Matthew 4:1-11| First Sunday in Lent| Rev. Rolf Preus| February 17, 2002
At the very heart of the Christian faith is the incarnation of our Lord Jesus Christ. God the Son became a man. He is eternal according to his divine nature. He is “begotten of his Father before all worlds, God of God, Light of Light, very God of very God, begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father, by whom all things were made.” While he is eternal according to his divine nature, his human nature had a beginning. As the church confesses, “Who for us men and for our salvation was incarnate by the Holy Spirit of the Virgin Mary and was made man.” This is the incarnation. The eternal Son of the eternal Father was made man.
How are we to understand this God who became a man? Was he really and truly man in every respect? Yes, really and truly in every respect. The author of the Epistle to the Hebrews (2:14-18, NIV) writes concerning Jesus:
Since the children have flesh and blood, he too shared in their humanity so that by his death he might destroy him who holds
the power of death – that is, the devil – and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death. For surely
it is not angels he helps, but Abraham’s descendants. For this reason he had to be made like his brothers in every way, in
order that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in service to God and that he might make atonement for the
sins of the people. Because he himself suffered when he was tempted, he is able to help those who are being tempted.
There is nothing essential to being human that we can’t attribute to Jesus. He was born. He died. He ate, he drank, he slept, and he had perfectly normal bodily functions. He was subject to every bit of danger and disease that every man faces. He thirsted, hungered, suffered, cried, celebrated, mourned, and experienced pleasure and pain. He was not a pretend man, nor is he now. He was, he is, and he will always be true man. There is only one thing that we can say about the rest of humanity that we cannot say about Jesus. We cannot say that Jesus ever sinned. Nor was he even capable of it.
This is where the popular conception of Christ as illustrated in various movies and songs stands in opposition to the truth. I suppose that people just assume that sin is an essential part of being human. People assume that one would be somewhat less than human if he had no sin. But in fact, the very opposite is the case. Sin is what distorts our true humanity. It makes us less than we were created to be. Only the sinless and impeccable Son of God can make us fully human in the way God intended us to be. He does so by assuming our human nature and then offering to God his obedience in the place of our disobedience, his righteousness in the place of our sin, his innocence in the place of our guilt.
We fell with Adam, as our St. Paul writes in Romans 5:19, “By the disobedience of the one, the many were made sinners.” Christ came into this world to make us righteous by doing the opposite of what Adam and we had done. We fell. Jesus stood. Look at how he stood against temptation and thereby reversed the curse of sin by rendering his obedience in the place of our disobedience.
The first temptation pertains to what is often today called values. What is valuable? A house is more valuable than a car. A car is more valuable than a suit of clothes. What could be more valuable to a starving man than food? Jesus was not just hungry. His body had become accustomed to the hunger early on in the fast and had fueled itself by burning fat. After 40 days, Jesus’ body had begun to burn muscle. There was no more fat to burn. He was going to starve if he didn’t eat soon. In the face of imminent starvation Jesus rejects the devil’s temptation to make stones into bread and says, “Man does not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.”
This is the pure obedience of that singularly pure and holy man. This is the obedience we owed God but refused to give. By reckoning God’s word – and not just in its entirely, but every single word of God – to be more valuable than the food our bodies need to live, Jesus indicts, exposes, and condemns the false values of our generation. Who cares about the word of God today? Tell me when God’s word has been so despised among Christians as it is today? Serious instruction in the eternal truths of God’s word is despised and rejected in favor of so called “practical” tips on successful living. Doctrinal indifference is no longer confessed as the sin of unbelief, which it is, but promoted as a positive Christian virtue. Meanwhile, the holy mysteries of the faith are arrogantly dismissed as being either irrelevant or boring. In a day when the so called good life consists in the accumulation of things and the satisfying of every conceivable human urge, who really believes that man lives on every word that comes from the mouth of God? Those who think they’re doing God a favor by going to church? Those who go on and on with their own vain speculations about things divine but cannot be quiet long enough to be instructed in the truth by God?
Living on every word that comes from the mouth of God begins in trusting that every word God says matters and is true. Jesus, the perfect man, the representative man, the man who takes our place, trusted in every word of God. He didn’t need to cooperate with the devil to get his daily bread. He could and did put God’s word first, even before his bodily needs, and God took care of him as he had promised to do.
