Temptations Wings

John the Baptist was an itinerant preacher and a major religious figure mentioned in the Canonical Gospels. He is described in the Gospel of Luke as a relative of Jesus Christ (Yeshua HaMashiach) who led a movement of baptism at the Jordan River. Some scholars maintain that he was influenced by the Essenes, who were semi-ascetic, expected an apocalypse, and practiced rituals corresponding strongly with baptism, although there is no direct evidence to substantiate this. John is regarded as a prophet in Christianity.

Most biblical scholars agree that John baptized Yeshua at “Bethany beyond the Jordan,” by wading into the water with Yeshua from the eastern bank. John the Baptist is also mentioned by Jewish historian Flavius Josephus, in Aramaic Matthew, in the Pseudo-Clementine literature, and in the Qur’an. Accounts of John in the New Testament appear compatible with the account in Josephus. There are no other historical accounts of John the Baptist from around the period of his lifetime.

John anticipated a messianic figure who would be greater than himself, and, in the New Testament (B’rit Chadashah), Yeshua is the one whose coming John foretold. Christians commonly refer to John as the precursor or forerunner of Yeshua, since John announces Jesus’ coming. John is also identified with the prophet Elijah. Some of Jesus’ early followers had previously been followers of John. Some scholars have further speculated that Jesus was himself a disciple of John for some period of time, but this view is disputed.

  • Then Jesus came from Galilee to the Jordan to John, to be baptized by him. John would have prevented him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” But Jesus answered him, “Let it be so now, for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness.” Then he consented. And when Jesus was baptized, immediately he went up from the water, and behold, the heavens were opened to him, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and coming to rest on him; and behold, a voice from heaven said, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.”
    (Matthew 3:13-17 ESV)

After His immersion in the Jordan, Yeshua left the water and went out into the Judean wilderness west of Jericho; it was a dry and waterless place. There He fasted forty days. From those heights, He could clearly see the Jordan River and the plains of Moab where Moses had delivered the words of the Book of Deuteronomy to all Israel.

  • Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. And after fasting forty days and forty nights, he was hungry.
    (Matthew 4:1-2 ESV)

Yeshua’s forty-day fast is a reflection of Moses’ forty-day fast on Mount Sinai. Messiah Yeshua, the ultimate redeemer, comes in the pattern of Moses, the first redeemer. More than that, the forty-day fast and confrontation with the adversary may be an allusion to the forty days of repentance that precede the Day of Atonement.

The Jewish tradition of forty days of repentance beginning on the first day of the sixth month, the month of Elul, are observed in remembrance of Moses’ second sojourn on Mount Sinai. After the sin of the golden calf, Moses returned to Sinai and was “…there with the Lord forty days and forty nights; he did not eat bread or drink water” (Exodus 34:28). Meanwhile, Israel was camped below the mountain in a state of mournful repentance.

  • So he was there with the LORD forty days and forty nights. He neither ate bread nor drank water. And he wrote on the tablets the words of the covenant, the Ten Commandments.
    (Exodus 34:28 ESV)

The annual forty days of repentance before the Day of Atonement relive this story from the Torah. It is customary for the extra-pious in Judaism to periodically fast and recite prayers of repentance throughout these forty days in preparation for the Day of Atonement.

It seems unlikely that we can date this particular custom to the days of  Yeshua with any confidence, nor can we assume that the story of the temptation actually happened during the forty days before the Day of Atonement. Nevertheless, the imagery of the temptation story and the forty days of repentance share several features.

In Jewish tradition, these forty days are regarded as the allotted time to examine one’s life, identify one’s shortcoming and to make repentance in preparation for the Day of Atonement. It seems significant, then, that the story of Yeshua’s forty days begins with John the Baprist’s call for repentance and the Messiah’s immersion in the Jordan River. After Yeshua emerged from the water, the Gospel of Mark tells us, “The Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness” (Mark 1:12 ESV).

The traditional forty days of repentance conclude on the Day of Atonement, a day of fasting. Moreover, the Day of Atonement is regarded as a day for dealing with the adversary and his accusations. The liturgies for the Day of Atonement are filled with references to a legal showdown between God and the devil. In the Temple ritual for the Day of Atonement, the scapegoat for Azazel (the name of a fallen angel in some early apocalyptic sources) is led out into the wilderness and shoved over a cliff–an annual ritual celebrating the defeat of evil.

While Yeshua fasted in the Judean wilderness, He was probably between Jerusalem and Jericho, the very place that tradition says the Azazel scapegoat was thrown down. The imagery of the forty days of repentance–which culminate in a Day of Atonement-style, wilderness, fast-day showdown with a fallen angel–seem to be connected to the story of the temptations. At any rate, while fasting in the Judean wilderness, Yeshua encountered the prince of darkness himself.

The temptations Yeshua faced in the wilderness are not the sort of temptations you and I face on a daily basis. We find ourselves tempted by (and giving in to) much more mundane temptations. Even if we were starving to death, we would never be tempted to turn stones into bread because that is beyond our ability to do so. Instead of the common foils of human beings, the temptations of Yeshua are of a peculiar, messianic nature. They are the types of things only an anointed messiah might be tempted to do. They are shortcuts to messianic recognition and power.

