The Temptation of Christ
First Sunday in Lent| March 9, 2014|Rev. Rolf Preus| St. Matthew 4:1-11
Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. And when He had fasted forty days and forty nights, afterward He was hungry. Now when the tempter came to Him, he said, “If You are the Son of God, command that these stones become bread.” But He answered and said, “It is written, `Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God.’ ” Then the devil took Him up into the holy city, set Him on the pinnacle of the temple, and said to Him, “If You are the Son of God, throw Yourself down. For it is written: `He shall give His angels charge over you,’ and, `In their hands they shall bear you up, lest you dash your foot against a stone.'” Jesus said to him, “It is written again, `You shall not tempt the LORD your God.’ “Again, the devil took Him up on an exceedingly high mountain, and showed Him all the kingdoms of the world and their glory. And he said to Him, “All these things I will give You if You will fall down and worship me.” Then Jesus said to him, “Away with you, Satan! For it is written, `You shall worship the LORD your God, and Him only you shall serve.’ ” Then the devil left Him, and behold, angels came and ministered to Him. St. Matthew 4:1-11
After John baptized the Lord Jesus in the Jordan River, the Holy Spirit led him into the desert to be tempted by the devil. This is the same Lord Jesus who taught us to pray: “Lead us not into temptation.” The Spirit who led Jesus into the desert to be tempted by the devil is the Spirit who, when we are tempted, leads us to Jesus. It is as we sing in the hymn:
I walk with Jesus all the way;
His guidance never fails me.
Within his wounds I find a stay
When Satan’s power assails me.
And by his footsteps led,
My path I safely tread.
In spite of ills that threaten may,
I walk with Jesus all the way.
When we know who Jesus is and what Jesus has done for us we will be in a position to withstand the devil’s assaults against us. If we are ignorant of Jesus, and know neither his person nor his work, we are easy prey to the father of lies and murderer of souls and in the battle for our souls we don’t have a prayer.
The battle between God and the devil rages and the battleground is your soul. Folks in our day flatter themselves with the pretense of an innate spirituality, imagining that they are free agents, free to choose their loyalties, whether to God or to the devil. They are fools. The Bible teaches that all of humanity, since the fall of Adam, has been conceived and born in sin and under the power of the devil. King David confesses for us all when he writes, in Psalm 51, “Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity, and in sin my mother conceived me.” In Ephesians 2:2 St. Paul calls the devil the “spirit who now works in the sons of disobedience.” In 2 Corinthians 4:4 he calls him the “god of this age” who blinds unbelievers to the truth of the gospel. St. Peter compares the devil to “a roaring lion, seeking whom he may devour (1 Peter 5:8).” There is no neutrality in this battle between God and the devil. One is either a child of God or a slave of the devil. You cannot choose your way to spiritual freedom. God must set you free. God becomes your brother to fight for you.
There was nothing special about David. He was bright, good looking, and in good physical condition, but he was still a boy and certainly no match for a giant like Goliath, who stood over nine feet tall and was a seasoned warrior. What set David apart was not superior strength, intellect, or even courage. What set him apart was his faith. He could ignore the childish taunts of Goliath against the men of Israel. What David could not tolerate was blasphemy against God. So David, trusting not in sword or armor, but solely in the Lord God of Israel, went out to do battle with Goliath and prevailed.
This typified what happened a thousand years later when David’s Son and Lord, Jesus, went to battle against him whom Goliath served. David’s victory over Goliath meant a temporary victory of Israel over the Philistines. Christ’s victory over the devil means an eternal victory of his Church over the powers of darkness. As we consider the temptation of Christ we learn how the devil operates. We learn how to respond. Nothing has changed in the last two thousand years. The strategy of the devil is the same. His goal is the same. The effective defeat of the devil is the same.
The devil attacks faith. That’s how he murders souls. God said, “The day that you eat of it you will surely die.” The devil said, “You will not surely die.” God says one thing and the devil says another. He attacks faith.
The most effective way to attack faith is to attack the person and work of Christ. His person is who he is: true God and true man. His work is what he does: he saves sinners from their sins. If the devil can falsify either the person or the work of Christ he can destroy faith without the victim even being aware of it. Separate faith from Jesus and you destroy it, rendering it useless superstition. Only Jesus can protect you from the evil one. He is the Seed of the woman who crushes the serpent’s head. Rip Jesus out of the heart and you’ve destroyed the heart. So watch the devil do what he does and be forewarned.
