Here is a slightly amended version of my sermon preached on Sunday 5th March, the first Sunday in Lent. The Scripture is Matthew 4:1-11, Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness.
My hope is to try and put on some reflections over Lent, so thought this would be a good place to start. Do forgive the fact it’s not completely polished, but hope I will be helpful anyway.
There isn’t a single person in church today who hasn’t been tempted at some point. No one is immune to it. None of us walk through life with some kind of protective bubble, shielding us from things which will enter into our lives as destructive influences.
The word temptation has lost a lot of its power. When advertisers talk about temptation they use it in such a way as to suggest that here is something a merely a bit naughty that we shouldn’t have, but isn’t really bad for you. ‘Go on, anyway you know you want to.’
Temptation is not necessarily the problem. Jesus was tempted by the devil in the wilderness. And there was nothing that Jesus did in his life and ministry that was sinful. He remained sinless but he was still tempted. So temptation is not the issue, but failing to resist it. Our muscles grow through resistance. If your muscles don’t face resistance then they will begin to become weak. Temptation is the resistance our spiritual muscles face and, like a muscle, if you don’t use you will weaken in your ability to resist temptation
In the account of Jesus’ temptation in the desert, Jesus teaches us here what temptation really is and how we are to resist it. In the letter to the Hebrews, we read this: “Because he himself suffered when he was tempted, he is able to help those who are being tempted.” Like a kind older brother, Jesus is showing us the way to do it. He’s the forerunner. He’s run the course. He was was the first person in history to fully resist Satan’s temptation. And so because he has done it, he has given us the power to do so too.
Jesus has just been confirmed as the Son of God. He has been baptised and stood alongside people who came to John in repentance for their sins, and with a desire to live a new life. The voice from heaven affirms him in his identity: “This is my son.” And God’s pleasure: “With whom I am well pleased.” None of what follows is because Jesus has displeased his Father; indeed, quite the opposite.
Jesus is affirmed by God by the Holy Spirit, and immediately he’s sent out into the desert for 40 days of fasting and prayer. And its there that he will do battle with God’s enemy, Satan. And he’s sent there in order for the battle. For all of us, sin is a reality. Even if we have been Christians for many years, we are tempted to sin, and to put our trust in anything but God.
But sadly we forget that we are in a battle. The war has been won, but the battles and skirmishes -which can still be costly – continue in our lives. But the good news is that Satan is a spent force; he has no authority, so can be defeated. He has been defeated by Christ on the cross, and the battle in the wilderness here is a foretaste of it.
And as Jesus defeats Satan here, he leaves behind his tools for us to pick up and use in our battles with temptation.
The devil’s temptations, if received and acted on, are always intrusive, always destructive and always seek to distance us from our heavenly Father. Repeat. They are always intrusive, always destructive and always seek to distance us from our heavenly Father. No one ever said “I’m so pleased I was tempted to do that; I’m so pleased I gave into that temptation.” No. Always intrusive, always destructive, always distancing us from our heavenly Father.
But on the other side, God uses this testing to prove us, and refine us. So when we go through a period of what appears to be testing, when we are tempted, that does not mean that God is somehow against us. Just as the devil uses temptation to make us fall, to ruin us, so God tests in order to prove our faith and his power.
In 1 Peter 1:7, Peter tells embattled Christians that their faith is being tested like gold refined in fire, so that the genuineness of their faith can be seen (by themselves, by those around them, and by God). If you are a Christian, God’s Spirit is working inside you to give you power, always for your good, and always to bring you closer to God so you can rely on his grace and provision.
To really appreciate these, remember that Jesus has been fasting for 40 days. He has gone without food for all that time. So he’s hungry – very hungry. Perhaps he’s moved beyond the aching of an empty stomach. Imagine that kind of hunger. But Jesus is not weak, far from it. Because he has been concentrating on his Father, he has been spiritually preparing for this battle.
The first temptation is about purpose. Notice Satan starts ‘if you are the Son of God…’ trying to encourage Jesus to use his powers to create bread. But God has said no; Jesus has not come to serve himself but others. So his powers are not there to merely serve himself, but God. So he replies, “Man doesn’t live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.”
Jesus is talking about obedience to his Father. And Jesus chooses to obey his Father, and not listen to Satan’s sly words to try and make him listen to him instead.
The second temptation is about trust. Jesus is taken to the very top of the temple, and encouraged to throw himself down. Why? Because God said that he would send his angels to bear you up so that you don’t even stub your toe. But that would be putting himself in danger when no danger existed, or was needed.
