By Justin Rossow
The First Sunday in Lent traditionally looks at the Temptation of Jesus. It’s the perfect Sunday to pull out a hymn I wrote for a competition at the Seminary 20 years ago. That hymn text actually took second or third place (I can’t remember which; that was two decades ago!) with the result that I got a gift certificate to the Seminary book store and the Seminary got the copyright to my hymn. (I kind of feel like I sold my inheritance for a bowl of bean soup…)
Looking back, I still really like the hymn, especially when you sing it to the tune of “Thy Strong Word,” nice and up-tempo. I think the central message is right on, and while I wouldn’t change a thing, I might add something.
That’s not quite right. I don’t think I would add anything to this hymn as it stands (you can read it below, or better yet, sing along!). But after 20 more years of learning and growing and following Jesus, I might write a companion hymn to a different tune that adds another layer of complexity.
The clear theme of the original hymn comes out in the title: “Christ, the Victor.” The temptation is Jesus standing in the place of sinners, fighting the fight we couldn’t hope to win, and securing for us an alien victory: a victory foreign to us, outside of us, and accomplished apart from us. I love that. And it clearly goes against the idea that we should see Jesus in his wilderness temptation as a kind of example or exemplar, as if we are supposed to emulate his battle and in so doing accomplish our own victory.
I’ve fought (and lost) enough battles with temptation to know that having Jesus as my model or my example or my coach just isn’t enough to secure the victory for me. I need a Jesus who fights my battles in my place and gives me a victory I could never win on my own, no matter how clear an example he sets.
The hymn text follows Matthew’s account of the Temptation most closely, and the themes of sonship and obedience shine through: the voice at Jesus’ baptism names Jesus God’s beloved Son, and the tempter immediately tests the meanings and boundaries of that title. Does being God’s beloved Son mean your will being done? No, Jesus answers, being God’s beloved Son means faithfully submitting to God’s will being done.
I stand by all of that. I believe, teach, and confess, that salvation is not a matter of Jesus giving me a solid example so I can work hard and be like him. Jesus wins the victory over sin, death, and devil, outside of me, for me, and on my behalf, without any merit or worthiness in me. Amen. Pass the plate.
And 20 years later, I would want to add a wrinkle. It starts by going back to the text and noticing some details we quickly gloss over.
The Temptation comes right on the heels of the Baptism of Jesus, and that’s important. The Father has declared Jesus as the beloved Son and, don’t forget, the Holy Spirit has descended on Jesus in bodily form. Jesus is, after all, the Anointed One, that is, the Anointed with the Holy Spirit One, and his mission will be lived out in the power of that Spirit. In fact, the Bible makes it clear that the Temptation is basically the Spirit’s fault.
Luke notes that Jesus comes away from his baptism “full of the Holy Spirit” and then says, get this, that the Spirit leads Jesus into the wilderness. (Luke 4:1. The Greek is simply agó: to lead or guide or carry.) Matthew says the Spirit “led Jesus up” to the wilderness to be tested by the devil, which makes sense, since the Jordan River is way down in a valley, and the wilderness of Judaea is halfway up the mountains. (Matt 4:1. The Greek is anagó: ana [up] + [agó] to lead = to lead or bring up.)
Mark, often the whimsical and slightly disturbing cousin of Matthew and Luke, says that the Spirit immediately (Mark’s favorite word) drives Jesus into the wilderness. (Mark 1:17. This Greek word is really something! ekballo comes from ek- [out of] and ballo [to throw] and means to cast out or drive out. In Mark, the Spirit tosses Jesus out into the wilderness to take on the devil!)
All three accounts are clear on this point: the Holy Spirit descended on Jesus in his baptism and right away puts Jesus into conflict with the tempter. The Spirit is in some sense running the show.
And here’s where I would add, maybe not an extra verse to my hymn, but another hymn to my hymnal. You see, the Spirit is still present and active in your life. The Spirit that descended on Jesus in his baptism also comes to you in yours. Jesus promised that those who follow him will receive the Spirit. The Spirit indwells you, just as the Spirit dwelt in Jesus; and in some sense, the Spirit is running your show.
The Spirit’s job is to make Jesus present to you and for you, to create and grow your faith, to increase your trust and dependence, and to shape you more and more into the image of the Beloved Son. The Spirit, who shaped the life of Jesus, shapes the life of Jesus in you. The Spirit conforms you to the image of Christ for the sake of others.
That means, on the one hand, that the Spirit was present and active as Christ, the Victor took on the devil in his temptation and won a victory I cannot win for myself. And it also means, that the Spirit is shaping Jesus’ struggle with temptation, his trust in God’s Word, his prayers of faith, and even his faithful victory over temptation in me.
I know it’s not enough to have Jesus as an example out there for me to aspire to. But I also know that Jesus isn’t out there somewhere as an example. The Spirit makes Jesus present for me. Jesus is near me and shaped in me. I don’t face the tempter with nothing but an example to follow. Like Jesus, I will come into conflict with the enemy of my soul; and when I do, the same Spirit who filled Jesus fills me. The same Word that Jesus relied on is still reliable for me. The same victory that Jesus won for me, outside of me, and in my place, is also with me, inside of me, and the work of the Spirit in me.
I still need Jesus as the Victor outside of me. And 20 years later, I have learned that, by the power of the Spirit, I also have Jesus, the Victor inside of me.
I’m still not on my own to fight temptation as best I can with Jesus as my example. And 20 years later, I am beginning to try and live out the fact that the Spirit is shaping me to look more and more like Jesus. I’ll still sing that hymn. And I’ll also pray, “Come, Holy Spirit, and shape Jesus is me. Amen.”
Christ, the Victor
Sung to EBENEZER (Thy Strong Word)
When the devil came to tempt Him In the lonely wilderness,
Christ, my Champion rose to battle Though yet clothed in humbleness.
See!—His flesh is tired and hungry.
See!—Here stands the Father’s Son.
Christ, the Victor! Christ, the Victor! Christ for me the vict’ry won!
Satan fights with deadly weapons—flaming darts, deceitful sword.
But my Jesus can’t be shaken—see Him wield God’s Holy Word!
See!—The Tempter tries to question
What it means to be God’s Son.
Christ, the Victor! Christ, the Victor! Christ for me the vict’ry won!
Far and wide the battle rages—Temple’s peak and mountain’s height.
And the hope of all creation Hangs in balance in the fight.
Hear the crafty taunts of Satan!
Hear the shout of vict’ry won:
“Go, Deceiver! Get behind Me! Still obedient is the Son!”
Mighty Champion! Glorious Savior! Valiant Victor! Conquering Lord!
In my place you waged my battle, Now forever be adored!
Hear the praises of Your people!
We proclaim what you have done:
“Christ, the Victor! Christ, the Victor! Christ for me the vict’ry won!”
Text by Justin Rossow, copyright © 2002 Pamela Anne Prevallet memorial Fund, Concordia Seminary, St. Louis, Missouri. https://www.csl.edu/wp-content/uploads/2012/02/2002-prevallet-winner-rossow.pdf
This interview with Dr. Leopoldo A. Sánchez M., Professor of Systematic Theology at Concordia Seminary—St. Louis, picks up on the themes of the Spirit’s work to shape the life of Jesus in us.
The last section of Chapter 9 of the book Delight! Discipleship as the Adventure of Loving and Being Loved also explores the difference between Jesus outside of you, up on a pedestal as an example for you to strive for and Jesus, near you and formed in you by the work of the Spirit.