In his Second Epistle to the Corinthians, Paul the Apostle wrote, “No temptation has overtaken you that is not common to man. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tempted beyond your ability, but with the temptation he will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it” (1 Corinthians 10:13 ESV). This passage of Scripture is an absolute truth. I can assure you that any sin I have committed in my lifetime I willingly choose to commit that sin. “The devil made me do it” isn’t a viable excuse.

  • And the tempter came and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.”
    (Matthew 4:3 ESV)

Yeshua responded to Satan’s temptation with a direct quote from the Torah. He said, “It is written, Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God'” (Matthew 4:4 ESV).

  • And he humbled you and let you hunger and fed you with manna, which you did not know, nor did your fathers know, that he might make you know that man does not live by bread alone, but man lives by every word that comes from the mouth of the LORD. (Deuteronomy 8:3 ESV)

Yeshua had some notion of where His destiny would lead Him. He foresaw the cross looming on the horizon. He saw His coming mortal death. The tempter urged Him to reveal His messianic identity by defying a mortal death through leaping off the highest point of the Temple, thereby demanding God’s divine intervention and proving to everyone that He was the Son of God.

  • Then 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 command his angels concerning you,’ and “‘On their hands they will bear you up, lest you strike your foot against a stone.'”
    (Matthew 4:5-6 ESV)

Such an amazing leap would have been witnessed by most of Jerusalem and provided for Yeshua a shortcut to messianic fame. More poignantly, it would have defied human mortality. In essence, it is the temptation to avoid death. In response, Yeshua said, “Again it is written, ‘You shall not put the Lord your God to the test.'” Again, Yeshua quoted the Torah in response to Satan’s temptation.

  • “You shall not put the LORD your God to the test, as you tested him at Massah. (Deuteronomy 6:16 ESV)

Ironically, nearly forty years after Yeshua stood on the Temple parapet with the adversary, His younger brother, Yaakov HaTzadik (James the Righteous), was thrown down from that same height for refusing to deny Yeshua’s messianic identity. Miraculously, he was  unharmed during the fall, but was stoned to death by the  the scribes and Pharisees.

  • Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their glory. And he said to him, “All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.”
    (Matthew 4:8-9 ESV)

The third messianic temptation of Yeshua was to take a shortcut to world domination. In addition to miraculous provisions of bread and miraculous salvation, the messianic job description includes dominion and power over all the kingdoms of the world. Note that the devil had possession of these to offer Him. If the Adversary was not in possession of the kingdoms of the world, he could not have legitimately offered them to Yeshua, and it would not have been an actual temptation.

The third test was the most difficult of the three. It was an amazing opportunity. It had the potential of bypassing the cross, the destruction of Jerusalem, 2000 years of exile, the untold suffering of the Jewish people, the Holocaust and all that we endure to this day.

Yeshua could have brought the whole redemption to a quick and final completion, sparing all Israel and millions of human souls, had He only been willing to oblige the enemy that one time for that one moment.

And, once again, the Messiah withstood the test. He responded with another quotation from the Torah. Yeshua was not willing to take any shortcuts to redemption. All kingdoms will be His, but it will happen according to the Father’s will and within the limits of Torah.

  • Then Jesus said to him, “Be gone, Satan! For it is written, “‘You shall worship the Lord your God and him only shall you serve.'”
    (Matthew 4:10 ESV)
  • It is the LORD your God you shall fear. Him you shall serve and by his name you shall swear.
    (Deuteronomy 6:13 ESV)

Subsequent to His resurrection and exaltation, the Master has been given the title of authority over the nations, kingdoms and peoples of the world. He told His disciples, “All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth” (Matthew 28:18).

This statement provides Yeshua’s final answer to the adversary’s third temptation. By virtue of His exaltation through His death and resurrection, He has wrested the authority over all kingdoms out of the devil’s hands. When the Kingdom of Heaven is revealed in its fullness on earth, Messiah’s authority over all nations and kingdoms will be made manifest

  • Then the devil left him, and behold, angels came and were ministering to him.
    (Matthew 4:11 ESV)

Yeshua did not resort to shouting matches or charismatic-style spiritual warfare. Instead, He met each of the adversary’s temptations squarely with an appeal to Torah. Fortunately, He had never heard of the theology that claims that the Torah is done away with. If He had, what weapons would He have employed against the enemy?

The same is true for us. Without the absolutes of God’s Torah, we all stand vulnerable to the subjective and shifting suggestions of the tempter. Only when we affirm the eternal validity of Torah are we able to call evil wrong and good right.

  • Submit yourselves therefore to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you.
    (James 4:7 ESV)
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Two Birds, One Stone, and a Mustard Seed

Semina Sinapis NigraeThe Parable of the Mustard Seed is one of the shorter parables of Yeshua HaMashiach (Jesus Christ). It appears in three of the Canonical Gospels of the New Testament (B’rit Chadashah).

