10. Pinnacle of the Temple

The Temptations of Jesus

10 – The Pinnacle of the temple

Matthew 4:5-8

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 give his angels charge of you … and on their hands they will bear you up lest you dash your foot against a stone.(Psalm 91:11-12)  Jesus said to him, “Again, it is written, You shall not tempt the Lord your God.” (Deuteronomy 6:16) 

Luke 4:9-12

And he took him to Jerusalem and set him on the pinnacle of the temple, and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here; for it is written, ‘He will give his angels charge of you, to guard you… and on their hands they will bear you up lest you strike your foot against a stone.” (Psalm 91:11-12)   And Jesus answered him, “It is said, ‘You shall not tempt the Lord your God’.” (Deuteronomy 6:16)

The Suggestion

The voice that tempts suggests another possibility.   In his imagination Jesus finds himself on the pinnacle of the Temple.  From that corner of Solomon’s porch there is a 450-foot drop straight down into the Kidron valley.

The word we translate as “pinnacle” is the “winglet” (pterugion) of the temple.   The extreme edge or extremity, a cornice: like the deadman’s plank stretched out over the side of a ship.  Imagination sets him tottering precariously on the edge.   I wonder was Jesus at the edge of a cliff, and as he hallucinates, it appears to him as the wingtip of the temple?

The word comes, “throw yourself down! – but not as a suicide.  You will come to no harm; after all you are the Beloved Son of God.  He will ensure his angels protect you from harm.”

The inference is; “as the Son of God you will not need to suffer.  Do anything you like, you will be safe.  God loves you too much to allow pain into your life.  You are really superman, and even kryptonite can’t harm you.  Jumping off the cliff won’t phase you.  You are immune from the sufferings that mortals are subject to.”

And this temptation is strong.  He, along with all of us, wants to avoid pain.  We meet the same desire in Gethsemane. “O my Father … let this cup pass from me.”  The desire is natural. Suffering is to be avoided –  but, not at all costs.

But this temptation has another facet to it.   Why does imagination take him to the temple?

Why the temple?

Perhaps it was a place of safety & sanctuary, unlike the alien threatening wilderness.  If evil spirits dwell in the desert, he would be glad to exchange it for the presence of God in the temple.  Who wouldn’t leave the habitation of dragons in exchange for the building that was beautiful for situation, the joy of the whole earth.  Matthew calls it The Holy City.

But there is a more significant reason.  Talmudic tradition tells us that on the top of the roof of the temple itself, each morning a priest would stand with a trumpet in his hands, waiting for the first flush of dawn.  At first light he would blow the trumpet to let the people know that the new day had begun and the hour of the morning sacrifice had arrived.   Is this the way that Jesus should announce the dawning of a new day?

But there is a more crucial meaning intended in the temptation. Malachi 3:1 reads “The Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to His temple.”  The Talmud – Pesiqta Rabbati – interprets it this way, “When the King, The Messiah, reveals himself, he will come and stand on the roof of the temple.”

Simon Magus, it was said, had promised to fly through the air, and had perished in the attempt.  Was it a messianic expectation? Was Jesus being tempted to do the ”Messianic Thing” to prove to himself and the crowd that he was their long awaited Messiah?  By the way, when Jesus did suddenly come to the temple, it was to clear it of its foul commerce. Not quite what the traditionalists expected!

The Psalm

The Psalm that Satan quoted from is Psalm 91 and the Rabbis had interpreted that Psalm as a Messianic Psalm.   It is the Messiah’s right to be protected from all evils. Listen to its awesome words.  Notice as the words;  the fall, the wings, the stones, the angels, and the animals.

You who live in the shelter of the Most High,
Who abide under the shadow of the Almighty,
Will say to the Lord, “My refuge and my fortress,
My God in whom I trust.”
For He will deliver you from the snare of the fowler
And from the deadly pestilence,
He will cover you with his pinions
And under his wings you will find refuge.
His faithfulness is a shield and a buckler.
You need not fear the terror of the night
Or the arrow that flies by day,
Or the pestilence that stalks in the darkness
Or the destruction that wastes at noonday.
A Thousand may fall at your side.
Ten thousand at your right hand,
But it will not come near you.
You will only look upon it with your eyes
And see the punishment of the wicked.
Because you have made the Lord your refuge,
The Most High your dwelling place
No evil shall befall you
No scourge come near your tent.
For he will command his angels concerning you
To guard you in all your ways.
On their hands they will bear you up
So that you will not dash your foot against a stone.
You will tread on the lion and the adder,

The young lion and the serpent
You will trample under foot.
He who loves me, I will deliver;
I will protect him who knows my name.
When he calls to me, I will answer him.
I will be with him in trouble.
I will rescue him and honour him
With long life I will satisfy him
And show him my salvation.

What a powerful temptation!!!  If Jesus personalizes this scripture passage, it will become a made-to-measure temptation.  It is saying to one whom God has called to suffer and die; “you will be protected from pain, you are promised a long life, so the way of the cross must be an allusion.  Since, if, presuming … you are the Son of God, you can come to no harm.  God would never allow such a thing.”

