When our preeminent identity as followers of Jesus is (or ought to be) “in Christ,” does that mean we will no longer engage in conflict?
No, conflict happens!
However, it does mean that we will engage in conflict differently. The causes of conflict and our responses will be different. In other words, we will engage in conflict more like Jesus Christ.
To learn something about how Jesus engages in conflict, let’s focus on his temptation or testing in the desert.
We read of this conflict in Matthew 4:1-11, Mark 1:12-13, and Luke 4:1-13. Mark records the incident in these cryptic terms:
At once the Spirit sent him out into the desert, and he was in the desert forty days, being tempted by Satan. He was with the wild animals, and angels attended him.
This text conveys a sense of immediacy and purpose.
Immediacy is expressed by the phrases “at once” or “immediately” together with “sent out,” which other translations render as “drove out” (NET, ESV, ASV, NKJ), “impelled” (NASB), and “compelled” (NLT).
Purpose is implied by the Greek word peirazō, translated as “tempted” or “tested.” One definition of this word is “to discover the nature or character of something [or someone] by testing” (BDAG).
Matthew and Luke add to this sense of purpose when they write that “Jesus was led by the Spirit into the desert to be tempted by the devil” (Matthew 4:1; cf., Luke 4:1). There is a definite divine intentionality to the testing of Jesus.
Why is Jesus tempted, or what is the divine purpose in his testing?
Immediately before the record of the temptation in the wilderness, Jesus’ public ministry is inaugurated as he is baptized in the Jordan River by John the Baptist (Matthew 3:13-17; Mark 1:9-11; Luke 3:21-22; John 1:29-34).
Here’s the scene (Matthew 3:16-17):
As soon as Jesus was baptized, he went up out of the water. At that moment heaven was opened, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and lighting on him. And a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.”
So far in Matthew, Jesus’s identity is a male descendant of Abraham and David (1:1-17). Now we have a greater revelation of his identity as God, the Father, proclaims:
“This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.”
This divine declaration conflates or interweaves two Old Testament texts:
These texts identify Jesus Christ as God’s King and Servant.
Now, let’s look briefly at the following conflicts, as recorded by Matthew.
After fasting forty days and forty nights, [Jesus] was hungry. The tempter came to him and said, “If you are the Son of God, tell these stones to become bread.” Jesus answered, “It is written: ‘Man does not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.’”
The tempter’s words are prefaced with “if you are the Son of God.” This is the identity of Jesus Christ proclaimed by God, the Father, shortly before. As indicated by the texts of Psalm 2 and Isaiah 42, this identity is not a position to be exploited but a relationship of service as the divine king.
Having gone without food for forty days, the expedient solution would be to miraculously produce food by transforming some stones into bread. However, that behavior would have been an expression of independence from the Father, who had led him into the desert for the express purpose of being tested.
Jesus’ behavior was consistent with his identity. He responds by quoting Deuteronomy 8:3. By looking at the fuller text in which Moses recites the faithfulness of God to Israel in the Wilderness, we grasp what is at stake (Deuteronomy 8:2-3):
Remember how the LORD your God led you all the way in the desert these forty years, to humble you and to test you in order to know what was in your heart, whether or not you would keep his commands. He humbled you, causing you to hunger and then feeding you with manna, which neither you nor your fathers had known, to teach you that man does not live on bread alone but on every word that comes from the mouth of the LORD.
The purpose of being led in the desert was “to humble you and to test you in order to know what was in your heart.” To avoid the testing is to avoid the purpose.
Where Israel failed, Jesus remained faithful. As he is tested or tempted, Jesus Christ remains steadfastly obedient, manifesting what was in his heart. He will not act independently from his Father. His behavior in this conflict is rooted in his identity as the Son of God.
Then the devil took him to the holy city and had him stand on the highest point of the temple. “If you are the Son of God,” he said, “throw yourself down. For it is written: ‘He will command his angels concerning you, and they will lift you up in their hands, so that you will not strike your foot against a stone.’” Jesus answered him, “It is also written: ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’”
Again, “If you are the Son of God,” jump off this high building in full view of everyone and miraculously get gently lowered to the ground. What a great way to guarantee instant popularity. Once more, this was an inducement to act independently from the Father— not in the relationship of service as the divine king.