Satan’s taunts here are all about trying to get Jesus to prove his Father’s love and care for him. “If you are the Son of God, prove it.” It’s like a playground taunt: “Go on – prove it. I dare you.” But Jesus doesn’t need to. He knows that Satan’s use of Scripture is a misuse. “Don’t put God to the test,” is his response. He is secure in his identity, and secure in the knowledge of his Father’s love and care for him. He won’t use his power for the sake of pleasing Satan or proving God’s love for himself.
The third temptation sees Satan showing Jesus all the kingdoms of the world and offering them to him, in return for exclusive worship. These are not Satan’s to offer. In fact, they are Jesus’ already. So what is the devil tempting Jesus with?
All three temptations are attempts to swerve Jesus from what he has come to do: to go to the cross. If Jesus cannot endure hunger without finding a shortcut through his power to provide bread for himself, he will not endure the cross.
If Jesus has to have God prove his love for him, he will not go to the cross. Jesus himself said that he could have called down an army of angels to fight for him instead to going to Calvary. But instead he chose the cross.
The nations are Jesus’. But they must be redeemed. Jesus could have come in power and glory, and demonstrated his power and majesty from the beginning. But he didn’t. Why? Because he had come not to be served but to serve, and give his life as a ransom for many.(Matthew 20:28) He had come to die on the cross for our sins. Without the cross, he would be Lord, but not Saviour.
But as he is, the cross and resurrection prove he is both.
How do I apply this to my heart?
Here are a number of applications we can take from this example left for us by Jesus.
- Jesus fights the devil with Scripture. One of the things I have noticed in my ministry is just how difficult it is to get people to read their Bibles. The bible is not just a set of rules, guidelines, history. It is the word of God. In Ephesians 6, Paul describes a Christian like a soldier dressed for battle. He has the shield of faith to protect against the devil’s arrows. But the only offensive weapon is the ‘Sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God’ (Ephesians 6:17). But most Christians walk around with the sword left at home, leaving themselves utterly unprotected. We need to know our Bibles, we need to know the promises of God, what God has said and done, and what he continues to say and do. We need to fill our heads and hearts with God’s word – and believe it – and hold up God’s truth if we are to counter the devil’s lies.
- Here is encouragement: resist the devil and he will flee from you. (James 4:17) He has no choice.
- Sin is fundamentally lazy. It always prefers the easy route, the quiet life, the road of least resistance. Temptation is always a lie though it seems like truth at the time.
- We need to trust in the gracious provision of God. God doesn’t withhold good things from his children. And when he appears to, it is because he has a much better provision for us. But we tend to want to take the shortcut. God delights in us trusting him. It brings glory to him when we entrust ourselves fully on him. Don’t believe the devil’s lies that God doesn’t care, doesn’t act. he does.
- Jesus said, “Come to me all who are weary and heavy laden and I will give you rest.” Whe things are tough, we need to find our comfort in Christ and his promises We talk about comfort eating, comfort shopping. But they aren’ helpful, and can be destructive. Where do we go? We need to do more comfort praying, comfort bible studying, finding comfort in talking to a friend about our difficulties.
- Sin is fundamentally destructive. Satan is a liar. So we need to trust in God’s truth. God loves us, and will always provide. God always provides the strength for those who trust him.
- The devil wants you to believe that once you’ve sinned, once you’ve given into temptation that’s it. You’re done. You’re guilty. But the cross tells a different story. It tells us that we are forgiven, that we are redeemed. No sin is too great to remove us from God’s love. So when we do fail God is not finished with us. The cross is the power of God to remove sin, to remove guilt, and restore us.
The hymn Before the Throne of God Above has a great verse that reminds us of this:
When Satan tempts me to despair,
And tells me of the guilt within
Upward I look and see him there
Who made an end to all my sin
Because the sinless Saviour died
My sinful soul is counted free
For God the just is satisfied
To look on him and pardon me. (Charity Lee Bancroft)
So in conclusion, Jesus has left us the tools, the sword to fight back the devil’s lies. We need to believe and trust in God, and in his character and his loving purposes. The devil chose what he thought was Jesus’ weakest moment. But spending 40 days in his Father’s presence, devoting himself to him, resting on him, listening to him, meant he was in the perfect condition to resist the devil.
Jesus has won the ultimate victory against sin, evil and the devil by dying on the cross for our sins. He has won the ultimate victory. And it’s not our strength that defeats temptation, but the strength which God gives us through his Holy Spirit. Jesus has gone before us, so trust in the way he leads us. He is able and will help those who are being tempted.