Bad means to a good end. 

Some have suggested that this may be the temptation to use bad means towards fulfilling a good end.

The expected Messiah will come and dazzle the crowds. A Barnum & Bailey circus high wire act would be great.  Bungee jumping without a rope would be stunning!  The crowds would follow him as they would follow any such Houdini-like conjurer who could pull surprises out of a hat on request.   A miracle mongering Messiah was always going to be a sure hit.

But have you noticed, Jesus will always be reluctant to do a miracle for the miracle’s sake.  Moved by compassion he will do the necessary miracle, and then retreat from the spotlight offering some version of “Tell no one!”

Jesus’ own brothers suggest he go to Jerusalem to show himself to the world at the feast of tabernacles.  Jesus responds, “My time (to die) has not yet come.”   And then he goes up secretly, going against their advice of putting on a public display.  But instead he will say “if I be lifted up I will draw all men to me,” speaking, however, of his death, not his miracles.

An interesting note comes from the martyrdom of James the Just, the brother of Jesus, Tradition describes him being thrown down from the “winglet” of the temple prior to his being stoned.

If the temptation of the bread was to tempt him to look after himself, this a temptation is saying, “God will take care of you.” This may also be a temptation to take the road of religious fanaticism and leaps of faith. For this reason we should hesitate in using the phrase “leap of faith” since it has diabolical origins.

The danger of scripture

Jesus loves the word of God.  He has just proclaimed its importance.  Satan rides in on those very tracks that Jesus has just laid, but with insidious intent!  Scriptural justifications appeal to a good man.  If the Bible says it, that should settle it, or so we are prone to think.  Peter reminds us that some twist the scriptures to their own destruction.  Satan wants to twist it to the destruction of Jesus.  Beware the Bible quoter!

Satan uses a passage from the hymnbook of Israel, Psalm 91:11-12.

For he will command his angels concerning you
(To guard you in all your ways.)
On their hands they will bear you up
So that you will not dash your foot against a stone.

But he misquotes it, leaving out a pertinent section. In Matthew’s text he leaves out the entire phrase, “To guard you in all your ways” (Luke’s text only omits “in all your ways”).  But this may be a significant omission.  “The Way” Jesus was to go in had nothing to do with his safety.  He was to go the way of the cross, and he would ask no angels to save him from that.   He will refuse to call 12 legions of angels when the final crisis erupts, (Matt 26:53)

Pushing the limits

Is Satan suggesting that Jesus take the route of unnecessary danger by putting his head into every noose he sees?   Is he asking Jesus to be a risk-taker?  But notice the hesitancy in Jesus rushing towards his death.

  • When he changes water to wine, this brings him out into the open earlier than he wanted. “My time is not yet come” he says to his mother.
  • When Lazarus dies, and Jesus makes plans to go to Jerusalem, Thomas knows that it is a death warrant for Jesus.
  • The brothers tempt him to do the public thing, and Jesus knows its danger.
  • He escapes beyond the Jordan from Herod that old fox.  “My time has not yet come” dominates these dangerous moments.

There is no cowardice in this resolute man, but there is caution and uncommon sense.

Satan is promoting not faith, but presumption, when he promises the help of God if Jesus jumps. Only fools try to force God’s hand.  Something similar takes place in the final days of the Jewish state. Simon Bar Kochba, the Jewish pseudo-messiah in 125 AD, decides to march on Rome with banners flying carrying sacred words. He is trying to force God to act dramatically. This dangerous testing of God and Rome’s patience resulted in the Jewish resistance being mowed down and the final deportation of Jews from Palestine.

“You shall not tempt the Lord your God

The plural of the OT passage in Deuteronomy 6:16 is changed by Jesus into the much more direct singular, “You (Satan), shall not put God to the test.”

“One Lord a leaping” is not the wish of God, and Jesus does not want to require God to do anything that God would prefer not to do.  He wants to follow the leading of His Father.  Leaps of faith are dangerous to faith if they are attempts to force the hand of God.

Jesus wants to follow the Father, not have the Father follow him, and cover for him in self-made emergencies.  That is making God the servant of our whims, not the master of our lives.  God was His Lord not his lackey!

The Resolution

But Jesus has already faced the call of His Father to give his life as a ransom for the many.   The cross looms large before him.  He will not yield to the temptation.  If pain and loss are part of God’s plan, he will not avoid it.

And in that wilderness, Jesus says to the voice that spoke such appealing words, “Do not tempt the Lord your God.”  And at those words this temptation recedes into the background.  He is decided.  He is determined.

Determined not to use devious means to fulfill divine ends.
Determined not to confuse faith with presumption.
Determined not to avoid the cost, no matter how great, in doing the will of his father.

1 Response to 10. Pinnacle of the Temple

  1. T. Butler says:

    Enlightening. Thank you.

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