I used to read the temptation of Christ in Matthew 4:1-11 through the lens of individual piety. But now I think it serves up important cautions to the church in how to imagine and fulfill God’s mission. I don’t think Satan was trying to get Jesus to prove that he was God’s Son. Instead Satan was saying, “If you are the Son of God, then your mission is . . . ”. I read this passage as Satan’s attempts to distort Jesus’ holistic mission as the Son of God who takes away the sins of the world.
These missional temptations are also very real for the church today. We too are tempted to distort God’s mission in various ways. These temptations include the attempts to reduce God’s mission to either activism, spiritualism, or imperialism.
During Jesus’ time, most people under the ancient Roman Empire’s yoke were just trying to survive. They were trying to put bread on the table. The temptation to turn stones into bread was asking Jesus to define his mission as meeting people’s needs for survival. There is nothing wrong with bread or with feeding the hungry. Jesus did that with five loaves and two fish. We can do a lot of good by helping people in poverty, bringing justice for people who are oppressed, and engaging in all sorts of social activism to make a better world. Those are all necessary work for Christians and the church. They are not optional.
But we cannot reduce God’s mission to social activism because “man does not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God” (Matt. 4:4). We cannot neglect the spiritual dimension of human life and the church’s task in proclaiming God’s Word.
However, we also should not fall into the temptation to reduce God’s mission to simply the spiritual dimension. We sometimes have gone to the other extreme of taking God’s Word too literally and out of context, as Satan did in Matt. 4:6, packaging religion into something that simply meets our spiritual fancies, whatever those may be—from seeking the miraculous to seeking intellectual certainty.
Jesus said, “Do not put the Lord your God to the test” (Matt. 4:7). Spiritualism turns good spirituality into self-serving consumption. Like the devil manufacturing a miracle to test God’s written Word, we can manipulate theology, music, piety, or even miracles to serve our own agendas, as if we can make God do our bidding.
The third temptation we experience is to turn mission into imperialism. Satan offered Jesus all the kingdoms of the world. Often we confuse God’s kingdom building with human empire building, even religious empire building. Coercive power over others can seem like a shortcut to missional success. The church has often fallen into the temptation to be powerful—even politically powerful—rather than loving.
God’s kingdom is not empire; it is centered on love, not power. We should never sell our souls to Satan in exchange for power. In God’s eyes, “success” in mission is measured by faithfulness—to worship God and serve God only. And worship means offering our lives to God as living sacrifices (Rom. 12:1). That means, at the very least, sacrificing our personal agendas, our pride, and all that we use to make ourselves worthy in our own eyes.
Jesus’ mission was not defined as either activism, spiritualism, or imperialism but included elements from all three. Jesus’ mission was centered on his sacrificial love on the cross.