The Lord Jesus Christ was tempted His entire earthly sojourn. From the cradle to the cross, Jesus of Nazareth was tempted to sin. If He ever succumbed to temptation, we would not have a Saviour.
The wilderness temptations are an important cameo into what Jesus experienced. These temptations were essential, for in His victory He fulfilled the antitype of being the true Israel, the true Vine of God. But this is not an exhaustive picture of what Jesus suffered. He would be tempted, again and again.
Perhaps He was tempted when Peter so vehemently sought to keep Him from the cross (Matthew 16:18–23; Mark 8:31–33).
Perhaps when the disciples (on many occasions) were selfishly thinking about themselves rather than of Jesus and His cross; perhaps at such a time Jesus was tempted to turn away. After all, such selfish ingratitude can be a powerful temptation to respond with self-preservation (Mark 9:33ff; etc.).
He was tempted “positively” when He entered Jerusalem. The hosanna cry of the crowd was a temptation to embrace the kingship offered to Him then and there. Their hosanna would be answered, but only in the right, God-ordained order.
He was tempted to turn away from the Father’s will when He was in the Garden of Gethsemane (Hebrews 12:4). Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ portrayed this quite powerfully by placing a serpent in the garden with Jesus as He prays.
I would venture to guess that, during the long night of an unjust trial, cruel and calloused and evil mockery and beatings, Jesus would have been tempted over and over to turn away from the cross and to let humanity receive her just wages of an eternity in hell. Yet throughout that ugly night, our Lord Jesus persevered.
But the temptations intensified even more. With the piercing of His hands, and with the bloody forcing of the crown of thorns on His head, the temptations perhaps even worsened still. Perhaps Mark 15:30 was one of the most tempting of any taunts that Jesus ever received.
The Timing of the Taunting Temptation
At this point, it was perhaps around midday. The sky was about to darken as the sun would “blush” in response to the disgraceful treatment by creatures of their Creator. But there was one possibility to avoid this: if Jesus listened and gave in to the taunts of His murderers.
Earlier in His ministry, Jesus had made the claim, after His first cleansing of the temple, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up” (John 2:19). Of course, as the disciples would later recall by the power of the Holy Spirit, Jesus was speaking of His body. As Carson notes,
Jesus was not claiming this His physical body serves adequately as the dwelling place of God. Rather He was emphasising “destroy this…”. That is, in His death, burial and resurrection men and women, boys and girls would be reconciled to God. As Paul said, we do not merely preach Christ, but rather Christ crucified.
But most on that day assumed that He was speaking of the five-story high temple, which had taken nearly fifty years to build. And on this dark day, nearly three years later, they were still thinking merely in material terms. It was with this mindset that “those who passed by blasphemed Him, wagging their heads and saying, ‘Aha! You who destroy the temple and build it in three days, save Yourself, and come down from the cross!’” (Mark 15:29–30). Adding insult to injury, “the chief priests also, mocking among themselves with the scribes, said, ‘He saved others; Himself He cannot save’” (v. 31).
I read recently in the book of Judges how Samson, in response to the tauntings of the Philistines, asked God for mercy to let him avenge the glory of God. God empowered Samson to topple the pavilion where some 3,000 Philistines were gathered. The enemies of God were destroyed and Israel was delivered by a human saviour—at the cost of his life. In a similar, and yet an eternally incomparable, way the same was about to happen on Golgotha. God gave Jesus the mercy to die, not primarily to destroy His enemies but to save them—to the glory of God. In fact, a mere fifty days later, He would save some three thousand (Acts 2). Truly, notes Carson, “the man who can’t save himself saves others.”
May I? Or, Can I?
When I was a child, my mother, along with numerous teachers, often corrected me when I would say, “Can I?” I should have been asking “May I?” For instance, I might ask, “Mom, can I go to my friend’s house?” Or, “Mom, can I have a cookie?” Or, “Teacher, can I move my desk?” The reply would frequently be, “I don’t know, can you?” That was my cue to correct myself and to ask, “May I?” In other words, the issue was not whether or not I had the ability to go to my friend’s house, eat a cookie or move my desk, but whether I had permission to do so.
“Can I?” is a question of ability; it is a question of power to do. “May I?” on the other hand, is a question of authority; it is a question of permission to do.
As we apply this to Jesus in the midst of this taunt, we need to contemplate that the question Jesus was facing was not about His ability to save Himself but rather whether He was allowed to save Himself. In a way that you and I have never faced, and will never face, Jesus was confronted with making the all important distinction between “can I?” and “may I?” Thankfully, He knew His grammar. Most importantly He knew His Father, and He knew His responsibility to honour Him by obeying Him.
The enemies of Christ (amongst whom we will count ourselves, if we are honest) needed the instruction of my mother. You see, there was never any question about the power of Jesus to do anything—including delivering Himself from the cross. Jesus of Nazareth was first of all Jesus from heaven. He was and is God. Therefore Jesus could do anything that was consistent with His divine character. At issue was whether or not He would do so.
