This was the sermon for my first Sunday in Morgan. (We’d been present to attend services the previous Sunday, but that was the day after we’d moved in – the first Sunday after Ash Wednesday that was.) I preached in the morning and was ordained into the holy ministry in the afternoon. I wanted to get to work right away. I think the people wanted that too. I wrote this sermon surrounded by boxes, meandering a path between them as I paced while I practiced. My parents and grandmother were around that weekend as well — it was really special.
I’ve gotten to preach on this Biblical account before, and it’s always been one of my favorite Bible stories. It’s so comforting to watch Jesus defeat the devil, knowing how many times he’s conquered us — and he’s defeated us far more easily than he did Christ. Thanks be to God!
1Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the desert, 2where for forty days he was tempted by the devil. He ate nothing during those days, and at the end of them he was hungry. 3The devil said to him, “If you are the Son of God, tell this stone to become bread.” 4Jesus answered, “It is written: ‘Man does not live on bread alone.’[a]”
5The devil led him up to a high place and showed him in an instant all the kingdoms of the world. 6And he said to him, “I will give you all their authority and splendor, for it has been given to me, and I can give it to anyone I want to. 7So if you worship me, it will all be yours.” 8Jesus answered, “It is written: ‘Worship the Lord your God and serve him only.’[b]”
9The devil led him to Jerusalem and had him stand on the highest point of the temple. “If you are the Son of God,” he said, “throw yourself down from here. 10For it is written:
” ‘He will command his angels concerning you
to guard you carefully;
11they will lift you up in their hands,
so that you will not strike your foot against a stone.’[c]”
12Jesus answered, “It says: ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’[d]”
13When the devil had finished all this tempting, he left him until an opportune time.
Imagine you’re part of a football team preparing for a state championship, or the Super Bowl. You’ve been practicing for weeks. You know your opponent is tough and smart – you’re going to need all the help you can get. Then one day you open your locker and you see an unfamiliar folder inside. Curious, you grab it and flip it open. You can’t believe your eyes! It’s the other team’s playbook! Every formation and every play for every possible situation. You realize that you now know just about everything the other team is going to do.
Do you think that information would be helpful on game day? Of course it would! Knowing what the other team will do is invaluable. You know what’s coming. You know how to react. You know how to stop them before they start. Today, we’re going to take a look at the enemy’s playbook. Christ is going to be tempted by the devil in the desert. As we watch, we will not only see Christ in the process of earning our salvation. We will also gain insight into the methods and personality of our enemy, the devil. Satan can’t beat Christ. That means that now he’s coming after you. We need to be ready for him. Thanks be to God that Jesus not only defeats the devil, but he also gives us A Look at the Enemy’s Playbook.
Jesus has just been baptized. Immediately he heads away from the Jordan River and into the Judean Wilderness, a barren badlands-type area where nothing grows. It’s dry, empty, hot, still, and dead-looking. Luke tells us the Spirit led Jesus here. That helps us understand what follows. Everything that happens in our text is on purpose. Jesus intentionally is headed into harm’s way, for you and me. His temptation will not be an accident – it’s part of his love for you that he willingly enters the lion’s cage.
The devil is working on Jesus the entire forty days he’s in the desert. We often think of the three temptations mentioned in our text as the only ones that happened, but it was more than that. Jesus is suffering, and now the devil finally speaks to him. We see a little bit of the devil’s personality here. He’s bold. He doesn’t shrink back from coming right up to Jesus and challenging him, almost daring him. He’s not about to give up easily.
The devil says to Jesus, “If you are the Son of God, tell this stone to become bread.” It almost sounds like a dare, but it’s not. Of course Satan knows Jesus is God’s true Son. Satan can’t help remembering that fact. He knows his limits, and he knows that Christ could destroy him with a word. Still Satan speaks up boldly. He knows how hungry Jesus is. They’re in an area where the desert floor is littered with stones about the size and shape of dinner rolls. Imagine not eating for forty days, being surrounded with what looks like little loaves of bread, then being challenged to change one into bread – when you can actually do it. I would have been so out of it that I probably would have done it without thinking.
Jesus is not so easily trapped. Even with hunger gnawing in his belly, he sees to the root of the temptation. If he turns the stone into bread, he’s short-cutting God’s providence for him. He would be using his power in a selfish way. He would be feeding his body at the expense of God’s glory, which is a sin. We do the same thing when we act like God won’t provide us or care for us, like it’s up to us to meet our basic needs. That’s related to another button Satan is trying to push here: the sinful human urge to live apart from God. People are both spiritual and material, but our sinful hearts bend us away from God. They lead us to look at what we can see and feel as everything there is. They lead us to forget about God, to live as if he won’t provide for us or even as if he doesn’t exist, and ultimately to deny that he is the source and sustainer of our lives. Another name for that is unbelief. Satan tries this temptation because he knows us. Have you ever been going through your normal daily activities and suddenly realized that you haven’t prayed yet today? In fact, you can’t remember the last time you prayed? Isn’t it easy at times to take a break from regular devotional time with God’s Word and just not start again? We are prone to this temptation every day. That’s why the devil tries it on Christ.
Jesus stops the devil’s temptation cold with a single Bible verse: “Man does not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.” Jesus affirms that God is the one who sustains both body and soul. In him we live and move and have our being. He is the one who gives life to our mortal bodies and to our souls, and he is the one who will raise us from the dead on the Last Day as proof that Christ has taken away all our sins. He is the one who constantly draws us back to himself, who will not let us go our own way. God keeps us strong through his Word, and Satan tries to distract us from the Word by the cares and concerns of this life. Simply eating and breathing and moving around aren’t enough to be truly alive. For that we need God’s Word, which gives life to our souls and keeps our faith alive until eternal life.
