First Sunday in Lent
February 10, 2008
“Our True Identity in Christ”
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.
If you are the Son of God. So says the devil to Jesus Christ. If you are a child of God. So says the devil to Christ’s Christians. The two questions go together. If Jesus is not the Son of God, we are not the children of God. After all, it is for Jesus’ sake that we are adopted into God’s family. So we had better be sure that Jesus is the Son of God. He is the head and we are the body. His identity is our own.
It is not enough that Jesus is a son of God. This is confessed by many enemies of the faith and the devil would have no problem with such a confession. Jesus must be of the same substance as the Father. He must be God of God, light of light, very God of very God. Adam was a son of God and look what happened to him! How easily the devil duped his wife and how meekly Adam caved into pressure to defy God and lose his innocence. If a mere son of God went up against the devil and his temptations he would surely fail just as Adam failed. But Jesus is more than a son of God. He is the Son of God. He is the Seed of the woman who crushed the head of the serpent. For four thousand years – from the time of Adam’s fall until Christ’s coming in the flesh – God’s declaration of war against the devil pointed forward to the battle between Jesus and Satan. Right after Jesus was baptized by John he was led by the Holy Spirit into the desert to do battle against the devil. He fights our fight for us.
All of the temptations had to do with his identity. Jesus is not only the Son of God, the unique, only begotten, eternal Son of God. He is also the true man. He is the sinless man. While the devil challenges Jesus’ true deity by his taunt, “If you are the Son of God,” he directs his temptations to Christ in his humanity. If the devil can lead the man Jesus into sin he will have shown that he is not the Son of God. “If you are the Son of God,” he says. But if Jesus turned the stones into bread and if Jesus jumped off the pinnacle of the temple and if Jesus bowed down and worshipped the devil he would not be the Son of God.
Prove yourself! The Son of God does not prove himself to the evil one. And neither do the children of God. We don’t require the approval of those who reject God and God’s word. What do we care what they think of us? We are children of God! God, not the godless crowd, defines who we are.
What is our identity? Do we value bodily needs more than spiritual needs? Does making an extra dollar or getting an extra hour of sleep come before attending church and being fed by the word of God? The Bible says: “Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God.”
What is our identity? Do we presume to put God to the test, making him prove himself to us as if we have the right to stand in judgment of our God? Do we insist that our immediate troubles be resolved before we will be confident that God will keep his word and work out all things for our good? The Bible says: “You shall not tempt the LORD your God.”
What is our identity? Do we covet the glory the world promises and prefer it over the identity that the true God gives us in Holy Baptism? Do we want acceptance from the crowd so much that we will be willing to sacrifice our Christian principles to get it? The Bible says: “You shall worship the LORD your God, and Him only you shall serve.”
When Jesus was standing up against the temptations of the father of lies, thereby proving that he was indeed the Son of God, he appealed to the Bible. And so do we. We appeal to the same source of divine wisdom and we claim our identity in Christ.
It is written. But listen! Here is what we learn from the latest studies written by experts in human behavior. Here we see how the standards of right and wrong set down clearly in the word of God are debunked. But for the Christian, the latest insight of the intelligentsia is irrelevant. For it is written. Whatever is written in the Holy Scriptures settles the matter for us. God’s law is not open to revision.
It is written. The popular culture teaches us that all religious claims are equally valid. Jesus says, “I am the way, the truth and the life, no one comes to the Father except through me.” The popular culture defends the right to an abortion, the right to engage in every kind of sexual deviancy imaginable as long as it is between consenting adults, the right to find happiness on our own terms regardless of any external standards of what is right and what is wrong. But what is written is written and it has not changed.
Jesus doesn’t say, “It was written,” as if the Bible no longer pertains to our conduct. He says, “It is written,” that is, what was written remains written. It stands today, tomorrow, and unto the end of time. The fact that many religious people and even churches have caved into pressure to revise these standards cannot change what is written in the Word of God.
And as Jesus appeals to the Scriptures, he fulfills them. God said that the Seed of the woman would crush the serpent’s head. That battle against the devil was not only on the cross as Jesus was suffering for the sin of the world. That battle was fought when the devil went up against Jesus to try to lead him into sin. This was an assault, not only on God, but on the human race as well. Our only hope for salvation was that the seed of the woman, that is, the virgin born Son of God, live the holy and righteous life that we all failed to live. Had Jesus sinned there would have been no hope for any of us.
Jesus did not sin. Indeed, he could not sin. He was incapable of sin. This doesn’t change the fact that it was a real temptation. It was a real battle. Jesus fought for us. He fulfilled the law for us. His innocence was preserved, and by that innocence, we are rendered innocent as well. The obedience of Jesus covers all Christians as a spotless robe of righteousness. It makes us children of God. It establishes our identity. Here is how St. Paul puts it:
For you are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus. For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. (Galatians 3:26-27)
After his baptism, Jesus defeated the devil in the desert. When we put on Christ in Holy Baptism, we, through faith in him, receive his victory. He defines who and what we are. We are righteous with Christ’s own righteousness reckoned to us. This changes the way we live. We live on every word that proceeds from the mouth of God. We do not put the Lord our God to the test. We do not worship anyone but the Lord God, and we serve him alone. This is the life we were called to live when we were baptized and were clothed in the righteousness of Christ.
But we live with a certain contradiction, don’t we? We have not lived according to our identity as children of God. We’ve despised God’s word in favor of bodily wants. We’ve sacrificed what is holy for what is profane and we’ve done it again and again. We have indeed put God to the test, demanding from him what no child has the right to require of his father. We’ve acted as if we are boss and God had better do as we say. We’ve served other gods, too. We’ve pined after the respectability of the word, its transient pleasures, its false promises, while we’ve neglected the covenant of our baptism and refused God’s gracious invitation to find our true identity therein.
So where does this leave us? It leaves us relying solely on Christ and his holy obedience as we stand up to do battle once more. When you know you’re going to lose anyway, the fight goes out of you. You acquiesce to the reality of your loss. But when you know that you will win – because Christ has already won – you don’t give up the fight. You fight on. And you never give up.
This is why we Christians fight. We will not cave into a love for the things our bodies want to set aside our love for those divine words our souls need. We will cherish the word of God and seek it out at every opportunity. We’ll drink it in. We need it even as we need the God who speaks it. For God’s words are our life. They give us eternal life. They keep us steadfast in the true Christian faith.
We will fight. We will not require God to prove himself to us but will claim his promises as true on the authority of his word alone. We will deny allegiance to any other authority than God’s, and will submit to all legitimate human authority out of fear and love for the God whom we serve.
And when we fall into temptation and find ourselves guilty of what we have confessed before so many times and the devil insinuates himself into the situation, accusing us, questioning us, suggesting to us, “If you were a child of God you,” we’ll interrupt his slander against us and dismiss him with Christ’s own words: “Away with you, Satan!” We are children of God. Nothing the father of lies can say will change that. Christ crushed his lying head by his holy obedience all the way to the death of the cross. Our lives are covered by the righteousness Jesus won for us. We stand forgiven by God. We are ready to do battle with the devil even as we lay claim to Christ’s victory over him in the wilderness and on the cross.
Rolf D. Preus