Jesus’ ministry begins not in a lush garden in the presence of God as it was in the beginning, but in the wilderness of a world that is under the curse of sin and death. His ministry after being baptized in the Jordan and declared to be the Son of God, goes immediately into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil for forty days. Forty for the days for the flood of Noah by which God judged the wickedness of men (Genesis 6-8), forty for the years during which God bore with the stiff-necked generation before bringing their children into the Promised Land and the whole time fed them with bread from heaven (Psalm 95:8-11, Exodus 16). Forty days for the time in which Moses was on the mountain receiving the Word of God (Exodus 34:27-28). Forty for the days Goliath came and taunted Israel and defied the Living God (1 Samuel 17). Forty days for God showing forbearance to a twisted generation, that they might be saved.
This was the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, the capstone of all of God’s dealings with the sons of men since Adam and Eve brought sin into the world. It was the beginning of a new creation, “As one trespass led to condemnation for all men, so one act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all men. 19 For as by the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, so by the one man’s obedience the many will be made righteous.” (Rom. 5:18-19) The Son of God, Jesus, stands in the wilderness as the New Adam to work righteousness and bring salvation where the First Adam and his children were cursed. It’s quite appropriate that Genesis 3 and Matthew 4 are read together.
Jesus stands in for all humanity when He is tempted by the devil, and listen to the temptations He faced, because each time He is tempted to forsake the Word of God for temporal, selfish gain: “If you are the Son of God…” does not mean that the devil wasn’t listening at His Baptism, when the Father declared from heaven, “This is my beloved Son.” It means that Satan is up to His old tricks of lying and murdering (John 8:44), attempting to pry God and man apart. In fact this is what the Greek name for the devil, diabolos, means—he who divides, casts apart.
2 And after fasting forty days and forty nights, he was hungry. 3 And the tempter came and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.”
The first temptation casts doubt on God as Creator of heaven and earth. Will He indeed do good for His creatures? Can a man truly turn His life over to the care of God and not have to be ready to grab the proverbial wheel at any moment? Command these stones to become loaves of bread—take your life in your own hands, because how could it be God’s will for you to hunger? Not only “if you are the son of God,” but If this God really loved, He wouldn’t let you suffer with sweat and hunger, thorns and thistles, and after all your labor to return to the dust.
It had worked on the Israelites before (we’ll hear this two Sundays from now): [They said to Moses] “Why did you bring us up out of Egypt, to kill us and our children and our livestock with thirst?” (Ex. 17:3) It works on us, too, because as soon as the money runs short, we’re convinced it must be the end. We lock down and go into survival mode, believing only in what we can measure and touch, relying only on our reason and strength to see us through.
What does God say to that? 4 But he answered, “It is written, “ ‘Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.’ ” Yes, you are dust and flesh, fragile and at the breath of the Lord you whither (Isaiah 40:6-8). When He hides His face, you die and return to the ground (Ps. 104:27-30). But what of it? Did He not create you from the dust by a Word? Are you afraid that He cannot sustain you? Or are you more in love with this present life than the God who gives and who takes away? Do you not remember that apart from Him there is no God, no life, no resurrection?
The second temptation follows this:
Then the devil took him to the holy city and 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 will command his angels concerning you,’ and “ ‘On their hands they will bear you up, lest you strike your foot against a stone.’ ”
If God truly claims you as Son, He won’t let anything bad happen to you. If He is truly Almighty, then no matter what choice you make, His will is done. This questions God’s care for His children, with the implication that if something harm does come, He must not be as almighty as all that. If you further dissect Psalm 91 by this man-centered approach, you will read “For he will deliver you from the snare of the fowler and from the deadly pestilence… A thousand may fall at your side, ten thousand at your right hand, but it will not come near you.” Then, where is the justice in the cancer which separates loving spouses from each other, the SIDS which takes a sweet child from his parents, or viruses indiscriminately sickening droves of people? Why won’t you help, God? Don’t you see us languishing?
God, what do you have to say to that? 7 Jesus said to him, “Again it is written, ‘You shall not put the Lord your God to the test.’ ” That is, you have seen the life you have as something that belongs to you, as if you were king or queen over your own domain. We demand that God justify His actions to us. How dare God not serve me, but we have it backwards. He is the Lord, we are the servants. He the Benefactor, we the beneficiaries. He the Protector, we are guarded and kept by Him from eternity.
The devil’s final temptation:
“Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their glory. 9 And he said to him, “All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.”
Here the devil promises Jesus His supposed heart’s desire. Don’t you want all nations to honor you, all to hail the name of Jesus? I can it to you that thing you desire most, the Liar claims. All you have to do is worship me, trust in my power, celebrate my works and walk in my ways. Better than that, I can give it to you with all that nasty, painful suffering and death.
We understand this temptation not necessarily as worshipping the devil, but bargaining with God. Our heart’s desire, the thing we would do anything to have, we can achieve by other means. This is the draw of witchcraft, palm reading, psychics, and Ouija boards. You can have the help you want, the ultimate good you see for your life. But it comes at a price. “For what does it profit a man to gain the whole world and forfeit his soul?” (Mark 8:36) The devil’s lie is that “where there’s a will there’s a way” and where God doesn’t satisfy, there are other options. If the Words of Jesus are not to your liking, devote yourself to the teachings of demons—whether in bald-faced paganism, or in a guise of Christianity by picking a church that won’t judge what you don’t want to repent of.
What does God say to this? 10 Then Jesus said to him, “Be gone, Satan! For it is written, “ ‘You shall worship the Lord your God and him only shall you serve.’ ”
Jesus remained steadfast, when we are flighty. He remained strong where we are weak. He remained true, when we’ve been duped. “Thus says the Lord, the King of Israel and his Redeemer, the Lord of hosts: ‘I am the first and I am the last; besides me there is no god…Is there a God besides me? There is no Rock; I know not any.” (Isa. 44:6, 8)
If you have been tempted, if you think sometimes God is too far removed to help, behold Him “who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin” (Hebrews 4:15). He was tempted in the flesh so that He can help us in our weakness. Where we fall, He has the power and willingness to save—to forgive, renew, and rescue.
And if you are so afflicted, He gives you a pledge of His help by giving you His own Body and Blood to eat and drink. This very Body and Blood is the one which felt hunger, felt Satan’s temptations and lies, felt the sting of allegiance sworn but then broken, the humiliation of being jeered at, who felt bodily agony and breathed His last.
This is what He gives to you, who falter under the weight of your sins, who groan at the onset of death, and whose hearts are rent asunder by loss. He gives it to you to comfort and strengthen you, because His Body did not remain in the grave. He rose again to life free of sin, death, and devil. He rose, never to die again (Rom. 6:9), and so will you.
So, come to the altar now, with all your weakness, that you may put on Christ’s strength, in the forgiveness of your sins and the promise of eternal rest. Amen.