Could He have turned stones into bread? No problem. Could He have survived a fall from the pinnacle of the temple? Absolutely. Could He have routed the temple guard that came to arrest Him? Certainly. Could He have called a legion of angels to rescue Him at the cross? In a millisecond. In none of these cases was it ever a matter of could; it was always a question of would. “May I?” and not “can I?” was always the question. And we should be eternally grateful that Jesus Christ chose not to exercise His power to do.
Settling the May I Question
There seems to be one time in His life when Jesus asked the Father, “May I?” We recently reflected on this as we examined Hebrews 12:4.
Jesus was praying in the garden and asked, “O My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from Me” (Matthew 26:39). It is as if Jesus was saying to the Father, “Dear God, it’s Thursday. Friday is coming, and I don’t like what is about to happen. Please may I be delivered?”
Certainly the Father had the ability to deliver Jesus from the cross. But the issue was, did the Father will to grant Jesus the permission to avoid the cross? That matter had been settled from before the foundation of the world. The answer was a compassionate, and perhaps even heart-breaking, no, and of course Jesus knew this. But His question reveals the knowledge of what lay before Him. More so, it reveals the depth of His commitment to and trust His heavenly Father. Therefore, in the same breath, Jesus answers his own question, “Nevertheless, not as I will, but as You will.”
Carson summarises: “The truth of the matter is that Jesus could not save himself, not because of any physical constraints, but because of a moral imperative.” His commitment to His heavenly Father, His affectionate focus on the “may I” question empowered Him to deal successfully with the “can you” question.
In other words, He was saying, “I am well aware that I can escape, but I know that I may not escape. That is, I may not if I will please you and accomplish the purpose for which I was sent.” In fact, the two were so intimately connected in the heart of Jesus that “may not” became a joyfully submissive, “I will not.”
The victory that Jesus secured in Gethsemane was carried to Golgotha. His proper response to, “Dear God, it’s Thursday” empowered Him to succeed when He cried out the next day, “Oh, My God, it’s Friday.”
The Persistence of the Temptation
As already noted, this temptation for Jesus to exercise His ability to escape the horror of Good Friday was persistent. In fact, an argument can be made that Jesus, throughout His entire life, always lived in the shadow of Good Friday.
This was apparent even to Mary only a few days after His birth (Luke 2:34–35). At the age of twelve Jesus informed His earthly parents that He must be about His Father’s (redemptive) business. At the wedding in Cana Jesus reminded Mary that His “hour” had not yet come (John 2:4), which is a Johannine way of speaking of Jesus’ cross work.
Parallels With Us
The point is that, like Jesus, we face the ongoing temptation to bypass Friday in order to rush to Sunday. But resurrection power will only be our experience to the degree that we willingly embrace our cross (Philippians 3:10). In other words, while there is much suffering that you can escape (by resisting the cross and the loyalty to Christ it calls for), it is usually better to stop and ask, “May I?” And the answer may be a resounding, blessed and loving, “No, for your soul’s sake you may not!”
You can either save yourself and lose yourself or lose yourself and save yourself. What Jesus was daily tempted with is what we are daily tempted by. Will you do what you can do or will you, like Jesus, and empowered by Jesus and His gospel, do what you should do?
Jesus lived in light of the “may I?” rather than controlled by the “can I?” Of course He could! He was God. He could have come down from the cross; He could have saved Himself. But Jesus had settled the “may I?” question long ago. If He pushed against His situation by demanding deliverance, He knew that all would be lost. He knew the rules, and to pursue the “may I” would have been disobedience.
Earlier in Mark, we have the record of Peter rebuking the Lord when He again told the disciples that He would be betrayed, arrested, beaten and crucified. Jesus in turn rebuked Peter in very strong words (8:31–33). In His response we see the very important distinction between can and may.
In vv. 34–38 we read,
When He had called the people to Himself, with His disciples also, He said to them, “Whoever desires to come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow Me. For whoever desires to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for My sake and the gospel’s will save it. For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world, and loses his own soul? Or what will a man give in exchange for his soul? For whoever is ashamed of Me and My words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of him the Son of Man also will be ashamed when He comes in the glory of His Father with the holy angels.”
Jesus was saying, “Yes, you can choose to save your life from the hardships that attend embracing Me as your Lord and Saviour. Yes, you have the ability to say no; in fact, you have been exercising that ability all along. But at what ultimate cost? At the eternal cost of your soul.”
On the other hand, the disciple, by God’s grace, may lose his life for Christ’s sake and the gospels. In so doing, he will, in fact, save his life. Carson observes, “Although your own death to self-interest never functions with the same atoning significance as the death of Jesus, the same principle applies to us: in dying we live, in denying ourselves we find ourselves, as we take up our cross and follow Jesus.”
If He Had Come Down
Now, this is important for several reasons. In fact, it is this statement that shed so much light on Jesus’ response to these evil tauntings.
Jesus could have come down from the cross, but had He done so He would have lost His life. Let that sink in. Let that sink in very deeply.
