The Temptation of Jesus

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We are obsessed by the battle of good against evil.  Whether it's a Disney film, Lord of the Rings or the War on Terror and the axis of evil, we see it everywhere from the most benign Tom and Jerry cartoon, to the struggles of war veterans to come to terms with the events they've witnessed and the actions they've taken.  And in tonight's passage we get a sneak peek into the ultimate battle between good and evil, between God and the devil, a cosmic battle for control of creation.

It's worth saying up front that there are plenty of issues left unresolved by tonight's passage.  Did the devil really have any leverage over Jesus?  Could Jesus, as God-become-man, have sinned – could Jesus have lost this battle?  Did the two of them physically appear on top of the temple or was it a vision?  Who is the devil and is he a spirit or a physical presence?  What is the extent of his power?

I'm not going to say much about any of those questions, partly because I don't necessarily have answers, but more because the passage doesn't say much about them.  Better to have little interest in what the bible doesn't say and more interest on learning and applying what it does say.

And this passage can teach us how we should deal with temptations that we face ourselves.  We'll see Jesus exposing the devil's schemes for what they are because God's word has taught him God's character and God's will.  That's an application to grow in knowledge and understanding through God's word.  We see Jesus applying verses from the scriptures to resist and reject the devil's schemes.  That's an application to learn God's word.

But this passage isn't primarily a lesson to us about resisting temptation.  To borrow a phrase from the Gospel in Life home reading, it is not less than that, but it is more.  This passage is about Jesus' identity and mission.  Why?

One reason is that these particular temptations don't come to normal people.  Normal people are not tempted to use divine powers to make bread from stones.  Normal people are not tempted to worship the devil in order to take power over the world.  Normal people are not tempted to throw themselves off the Jerusalem temple in order to prove that God will save them.  These temptations are specific to Jesus and specifically about his identity and his mission.

Another reason is that this event could have happened at any time in Jesus' life.  In fact the issue of temptation could have been dealt with elsewhere in the bible, such as it is in Ephesians 6.  Why Jesus and why now?  Luke has recorded so many testimonies about what Jesus will be like – there was Mary's song, Zechariah's song, a choir of angels, Simeon, John the Baptist, and God himself at Jesus' baptism.  Now that he's about to start his ministry, the big question is: are they right about Jesus?  What sort of Messiah will he be?  If Jesus is the Son of God, what did he come to do?

Let's get stuck in.  I've got the traditional three points, but I want to start by setting the scene a bit… so call this point zero:

If Jesus is the Son of God, what did he come to do? (v1-2a)

Read with me from ch 4 v1.  (4v1-2a)

At the end of chapter 2, Luke describes Jesus as a boy who was growing in wisdom and stature, and in favour with God and men.  In chapter 3 the word of God comes to John the Baptist to prepare the way for Jesus.  He is to do this by preaching the need to turn away from sin and empty religious acts.  Jesus, now about 30 years old, comes to be baptised, as we heard last week, and a voice from heaven declared, v22: "You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased."

In this declaration and in the genealogy that follows we see that Jesus is both fully God and fully man.  In fact, he is the perfect Man, the only man since Adam before the Fall to perfectly represent God, or bear God's image.

So we've had the amazing declaration from God in 3v22, and that makes tonight's episode seem a little strange.  Surely what we're expecting next is more along the lines of ch4 v14-15: Jesus returned to Galilee in the power of the Spirit, and news about him spread through the whole countryside.  He taught in their synagogues and everyone praised him. In ch3 v22 there is great momentum.  Surely the worst thing to do at this point is disappear off the scene for seven weeks, never mind to go into the desert to encounter the devil.

And yet, that's not only where Jesus goes, it's exactly where the Spirit of God sends him.  This episode is a vital prelude to Jesus' ministry and his mission and so it's vital that we understand why.  If we don't understand who Jesus is then we can't relate to him correctly.  If you've been going to Christianity Explored on Thursday nights, you'll be right in the thick of this issue, looking at who Jesus was, why he came and why he died.

The first indication of Jesus' mission comes right back in Genesis 3, when God says to the serpent, that is the devil, that an offspring of the woman, Eve, will crush his head.  In other words, someone will come who will deliver a fatal blow to the devil and all the powers and effects of evil.  That someone is Jesus, and in the episode in tonight's passage serves notice on the devil: your time is nearly up.

So if Jesus is the Son of God, what did he come to do?  What is he going to be like?  Let's look at the temptations recorded here in turn, starting with…

1 – Jesus was tempted to ignore God (v2b-4)

Read verses 2b-4 with me.

