James Denney in his sermon “Wrong Ways to the Kingdom” considers the three temptations of Jesus and applies them to the functioning of the Church. While his sermon was published in 1911, the applications he makes concerning the Church have more pertinence today than when he published them.
The basis upon which he applies the temptations of Christ to the entire Church are based upon the nature of Christ’s work:
They are not the temptations of a private person, but of the person whose calling it was to establish the kingdom of God in the world; and they have the interest for all of throwing light on the true nature of that kingdom by exposing alike false though seductive conceptions of it, and false though alluring paths which might be supposed to lead to it. It is a wrong way to put this if we say that the temptations are not personal, but official; there is no proper sense in which the term official can be connected with Jesus. They are the temptations of the person whose calling it was to bring in the kingdom of God, and they recur to every one who is interested in the same age-long task. They are the temptations of all churches, of all Christian workers, of all who have ideals in their life at all. It is necessary to be on our guard against false ideals, and even more against false methods of pursuing true ones.
James Denney, The Way Everlasting: Sermons (London; New York; Toronto: Hodder and Stoughton, 1911), 190–191.
Denney’s text is Matthew 4 which means he ends his sermon with the temptation to give homage to Satan (as opposed to Luke who ends with the temple).
The first temptation is to turn stones into bread.
From this Denney notes that the relationship with God must supersede physical and practical matters: However important temporal realties must be, they are temporary and not ultimate:
Must we take our life into our own hands as though God were a word without meaning? Jesus endured this temptation and overcame. Even under the pangs of hunger he held fast not simply His integrity like Job, but His Sonship. His relation to God remained deeper, more vital, more certain than anything that could befall Him; no privation or pain whatsoever would make Him renounce God, or live in any other relation to Him than that of a trustful and obedient child. And is not this power to assert the superior reality of the inward and spiritual against all that is outwardly disconcerting the very pith of true religion? We need not pretend to understand the purpose of all privations, or say that we can justify the ways of God with man to the last detail: but if there is not in man a power to assert his sonship through privations and in spite of them, our Lord has lived in vain.
James Denney, The Way Everlasting: Sermons (London; New York; Toronto: Hodder and Stoughton, 1911), 192. This does not mean that Jesus was unconcerned with the temporal and physical concerns of life:
Once, moved with compassion, He did feed five thousand men in a desert place.
But here is the issue as it applies to the Church? What was the effect of taking care of a physical need?
But what was the result? It was that this first temptation recurred: they wanted to take Him by force and make Him their king. This was the kingdom they wanted, a kingdom built on bread. But it was not the kingdom Jesus had come to set up. He withdrew Himself from that multitude, and retired to pray with God alone. He sent out the Twelve to face the rising storm on the lake, and in laborious toil and imminent danger of death forget this spurious hope.
Jesus rejected the “kingdom of bread” as the basis for his kingdom:
And soon after, in the synagogue at Capernaum, He spoke the searching words that drove the bread-seeking disciples from Him and showed the true basis of the kingdom. “Ye seek Me, not because ye saw the signs, but because ye did eat of the loaves and were filled. Labour not for the meat which perisheth, but for that which endureth unto eternal life.” Jesus was the friend of the poor, who went about doing good, but He felt it to be a temptation of the devil to base His kingdom on bread, and to count upon an allegiance evoked by loaves and fishes.
James Denney, The Way Everlasting: Sermons (London; New York; Toronto: Hodder and Stoughton, 1911), 193.
Denney then turned the issue to the matter of the present day. First, the Church is always tempted to turn itself into a social agency, a kingdom of bread. In response to this temptation, the world turns it into an accusation: Why aren’t you (only) a kingdom of bread? Why aren’t you solving this social problem? To which Denney retorts, What would be left of such good work if the church removed itself?
We are seeing the results now as Christian organizations which do not adhere to contemporary moral positions (such as on sexuality) are forbidden to operate? How much foster and adoption work will be left when Christians who adhere to a biblical morality are forbidden to foster and adopt and run agencies which help with such things?
Denney ends with a discussion of what could be called “social justice”. At the time of his writing, there was no “social justice” concerns which would go beyond or would have been contrary to biblical concerns (for instance, concern for the poor is unquestionably a biblical issue). Denney provides some guidance for us here which we should consider:
There are times when these are very unpopular things to say, and when there is therefore a strong temptation not to say them, but they were all said by Jesus. What comes first is sonship to God, faith in the Father, the love, trust, and obedience of a child; to this, everything else is to be postponed, in the possession of this every trial is to be overcome. The Church dare not enlist under the banner of those who think that a programme of what are called social reforms—the kind of reforms which can be carried in Parliament—will bring in the kingdom of God. It cannot do this any more than Jesus could enlist under the banner of those who would have made Him a king by force. It may quite well be its duty to sympathize with such reforms and to promote them; but it is its specific function to make plain that in the kingdom of God a perpetual primacy belongs to the spiritual, and that it may be the trial of any child of God, in humble faith in the Father, to maintain his sonship through hunger, pain, and death.
James Denney, The Way Everlasting: Sermons (London; New York; Toronto: Hodder and Stoughton, 1911), 194–195.
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