Then Jesus was led by the Spirit into the desert to be tempted by the devil. 2 After fasting forty days and forty nights, he was hungry. 3The tempter came to him and said, “If you are the Son of God, tell these stones to become bread.”
4 Jesus answered, “It is written: ‘Man does not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.’”
5 Then the devil took him to the holy city and had him stand on the highest point of the temple. 6“If you are the Son of God,” he said, “throw yourself down. For it is written:
“‘He will command his angels concerning you, and they will lift you up in their hands, so that you will not strike your foot against a stone.’”
7 Jesus answered him, “It is also written: ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’”
8 Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor. 9“All this I will give you,” he said, “if you will bow down and worship me.”
10 Jesus said to him, “Away from me, Satan! For it is written: ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve him only.’”
11 Then the devil left him, and angels came and attended him.
— matt 4.1-11 (niv84)
Everybody needs a hero. We all need people to look up to, to admire. Sometimes we need more than that. We need help, desperately, and it takes just the right person in the right place at the right time to get us out of our predicament. That word “hero” is often applied to the basketball player who makes the last-second shot, or the quarterback who throws the last-second touchdown for the come-from-behind victory, but maybe it’s better reserved for the firefighter who pulls the child out of the burning building or the soldier who kisses his family goodbye and goes off to war without complaining or arguing. Real heroes risk more and accomplish more.
In our Gospel for today, we see the Hero of all heroes – our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. He faces the ancient enemy we cannot conquer and beats him for us. He also shows us how we can protect ourselves against our wily foe. Let’s take a closer look as A Real Hero Conquers Temptation.
Our Gospel for today takes place right after Jesus is baptized. Matthew says that the Spirit led Jesus out into the desert. That meant He was there on purpose. He willingly went into harm’s way, for you. He knew what was waiting for Him and yet He went anyway. That shows love. While He’s in the wilderness, He fasts forty days. We very well might wonder why Jesus does this. Most likely it’s to help Him get ready to do battle with the devil. Jesus wanted to be at the top of His game, so to speak, when He came face to face with the enemy, so He fasts to sharpen His mind and hone His concentration on God’s Word. It’s interesting that Jesus fasts for forty days and forty nights in the desert, just as Moses did; only Moses was with God when he fasted. Jesus is with the devil the entire time. Jesus is fasting in the same way, sustained by God, but He’s facing a lot stiffer opposition.
Now the tempter comes to Him and says, “If You are the Son of God, tell these stones to become bread.” The first man was overcome by a temptation to eat what he shouldn’t. Jesus overcome this first temptation, in part, by not eating. Thus Jesus is the second Adam who puts right what the first Adam shamefully lost.
Here we also see that sometimes Satan likes to use obvious temptations. The reason he does this is because often they work. The devil is like someone who removes a manhole cover from the street in front of your house and tells you about it, and still hopes you’ll fall into it. For us, we too often fall into the devil’s obvious traps. Here, Jesus doesn’t. It doesn’t seem too clever at first to question Jesus’ being the Son of God, or to dangle bread in front of a hungry man. Yet this temptation is subtler than it seems. If Jesus does what Satan’s suggesting, He’ll be using His almighty power for selfish ends. Jesus would basically be saying that the Father wasn’t going to take care of Him, so He was going to take care of Himself. Jesus would be doing what we do many times when we act out of fear that God won’t provide daily bread for us or help us. Many times we fret and worry all the while we work or look for work, because we don’t trust God enough to take Him at His word that He will never let us starve.
Jesus stays strong. He cuts Satan’s temptation off at the knees with God’s Word. Even though His stomach is growling, Jesus does not lose sight of the fact that what’s spiritual is what we really need to live. We rely on God’s Word for our very existence. If God took His Word away from us, we’d cease to be. It’s not food that keeps our bodies alive; it’s God’s Word in the food that makes it effective. It’s not medicine that heals us; it’s God’s Word in the medicine. Without God’s Word, nothing happens and nothing can happen. We need His Word most of all.
Then the devil takes Him to the holy city and has Him stand on the highest point of the temple. This shows us that the devil is shamelessly bold. He lacks proper respect or fear for God, and he’s daring. We should never think that Satan won’t come after us just because we’re God’s people or we’re in His house. The opposite is true. Look at how hard he comes at Christ all through this text.
So Jesus and the devil are standing on the highest point of the temple, right over the edge of the Kidron Valley, which runs alongside the temple mount. The total drop Jesus was looking at here is about 450 feet. As Jesus gazes downward, the devil says, “If You are the Son of God,” – once again questioning a spiritual truth that was very obviously true – “throw yourself down. For it is written–” and then the devil quotes Psalm 91. It’s this use of Scripture to support a lie that makes this temptation so dangerous.