Jesus had been fasting for forty days.  Fasting in the New Testament goes hand-in-hand with prayer so we can assume that Jesus spent these forty days praying earnestly and fervently to his Father.  But Jesus was fully human and needed food – it seems something of an understatement from Luke to say He ate nothing during those days, and at the end of them he was hungry. In what must have been a very weak state, the devil comes to Jesus with a suggestion: If you are the Son of God, tell this stone to become bread.

It's not a surprise that the devil brings temptation to those who are physically weak and no surprise that he will use any ploy to turn us away from God.  The devil doesn't play fair with temptation.  This is the ultimate war for the ultimate prize.

So the devil says to Jesus, why all this hunger and pain and weakness?  If you are the son of God, the chosen Saviour, why not just make some bread from this rock?  You can recover from your fasting and prove conclusively that you're the Messiah.

Jesus answers from Deuteronomy: man does not live by bread alone but on every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord.  It is possible to live just by eating – that's what every other living creature in this world does.  But man is the pinnacle of creation, made for loving relationship with the creator, made for worship, made for obedience.

Jesus demonstrates perfect submission to God's will – remember that it was the Spirit who led him into the desert and into this confrontation.  How can he, as the perfect human being, submit to the will of the Father?  By submitting to God's law.  In the law God instructed mankind how to live to please him, and as the perfect fulfilment of what it is to be human, Jesus submitted himself to the law, even though his obedience meant staying weak and hungry.  For Jesus, being the Son of God meant listening to what God wants and responding in obedience.

If the Son of God needs to listen to God, how much more we need to do the same.

In our default fallen, sinful nature, we try to live by bread alone.  We automatically ignore God and work hard at making ourselves physically, mentally and emotionally comfortable.  But true humanity as God intended as creator is defined by a unique relationship with him forever.  Even in a fallen sinful world that's still the case.  Our goal in this life should not be to pursue creature comforts, but to pursue the creator himself.

Our society honours the person with the role of breadwinner.  Perhaps you are a breadwinner, either for yourself or a spouse or a family.  That's great, but remember that anyone you provide for needs much more than food on the table.  You need relationship with God.  Wives need husbands who take the lead in bringing the bible to bear on married life.  Children need parents who will bring them up in the training and instruction of the Lord.  Jesus listened and obeyed, and so must we.

Jesus was tempted to ignore God, but instead Jesus listened to God.  Secondly…

2 – Jesus was tempted to reject God (v5-8)

Read verses 5-8 with me.

The devil says, Okay, I know you've come to establish God's kingdom and put things right in the world.  All of the authority and splendour you need is in my control.  Worship me, and just ask me and I will hand it all over to you and you can establish the kind of world you want.

Well we're tempted to ask, 'Who does the devil think he is?'  But he's right.  He does have temporary authority in this world.  Jesus calls him the prince of this world (John 14.30) and Paul refers to him as the ruler of the kingdom of the air, the spirit who is now at work in those who are disobedient (Ephesians 2.2).

The devil is also right that Jesus' mission is to establish God's kingdom.  The devil is telling Jesus to do it – take my authority and establish God's kingdom.  Take power.  Take power and prevent wars.  Take power and stamp out injustice.  Take power and redistribute wealth to make poverty history.  Take power and bring in the blessings of God's kingdom.

In a nutshell, the devil is offering Jesus a shortcut to his destiny.  Do all this, he says, without dying on the cross.  It's the same end result; it's just the means to the end that are different.  Why should the Son of God have to die on the cross in shame and judgment – here is a shortcut to your destiny.

And we know from his prayers before his death that Jesus was desperate for there to be another way. 'Father, if you are willing, take this cup from me; yet not my will, but yours be done.' (Luke 22.42)  But the mission of the Son of God is to deal with human sin and defeat the devil.  For Jesus that meant going God's way, the way of the cross.

Submitting again to God's law in Deuteronomy, Jesus says, 'It is written: 'Worship the Lord your God and serve him only.''  The Son of God is obedient to the Father, even to death.

The end did not justify the means.  Imagine a student who needs to submit an essay to his tutor the next morning.  He sits down at 8pm to get started but soon realises that there's no way he can get it done on time.  He hasn't done the reading necessary to know what to write and it's too late.  So he gets on to Google and finds one of these websites that sells completed essays.  He finds one that looks like it'll be just right for his topic, he buys it and he submits it the next morning.  No-one is any the wiser… until it comes to the exam at the end of the year, when it soon becomes apparent that he doesn't know the topic at all.  Not only did the end not justify the means, but the end was a red herring anyway.  The real end goal was that by researching and writing the essay he would learn the topic and that would only have happened if he'd gone about the essay in the right way.  For Jesus, the end didn't justify the means.   Establishing God's kingdom by force didn't justify rejecting God.  In fact it would have been a red herring anyway.  It wouldn't have worked because if God is not God of the means, he is not God of the end either.

