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  • Devin O'Donnell

The World, the Flesh, and the Devil

Updated: Apr 7

Yesterday, we returned to the narrative of Christ's temptation in the wilderness, a fitting passage to contemplate in the season of Lent. Matthew 4:1-11 reads,


Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. 2 And when He had fasted forty days and forty nights, afterward He was hungry. 3 Now when the tempter came to Him, he said, “If You are the Son of God, command that these stones become bread.” 4 But He answered and said, “It is written, ‘Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God.’ ” 5 Then the devil took Him up into the holy city, set Him on the pinnacle of the temple, 6 and said to Him, “If You are the Son of God, throw Yourself down. For it is written: ‘He shall give His angels charge over you,’and, ‘In their hands they shall bear you up, Lest you dash your foot against a stone.’ ” 7 Jesus said to him, “It is written again, ‘You shall not [a]tempt the Lord your God.’” 8 Again, the devil took Him up on an exceedingly high mountain, and showed Him all the kingdoms of the world and their glory. 9 And he said to Him, “All these things I will give You if You will fall down and worship me.” 10 Then Jesus said to him, “Away with you, Satan! For it is written, ‘You shall worship the Lord your God, and Him only you shall serve.’ ” 11 Then the devil left Him, and behold, angels came and ministered to Him.


Let's consider the classical triad of temptations taught throughout Church history. Peter Abelard in the 11th century states, "Tria autem sunt quae nos tentant: caro, mundus, diabolus." This means, "There are three things which tempt us, the flesh, the world, and the devil” (Expositiones). Similarly, in the Summa Theologica, St. Thomas states, "... just as man is tempted by the flesh, so too is he tempted by the world and the devil." Thus, of the 3 temptations that Christ suffers, he withstands all types.


We read in Hebrews 4 that "For we do not have a High Priest who cannot sympathize with our weaknesses, but was in all points tempted as we are, yet without sin" (v. 15). Notice that each temptation of Christ is representative of the three types of temptations against which every human struggles:

  • Temptation 1: the flesh → “If You are the Son of God, command that these stones become bread.”

  • Temptation 2: the worldThen the devil took Him up into the holy city, set Him on the pinnacle of the temple, 6 and said to Him, “If You are the Son of God, throw Yourself down. For it is written: ‘He shall give His angels charge over you,’ and, ‘In their hands they shall bear you up, Lest you dash your foot against a stone.’”

  • Temptation 3: the devil → the devil took Him up on an exceedingly high mountain, and showed Him all the kingdoms of the world and their glory. 9 And he said to Him, “All these things I will give You if You will fall down and worship me.”

The "world" and the "devil" in Matthew's account may be difficult to distinguish. After all, Satan says that he give him the "world" and all their glory. But the cost is "worship," which appeals to the moral anatomy of the chest, the "thymotic," or the affections and passions in the heart. This involves love. Worship has everything to do with what we love. This is why "love" is the principle verb in the greatest commandment (Matt. 22:36-40). We become like what we really love and what we set above all else to give ourselves to in "worth-ship." So this temptation appeals to that part of man wherein his desires reside.

The "world" association listed above may seem strange. What so important about hurling oneself off the temple tower? This appeals to the "noetic" part of man, his sense of grandeur and greatest. Here the devil is appealing to the tragic hero inside of us all, though as we see Christ has no fatal flaw of hubris, nor does he fall into a coddling a sense of tragic resignation to defy the gods and the world and to dare the angels to "bear him up" in worldly glory. He, quite literally, doesn't fall for it.


This puts us in mind of other verses that mention a trio of temptations. In 1 John 2, we read, "For all that is in the world—the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life—is not of the Father but is of the world" (v. 16). We can debate how these might align, since it is not quite obvious. But when we look at the Parable of the Sower in Matthew 13, we see a much closer alignment with the world, the flesh, and the devil.


Consider further...


Each of these temptations represents some aspect of what it means to be human. But in each of these statements, the devil smuggles in a lie about what it means to be human. Consider the first lie regarding the flesh. Man is both body and soul, and the body is the "flesh" (corpus et caro). One aspect of being human is that we have a body. We are embodied creatures. This is why philosophers have said man is a “rational animal.” In other words, man has a rational soul combined with a body that functions like the other animals. The bible simply expresses this as God’s “image and likeness” (Gen. 1:26).


Milton says:

“Man hath his daily work of body or mind

Appointed, which declares his dignity,

And the regard of Heaven on all his ways;

While other animals unactive range,

And of their doings God takes no account.

Having a body means that we suffer hunger but also feel the pleasure of a full tummy with good food and drink (Ratatouille proves this best)


But sometimes the pleasure or pain we feel in the body (caro, carnis) means that our desires become fixed on the flesh. We end up becoming like a beast of the field (remember Nebuchadnezzar). The result is that we only think and act purely like an animal, not considering that other part of who we are: the stamp of God’s likeness, the soul. Jesus tells us, “And do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell” (Matt. 10:28).


So, how does Jesus respond? He responds to the devil with God’s word. And he quotes from Deuteronomy 8:2-3: “And you shall remember that the Lord your God led you all the way these forty years in the wilderness, to humble you and test you, to know what was in your heart, whether you would keep His commandments or not. So He humbled you, allowed you to hunger, and fed you with manna which you did not know nor did your fathers know, that He might make you know that man shall not live by bread alone; but man lives by every word that proceeds from the mouth of the Lord.


So, what is in man’s heart, his desire, is evident by the choices he makes. And when those choices seek to satisfy his flesh over satisfying his soul, then the man falls into sin. Christ, however, defeats this by proving he is not simply a beast, an animal that satisfies his body. He proves man is not a beast through his self-denial and honor of God. It’s about worship. Do we worship the body or the Lord who made our bodies?


Right worship involves self-denial, which is also the key to overcoming temptation. "If anyone would come after me," Jesus says, "let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me" (Mark 8:34).



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Agenda for the WEEK:

  1. Prayer

  2. Continue study of Matthew 4 & the Temptation of Christ

  3. Read THE ODYSSEY

  4. Monday (4/4) — read up to line 142,

  5. Tuesday (4/5) — read up to line 250

  6. Wednesday (4/6) — finish Book 2

  7. Thursday (4/7)

  8. Read Herodotus

  9. Answer the next questions in your reading.

REVIEW HW:

  1. Be perfect as your Father in heaven is perfect. Pray, that you may not stumble.

  2. Read your Dig Deep!

  3. Read Odyssey and finish Book II!

  4. Complete your reflections in your journal by Friday.


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COCK, Jan Wellens de Temptation of St Anthony 1520s Oil on wood, Christian Museum, Esztergom

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