait for our kind of power to save us. But the Messiah is here to save us from ourselves, and to save the oppressors from their own oppression. Our understanding of power and love are entirely upside down, and we could only see that when the Son of God bled on a cross to open our eyes, free us from our self-made cages, and invite us back to walk with Him again.