Instead, Jesus answers with, “Do not put the Lord your God to the test” (4:7, quoting Deuteronomy 6:16).
Deuteronomy 6:16 says, “Do not test the LORD your God as you did at Massah.” Massah was a place in the Wilderness where Israel falsely accused the LORD of bringing them to a place where they would die of thirst (Exodus 17:1-7), questioning his care for them, even his presence. The final verse of that section is:
And he [Moses] called the place Massah and Meribah because the Israelites quarreled and because they tested the LORD saying, “Is the LORD among us or not?”
Where Israel failed, Jesus remained faithful. As he is tested or tempted, Jesus Christ remains steadfastly obedient. He relies upon God, his Father, to do things in his way and his time. He will not act independently from his Father. His response is rooted in his identity as the Son of God.
Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor. “All this I will give you,” he said, “if you will bow down and worship me.” Jesus said to him, “Away from me, Satan! For it is written: ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve him only.’” Then the devil left him, and angels came and attended him.
Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor. “All this I will give you,” he said, “if you will bow down and worship me” (4:8-9).
The attraction is to gain all the world’s power immediately. Jesus could bypass a life of obedience, worship, and suffering— even his crucifixion. There is just one condition: “bow down and worship me.” It is a choice between submission to God or the devil.
Jesus’ path is submission to the Father, not power obtained apart from God— after all, his identity as “the Son of God” is rooted in the relationship of service as the divine king.
Jesus is secure in his identity and purpose: “Away from me, Satan! For it is written: Worship the Lord your God, and serve him only” (4:10). In this, the Lord Jesus quotes Deuteronomy 6:13, a warning against idolatry. Again, in this, Israel failed; Jesus was faithful. His response is rooted in his identity as the Son of God.
There is a backstory contrasting the faithful obedience of Jesus Christ in the desert with the unfaithfulness of Israel during the Exodus through the Wilderness, but we will not expand on that any further here.
Echoing our opening question, here are four things we can learn from Jesus Christ and his engagement in conflict. You might have more.
1. What is our true character?
The identity of Jesus Christ is encapsulated in the words of the Father:
“This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.”
In the solitude of the wilderness, Jesus was tested, and his behavior was utterly consistent with his identity. That testing manifested his true character.
So, it is with us. When we are tested through conflict with someone or something, what does it show of our true character? Is our behavior consistent with our professed identity of being “in Christ,” or are we exhibiting some other identity?
2. What is the conflict about?
In our current culture, Christians appear in many conflicts. I will keep this point general at this point in the series. We can drill down on some specific issues later.
We should ask what each conflict is about.
Begin asking these questions of yourself when drawn to enter into some controversy.
3. Is conflict inevitable?
Like Christ, living in a way consistent with our God-ordained identity will involve conflict.
In a world that does not submit to or even acknowledge the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the identity of being “in Christ” and the behavior that is consistent with that identity will attract ridicule, opposition, and even persecution.
Here is what Paul wrote to Timothy (2 Timothy 3:12):
In fact, everyone who wants to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted.
I suppose the questions we should ask are:
4. Testing is not pleasant.
The testing of our character is neither pleasant nor comfortable. To have a Christ-like or godly character is to behave consistently with our identity of being “in Christ.” This will involve suffering.
The vital issue of suffering is a significant topic that we will address at another time.
For the moment, here is an insight into the present activities of the Lord Jesus for us (Hebrews 4:15):
For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted [peirazō] in every way, just as we are— yet was without sin.
Jesus Christ has experienced every temptation or testing that we face. Yet, he never succumbed or failed in that testing. For this reason, he understands what we experience and is able to sympathize and intercede for us.
Here is one further issue to consider: How do identity, behavior, and character relate to each other?
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Photo credit: Judean wilderness
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