Identity and Relational Idolatry

In Luke 3, Jesus is baptized, and God calls out from the heavens and declares that Jesus is “my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased (Luke 3:22).” This is the point in Jesus’s life that God gives him his identity. Now Jesus knows who he is. It’s a good thing too, as Jesus is about to go out into the desert and be tempted by Satan to live beneath his true identity as the Son of God. In Luke 4:1-13 we see Satan tempt Jesus over a period of 40 days as Jesus endures the pain and struggle of a fast. Of course, Jesus emerges the victor from this intense, formative experience. 

I have always read these two stories from the life of Jesus like they were intricately connected. Jesus needed to be affirmed by receiving his true identity from God and then he was led out into the desert to be tested. The desert was a crucible experience for Jesus in which he proved that he was ready to begin his ministry. The rest of his life then is about the ministry that God had called him to. But there is another story that is intricately connected to these which also shows a powerful temptation for Jesus to live beneath his true identity as the Son of God.   

In Luke 4:16-30, Jesus returns to his hometown of Nazareth. He goes to the synagogue, reads from Isaiah, and proclaims his Messiahship. This sends the good people of Nazareth into an uproar. Several clear points of temptation for Jesus to deny his true identity then arise. First, the people respond by asking aloud, “isn’t this Joseph’s son (Luke 4:22)?” I wonder if the people who asked this question didn’t already know the answer. My strong suspicion is that they were just questioning Jesus’s claim that he was the Messiah. They were trying to bring him back down to earth by reminding him that he is simply the son of a man, like everyone else in the room. Here we see the temptation for Jesus to question his identity. Second, the negative reaction of the crowd likely put pressure on Jesus to take his words back or apologize for causing an uproar. To apologize though would have been a denial of the truth of what God had said about him at his baptism. Finally, the crowd meant to throw Jesus off a cliff (Luke 4:29). Clearly, at this point Jesus can see all that he stands to lose: his deep connection to a people and a place. This represents a last opportunity for Jesus to take back his words and placate the crowd.

How does Jesus do in the face of this test? He never takes back his words, or apologizes, or shrinks back in fear. He stays true to his identity as the Son of God. Like a man who knows exactly who he is and is completely surrendered to God, Jesus walks right through the crowd that means to hurt him and goes on his way (Luke 4:30). I wonder if the people weren’t so overwhelmed by Jesus’s apparent invulnerability that they felt powerless to stop him. Now he is ready to begin his ministry.

The name that I would give to the main, overarching sin that Jesus was tempted with that day in Nazareth is relational idolatry. This is the sin of caring more about what other people think than you care about what God thinks. Psychologists and counselors often use the term codependence to describe unhealthy relationships with others in which your well-being, feelings, and emotions depend on what others think about you. Codependence and its definition definitely work in describing some of what is happening here in Nazareth. Jesus was never a codependent, but the people sure wanted him to be. But the term codependence lacks the spiritual element that relational idolatry has. I believe that what’s at stake here is an opportunity for Jesus to replace God on his throne. 

Another way of defining relational idolatry is when you, in your heart and mind,  remove God from his throne and replace him with someone else. It might seem ridiculous to think that Jesus was tempted to do this, but I believe he was. Consider that Jesus knew most of the people at the synagogue that day and he knew them well. These are good people and they are people that Jesus cares about. As Nazareth was a small village, you can bet that some of Jesus’s family and friends were in attendance that day. That is one of the insidious elements of this sin, is that it usually involves people that you love, are close to, and naturally care about.

I really connect with the story of Jesus being rejected in Nazareth more than I connect with the temptation in the desert. There is so much about the temptation in the desert that is supernatural. The 40 day fast and Satan interacting directly with Jesus, and the fantastic offer to of authority over all of the kingdoms of the world are all things that I have not experienced. But, being tempted to apologize for my faith or soften my convictions so that family and friends would accept me are things that I have often faced.

The countermeasure to the sin of relational idolatry is to root our identity in Christ. Through Jesus, we have been adopted into God’s family and we have been declared sons and daughters of God (Eph 1:5). When we build our lives on our identity as God’s sons and daughters, we can endure the temptation and loss that we are faced with in this world. Our relationship with God is the only unchanging and eternal relational arrangement that we will ever have in our existence. There is no greater guarantee than that God is our loving Father and we are his children. From this relationship our whole identity can be securely formed and there never has to be any question of whether some other person or relationship can replace it. 

Jesus’s identity as the Son of God is what carried him through his ministry. He would butt heads with his family, fail to obtain the approval of the religious authorities, and be abandoned by his closest friends. Yet he never wavered in his commitment to God. He loved all people, especially his friends and family. But none of them ever took the place of God. He was the Son of God, no matter what the cost, and that is why he is still the Son of God today.


Blake Burchfield is a Mission Alive church planter in western South Dakota. Blake and his wife Katie run Peace Initiative, a non-profit organization dedicated to serving the Lakota people. They are passionate about Native Americans experiencing the peace and freedom that comes from following Jesus. Blake and Katie have four children, Micah, Rose, Lauren, and Kaelyn.   


One thought on “Identity and Relational Idolatry

  1. Remarkable consideration Blake! I appreciate you looking at this. I had often considered codependency (for I did not know a term such as relational idolatry) as Christ was prodded by His earthly mother to solve the “wine problem” at the introduction of His first miracle. He knew this was not the “ordained” moment, yet there was still a desire to fill this need on behalf of his mother. And as I consider this term that I’ve only just learned, maybe the issue of relational idolatry lie more so at the feet of Mary than of Christ, but I have always been compelled by Jesus decision to preempt His appointed “debut” at the coaxing of His mother. I’ve never seen that it was a “wrong or sinful” decision on his part, but it’s remarkable that we are told of this intimate decision-change!
    Grateful for your thoughts!
    Keri Harris

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