One temptation foiled. Satan tries again. He takes Christ up on a mountain and shows him all the kingdoms of the world. The devil shows us a page from his playbook with this temptation: he’s a liar. He lies. A lot. All the time. Just look at the lies he tells here! “I will give you all their authority and splendor, for it has been given to me, and I can give it to anyone I want to.” Lies are Satan’s favorite tool. He lies to you so that he can hurt you, kill you and destroy you. The bait on the hook is tempting, but the hook is sharp and it goes in deep. Too late we find out that the payoff isn’t coming and the price is painfully steep. The reward he promises is a mirage, but the pain is real.
But why does Satan think this will tempt Jesus? Why does he think this will work? Satan is trying to push another button here. He’s trying to play on the human urge to be first, to be in charge, to call the shots. Haven’t you felt that urge too? Irritation when others won’t listen or do what you say. Bickering – squabbling – what are euphemistically called “personality conflicts.” Hurt feelings and arguing. Don’t these things happen because we each want to be first? When we act that way, we’re worshipping ourselves instead of God. If we really worshipped and served God, we wouldn’t care if we were first. It wouldn’t matter so much if others listened to us if we were secure in God hearing and answering our prayers. We wouldn’t care so much about others doing what we said if we were focused on doing what God said. We would have no urge to increase our own power and honor if we rejoiced, confident that we could call on an all-powerful God and he would do far more for us than all we can ask or imagine.
The devil found out that Christ is different than us disobedient children. Jesus humbly obeyed God. He did what he said – he worshiped the Lord our God and served him only. He was never interested in power for his own sake. God got all the glory with Jesus. Jesus also makes it possible for us to do what he says, love and serve God, by redeeming us. By his perfect obedience he atoned for all the times we want to believe the devil’s lies rather than listen to God. He bought us back from the power of sin and death. He died to clear our record before God with his own blood. He has made us new creations and made the light of the gospel to shine in our hearts. Now we can truly serve God in ways that please him, because we are his own. We no longer live for ourselves, as so many in this world do, but for him who died for us and rose again. We live for Christ, our Savior. Our lives are lives of praise and service to him alone.
One last temptation. This one will be the most dangerous one of all. It doesn’t look like it at first. Who would take that suicidal of a dare? Throw yourself down just to see if God will catch you? This last temptation is directed not so much at God’s care for us, like you might think, but rather at God’s Word. Note what the devil says. Before Jesus had said, “It is written”; now Satan says, “It is written.” Satan is quoting Psalm 91, or part of it, anyway – he leaves out the part of the verse that would show that Jesus shouldn’t jump. He uses it to support something he knows is wrong. He picks a passage that seems to say what he wants, then holds that passage up as the reason to ignore other clear parts of Scripture. It’s one of the favorite tricks from his playbook – he tries to silence the Word of God by pitting one Scripture against another. You see this all the time. People refuse to call sin what God calls sin, and they call it loving not to be so judgmental. They excuse sin in the name of love and inclusiveness. Many churches nowadays have voted on whether or not homosexuality is a sin, and have concluded that it’s not – even while God’s Word still says that it is. To do that, you have to explain away or shove off to the side the parts of the Word that tell you you’re wrong, which many are willing to do.
Scripture is the living voice of God speaking. If you refuse to listen to it, you have no protection from the devil. He will lead you astray, lie to you, feed you empty promises, trap you, and ultimately destroy you. If you dismantle and throw away your one means of defense – the Word of God – by refusing to believe it and follow it, then you have no defense against the devil. If we trust in God’s Word and order our lives according to it, the devil cannot harm us. Notice what the devil does each time Jesus stops him with Scripture: he’s stuck. All he can do is go back to his playbook and try something else – which we can also stop with Scripture. Jesus could have swatted the devil with his divine power right away. He could have zapped him with lightening or cast him back into hell. Yet he doesn’t. Jesus defeats the devil in a way that’s an example for us: with the Word of God. He undoes everything the devil throws at him by knowing God’s Word, standing firmly on it, and refusing to stand in judgment over it or chop it up. He lets God’s Word speak, and that is the one thing the devil cannot withstand. Christ has exposed every play in Satan’s playbook for the lie that it is, and in so doing has defeated him.
Now he gives us that same Word for our protection, guidance, and comfort. So we need to know our Bibles. We need to know and believe everything God tells us, because we need it. If you feel like you can’t stop having sinful thoughts, or you feel oppressed and weighed down with the struggle not to sin, ask yourself: how regularly am I in my Bible? Do I make it a regular part of my life, or do I leave it for Sunday morning and try and fight the devil on my own the rest of the week? Don’t do that, because he’s been tempting and trapping people for longer than you’ve been resisting him. When you feel yourself tempted, don’t try and fight it on your own. Hit it with something stronger. Hit it with God’s Word, which has divine power to demolish strongholds.
After he fails to get Jesus to fall, the devil leaves. But he would be back to attack Jesus again, most notably in the garden of Gethsemane. That’s what Satan does: he keeps coming back at us. We know that when he does, whatever he throws at us, we will be ready if we trust in, live by, and let ourselves be guided by the Word of God. God grant that we so love his Word that we cling to it no matter what, defeat the devil, and thus at last be saved. Amen.