If the first temptation was to challenge the value of God’ word in comparison with our bodily needs, the second temptation was to disconnect faith from the word. Shouldn’t God care for you, Jesus? Shouldn’t you be able to throw yourself off the highest point of the Temple? If your Father really cared for you, wouldn’t he save you? You say you trust in him. Well then, put him to the test? Are you afraid that God will fail the test?
God doesn’t fail. He cares for us. He keeps the promises he makes to us. But God is bound to what he promises us, not to any test we choose to lay on him. Where has God ever promised that he will do miracles for us to protect us from our own folly? You shall not put the Lord your God to the test, Jesus said. He does not need to prove himself to you. His promises are good enough; they are all you need.
The third temptation was the most brazen, but the most powerful. “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.’” It may look like the devil can give the kingdoms of the world, but he cannot. This world belongs to God. The fact that the devil influences the leaders of the world doesn’t change this. The devil has no right to any influence at all. He cannot make good on his promises. Any time you set aside your duty to God and the worship of God for the sake of something else – whether in popularity, in wealth, in power, or in security – you not only fall into idolatry, but you trust in the lies of the devil. He cannot deliver. You shall worship the Lord your God and serve him only. The promise of glory, riches, power, is the promise of idolatry.
Jesus drove the devil away. It was his perfect humanity joined to his true deity. The devil never had a chance. It was our victory, because we had failed and Jesus was acting in our place. In every one of these temptations, the devil sought to divert Jesus from his task of redeeming us, but, of course, he couldn’t divert him. Christ could not fail. He came to be the second and sinless Adam, and no power of hell could stop him.
But the devil has plenty of success with Christians. He leads them into sin, despair, and finally unbelief. Christians can and do fall away from the faith. How does the devil succeed? He succeeds, first of all, when Christians ignore or despise the word of God. If the Word incarnate, the eternal God become flesh, Jesus Christ, quoted the Bible to drive the devil away, shouldn’t we also do the same? We cannot overcome the temptations raised against our faith by relying on our own clever argumentation. We must stubbornly assert the truth of God’s word. We must consider it to be relevant, powerful, and unchanging. If we don’t, we will be defenseless before the attacks of the tempter.
The devil’s main attack on us today however is always an attack on Christ. You need to know just who Jesus is and precisely what he did when he was led by the Spirit into the desert to be tempted by the devil. He was and is your God, the one to whom you must give an account of your life. He was and is your substitute, your brother, who performed what was required of you. So the one to whom you must stand on the last day is the one who has lived your life for you. When you failed the test, he passed. When you sinned, he obeyed. When you brought on yourself the anger of God for your lack of trust and lack of obedience, Jesus removed that anger by his perfect trust and his perfect obedience. He actively fulfilled by his obedience to God what you owed God, but could not fulfill. So you cling to Jesus. This is what drives the devil mad with anger and rage. When we claim as our own the righteousness of Jesus. When we confidently believe, teach, and confess that Christ’s obedience has rendered us righteous before God. The accuser cannot accuse Jesus, so he cannot accuse those who trust in him, who are baptized into his death and resurrection, who are clothed with Christ.
The devil wants us to disregard Christ as our substitute, Christ as our mediator, Christ as our Redeemer, and leave us with nothing more than Christ as our moral example. The devil would love to have us regard as dull and rather impractical the doctrine of the person and work of Jesus, because the devil knows that only when we are severed from Christ can we be lost.
So we look to Jesus who in the apparently weakness of a starving body withstood the temptations of the devil. We look to our Champion who fought for us. And we fight on. When he raised the question in our hearts, “Has God indeed said?” we point to the written word and the incarnate Word and we let the Bible and Jesus speak for us. When the devil tempted Jesus, Jesus answered him with the word of God. That’s the only way to answer the devil. Since the word of God creates faith, faith relies solely on the word. It is the only possible response to the devil. God said. That settles it. God said. When God the Son chose to face the tempter’s power he chose to speak the plain words of the Scriptures. He was Wisdom incarnate, filled with the knowledge of God and perfectly conformed to the will of God. But when he went up against the father of lies and the murderer of souls he went armed with the simple words of the Bible that belong to us today. So we fight as Jesus fought, with the Bible. And we know we cannot lose even when we fall and fail because Jesus has already won for us the victory and he will never leave us or forsake us.
Rev. Rolf D. Preus