Monday, September 12, 2011

Matthew 07: Fighting Temptation

Satan Tempts Jesus from a Mountaintop in the Wilderness - Gustave Doré
Scripture Text: Matthew 4:1-11

Introductory Comments

The last time we were together we examined the baptism of Jesus in Matthew chapter 3, and we learned from Matthew’s account three things. First, we learned that Jesus was baptized by John in order to fulfill all righteousness so that, having lived free from sin, Jesus might become a perfect sacrifice for our sin. Second, because of his sinless life and his perfect sacrificial death for our sin, Jesus’ baptism means everything to us. In baptism, we are claimed as Christ’s own, receiving the gifts he received at his baptism, including the gift of the indwelling Holy Spirit and the gift of divine favor and uninhibited love. In Christ, we all get to hear the words, “You are my beloved child, with whom I am well pleased, because you live in and for the glory of my beloved Son.” Third, we learned that these gifts grant to us the power to obey what Jesus will command all of us to do in Matthew 28:19-20: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” We are to be a people on the move, sent into the world to bring the good news that Jesus is Lord and that divine grace is available to all who would believe in His Name. We get the opportunity to be used by God for the glory of His Son. The question we ended with was: Do we live like we believe this?

Having been anointed by the Holy Spirit, Jesus begins he formal ministry by demonstrating his obedience to God. He is “led up by the Spirit into the wilderness” for a time of trial and temptation.

For me, one of the greatest passages in the Scriptures is found in Hebrews 4:15
For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin.
It is critically important that we have a high priest who is able to sympathize with our weaknesses, and who has been in every respect tempted as we are, and yet remains without sin, so that by his righteous obedience to the will of God we might be saved. This week’s text from Matthew shows the degree and scope of the temptations placed before our great high priest, Jesus. You can imagine this scene like a duel at 20 paces. Both of the combatants in this story are armed, not with guns, but with the word of God, which should teach us all something right out of the gate, namely: If you want to defeat the temptations in your life and kill of sin by the power of the Holy Spirit, the best weapon we have is the very Word of God. It is in the pages of Scripture that we are able to see clearly God’s will for our lives, so that we may not succumb to temptation. Lesson one of this sermon is, therefore, to live scripture-saturated lives. To live a scripture saturated life is to live in a way that is contrary to what the world expects of you. The world expects you to take the things of the world with utmost seriousness. And so we waste our lives with simple pleasures and pleasantries, rather than be devoted drinkers of the living water of God’s Word. If you are discover that temptation is besetting you constantly, you may seriously want to consider spending significantly more time in your bibles than you do now.

Just a few words on the structure of this passage. You may recall that in the last sermon I said that there was a definite pattern in Matthew’s gospel. Everything points to the humble humility of Jesus. Everything points down. He’s born in a stable and sleeps in the trough. He comes from the backward, insignificant town of Nazareth. His family history is filled with gentiles and sinners.

Direction: Upward to Pride

One of the things I want you to notice in today’s test is that the Devil, who is described in verse three as “the tempter” tries to move Jesus from this position of humility by tempting him with the things that are above. He first temptation begins in the wilderness. The next one from the pinnacle of the temple. Finally, Jesus is taken in verse eight to “a very high mountain.” The tempter moves by employing temptations that are increasingly desirable and which play to pride, probably the key weakness of human moral living. When pride rules, everything in life hinges on satisfying ourselves at the expense of God. We see that the tempter in this duel is very well acquainted with his Enemy. And we should be equally sophisticated in our approach as well. Temptation is from the devil who would separate us from the love of God shown to us in our Baptisms. That’s the tempter’s angle with Jesus, and the tempter works the same way against us.

Threefold Form of Temptation

The second thing I want you to notice is the basic threefold structure of the temptations themselves. We’ll address those by working through the text verse by verse, but here’s a summary. The first temptation addresses human appetites. In this case, it is hunger. The second temptation addresses faith in God’s Word. The third goes right to that big weak spot we mentioned earlier, our pride and lust for power.

Temptation One: Hunger –Perversion our Natural Appetites
[4:1] Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. [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.” [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.’”
Notice that while the Spirit doesn’t lead Jesus into temptation, he leads Him to a place where he is subject to temptation. He’s already been fasting for forty days and nights. How many of you have ever voluntarily fasted for even one day? The first day usually isn’t so bad, but try it for two or three days, let alone forty. Your body is well-equipped for communicating the emptiness of your stomach through hunger pains. We have a hard time imagining even the routine hunger of most of the rest of the world, let alone a deliberate 40-day fast. Jesus was very hungry, loved ones. Hungry enough to be very sorely tested by the devil’s first attempt to separate Jesus from His heavenly Father.

This is the way temptation so often works for us, too. Our appetites are such a rich target because they are right there, present in front of us. I’m hungry! I might die if I don’t get something to eat right now. I complain that way if I'm 15 minutes late for a Big Mac. How much more tempting simple bread must have been to a hungry, salivating Savior, 40 days and 40 nights without one morsel.

