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Bible Study on Temptation
Given during a retreat in Zingst, June 20-25, 1938
from
Theological Education Underground: 1938-1940, pp. 392-395
 
Dietrich Bonhoeffer


The temptation of Christ was more difficult, inexpressibly more difficult than the temptation of Adam, for Adam bore nothing in himself that could have given the tempter any right or power over him. But Christ bore with him the entire burden of the flesh under the curse and condemnation, and yet his temptation was intended to obtain future help and salvation for all flesh that was to be tempted.

The Gospel reports that Jesus was led into the desert by the Spirit so that he would be tempted by the devil (Matt. 4:1). Thus the beginning of temptation is not that the Father arms the Son with all the strength and weapons he will need to endure in the struggle, but the Spirit leads Jesus into the desert, to be alone, to be forsaken. God takes from his Son all human and every creaturely help. The hour of temptation must find Jesus weak, lonely, and hungry. God leaves the human being alone in temptation. Thus Abraham had to be alone on the mountain Moriah. Indeed, God himself forsakes the human being before temptation. Only in this sense may we understand 2 Chr. 32:31: God forsakes Hezekiah, in order to tempt him; as well as the psalmists who repeatedly call out: God, do not forsake us (Pss. 38:22; 71:9,18; 119:8). "Do not hide your face from me. . . . Do not cast me off, do not forsake me, O God of my salvation" (Ps. 27:9). All human, ethical, and religious thinking cannot fathom this: that God is not revealed in temptation as the gracious and near God, the one who gives us the gifts of the Spirit, but he forsakes us, he is far away from us, we are in the desert. (Later we will have more to say about this.)

In contrast to Adam's temptation and all other human temptations, Jesus here is approached by the tempter himself (Matt. 4:3). While otherwise he uses created beings, here he himself must engage in the struggle. Thus it is clear that in the temptation of Jesus, everything is at stake. In this instance, the tempter's essence must consist in the most complete denial of the origin. It may be with reference to Satan's denial of the origin in the temptation of Jesus that Paul said: even Satan disguises himself as an angel of light (2 Cor. 11:14). We should take this to mean not that Jesus did not recognize Satan but that Satan was so tempting because through this he wanted to bring Jesus to the fall.

Jesus fasted for forty days in the wilderness, and he was hungry. Then the tempter approached him. The tempter begins with the acknowledgment of Jesus as the Son of God. While he does not say: You are the Son of God - that he cannot say! - but he says: if you are the Son of God, speak now as the one who suffers hunger so that these stones are turned into bread. Satan tempts Jesus here in the weakness of his human flesh. He wants to pit his divinity against his humanity. He wants to make the flesh rebel against the spirit. Satan knows that flesh does not want to suffer. But why is the Son of God to suffer in the flesh? The intent of this question is clear: if Jesus were to withdraw from the suffering in the flesh through the power of his divinity, then all flesh would be condemned. The path of the Son of God on earth would come to an end. The flesh would belong again to Satan. Jesus's answer with the word of God shows, first, that the Son of God stands under God's word and that he does not have to nor want to have his own right beside this word. Second, Jesus's answer shows that he wants to abide by this word alone. Even the flesh belongs under God's word, and when it must suffer, then it is true: the human being does not live from bread alone. Jesus has preserved his humanity and his path of suffering in the temptation. The first temptation is the temptation of the flesh.

In the second temptation, Satan begins as he did in the first one: if you are the Son of Godó-but now he intensifies the temptation in that he uses God's word against Jesus. Even Satan can use God's word in his struggle. Jesus is to confirm his divine sonship. Jesus is to demand a sign from God. This is the temptation of Jesus's faith, the temptation of the spirit. If the Son of God is already immersed in the suffering of humankind, then [he] should demand a sign of God's power that can save at any time. Jesus's answer sets God's word against God's word, not in such a way that results in unholy uncertainty, but in a way such that here truth stands against lie. Jesus calls this temptation a tempting of God. He desires to abide alone by the word of his Father; this is sufficient for him. If he were to desire more than this word, then he would have given room to his doubt about God. The faith that desires more than the word of God in Commandment and promise becomes the temptation of God. But to tempt God means to project guilt, unfaithfulness, and a lie into God himself rather than Satan. To tempt God is the gravest spiritual temptation.

