‘if you are the Son of God…’

It’s (finally) time to kick off my series on responding to climate change. I’m taking my bearings from what the Bible says about stewardship — by which God invites us to share in his care for and rule over his creation, drawing out its potential to glorify him.

My intention is to move in a more practical direction while remaining theologically disciplined. Something I hope to achieve by dwelling on Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness in which he begins to confront (and overcome) the devil.

Before we get stuck in, let me explain why I think this incident sheds so much light on stewardship. Two reasons:

Theologically, God’s achievement in Jesus — climaxing in the cross and resurrection, but beginning when he took on flesh (as Calvin and the early fathers saw) — must determine our thinking about providence.

Of course, we mustn’t collapse God’s reconciling of the world in Christ into providence — as if there wasn’t anything particularly special or decisive about the life and work of Jesus. But the gospel does unveil the goal and purpose of all God’s interactions with his world and human life.

The encounter with the devil in the wilderness with which Jesus begins his public ministry, therefore, illuminates how God deals with us, providing for us in a way that neither undermines our freedom nor leaves us with nothing to do. Rather, we see here that God hands us the challenge of responsible sonship — hence the question with which the devil keeps hammering: ‘If you are the Son of God…’

Exegetically, this incident follows on from Jesus’ baptism, in which he freely identifies himself with his people as their representative. (Luke, of course, disturbs this sequence by inserting Jesus’ genealogy between these two ‘moments’. But this only serves to sharpen the presentation of Jesus as representative, emphasising his connection with Adam — ‘the son of God’.)

The cash value of this is found in the correspondence between Jesus’ forty days and Israel’s forty years in the wilderness. Just as for God’s people in the past, their representative must learn to trust God’s provision — that he has our best interests at heart. The fact that Matthew suggests a link not only to Israel’s wilderness experience but also to Moses — who stood in the breach for forty days and forty nights, desperately pleading with God to turn aside his anger against his people — reinforces this. Jesus, Matthew implies, will succeed where Israel failed. Where Israel doubted God’s provision and care, Jesus will show us what it looks like to be the true son called out of Egypt by God.

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