“Whereunto shall we liken the kingdom of God? or with what comparison shall we compare it? It is like a grain of mustard seed, which, when it is sown in the earth, is less [G3398] than all the seeds that be in the earth: But when it is sown, it groweth up, and becometh greater [G3187] than all herbs, and shooteth out great branches; so that the fowls of the air may lodge under the shadow of it” (Mark 4:30-32 KJV).

Most people who have read this parable and concluded that the size (amount) of the mustard seed represents the amount of faith a Christian must have to please God (Jehovah). Some have taken the mustard seed under the microscope and argued about whether it really is the smallest of seeds. Secular critics of Biblical literature have used this parable to attempt to demonstrate that Yeshua was in error because the mustard seed is not the smallest seed in the world. This kind of skeptical criticism overlooks and, as a result, misses the point and the lesson in the parable.

The plant referred to in this parable (which is paralleled in the Gospel of Matthew and the Gospel of Luke) is generally considered to be the black mustard, a large annual plant up to ten to twelve feet tall with a stout central stem and strong branches. It bears yellow flowers producing minute seeds. In actuality the seed is so small that when it is incorporated into jewelry, the makers encase it in a glass globe the size of a marble, which serves to magnify the seed so it may be easily seen. According to rabbinical sources, Jews did not grow this plant in gardens, and this is consistent with Matthew’s description of it being sown in a field. Luke tells the parable with the plant in a garden instead, presumably recasting the story for an audience outside Israel. Yeshua was not comparing the mustard seed to all other seeds in the world, but to seeds that a local farmer might have sown in his field. It is absolutely true that the black mustard seed was the smallest seed ever sown by a first-century farmer in that part of the world. The black mustard seed was a small seed, well known to the audience and the very soul of a proverbial expression with which they would already be familiar. Though there are smaller seeds in the world (epiphytic orchids), is there a better illustration or would it grow into so large a plant in the Israel of Yeshua’s day? Even if there is a larger garden plant, would it be known to the audience of the parable?

Many Christians immediate reaction to this parable is a blend of relief and shame. It is reassuring to know that even a minute amount of faith is so powerful. On the other hand, this parable makes Christians ponder exactly how much faith they actually have. What if your faith isn’t even the size of a mustard seed?  How much is a epiphytic orchid’s sized amount of faith worth?  What if you need an electron microscope to see your faith? These comparisons of quantity and size can actually lead to discouragement for many people. Many Christians also feel chastened by this parable. I don’t believe Yeshua intended for this parable to be a chastisement. I believe Yeshua is actually encouraging us that no matter how meager our faith may initially appear, that tiny little speck is the beginning of our path to completeness and joy. God takes us where we are, loves us as we are, and makes us His own.

The mustard seed, one of the world’s smallest of seeds produces a large tree. Likewise, it is the same with the Kingdom of God. A small seed when planted in good soil produces amazing growth, both in individuals and in the Kingdom of God taken as a whole. What can mustard seeds teach us about the Kingdom of God? The tiny mustard seed literally grew to be a tree which attracted numerous birds because they loved the little black mustard seed it produced. God’s kingdom works in a similar fashion. It starts from the smallest beginnings in the hearts of men and women who are receptive to God’s word. It works unseen and causes a transformation from within. Just as a seed has no power to change itself until it is planted in the ground, we cannot truly change our lives until God gives us the power of His Holy Spirit (Ruach HaKodesh).

This parable isn’t necessarily a size comparison between our faith and a mustard seed. It is the characteristic of the mustard seed that matters. In Israel, the mustard seed is an incredibly invasive plant that can grow quite large (unlike other parts of the world) and its characteristics include growing in the worst soil conditions and being able to lift obstructions like large concrete blocks and entire roadways out of the way because of its strength. Therefore, this parable was meant as encouragement telling us to have the characteristic of the mustard seed (pushing through even in difficult times and poor growing conditions), not that we had to have faith the size (amount) of a mustard seed.

The olive seed was sown and was transformed into a tree. The tree grew and produced out branches. The tree attracted birds because they loved the seeds that the tree produced and the tree provided shelter to the birds. The Bible tells us that Christians (Gentiles) are the branches and that the root (tree) is a representative of the Jewish people (Romans 11). The seeds (fruit) of the olive tree represents Salvation that was provided to all of mankind through the Gospels and the text of the Old Testament (Tanakh) and the New Testament. The doctrine of free will teaches that it is up to us to accept the fruit as nourishment. The birds and branches of the parable represents nations and gentiles. Once the birds have eaten the fruit of the olive tree and taken shelter from the olive tree, they become part of the olive tree. Christians are now also included and considered to be the heirs to the promise and the seed of Abraham (Galatians 3). Without faith it is impossible to please God (Hebrews 11:6).

The parable isn’t meant to discourage anyone and it is not a chastisement. The parable is meant to encourage Christians so that their faith will grow. We aren’t supposed to compare the size of our mustard seed or to count how many mustard seeds one might have. We are supposed to work tirelessly until we enter the Kingdom of God, even in difficult times or under persecution or threat of persecution.