This text brings up a lot of questions.
Was the devil really tempting God? (I mean, Jesus is God, right?)
Why would the Spirit lead Jesus into the wilderness to be tempted?
If Jesus really was God, how could he be tempted to sin?
Isn’t sin impossible for God?
If Jesus could really sin, then he must not have been God?
If he couldn’t really sin, then he must not have really been tempted?
What was so bad about the things the devil asked Jesus to do? Making some bread isn’t that bad is it?
Let’s just walk through this story together and see if we find some answers or maybe even some new questions.
The Spirit led Jesus into the wilderness as a time of testing to prepare Jesus for his ministry. The Greek word used here can mean either test or tempt. The forty days are parallel with Israel’s 40 years in the wilderness: “Remember how the LORD your God led you through the wilderness for these forty years, humbling you and testing you to prove your character, and to find out whether or not you would obey his commands” (Deuteronomy 8:2). Out in the raw, rugged desert, people learn to rely on God.
This was the case for Jesus. Out in the wilderness, all alone with the Spirit and Satan, Jesus faces the deep questions of his life and ministry. How will he use the power of God? What kind of Messiah will he be?
Jesus was very human. These were very real temptations. I believe a big part of Jesus actually wanted to say “YES!” to the devil’s suggestions.
He had not eaten for 40 days, and in classic understatement the Bible says, he was “very hungry.” Ya think!?! He was starving, literally! A little fast food probably sounded like a great idea.
He has this mission to be Israel’s Messiah. He’s got to get their attention somehow. Now, you have to understand that the Temple was on the edge of a great cliff. It was 450 feet or 140 meters to the bottom. Josephus, a Jewish historian, said it made you dizzy just to look down that far. There’s Satan and Jesus on top of the Temple, looking down, getting dizzy, and Jesus is thinking, “I can see it now. I’d get a running start and jump way out there, and I’d just free fall like a cliff diver almost to the ground. Everyone would be looking at me. Then, at the last second, I’d kick in my super-Spirit jets, and the angels would shout out, ‘Here he comes to save the day! It’s Super-Messiah! That could work! And it would be so much easier than that slow, tedious plan the Father suggested.”
And as for “the kingdoms of the world and all their glory,” well that’s a big part of why Jesus came. He was Israel’s Messiah, to be sure, but he was also the King of the Universe. The plan was to gather all peoples together under one king. Why not take a little short cut?
Part of Jesus wanted to do it. Part of Jesus wanted to give in. Part of Jesus wanted to sin. It’s true. It has to be true, or it wouldn’t be temptation.
So what happened? If Jesus wanted to do it, why didn’t he? Even though part of him wanted to say “Yes” to Satan (and to himself), a bigger, deeper part of him wanted to say “Yes” to God the Father. This was the test really. Was Jesus more committed to God or to himself?
This is the beautiful thing about Jesus’ temptation. He was really tempted. Part of him actually wanted to sin. He knows how it feels to want to sin. He “understands our weaknesses, for he faced all of the same testings we do, yet he did not sin” (Hebrews 4:15). He held his ground. He held on to God. He wanted to be selfish, but even more he wanted to be faithful. “Since he himself has gone through suffering and testing, he is able to help us when we are being tested” (Hebrews 2:18). That’s the beautiful part of this story.
But there’s an ugly part to this story, too. I think the Jewish people would have actually encouraged Jesus to give in to Satan’s temptations.
They needed bread. They were struggling to feed their families because of the heavy Roman taxes. Turning rocks into bread would guarantee there would never be another hungry night. Have you seen any pictures of Israel? There are a lot of rocks!
And it would have been really cool to see Jesus jump from the Temple roof, right?! I mean who wouldn’t want to see that? In fact, one would-be Messiah named Simon Magus tried this very thing. (It didn’t work out so well for him Simon, though.)
The Jews were thoroughly convinced of the Messianic prophecies that promised that all of the kingdoms of the world would come and bow down before the Messiah. The glory of the world would stream to Jerusalem, and they would become the princes of the universe. Take the deal Jesus!
In fact, we know that the Jews wanted Jesus to do this kind of thing because they actually asked for it later on. After Jesus did a miracle with bread and fish to feed 5,000 people, the people said, “Hey, this is great! Give us this bread every day!” (John 6:34) At a different time, “the Pharisees and Sadducees came to test Jesus, demanding that he show them a miraculous sign from heaven to prove his authority” (Matthew 16:1). Amazingly, they came to “test” or to “tempt” Jesus by asking for a miracle. And at one point the people were even ready to force Jesus to be their king (John 6:14-15).
