True Authority (Lent #18)

The beginning of Christ’s Second Temptation

And the devil took him up and showed him all the kingdoms of the world in a moment of time, and said to him, “To you I will give all this authority and their glory, for it has been delivered to me, and I give it to whom I will. If you, then, will worship me, it will all be yours.” And Jesus answered him, “It is written,

“‘You shall worship the Lord your God,
and him only shall you serve.’” (Luke 4:5-8, ESV)

A life of self-renouncing love
Is a life of liberty.

Anna Waring

The intriguing question surrounding this text is: Was the devil’s offer legitimate? Could he really offer Jesus all the kingdoms of the world?

There is a double truth here: The devil could not offer Jesus what he did not have; and yet, in an even truer sense, even the devil’s dominion rightfully belongs to God, and is only “enemy-occupied territory,” as C. S. Lewis famously said.

In 1893, a wily adventurer found and claimed an ugly, uninhabited island in the mid-Atlantic, 800 miles from the nearest coast. He assumed the title Prince James I, designed a flag, a coat of arms, and postage stamps. Using his father-in-law’s money, he even commissioned a jeweler to make him a crown!

James appointed a few ministers, opened a consular office in New York, and began printing bonds for “The Principality of Trinidad,” as he named his supposed kingdom. His economic plan was to fund the new state by exporting guano and hidden treasure—although he hadn’t found any yet. (Yes, we’re talking about a true story.)

The catch is, the Portuguese had a prior claim to the island. Prince James’ crown might as well have been made of paper.

In 1895, when a British navy boat annexed the little island for a cable station, Brazilian authorities took offense, stating that Portuguese explorers had found the island first. Neither Brazil nor the UK took much notice of Prince James, in spite of his beautiful crown and postage stamps! Thus, in 1895, three parties were all laying claim to this five-mile-long island in the remote South Atlantic: Brazil, the British, and a crown-wearing dude named James with a rich father-in-law.

The British had the might; Brazil had the right; but Prince James was still squatting in that barren island, hoping to assemble an army using profits from selling bird poop.

The devil has neither the might, nor the right; but he is still here, occupying the land. He has usurped authority over the inhabitants of this planet, and most tolerate his presence. The devil has made a claim to our planet, and—worst of all—we helped him do it! He tells Jesus that all this glory “has been delivered to” him. He came to Adam and Eve as one of the lowest animals, a snake; after they fell prey to his scheme, he is known as “the prince of the power of the air.”

We enter here into the deepest and most mysterious themes of the Bible. God told Adam and Eve to fill the earth and subdue it. The first divine commission was one of authority; we were to tend the ground, and subdue it to God’s purposes. And yet, when Adam and Eve tried to seize authority by pandering to the serpent, they become disgraced, and their authority is compromised. And yet, the believer can say no to compromise, knowing that only humility in Christ leads to honor.

In one of Lewis’ novels, the hero is fighting a demonic power seeking to occupy the planet Perelandra. He faces the demonic representative day after day. Ransom exclaims how he wishes that God had a representative in Perelandra—then it dawns on him that he is that representative. God had given him an authority that both preceded and superseded that of his enemy.

This is the dignity that God gives to humanity, and he gives it to us most clearly in the conquering work of Jesus. Jesus has a prior claim; he has a larger sphere of authority; and when we submit to him, we have no need to consider the devil’s puny offer.

Jesus was the rightful king, and if he offered obeisance to the devil, he would in fact be surrendering that kingship. It was only by resisting the devil that he retained his right to the prior claim, the deeper law from before time began: “The earth is the Lord’s, and everything in it.”

Thank you, Lord, that when I renounce my right to myself and my little kingdom, I find out the power of your kingdom. I find out who I am meant to be when I lay my authority at your feet.
Amen.

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