The Threefold Temptation of Christ
First Sunday in Lent| March 1, 2009|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.
Jesus teaches us to pray, “Lead us not into temptation. Yet he was led into temptation. The Bible says, “Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil.” We do well to look to Jesus as our example. But he is not always acting as our example. There are times he is acting as our representative – our champion – doing for us what we cannot do for ourselves.
We would be fools to look for temptation. But Jesus looked for it. He was waiting for it. He wanted to face it. This is why he was born. This is why he came into the world. He came to defeat him who led our first parents into sin. Whereas the tempter succeeded in drawing Adam and Eve away from God’s word he could not draw the woman’s Seed, the virgin born Son of God away from God’s word. By driving away Satan with the word of God our Lord Jesus began to crush his lying head as foretold so many years before.
Jesus did what he did as our champion, that is, as our substitute, our redeemer. He withstood the devil’s temptations as the representative of humanity. In his victory over the devil’s lies the human race was victorious. The eternal Word assumed our nature to do as a man what no man, woman, or child had ever done. He obeyed purely and without flaw.
Jesus is true God and true man. The divine nature and the human nature of Jesus cannot be separated for he is one Lord Jesus. We call this the personal union. There is but one Jesus who is both God and man. We distinguish between the two natures of Christ. Clearly, there are some things Jesus could do because he is God. For example, he could do battle with the devil and defeat him. A mere man – even an innocent one – could not do that. We learn that from Adam’s fall. But Jesus is God. Therefore he cannot sin or fall under the devil’s power.
But he is also a man. He could feel the pain of hunger. He could suffer. He could face temptation. These were real temptations. The fact that Jesus could not fail does not make the temptations any less real. He suffered anguish in the desert being tempted by the devil even as he suffered anguish in the garden facing imminent crucifixion even as he faced horror and agony on the cross as he was forsaken as the sinner because of the sins he was bearing.
“If you are the Son of God,” taunts the devil. Well, he knew he was the Son of God. Satan may be an unbeliever but he’s a perfectly competent theologian. He knew that Jesus was true God and true man. And he knew that questioning Christ’s deity was an attack on his humanity as well. He attacks the person of Christ. He attacks the work of Christ. He attacks those for whom Christ does battle. Christ counters the devil’s attack with obedience to God.
The devil’s temptation was threefold. First, the devil tempts him to turn stones into bread. Second, he tempts him to throw himself off the pinnacle of the temple. Third, he tempts Jesus to bow down and worship him, that is, Satan.
In order to understand these temptations we must understand why Jesus chooses to face them. He has no need to prove himself. Jesus chooses to face temptations as the representative of the human race. He stands in our place and overcomes the very same temptations that come to us.
The temptation is one and it is three. It is one. It is to deny God’s word. It is three. First, it is to deny our need for God’s word. Second, it is to deny the truth of God’s word. Third, it is to deny the confession of God’s word. Jesus faces this threefold temptation as our champion and he drives the devil away with God’s word.
The first temptation is to deny our need for God’s word.
“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.'”
I need a good job. I need a decent income. I need health insurance. I need friends. I need a decent pension, and I think I just lost about one third of my savings. I need all sorts of things.
Jesus is hungry. He’s consisted on water with no solid food for forty days. The fast has gone as far as it can go before he will begin to starve. Based on what he feels within he knows his greatest need. It is for food. Make stones into bread and you will get what you need the most.
But bread for a starving man is not as great a need as is God’s word. Our spiritual needs are always far greater than our physical needs.
Jesus communed with God. The Holy Spirit was with him. He fasted and prayed. Fasting has gone out of style for most Christians. Perhaps praying has gone out of style as well. We need spiritual communion with God more than food, clothing, house, home, good friends, family, and a loving and faithful spouse.
God created us to be with him. His word brings him to us and us to him. We live on his word because by hearing it, by taking it in, by eating it, so to speak, we have fellowship with him. Jesus answers the devil’s temptation with God’s word. “It is written, Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God.”
The second temptation is to deny the truth of God’s word.
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.
While the tempter quotes the Bible he quotes it deceitfully. For if Jesus were to have thrown himself off of the pinnacle of the temple he would have been tempting God, putting God to the test, which is the very opposite of trusting in him.
The ability to quote the Bible has little to do with faith. Jehovah’s Witnesses can quote the Bible quite well, as they twist it and distort it to reject the Holy Trinity, the true deity of Christ, justification by grace alone through faith alone in Christ, and other fundamental teachings of the Christian faith. Deceivers and heretics have long had a facility with Bible quoting as they lead gullible Christians away from the truth into soul destroying error.
The promises of God’s word stand as they are. We don’t need to validate them. We don’t need to see them proven to us. The word of God is sufficient for faith. Jesus said to Thomas, “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.”
The reason people question the simple truth of God’s word is because they put their own notions, feelings, reason, or experiences above God’s promises. I know that’s what God says but I need to know for sure. But how? If his word won’t settle it for you don’t think you can lay some kind of a test on God to get him to prove himself to you. God’s not on trial. His promises are sufficient for faith. As Jesus said, “It is written again, `You shall not tempt the LORD your God.’”
The third temptation is to deny the confession of God’s word.
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’s easy. Deny the faith. You’ll get something in return. Deny the faith. You won’t offend anyone. Just go along with the prevailing religious opinion, whatever it is. It doesn’t matter what it is. Don’t make yourself conspicuous by taking a stand against what is popular. So says the devil as he promises us the world if we will worship him.
Worship is a matter of confession. The one we confess before the world is the one we are worshipping. We usually use the word “orthodox” to refer to the correct teaching. In fact, it refers to the right worship, literally, the right glory. We glorify the true God by confessing his truth whether in church or out in the world.
Jesus faced the devil as our representative. He faced the threefold temptation we face to deny God’s word: the temptation to deny our need for it; the temptation to deny the truth of it; and the temptation to deny its faithful confession. He prevailed. And in his victory we are victors.
His obedience is credited to us for righteousness. He obeyed and we derive the benefit of it. The devil is driven away by the word of Jesus, “Away with you, Satan! For it is written, `You shall worship the LORD your God, and Him only you shall serve.’”
Those words secure our victory over temptation. When we face the one whom our Lord Jesus drove away, we face him as victors. When he leads us into sin he then lays claim to us. Even in our failure we defy him. We lay claim to Jesus. We claim his victory as our own. Then we stand our ground and fight. We take our stand on God’s word. We claim our need for it. We cling to its full truth. We confess it. And the devil runs away from us. Amen