This is, no doubt, why Jesus responded so strongly to Peter’s suggestion that He not go through with the cross. Jesus was well aware that if He chose to bypass or come down from the cross, He would, in fact, have been rebelling against the Father’s will. For Jesus to have turned away from the cross would have been a sin. He would have failed His Father, and as unimaginable as it is, He would have failed like the first Adam and lost His soul—and ours with His.
I am well aware that Jesus is the God-Man and that He therefore could not sin. But that is, in this case, beside the point. The reality is that Jesus was fully tempted to push against the Father’s “you may not” by exercising His “I can.” Thank God He did not! To cite Carson again, “It was not nails that held Jesus to that wretched cross; it was his unqualified resolution, out of love for his Father, to do his Father’s will—and within that framework, it was his love for sinners like me. He really could not save himself.”
The Power of the Temptation
Understand that the power of the temptation was unimaginable in Jesus’ case, but quite imaginable in ours. We desire to promote self; we desire to protect self (that is, to preserve self). We do not want to look like a fool; we don’t want to miss out on what often appears to be a “good time” and the “good life.” We certainly don’t want to suffer. But this is precisely what we are called to (1 Peter 1:21). Perhaps more clearly, as Paul wrote to the Philippians, “For to you it has been granted on behalf of Christ, not only to believe in Him, but also to suffer for His sake” (Philippians 1:29).
The Power of the Cross
As we learn in 1 Peter 2, we are called to follow the example of our Saviour. When Jesus suffered He did not respond in kind. Rather, He committed Himself to Him who judges righteously (1 Peter 2:23). Literally, Jesus continued to commit, to entrust Himself to the hand of the Father.
The cross work of Jesus Christ is our only hope for being made right with God. But once we are justified, our ongoing sanctification will often require that we stop with the obsession of “can I?” and replace it with the appropriate question: “May I?”
Like Jesus, we will find ourselves often tempted and yet, like Jesus, we need to respond with, “I will not, for the Father has something far more wonderful planned for me.” Such a Christ-centred, cross-centred approach to life is powerful. Note v. 32 in this regard: “Let the Christ, the King of Israel, descend now from the cross, that we may see and believe.”
Of course, the initial reaction to this taunting is, “Really?” They had witnessed His many miracles and yet did not believe. Further, had Jesus come down from the cross, He would been behaving like the rest of self-centred, God-disobeying humanity. The power of the cross to save is revealed, not in some powerful manifestation of escape, but rather in the powerful miracle of complete submission. What we could not do, Jesus did for us (see 1 Corinthians 1:18–25). When you truly see Jesus dying in your place, suffering for your sins, then (and only then) you will believe. Otherwise, you are as foolish as those who taunted Jesus so long ago.
The Precipice of the Temptation
The cry of dereliction, “My God, My God, why have you forsaken Me?” (v. 34; Matthew 27:46; cf. Psalm 22:1) is a phrase so sacred that it must be approached with fear and trembling.
This is a fathomless statement: God forsaken of God. Though some theologians dispute that description, I cannot see how to avoid this conclusion. The Son of God was indeed forsaken by God the Father.
We know why this took place: because Jesus, who knew no sin, became sin for us. And Jesus, of course, knew this. Yet His question was one of deep agony. Further, it was also one of deep loyalty. Jesus referred to His Father as “God”—“My God.” It was a cry, not of criticism, but rather of deep and submissive commitment. It was a cry of trust. It is as if the Lord was using the words of Job: “Though He slay me, yet will I trust Him” (Job 13:15).
They Why that Enabled the “Why?”
Why was it that Jesus could and would endure such suffering for sinners at the hand of His Father? Why, having prayed, “Dear God, it’s Thursday” would He, a mere twelve hours later, voluntarily suffer and, in spiritual agony, cry out, “Oh, My God, it’s Friday”? What made this possible?
Jesus could do this, and Jesus would do this, because He was completely secure in the faithfulness of His heavenly Father. He knew that the end result would be worth it all. It is for this reason that the writer to the Hebrews tells us that Jesus, “for the joy that was set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame” (12:2).
Jesus was completely secure in the covenantal faithfulness of His Father. We must be as well. In fact, by God’s grace, we both can and may be.
The promise is sure. And when we believe this we will be empowered to lay all that we have and all that we are on the line for our Lord. We will have a proper value system, and all the taunting temptations of this world will prove impotent against our resolve to serve the Lord.
There is too much at stake for us to forsake the cross (the gospel of the person and work of Jesus); and there is too much at stake for us to forsake the cross that Jesus has commanded us to take as we follow Him. If we give in to the taunts and temptations of the world we might save our life in this world while losing it in the next. Jesus said so. And He exemplified perfectly what He exhorted.
Yes, we will face difficult challenges. Yes, we will have days when we cry out, “Dear God, it’s Thursday.” And many of those will be followed by times of pain and sorrow when we cry out, “Oh, my God, it’s Friday.” Yet we will persevere because we know what is around the corner: “Thank God, it’s Sunday!”