This piece was adapted from Russell Moore’s newsletter. Subscribe here.
For a long time, I have feared that my fellow American evangelical Christians were yielding to the third temptation of Christ: to sacrifice integrity for the conquest of power. Yet over the past year, I’ve started wondering whether we’re falling for an entirely different temptation—the one we least understand and were least taught to withstand.
The Gospels tell us that right after Jesus’ baptism in the Jordan, the Spirit directed him into the wilderness where the Devil set before him three temptations (Matt. 4:1–11; Luke 4:1–13). One temptation was to turn stones into bread—to satisfy his own appetites at the Devil’s direction.
This was, of course, the primal temptation of humanity (Gen. 3:1–3). This one is easy enough for us to understand because all of us grapple with our appetites—some for food, some for sex, some for drink—in ways that can make those appetites ultimate.
Another of the temptations was that the Devil would give Jesus “all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor” (Matt. 4:8) if he would just become a momentary Satanist. (Spoiler alert: Jesus passed up this offer.)
Again, most of us can understand this one because almost everyone is tempted at some point to trade principles for power. For a few, that power is a position in the White House, but for many of us, it is the ability to get the last word at the family dining room tables in our homes or to get the best seats at the conference tables at our jobs.
That temptation is still at work and transcends almost every tribal boundary. Forms of Christianized Marxism often yield to this temptation by replacing a gospel of repentance and faith with merely subduing oppressive social structures. Christian nationalism does the same thing—replacing a faith of new birth with blood-and-soil cultural Christianity.
Even so, I’ve come to believe that the greatest temptation we face right now may be the one that seems the farthest from us.
It’s the second temptation in Matthew’s account and the last in Luke’s. The Devil took Jesus to Jerusalem “and had him stand on the highest point of the temple. ‘If you are the Son of God,’ he said, ‘throw yourself down from here’” (Luke 4:9). Satan even had a Scripture verse to go with this temptation—a passage from Psalm 91: “He will command his angels concerning you to guard you carefully; they will lift you up in their hands, so that you will not strike your foot against a stone” (Luke 4:10–11; Ps. 91:11–12).
Some of you reading this have indeed resisted the temptation to throw yourselves from high places. Many others of you have never faced even the thought of that. Yet in either case, you likely were never tempted to do so for the reason Jesus was—to force a visible sign that he was, in fact, “the Son of God.”
As he always did, Jesus recognized what was going on, of course. And in response, he cited a portion Deuteronomy 6:16, which reads in full, “Do not put the Lord your God to the test as you did at Massah.” What is this verse referring to?
The place was called “Massah and Meribah,” the Bible tells us, “because the Israelites quarreled and because they tested the Lord saying, ‘Is the Lord among us or not?’” (Ex. 17:7).
The people of Israel—the very ones God had delivered out of Egypt with parted waters and a pillar of fire—started fighting in a drought because they wondered whether God was really who he said he was: a God who went before and behind them. They asked Moses, “Why did you bring us up out of Egypt to make us and our children and livestock die with thirst?” (v. 3). They lost confidence, and they wanted a sign.
In Jesus’ day, the temple was more than just a tall building. It was the place in which God had promised to dwell. For the Anointed One to essentially ask “Is God among us or not?” at the temple would be quite a question indeed.
Had Jesus thrown himself from the temple, angels—maybe even twelve legions of them—would likely have rescued him. It would have tangibly verified to Jesus, in his humanity, what God told him at the waters of the Jordan: “You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased” (Luke 3:22).
Even more than that, the crowds below would have seen this happening. It would have publicly vindicated Jesus to the very people of the city where he would later be crucified. No one would have dared suggest that he was demon-possessed, a lunatic, a closet insurrectionist, or a covert collaborator with Rome. He would have proved himself to be the Anointed One of God.
Jesus would have forced a sign. And Jesus called that a sin.
In 2010, political scientist James Davison Hunter identified that the “distinguishing characteristic” of current political psychology is what Friedrich Nietzsche called “ressentiment.” Although it includes resentment, Hunter wrote, it goes beyond that to involve “a combination of anger, envy, hate, rage, and revenge as the motive of political action.”
The years since Hunter penned this have proven him right. Much of what passes for “political action” or even just “cultural engagement” is really about a sense of injury—more specifically a sense of humiliation: “You think you’re better than me, and I’ll prove you wrong.”
We want to be vindicated—in public. We don’t just want to win; we want to “own” whoever has mistreated or made fun of us. We want to be respected, to be affirmed, if for nothing else than to boost our numbers and our political power.
Most of the rest of the world can see this for what it is: a lack of confidence. We want to be proven right because we don’t remember who we are or why we’re here.
We’ve all heard of the proverbial rock star who snaps at a restaurant server or club bouncer, saying angrily, “Don’t you know who I am?” The rage behind that question often stems from the rock star’s fear that the answer is “No, who are you?”
Referring to the incidents at Massah and Meribah, God said through the psalmist that the Israelites “put me to the proof, though they had seen my work” (Ps. 95:9, ESV). They forgot who they were.
Jesus did not. He believed that he was exactly who his Father said he was: the beloved Son of God. So he did not need to clamor for immediate satisfaction of his appetites; his Father had fed with manna before and would do it again. He did not need to grasp for immediate power over the nations; he would receive this not instead of humiliation but through it (Phil. 2:5–11).
When we forget the story the Bible tells us—the one it includes us in—we start seeing our audience as whatever mob or strongman will protect or respect us. When we forget about the judgment seat of Christ, we want a judgment seat now. We want to be proven right, now.
God would prove Jesus’ anointing not by vindication but by resurrection (Rom. 1:3–4). But even then, Jesus did not need to prove himself.
As New Testament scholar Richard Hays points out, the risen Christ “did not appear in the Temple and chastise his opponents; he did not appear to Pilate or in Rome to Caesar.” The Resurrection appearances were not a “how do you like me now?” tour to those who didn’t believe or respect him. Instead, he appeared to his followers—to the women at the tomb, to the men on the boats, to the gathered little flock on the mountain.
Even when faltering Thomas demanded to see the wounds of crucifixion and Jesus graciously accommodated him, the little band that would turn the world upside down left the room not to prove themselves right but to bear witness to something real—to Someone alive. Their words were not “Is God among us or not?” but “My Lord and my God!” (John 20:28).
What if we did the same? What if we were a church so confident in our own identity in Christ that, at long last, we had nothing to prove but something to give—life and rest, joy and peace?
Russell Moore is the editor in chief at Christianity Today and leads its Public Theology Project.