And it might not be hunger that gets us into trouble. I remember, in a seminary course on pastoral ministry, the teacher strongly recommenced that we never meet with anyone late in the afternoon, especially if that person happened to be of the opposite sex. Physical tiredness lowered the resistance to other forms of temptation. You might be surprised at the indiscretions of pastors who succumbed to temptation simply because they later claimed to be tired.

Our physical appetites, hunger, thirst, sex, etc., can lead us down paths of destruction. The tempter is trying to get Jesus to doubt his Sonship through via the stomach. “If you really are who God says you are, then turn these stones in to bread.” The devil worked the same way in the Garden. “Did God really say don’t eat the fruit from that tree?”

Jesus knows this what’s up. He knows that there are fates worse than dying from hunger, and so he fires his salvo from scripture, quoting Deuteronomy 8:3 – “Man shall not live by bread alone, but every word that comes from the mouth of God.” Food is necessary to live now, but the Word of God is necessary to live eternally for and with God. The devil is saying to Jesus, “Prove what God said to you at the riverside by doing something big.” Jesus, however, operates entirely from the perspective of faith by recalling the scriptures and his own baptism.

Temptation Two – Going for the Strength

The tempter’s next move is a straightforward one. Jesus responded to the first temptation by quoting the holy Word of God. Now the tempter demonstrates that he also knows the Word of God, so his next assault against Jesus uses the Word:
[5] Then the devil took him to the holy city and set him on the pinnacle of the temple [6] 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,’
“‘On their hands they will bear you up,
lest you strike your foot against a stone.’”
So, the tempter seems to be saying, you think your saturated with Scriptures? How far are you willing to believe them? Here’s what they say about you, from Psalm 91. The tempter is abusing the scriptures by taking one verse in an attempt to persuade Jesus to defy the living God.

But Jesus will have none of it:
[7] Jesus said to him, “Again it is written, ‘You shall not put the Lord your God to the test.’”
The devil has tried two approaches now. He’s tempted Jesus at a great point of weakness, and now he’s moved him up to tempt Jesus’ strength – his love of God’s Word. Incidentally, I think from this part of the story we learn the valuable lesson about how scripture can be so easily abused and turned into a weapon. Throughout history, the scriptures, robbed from their true meaning by unscrupulous religious leaders, politicians, and others, have caused tremendous damage and pain. Christians ought never to be guilty of this charge.

Temptation Three – The Very High Place

Temptation three at first glance seems to a bit more difficult to frame. Having tested Jesus’ at a weak point, and then his strongest point, he now tests Jesus based on what Jesus is sent here to do, which is to, as Bruner puts it, “win the world.” Jesus is destined to become Lord of the Universe. The tempter knows this, but then he tries to use this knowledge to drive a wedge between Jesus and his Father:
[8] 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.”
The tempter is tempting Jesus with a shortcut that removes the necessity of the Cross. If Jesus has succumbed to this temptation, or any of the others, we all would have been lost. This temptation illustrates this truth the best, because unless Jesus died on the Cross for our sins, we would be utterly lost and condemned to hell.

Again, Jesus will have none of it. He was sent, after all, to gather together those whom His father had given him, so that they would never be lost.
[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.’”
Nothing will dissuade Jesus from his mission of saving those whom he was sent to save. Notice also the effect Jesus’ words have. They effect the very thing they command:
[11] Then the devil left him, and behold, angels came and were ministering to him.
The duel comes to an end, for now. Jesus will be tempted again in his life, including the time of his ultimate weakness, when he was hanging on the cross, hearing things like this from passers-by:
[27:40] “You who would destroy the temple and rebuild it in three days, save yourself! If you are the Son of God, come down from the cross.”
Or this, from the religious clergy of the day, the Chief Priests, scribes, and elders:
[27:42] “He saved others; he cannot save himself. He is the King of Israel; let him come down now from the cross, and we will believe in him. [43] He trusts in God; let God deliver him now, if he desires him. For he said, ‘I am the Son of God.’”
Thank you, Jesus, for withstanding it all for our sakes.


First, we are to be scripture-soaked people, so that we can endure and stand victorious at the time of temptation.

Second, the devil tempts us by appealing to our sinful pride – perhaps our weakest point. Pride it’s a killer of souls and churches. Pride manifests itself in many, many ways. In religious boosterism, in rumor mongering (which is simply the attempt to look better than the absent one we’re slandering). If you are not a Christian, such behaviors will never bother you because pride and place in this world is all you have. For the Christian, however, these worldly ways lead to death, death to the soul and death to the Christian community. Temptations to our pride are everywhere. Be alert for them, and resist them.

Third, if you are a Christian, your failures to withstand temptation are never the last word, because Jesus withstood all temptations for you. Our response to this story of Jesus’ temptations should be deep, deep gratitude. Our reason for staying steadfast and faithful and obedient is not so that we might earn a ticket to heaven. Christ died to put you in heaven. No, our obedience flows from our love and gratitude for what Jesus accomplished by His obedience, even unto death. Amen.

Given at First Presbyterian Church in Jackson, Minnesota
September 11, 2011
24th Sunday in Ordinary Time
Copyright © 2011 by Christopher Donald Drew