Karl Barth on the Wilderness Temptations: #1, Stones into Bread

Karl Barth's exegesis of Christ's wilderness temptations isperenniallyinspiring, but particularly poignant during this season of Lent.

What does it mean for Christ to be the Perfect Penitent? And how should this influence our own repentance?

The following series of quotations comes from a lengthy small-print section in CD IV/1, 259-73 (§ 59 The Obedience of the Son of God; 2. The Judge Judged in Our Place). There Barth walks through the three wilderness temptations before masterfully connecting them to Christ's experience in the Garden of Gethsemane.


On page 261, the discussion of the temptations begins:

The First Temptation: Stones into Bread (CD IV/1, 261-2)

"In both Evangelists [Matthew and Luke] the first Satanic suggestion is that after the forty days of hunger He should change the stones of the wilderness into bread in the power of His divine Sonship by His Word.


For Barth, it is important that Christ is not tempted in the wilderness to any sort of moral violations of the Law. Instead, he is tempted to abandon his role as the Perfect Penitent. For this is the form and content of Jesus' sinlessness — not a vague moral perfection, but specifically his obedience and repentance.


"What would it have meant if Jesus had yielded? He would have used the power of God which He undoubtedly had like a technical instrument placed at His disposal to save and maintain His own life. He would then have stepped out of the series of sinners in which He placed Himself in His baptism in Jordan. Of His own will He would have abandoned the role of the One who fasts and repents for sinners. He would have broken off His fasting and repentance in the fulness of divine power and with the help of God, but without consulting the will and commandment of God, because in the last resort His primary will was to live. He would have refused to give Himself unreservedly to be the one great sinner who allows that God is in the right, to set His hopes for the redemption and maintenance of His life only on the Word of God, in the establishment of which He was engaged in this self-offering. He would have refused to be willing to live only by this Word and promise of God, and therefore to continue to hunger.


From a "human" standpoint, however, choosing self-preservation over starvation makes perfect sense!


"In so doing He would, of course, only have done what in His place and with His powers all other men would certainly have done. From the standpoint of all other men He would only have acted reasonably and rightly. "Rabbi, eat" is what His disciples later said to Him (Jn. 431) quite reasonably and in all innocence. But then He would not have made it His meat "to do the will of him that sent him, and tofinish his work" (Jn. 434).


However, Christ the God-Human is more human and less sinful than us in his refusal to abandon obedience and repentance. For this reason, his repentance was perfect — a repentance unto redemption.


"Instead of acting for all other men and in their place, He would have left them in the lurch at the very moment when He had made their cause His own. Jesus withstood this temptation. He persisted in obedience, in penitence, in fasting. He hungered in confidence in the promise of manna with which the same God had once fed the fathers in the wilderness after He had allowed them to hunger (Deut. 83). He willed to live only by that which the Word of God creates, and therefore as one of the sinners who have no hope apart from God, as the Head and King of this people. His decision was, therefore, a different one from that which all other men would have taken in His place, and in that way it was the righteousness which He achieved in their stead."


Stay tuned for Karl Barth's exegesis of the second temptation, for Christ to fall down and worship Satan.

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