Thor Alex Kappfjell was at the top of his sport, literally. As a premier member of the worldwide BASE organisation, he liked to jump off tall things; BASE stands for Buildings, Antennas, Spans (bridges) and Earth (cliffs). BASE-jumping is parachuting from fixed objects. Fun, huh?
Kappfjell had gained quite a bit of notoriety around the world by jumping off things without permission. The writers of laws, policies and ordinances tend to frown on unauthorised use of private or public property in the pursuit of extreme sports. After all, there’s this nasty issue of litigation.
In 1998, Kappfjell leaped off the 86th-floor observation deck of the Empire State Building in New York City and, three days later, the Chrysler Building. In both cases, authorities, caught off guard, cried, “Hey, you can’t do that!” But both times the adventurer melted into the crowds of the teeming city before anyone could nab him. When he had the temerity to jump from one of the (then still standing) World Trade towers, however, they were ready for him. He was arrested and sentenced to seven days of community service.
Then, in July 1999, Kappfjell was the third of 12 jumpers planning to leap from a 1000-metre cliff at Mt Kjerag, near Stavanger, Norway. It was Kappfjell’s last jump: he hit the rock face and fell into a fjord.
When Jesus was on earth, He was faced at one time with the possibility of becoming human history’s first known BASE jumper. But rather than getting His name in this way into the pages of the Guinness Book of World Records, the account is reported in Scripture.
Jesus’ opportunity to become the world’s first successful BASE jumper occurred shortly after His baptism by John—by all accounts a moving and inspirational event. “It seems to be the law of life that just after our resistance power has been highest it nose-dives until it is at its lowest,” says theologian William Barclay, commenting on this story in the Gospel of Matthew. From the sublime moment of His baptism, Jesus was directed by the Holy Spirit into the wilderness to be tested. There, in the loneliness and desolation, He was confronted by Satan, who threw three challenges at Him, hoping they would stop Him in His tracks even before His official ministry began.
In the second challenge, when Jesus suddenly found Himself on the roof of the temple in Jerusalem, 14 storeys up, Satan made his demand: “Throw yourself down” (Matthew 4:6). To some that may sound like fun, but, of course, doing something simply for the thrill of it wasn’t the point. Jesus saw clearly what was implied.
In the cultural environment of Jesus’ time, the temptation to jump would have been only natural. “It was a part of the popular belief that the Messiah should appear suddenly, and in some marvellous way; as, for instance, by a leap from the temple roof into the midst of the crowds assembled below,” says James Stalker in his 1949 classic, Life of Jesus Christ. In fact, it is said that Simon Magus, the same sorcerer who tried to purchase from Peter and John the marvellous technique of bestowing the Holy Spirit through the laying on of hands (Acts 8), met his untimely end in an attempt to demonstrate his ability to fly by jumping from a public building in Rome.
We’re assured elsewhere that Jesus “has been tempted in every way, just as we are” (Hebrews 4:15). Not too many of us, however, have been tempted in this specific way to become literal BASE jumpers.
So how does Jesus’ dilemma at the top of the Temple conform to the idea that He was “tempted in every way, just as we are”? How did that experience present a problem that is universal to the rest of humankind?
Jesus Himself provided the answer: the point wasn’t adventuring, but presumption. Most dictionary definitions of “presumption” include such synonyms as “arrogance,” “audacity,” “temerity,” or “effrontery”. Though the word presumption seldom appears in various English translations of Scripture, it describes a form of sin that recurs rather regularly.
We see it in the arrogant idea that a tower would protect humankind from a future flood (Genesis 11), in Jonah’s audacity to question God’s mercy in sparing the people of Nineveh (Jonah 3,4); in the temerity of Jesus’ brothers advising Him that “no one who wants to become a public figure acts in secret” (John 7:4). Presumption simply means putting oneself in God’s place, forgetting one’s dependence on God.
In Jesus’ temptation experience, Satan actually quoted from Scripture. Daring Jesus to throw Himself off the pinnacle of the Temple, Satan added, with wicked cunning, “It is written: ‘He will command his angels concerning you, and they will lift you up in their hands, so that you will not strike your foot against a stone’ ” (Matthew 4:6).
When the devil quoted the Bible, however, he chose to omit a crucially important part of the passage: “to guard you in all your ways” (Psalm 91:11). If Jesus had followed this suggestion, He would have been venturing into Satan’s ways, not the ways that God intended for Him.
Every temptation that comes our way is rooted in the idea that we don’t have to take God at His word. It shows distrust in God and in what He has revealed in Scripture. “The way of a fool seems right to him, but a wise man listens to advice” (Proverbs 12:15).
God’s power is not something that we can experiment with. It isn’t a toy or even a weapon to wield or sheath at our whim. God’s power is a force that we’re expected to steadily and quietly trust in our everyday lives. This is why Jesus answered Satan’s second challenge by referring to the book of Deuteronomy: “It is also written: ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test’ ” (Matthew 6:16).
Jesus’ answer may also be expressed in a universal spiritual principle of living. Any human act or behaviour that goes against God’s will is a conscious or unconscious test of His love for us. It is an extreme leap into reliance on oneself; an untethered, unsupported plummet that has only one ultimate end.
God’s love led Him to offer His very own Son—Jesus Christ—to save us from depending on ourselves for the answers to our most profound questions. Jesus’ sacrificial leap from heaven to this hard, unforgiving earth conveys the ultimate meaning to life itself.