The way the devil uses Scripture is what should open our eyes here. He doesn’t twist anything in an obvious way. He doesn’t even change anything. All he does is leave something out. The devil drops out the phrase “in all your ways” from Psalm 91, and by doing so he makes the passage say something it doesn’t really say. This shows us an important tactic of the devil and those who serve him. He can simply snip and trim and go around the parts of Scripture that would stop him in his tracks. The devil knows he can’t beat God’s Word in a frontal attack. But he can bypass the parts of it that would drive him away. Even the devil knows how to quote Scripture, but he does it in a tricky, underhanded way, and then the victim of his temptation has to work twice as hard to play catch up and defense. The devil knows what parts to leave out, and it’s harder to see what’s not there.
This temptation highlights the reason we need to know our Bibles backwards and forwards. God told us everything He told us for a reason: we need to know it! We need to know what’s being left out when someone tries to persuade us based on only part of Scripture. We need to be equipped and armed to defend ourselves with the whole counsel of God when a temptation like this one is tried on us. We cannot let Satan snatch the sword of the Spirit, God’s Word, out of our hands and use it on us. If we are only hearing part of God’s Word from Satan and those who serve him, we risk going astray and falling for something that looks very holy, but in reality is most unholy.
Jesus patiently counters again with God’s Word, the only weapon we have. He makes a right use of God’s Word, thereby showing us that there is a way to use God’s Word in faith and a way to use it without faith. Jesus steadfastly resists the temptation to pride and glory here. Satan wants Jesus to think that if He jumps and survives unharmed, He’d be acclaimed instantly and truly seen to be the Son of God. Here, at God’s house in God’s holy city – people would flock to Him! In an instant He can become famous and admired by everyone. Jesus refuses out of reverence for God. He wasn’t here on earth for Himself – not at all. He was here for us and out of obedience to the Father, and so Jesus does the right thing and doesn’t jump. By not jumping, Jesus is making up for all the times we’ve decided to do whatever we wanted, instead of what God wanted us to do, and hang the consequences. Jesus makes up for our self-willed sinful natures by refusing to act for Himself against God’s will.
Then the devil takes Jesus to a very high mountain and shows Him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor. First of all this third temptation is a temptation for the eyes. It’s immediate, it’s flashy, and it’s almost overpowering. It’s not hard for us to see how Satan does the same thing to us. He dangles shiny, attractive pictures of wealth and happiness and fun in front of us all the time. In this he has the help of our fallen world, with its materialist, greedy, consumer culture and hedonistic, pleasure-seeking mindset. Trained by the world from little up, we want it all and we want it now. Parents are sometimes dismayed when their little children who can’t even talk get excited when they see the McDonald’s arches. They don’t know their ABCs yet, but they know that when they see that sign, there’s good food and toys and fun. We absorb that influence from our culture around us, without even realizing it, and Satan uses that. He’s more than happy to promise it all to us…for a price.
Satan always offers what isn’t his to give. He doesn’t actually have anything good to give, even though he makes it seem like he does. He always promises what he can’t deliver, because every good and perfect gift comes from above, from the Father of the heavenly lights – not from the devil. He’s a liar and the father of lies, and he’s more than willing to lie to you because all he needs is your credit card number, spiritually speaking. All he needs is the moment’s opening where we think enviously, “Wow, that would be great…” and then he’s got us. Satan excels at the bait and switch. He promises glitz and glamour, fun and freedom, but instead all he gives is pain and regret, loss and loneliness, doubt and despair.
It’s good to note here too that Satan likes to go widescreen with his temptations. He likes to blow them up big so they fill your whole field of vision and it’s hard to think about anything else – like why what he’s saying is wrong. Satan makes it seem like you can literally have it all. He convinces you that the sin right in front of you will make all your dreams come true, fix all your problems, and give you a rosy future. You’ll be set for life. He’s lying.
The price he asks gives him away. Usually the sinner doesn’t find out the part about worshipping the devil until it’s too late. “Worshipping the devil” sounds extreme until you consider that that’s what people are doing when they try to have God’s good gifts any other way than God’s way. Whether people realize it or not, they’re putting their trust in the devil’s lies when they swallow his stories. We only find out too late. The fun or the payoff is the only thing emphasized at first. The kicker is in the fine print, after we find out what our sin really means: not fun or freedom or security, but slavery and condemnation and death. Do you see how Satan makes endless empty promises, and we keep falling for them right along?
That’s why Jesus’ answer to Satan is so welcome to our ears: “Away from Me, Satan!” We don’t have the strength or the wisdom to deal with Satan, but Jesus does. Jesus cuts straight to the heart with His answer to Satan. Nothing comes before God for us, because nothing came before us for Jesus. We were more important to Him than anything else. He chose to enter into battle with our enemy and destroy him for us. Jesus was doing work we couldn’t do when He broke the devil down and utterly defeated him. The devil took his best shots, and Jesus ruined every one of them. He sets us free from foolishly falling for the devil’s bad choices. We were a people plundered and looted, all of us trapped in pits or hidden away in prisons – until Christ came and overthrew the devil for us. He is our Champion and our sure Defender. He has set you free. Live like it. He’s shown you how to defeat the devil with His help, because you have His holy Word. Use it, and you too will be victorious. Amen.