Satan offered Jesus unlimited political power to achieve his messianic mission if only he accepted him as his overlord.
In the wilderness, Satan tempted Jesus by offering him political power over “all the kingdoms of the world.” Thankfully for humanity, he refused the offer. Instead of power and grandeur, he submitted to the way of the ‘Suffering Servant.’ But arguably, the most startling detail of the encounter is that Jesus did not dispute the Devil’s claim to have jurisdiction over the political systems of the world.
We need to bear in mind that Jesus was “driven” by the Spirit into the wilderness to be “tested”; the whole affair was instigated by God. And in the wilderness, Satan tempted him in four ways, the greatest of which was the offer of unlimited political power – (Matthew 4:8-11).
The Devil took Jesus to a high mountain to show him all the “kingdoms of the world (kosmos) and their grandeur.” He was offering him more than just sovereignty over the Jewish nation. “World” or “kosmos” can refer to the entire physical world if not the creation itself, the ‘Cosmos.’ Effectively, Satan was offering him the “kingdom of God,” the very thing the Messiah had come to inaugurate.
In the version of the story in Luke’s account, Satan boasted that he would give Jesus “all this authority,” then declared that “it has been delivered to me, and to whomsoever I will, I give it.”
At that point, Jesus did NOT call him a liar or dispute his claim, which almost certainly he would have if the Devil did not have the right to give him sovereignty over the nations. And if Satan had received this authority from a higher source (“it has been delivered to me”), that could only be God. Most likely, behind his claim was the fall of man. His “right” or rulership over mankind was the consequence of Adam’s sin – (John 12:31, 14:30).
To acquire such awesome power, all Jesus had to do was “render homage” to the Devil. The Greek verb used denotes the sense of giving homage or allegiance to someone or something, and not our modern idea of “worship” in a religious sense. Thus, to gain universal sovereignty it was necessary for him to acknowledge Satan as his overlord.
Whether Jesus felt actual temptation by this offer if even for a moment, the passage does not say. However, considering that the “Spirit drove him” into the wilderness to be tested and that Satan made this offer, it is implausible that the gospel writers did not consider this temptation as a very real possibility. Likewise, pointing out that Jesus was “hungry” after fasting for forty days indicates that the earlier temptation to turn “stones into bread” was all too real.
After all, Jesus was the Messiah appointed by God to reign over all the earth, and this was confirmed by Scripture. But how could the Davidic king reign over the rebellious nations without the military and economic powers of this world? Was it not his destiny to subdue and rule over the entire earth? – (“I have set my king on my holy hill of Zion… Ask of me, and I will give you the nations for your inheritance, and the uttermost parts of the earth for your possession” – Psalm 2:6-8).
Effectively, Satan was offering him a shortcut to his God-ordained position, a way for him to avoid suffering and death on a Roman cross.
Moreover, imagine all the good Jesus would accomplish if he held Caesar’s throne and commanded his legions! With the military and economic might of Rome at his command, would not righteousness quickly prevail across the empire? Surely, if ever there was justification for the resort to State power this was it. Who better to wield the imperial might of the empire than the Prince of Peace?
But rather than bow to Satan and resort to the political methods that dominate the present age, Jesus submitted to the path of the Suffering Servant of Isaiah. In the Kingdom of God, true victory is achieved through self-denial and sacrificial service to others, and “greatness” is measured in acts of acts, especially to one’s enemy. The use of force to compel others to submit to the Messiah’s rule has no place in God’s kingdom.
Contrary to the messianic expectations of his contemporaries, and in defiance of Satan’s offer, Jesus “took on the form of a slave” and became “obedient unto death.” And it was because of this choice that God exalted him to reign over the Cosmos and gave him the “name, which is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth.” But Golgotha had to precede ascension and glory.
The disciple of Jesus is summoned to adopt this very same mind. Let this mind be in you that was also in Christ Jesus — “who, being in the form of God, counted not the being like God a thing to be seized, but poured himself out, taking the form of a slave, being made in human likeness; and being found in fashion as a man, he humbled himself, becoming obedient even unto death, yea, the death of the cross. Wherefore, God highly exalted him and gave him the name which is above every name; that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of things in heaven and things on earth and things under the earth” – (Philippians 2:6-11).
Institutional Christianity has a long sordid history of mixing Church and State. The temptation to use political power to impose “right” beliefs and reform society is too great. But sooner or later, to advance his kingdom through the political means of this age always necessitates resorting to the coercive power of the State.
We need to take seriously the scriptural portrayal of political power as part of Satan’s domain. If the Devil works behind the political scenes in this world, and if the possession of political power necessitates giving allegiance to him, and since Jesus himself refused to do so and instead chose the way of the cross, should we not follow his example? Are we not called to render homage to Jesus as our Lord and King rather than Satan? And should we embrace what he rejected?