When we boil the idea of government down to its most basic component, it is a notion of “power.” We fight over who has it, how to get it, and what to do with it. Sure, our purposes for the power of government are noble and just. And, obviously, the other guy will do horrible things.

Maybe there is a different, better way?

In 1 Cor. 10:13 we find this helpful reminder: “No temptation has overtaken you that is not common to man.”

This is why the third temptation of Jesus, after 40 days in the wilderness, is so striking. You’ll recall that he was first tempted with food to meet his most basic needs after fasting. Jesus demurred. Next, the temptation was to achieve earthly acclaim by jumping from the temple so everyone could see him being rescued by angels. Nope.

Finally, the Gospel of Matthew records that Jesus was taken to a high mountain by Satan and shown the kingdoms of the world. “All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.” Let’s not rush too quickly to the punch line. After all, the tempter did indeed have this “authority” to give. It was, from a certain perspective, a reasonable offer to entertain.

You’ve heard of politicians making deals with the devil? Here is that deal in its most honest form. The tempter was giving Jesus the opportunity to take power without suffering the indignity of what was to come: dining with lepers and tax collectors, preparing sermons, and getting crucified. “Here, Jesus, is a shortcut to power!”

Jesus had the chance to do so much good, right? He could enact moral laws! He could compel the doom of evildoers! He could wield the scepter of earthly power to the benefit of all mankind!

He just had to do one, little thing…

“Be gone, Satan!” is how Jesus began His reply before quoting from Deuteronomy: “You shall worship the Lord your God and him only shall you serve.”

I worry a lot about people who seem so eager to take up the devil’s offer, seeming to hope Jesus will let us make a different choice for ourselves in His name. Trust us, they seem to cry, we can make this deal with the devil and do great Christian things!

If Jesus, God incarnate, knew that He should not take that deal with the devil to grab political power over the affairs of men… what makes us think we should do so in His name?

Hoping not to tread too far into heresy, let us imagine Jesus Christ had ditched His Father’s plan for the world and given in. One could say the earth would have been full of “Christian” nations… in name. The branding would be in place, though not the substance.

Do we want to be a Christian nation in name or in practice? 

When God gave Moses the law, it was in the context of a decentralized, self-governing nation without a king. The people were to learn how to govern themselves. They gave it a go but gave up because it was hard.

Our Founding Fathers wanted us to be Christian in practice, but we, too, have found it to be hard. Like the ancient Israelites, we’ve looked around and seen all the other nations with big governments worshiping at the altar of secular humanism and decided to follow them.

The results have been soul-crushing.

Working out the intersection of faith, culture, and government is difficult. That is why that third temptation aimed at Jesus so easily ensnares so many of us. It is why we must be so diligent in seeking the strength to overcome it.

Our self-governing republic was purpose-built to restrict the self-serving ways of the power-grabbing, freedom-destroying, joy-killing princes of our world. That they have tried (and even succeeded!) is not a repudiation of the republican ideal but a reminder that we must work harder as citizens if we are to achieve something better in this world.

Wielding great earthly power won’t make ours a Christian nation, but lovingly evangelizing our fellow citizens will. We must not turn a blind eye to those who abuse government power any more than delude ourselves into thinking we have the moral capacity to use big government better than they have. As people of faith, we should not abandon civil government but approach our use of it with the moral caution that history proves is required.

Let us follow Jesus in rejecting the temptation to seize worldly power apart from God’s promises. We must be about the business of humbly serving Him and those around us.

The framers of our republic wisely restricted the scope of government to limit the temptation to abuse government power, even for good. We should reclaim that vision for the actual good of ourselves, our neighbors, and our posterity.

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