Temptation to sin wouldn’t be such a problem if it wasn’t so wonderfully attractive. The crazy thing about temptation to sin is that it is always carefully designed to appeal to our own needs and desires. I don’t know that I’ve ever been tempted to do something that’s wrong, that I had no prior interest in doing. And that simply points out the very seductive nature of temptation. The interest usually comes long before the actual temptation presents itself. It isn’t the moment of temptation that’s so demonic, it is the subtle and almost imperceptible build-up of interest that takes place in our hearts and minds before the moment of temptation comes that is so demonic. The demonic work has already been done. The moment of temptation is merely the tipping point. If we are honest with ourselves, rarely is the moment of temptation all that surprising. It has been in the works for a long time. And if we look back over the times that we have failed, and given in to temptation, we’re likely to see that, perhaps more clearly than we would prefer.
Temptation is, however, the bane of our human existence. Giving in to temptation is nothing less than allowing the destroyer of all good things to destroy what God has already accomplished in our lives. Giving in to temptation results in a reversal of the spiritual progress that we have been making and are continuing to make. And the worst thing about giving in to temptation is that it never, ever seems wrong. It always seems right and proper, and sometimes even holy and righteous. That’s how demonically subtle it is.
Jesus has not yet begun his public ministry when we encounter him here in the fourth chapter of Matthew. He’s been baptized, and there’s been a glorious affirmation of his identity as the Son of God, but now Matthew tells us that the Spirit of God has driven him out into the wilderness for the express purpose of being tempted by the devil. I don’t like that one bit, and I can’t explain it, except to say that it must have been part of God’s mysterious purposes to turn his own Son over to the wiles of the devil to be tested, in the fullness of his humanity. It works for us, in an ultimate sense, because Jesus was victorious over his temptations as a human being, and so we can be victorious, too. But this is still one of the many questions that I want to discuss on a deeper level with our Creator when I finally get the chance.
Anyway, during this time alone in the wilderness, Jesus has been fasting for a long time, and Matthew tells that Jesus was famished. Jesus has been enduring a famine, and he’s really hungry. Really hungry. And just at the right moment, the devil shows up. Wow, you’re beating yourself up, here man, what’s with the not eating? What are you trying to prove? You keep this up you’re gonna die! And what good is that gonna do? “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.” Now if anyone knows that Jesus is the Son of God, it is the devil. The devil knows exactly who Jesus is, and the devil has been conversant with the plan of salvation from since the moment that he was created. There is no mystery here, there is no confusion. This is a temptation for Jesus to pull off a miracle, albeit a little one, for his own personal benefit. Look here, Jesus, I know you’re going to be doing a lot of miracles for a lot of people during your ministry. What’s so wrong with helping yourself out a little bit? Don’t you deserve it? Besides, who’s gonna know, it’s just you and me here, and I’ll never tell. And look at you, you’re wasting away to nothing. Eat, eat, it is good for the soul, not to mention the body.
Very critically, in the face of temptation, Jesus responds with the Scriptures. It is so important to know the Scriptures. They are really our only defense when temptation comes. And Jesus quotes a Scripture that reminds us of that very thing. He says, quoting from Deuteronomy 8:3, “One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.” The truth is that we die if we try to live on food alone. There is no salvation in food. There is only salvation in the word of God. We’ve got to know God’s word.
Well, that didn’t work, so now the devil takes Jesus to Jerusalem and sets him high up in the temple. Of the three temptations, this is the devil’s best shot. This one is really sneaky. The temple in Jerusalem was a really busy place. There were people all over the place, sometimes thousands of them. And this time, the devil quotes a bit of Scripture himself. Unfortunately the devil is a very good student of the Scriptures. He has to be, actually. But being sneaky, I suspect that the devil also has another bit of Scripture in mind that he isn’t revealing to Jesus. Sometimes what the devil holds back is just as important as what he reveals. And in Malachi chapter three verse one, we find this little nugget: “See, I am sending my messenger to prepare the way before me, and the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple.” Wouldn’t it be cool, Jesus, for you to come floating down out of the sky, and arrive right here on the steps of the temple? People would see you coming out of the sky, and they’d know right then and there that you were the Messiah! And think of this! You could dispense with all of that death and dying stuff that you seem so committed to accomplishing. Instant Messiah! That’s what people want anyway, you can do it, besides, if you jump, the angels are gonna be there anyway. God’s not gonna let his Son come crashing to the ground, he’s got big plans for you! Think reasonably, man, nobody’s looking for a Messiah who suffers and dies, even your own disciples will fight you on that one. Here’s your chance to be the Messiah that everyone really wants, and it certainly is a whole lot easier than the plan you seem to have chosen. Why go through all of that agony, when you can have it all now? To this, Jesus simply replies quoting from Deuteronomy 6:16. “Do not put the Lord your God to the test.” The most difficult temptation to resist is is vanquished with just a tiny bit of Scripture. That should be instructive.
The third temptation is merely an act of desperation on the devil’s part. He’s two strikes down already, and he’s running low on fire power. I like that. That tells me that the more we resist temptation, the less the devil has to offer us. The devil is not God’s counterpart. The devil is not omnipotent by any stretch of the imagination. The devil can be defeated, and driven back to hell where he belongs. The kingdoms of this world, however they may be filled with splendor, hold no attraction for Jesus, and they should hold no attraction for us. Jesus came to this earth to establish a new kingdom, one that eclipses and outshines all of the other kingdoms of the world. Besides, all of these kingdoms already belong to Jesus, he created them, and he’s already sovereign over them. This is just a desperate, pull out all of the stops, last ditch attempt on the devil’s part, but it’s really a pathetic attempt. The devil already knows that he has lost. He knew it when Jesus refused to turn the stones into bread. That would have been an easy one to fall prey to, but Jesus did not.
But if the devil has lost strength in this battle, Jesus has gained it. And he responds with a zinger that cuts to the very core of the devil’s miserable, black heart. Jesus says, quoting from Deuteronomy 6:13, “Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.” And oh, how painful that must have been for the devil. There is no doubt in my mind that the devil suffers a miserable and totally regretful existence. The devil knows well the bliss and the joy that he will never, ever reclaim. That is lost forever, and it is tormenting him at every moment. That loss, however does not lessen his hatred for God and for God’s people. He is fully committed to destroying us, and so he must not win. He will ultimately be defeated, that is assured. But he can also be defeated every day in our own lives.
For like Jesus, the more we resist the devil, the stronger we become, and the less influence and power the devil has over our lives. It begins by our refusal to turn the stones in our own lives into bread. It begins by not putting ourselves and our own needs first. And it comes to a glorious climax, when God becomes first in our lives. “Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.” Good words to live by.