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When scholars examine and classify different religions, they often ask, “Does this religion have a supreme being?” A scholar studying Christianity might identify God as this “supreme being,” but they would be mistaken. Christianity does have “supreme” beings…but none of these are God.
In Acts 17:28, Paul explains that “we live and move and have our being” in God. God is not a supreme being; He is the creator and source of all being. As the Nicene Creed maintains, God is “the maker of heaven and earth, of all that is seen and unseen.” Naming him a being—even the “supreme” one—is to make a serious category error.
Supreme beings do exist in Christianity, if by that we mean beings that are higher and more advanced than all other beings. We call such supreme beings “angels”.
Scripture tells us that angels are both beautiful and terrifying. When angels appear, humans are filled with so much awe and fear that angels must begin their messages by saying, “Do not be afraid.” In Revelation, an angel appears to John. The angel is so wonderful that John falls down and begins to worship him. But the angel rebukes John: “Don’t do that! I am a fellow servant with you and your brothers and sisters who hold to the testimony of Jesus. Worship God!”
But not all angels are fellow servants with us.
Before the world was created, an angel turned away from God. He was attracted to himself–drawn by his own beauty and power. Ultimately he would lead a third of the angels in his train. We call this angel “Satan”.
Satan once dwelled in the very presence of God. As a result, he is very familiar with God’s character. Like us, he knows that God is no mere being. So when Satan observes Christ’s baptism, he is perplexed.
During the baptism, Jesus, a human being, is baptized and the Holy Spirit rests on him. The voice of the Father says, “This is my beloved Son.” But how can this be? How can the creator and source of being become, himself, a being?
Intrigued, Satan follows this God-being into the desert and tempts him.
Often, we underestimate the degree to which Christ was tempted.
“Well, of course Christ would not give into temptation,” we say. “He’s Christ.”
After all, Jesus was a supreme being, right?
Not according to the Nicene Creed. The Creed tells us that Christ was “born of the virgin Mary” and “became man”—an average, ordinary man. An average, ordinary man who walked through the desert for forty days. After wandering through the desert for long, Jesus must have felt hungry, thirsty, and worn. The temptation he felt must have been more, not less, powerful than our own!
Although Satan tempts Christ as a human being, he specifically tailors the content of these temptations to the character of God. In this passage, we can learn much about God’s character through Satan, who would have known better than anyone how to tempt God.
The First Temptation: “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.”
Satan knows that God alone is capable of creating, and re-creating. When God created the world, Satan saw him do it. Compared to the world, re-creating a stone into bread would be a very simple thing.
And during his ministry, Jesus would go on to reshape and re-create many objects. He transforms water into wine and feeds five thousand people with five loaves and two fish. Often, he speaks about creating or re-creating. For example, Jesus tells his disciples that he will “go to prepare a place for them.” In Revelation he declares that he is “making all things new.” Jesus was a carpenter by trade; just like his Father, the Creator—and Re-creator—of heaven and earth.
But Satan’s first temptation reveals more about God than his nature as creator; it reveals his nature as caretaker. Satan also knows that God cares about our physical needs. Thus, he coaxes Christ to make bread. If God did not care about physical needs, making bread out of a stone would not be a temptation for Jesus.
Jesus, himself, is always moved by physical needs. When a Roman Centurion informs him that his servant is “lying at home paralyzed and dreadfully tormented,” Jesus says, “I will come and heal him.” When four thousand people have listened to Jesus for three days without eating, Jesus says, “I have compassion on the crowd … if I send them to their homes, they will faint on the way. And some of them have come from far away.” Throughout his ministry, Jesus sees physical suffering and alleviates it.
The Second Temptation: “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down, for it is written ‘He will command his angels concerning you.’”
In Isaiah 55:11, God says that his word “will not return empty, but will accomplish what [he] desires.” Unlike our words, God’s words never lie nor deceive nor conceal nor obscure. When he speaks, his words change the world in their image. Because scripture is God’s word, God fully intends to fulfill it. Satan knows this and uses it as the source of his second temptation.
In this temptation, Satan selects two lines of scripture and insists that God must fulfill them. He knows that God’s word is about Christ and is fulfilled by Christ. So how can Christ not fulfill the word? But Jesus refuses. The word is not his to fulfill in his own way, according to his own thinking and timing. During his ministry, however, he fulfills all of God’s word, in God’s way, in God’s timing.
The Third Temptation: “All these [kingdoms] will gave you, if you fall down and worship me.”
Through this temptation, we learn that God has not given up on the world. We often think that the world is hopeless and vile. We look forward to a day when we are free from it. But Satan knows that God has never given up on the world and intends to bring it under his subjection.
Unlike us, God will never say, “This world must be destroyed! We must withdraw from it!” When Satan offers Jesus all the kingdoms of the world, he knows that God looks at them and sees what they one day will be, not only what they are or how they presently appear. Even when God decides to flood the world, he sees an opportunity to redeem the world through Noah.
God will never give up on his creation. Satan draws on this as a temptation.
Despite being fully human, Jesus overcomes the devil.
This teaches us two things. First, God’s word is supremely powerful. When Jesus is tempted, he does not turn to prayer or willpower to overcome the devil; he recalls scripture. God does not expect us to “try hard” or to “pray hard”. He expects us to overcome temptation by recalling his word properly and trusting in it. Thus, to overcome temptation, we must learn—and apply—as much scripture as we can.
The second insight we receive is that Jesus completely understands what it means to be human. He has been tempted in the same way that we are tempted today—and yet he has overcome, as a mere man like us. Through his victory, Jesus has shown that we mere humans can and should expect to overcome temptation as well. All that is needful is God’s word, and our response of faith.
Through the word and faith, one ordinary man was able to overcome a supreme being.
But faith isn’t something that we can create; it’s something that we need to ask God for. The Bible says when we ask God for faith, he will always give it to us. As Satan reveals to us inadvertently through his tempting acts, God intends to fulfill every promise. So if we do not yet have faith, then we should continually ask. God will give it to us.
In many ways, Satan knows God better than we do. We doubt that God cares about us physically. We doubt that God will fulfill his word. We doubt that God will restore his rule over this broken world. But Satan does not doubt these things for a moment.
If even Satan does not doubt these things, why do we?