If the Son of God needs to serve God alone, how much more we need to do the same.

The devil's temptations always involve replacing God with something else.  He always wants men and women to trust something else, to pursue something else, to worship something else.  It's idolatry: replacing God with something else.  External obedience, praying, giving, singing, studying the bible, trying to live a better life, these things are not the total of what God wants from us.  He created us to worship him from the heart in all of our lives.  That's why God is interested in every aspect of our lives.  Everything must please God.

Tied up with rejection of God is rejection of his will.  We too are tempted to take a shortcut past the cross.  We too are tempted to try to establish God's kingdom in other ways.  We can fall into thinking that if we just show God's love in practical, charitable, self-sacrificial ways, that will be enough.  If we compassionately serve people and address their needs, that will be enough.  But that is the devil's route.

God's way is the way of the cross, and God's way of establishing his kingdom is through the gospel.  Of course we must clothe the gospel with compassion, but we must not shy away from explaining sin, wrath, the cross, judgement, hell.  It is the true gospel that truly transforms.  The gospel is God's means.  And as for the end, God will establish his kingdom.  There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain.  But only for those who trust in Jesus' death.

Jesus was tempted to reject God, but instead Jesus served God alone.  Thirdly…

3 – Jesus was tempted to control God (v9-13)

Read verses 9-13 with me.

The devil is quick to catch on.  Jesus has used the Old Testament to expose the devil's deception and stand firm against him, so now the devil quickly flicks to Psalm 91.  He taunts Jesus again, If you are the son of God, Jesus, prove it once and for all.  God has promised to protect his son, so you'd only be confirming your own identity and God's faithfulness to his promise and his power to act.  Jesus answers, 'It says: Do not put the Lord your God to the test.'

The issue here isn't whether or not Jesus could have jumped, or whether or not God would have kept his promise of protection.  The issue here is over who gets to call the shots.  To put God to the test would have been to presume on God and to take control of the relationship between them.  The initiative must belong to God.  He is a God who acts in grace and he is in charge.

And God's power and faithfulness don't need to be tested.  Look across the page at ch4 v28-30.  An angry mob is about to throw Jesus off a cliff for what they think is blasphemy, but, v30, he walked right through the crowd and went on his way.  How often does an angry mob accidentally let its victim walk right through it in broad daylight?  God's power and faithfulness don't need to be tested and the initiative must be God's.

I love my son, Matthew, and I want the best for him.  When he grows up and moves out, I'll make sure he knows that he's welcome at his parents' home any time and that we'll help him as best we can in any difficulty he faces in life.  But say he comes to visit one day and walks in with his muddy shoes, gives me a bag of dirty laundry and says, 'Wash these clothes, would you, Dad?  And Mum, I'm starving, would you mind cooking something for me?  I'll be watching TV – just bring dinner in when it's ready.'  Well, I'll have to remind him that he's not too old for some fatherly instruction.  Even the son can't take charge of the father and presume on the father's love.

If the Son of God needs to trust God, how much more we need to do the same.

Who calls the shots in your relationship with your heavenly Father?  Perhaps we fall into making demands of God for a job or a spouse or for healing.  Plenty of people argue that if God is God he must prevent suffering in the world, and then they are shocked and confused if he doesn't.  Many people use that argument as an excuse to reject God.  But God made us and he knows us and he loves us.  Even the blessings that God promises in his word come to us at his initiative and in his good timing.  Our job is to trust him.

Jesus was tempted to control God, but instead Jesus trusted God.


So after the declaration of ch3 v22, what sort of Messiah would Jesus be?  What would the Son of God be like, and what had he come to do?

Jesus was tempted to ignore God, but instead listened to him.

Jesus was tempted to reject God, but instead served him alone.

Jesus was tempted to control God, but instead trusted him.

Jesus truly is the Son of God, and he came to defeat the devil, sin and death.  Here for the first time was a son of Adam who successfully resisted the devil's schemes.  For the devil this signalled that defeat at the cross was coming.  For us it signalled the possibility of having our sin dealt with and the sting of death removed.  Hallelujah, what a Saviour!

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