As we look at these temptations, keep in mind that Jesus is facing the devil as the representative of the human race. Adam faced the devil and fell into sin with the whole human race falling with him. Christ is the second Adam who replaced Adam’s disobedience with his obedience. As St. Paul writes in Romans 5:19, “By the disobedience on the one the many were made sinners so by the obedience of the One shall the many be made righteous.” In watching Jesus resist the devil we are witnessing our victory.
Three temptations all attack the truth faith. “If you are the Son of God,” he begins. What chutzpah! What gall! He presumes to tell the Son of God what the Son of God would do if he really is the Son of God! And how brilliant this strategy is! He just takes charge. He sets the theological agenda. And we, like sheep, let him. Forget about the vicarious obedience and suffering of Jesus. Forget about your sins and your need for forgiveness. Forget about Christ making peace between you and God and justifying you by his blood. Forget about your home in heaven and the promise of everlasting life. Think instead of what you need for your body.
And so it goes. The church is told to quit obsessing over doctrinal matters that don’t really matter anyway and focus instead on matters of social justice, care for the poor, and meeting the bodily needs of people. In response, we join our Lord and brother in saying that we shall not live by bread alone but by every word that proceeds out of the mouth of God. Go ahead and denigrate the pure and wholesome teaching of God’s word. Say it’s of no benefit. We know better. We know that God’s words are life, and I will seek out the life his words provide if I have to quit my job, leave my friends, or move to a new town. Faith lives on God’s word and so faith craves it. It is water to the parched throat. It is food to the hungry. To hear God’s word is our soul’s greatest need and love.
Ah, but if faith is so important to you, then let’s prove it! Jump off the pinnacle of the temple. If God is worthy of your faith, he will rescue you. After all, it is written:
He shall give His angels charge over you,’ and, `In their hands they shall bear you up, lest you dash your foot against a stone.
Trusting in God is not a matter of quoting Bible passages. It is trusting in what the Bible teaches. Anybody can quote the Bible. But you cannot quote the Bible against itself. Faith doesn’t put God to the test. Faith doesn’t make God prove himself, as if his promise is insufficient until we have activated it by some sort of religious act. Faith knows that God is in charge and trusts that God is in charge without making him prove it. Faith knows that the power of God is present in weakness.
The final temptation illustrates the devil’s appeal most vividly. He cannot offer you anything permanent, can he? He can only give you glory that will fade away. All the glory of all human power, wealth, and prestige is fleeting and utterly vain. As the prophet writes:
All flesh is grass,
And all its loveliness is like the flower of the field.
The grass withers, the flower fades,
Because the breath of the Lord blows upon it;
Surely the people are grass.
The grass withers, the flower fades,
But the word of our God stands forever.” (Isaiah 40:6-8)
And so Jesus drives him away with the word of our God, “You shall worship the LORD your God, and him only you shall serve.”
Note two things. First, every temptation is an attack of the person and work of Jesus. The devil’s goal is always to destroy the Christian faith, whether the truth of it or our faith in it. This is why he constantly attacks the gospel. He’ll turn Jesus into a moralizing philosopher or a social deliverer or anything else but the Savior of sinners by whose obedience and suffering we are justified by God and forgiven of all our sins, freely by God’s grace. Since the God-man Jesus is the One who has crushed the devil’s lying head, it is always the God-man Jesus and his saving work that the devil attacks, either denying it outright or conning you into thinking that something else in your life is more important.
Second, our greatest defense against the devil and his temptations is the written Word of God, the Holy Scriptures. Jesus himself replied, “It is written.” Jesus would often appeal to his own personal authority saying, “You have heard that it was said, but I say to you.” But in dealing with the devil, Jesus relied on the Scriptures alone.
The Bible is not written in code. It is a clear book. It means what it says and says what it means. You can read it for yourself. Yes, you should go to church to hear the Word of God preached. But that does not mean that you cannot read your Bible in the privacy of your own home and take to heart what God says in its pages. Nothing will distract, foil, and frustrate the devil’s designs on your soul more than when you read the Bible and go to where the Bible is rightly preached.
The church on earth is the church militant. The church in heaven is the church triumphant. The church on earth is God’s kingdom of grace. The church in heaven is God’s kingdom of glory. Until we get to heaven we fight the good fight of the faith and we do so by holding firmly to the gospel of God’s grace. God’s love for undeserving sinners whereby he forgives them freely of all their sins for Christ’s sake is the gospel that drives the devil back to hell. For this is why Jesus was born. It was to destroy the works of the devil and to set us free from his control. Holding on to the written Word we hold on to the incarnate Word whose obedience is our righteousness and salvation.