In the third instance, Satan approaches in a different manner, without affirmation of divine sonship, without God's word. Now he comes--and this is the alarming thing--in a total and unconcealed demonstration of his power as the prince of this world. Now Satan fights with his very own weapons. There is no longer any concealment, any dissembling. Satan pits his power directly against God's power. Satan risks his all. His gift is great and beautiful and enticing beyond measure, and he demands the gift--worship. He demands the open apostasy from God, which has no justification other than the grandeur and beauty of Satan's kingdom. What is at stake in this temptation is the final apostasy from God, perpetrated in full clarity and awareness, and the submission to Satan. It is the temptation into the sin against the Holy Spirit.

Because here Satan has revealed himself completely, he must here be addressed, refuted, and rejected by Jesus himself: go away from me, Satan. For it is written: You shall worship God your Lord and serve him alone.

Jesus is tempted in flesh, in faith, and in his divine sonship. In all three instances there is one temptation, namely to tear Jesus away from the word of God: Satan pits the nature of the flesh against the divine commission. For if Satan gains power over the flesh of Jesus, then Jesus is in his hands. If Jesus does not want to suffer, then he is not the Christ. In Gethsemane we hear again of Jesus's anxiety that his flesh might fall prey to Satan. [Matt 26:39-44] In the second temptation, Satan leads the human being's spiritual yearning for experience, affirmation, miracles, and visions of all kinds against faith, by which alone the human being can endure before God. If Satan gains power over Jesus's piety and spirituality, then Jesus is in his hands. If Jesus does not abide solely by the word, have faith only, blind faith and obedience, then he is no longer the Christ and Redeemer of humankind, who will find salvation only by faith in the word. Thus Satan has tempted the flesh and spirit of Jesus against the word of God. The third temptation affronts the entre bodily-spiritual existence of the Son of God. "If you do not want to be torn apart in your inner life, then give yourself entirely to me--and I shall make you great in this world, in hatred against God and in power against him." In this manner Jesus suffers the temptation in the flesh, the lofter spiritual temptation, and finally the total temptation as such, and yet in all three instances only the one temptation against the word of God.

Even Jesus's temptation is not a heroic struggle of the human being against evil forces, as we gladly and lightly would like to understand it. Even Jesus is robbed of all his own strengths in his temptaiton; he is left alone; he is forsaken by God and human beings; even he must endure the assault of Satan in anxiety; he is held in complete darkness. Nothing is left for him except the saving, enduring, and uplifting word of God that holds him, fights, and wins the victory for him. The night of Jesus's last words, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" has begun. This night must follow the hour of this temptation as the ultimate, bodily-spiritual, consummate temptation of the Redeemer. In that Jesus suffers this total abandonment by God and humankind, God's word and judgment are for him. As he succumbs defenselessly and powerlessly to Satan's power, the temptation is overcome. He was tempted as we are--and yet without sin.

Thus, in Jesus' temptation nothing truly remains other than God's word and promise, not in any strenth and delight of his own in fighting evil. Rather, God's power and victory alone remain, God who holds me in his word and through this word robs Satan of his power. Temptation can be overcome only through the word of God.

"Then the devil left him"--just as initially God left him, now the devil leaves him--"and suddenly angels came and waited on him." In the garden of Gethsemane, too, "and angel from heaven appeared and gave him strength" (Luke 22:43). This is the end of temptation, namely, that the one who became untterly weak but was held by the word receives renewed strength for the vitality of body, soul, and mind through an angel of God.