We might think this was all easy for Jesus to deal with, but it wasn’t. Jesus seems to have been tempted all along the way. When Jesus got a clear picture of the cross that was coming for him, taking over as the powerful Messiah must have seemed better and better to him. At one point, Jesus is trying to get his disciples ready for the fact that he’s going to die on the cross. But Peter takes him aside and reminds Jesus of the powerful Messiah story: “Dude, Jesus, Bro! You forgot how this goes! One of these days, you’re going to stand up and take over the world in a blaze of glory!”
The strength of Jesus’ response shows us how strong this temptation was for him. Jesus said to Peter – to Peter, the lead disciple, the future leader of the church, one Jesus’ closest friends – “Get away from me, Satan! You are a dangerous trap to me. You are seeing things merely from a human point of view, not from God’s point of view” (Matthew 16:23).
Throughout Jesus’ life, his own people, his own disciples, even his own family (John 7:2-5) – these people become the ones who tempt Jesus. They are the ones who try to steer Jesus away from God’s will toward selfish living. The people didn’t actually want the religion that Jesus was preaching. Who wants to love your enemies and die on a cross and all that? The people just wanted to use the Messiah to make their lives better. The people wanted the stuff: “Show me the bread!” The people wanted the spectacular manipulation of God’s power: “Do that cool miracle thing again.” The people wanted the power of politics and might: “Be our King and take over the world!”
Jesus’ own people take the role of Satan in his life, so much so that Jesus even says one of the best became a living embodiment of Satan. Jesus had to deal with temptation out in the wilderness when he was all alone because his people were going to bring him temptation left and right.
Is anyone starting to feel a little uncomfortable here?
We are Jesus’ disciples and Jesus’ people, too. As we read through the gospels, it’s pretty safe to picture ourselves doing whatever it is that the disciples do. We are still Jesus’ people, and we pretty much respond to Jesus like people have always responded to Jesus.
Wait a minute. If Jesus’ own people were the ones who tempted Jesus … if Jesus’ own disciples took the role of Satan in Jesus’ life … if we are Jesus’ disciples and Jesus’ people too … if we live pretty much like they did … then that means that we are in the place of Satan in this story. We are the ones who tempt Jesus today. We are the ones who don’t want the religion Jesus is preaching. We are the ones want to use the Messiah’s religion to make our lives better: “Show me the money! Give me that cool feeling again! Give us a sign! Help us take back our country for God! Give us a godly president (who will help the economy and won’t raise our taxes and will crush all those other people we don’t like)! Receive my little offering so that I won’t feel guilty for spending the rest on totally selfish things!”
Just like the disciples, and just like the ancient Israelites in the wilderness, we are still putting the Lord our God to the test (Matthew 4:7). We are still tempting God. Often, we are still asking God to do things for our own selfish reasons. We are still sitting in the place of Satan, fighting for the wrong team, going in the wrong direction, working against God. We are still using the religion of the Messiah to accomplish our own ends.
We don’t actually want Jesus’ religion. We want a religion that will build us up, not one that will break us down. We want a religion that will give to us, not one that will give us. We want a religion that will make us proud, not one that will teach us to be humble.
What’s going on here? How is it that Jesus’ people still don’t want Jesus’ religion? Why are we still tempting God? Why are we still failing God’s test? After all these years, how are we still missing it?
The sad truth is that we are bent in upon ourselves. We are basically selfish. Sin has messed us up. We are like a plastic cup that got too close to the campfire. We are bent and misshapen. Our basic tendency is to live for ourselves by ourselves.
When Jesus calls us to a new kind of life, we don’t know what to do. When Jesus tells us that we will gain true life by dying with him, we don’t know how to understand that. When Jesus tells us when get the most when we give the most away, that just doesn’t make sense to us. We Jesus tells us to love until it hurts, it might sound good, but most of the time we just can’t actually do it. When we read the gospel’s call to unselfishness and sacrifice, it seems so difficult that we just turn the page and read something else that sounds easier to follow.
And in case you have any doubts about whether it's possible for us to believe all the right things and to think we're doing all the right things and still be playing for the other team, I have just one word for you: TELEVANGELISTS! As humans, our capacity for self-deception is huge. Our innate selfishness makes it easy for us to fool ourselves into thinking that whatever we want is right.
That’s the ugly part of this story. 2,000 years later, we are still living on Satan’s team, more than we want to admit.
So what are we to do? How do we get out of this mess? Is there any hope here? Is there any hope for us and for the church?
The good news here is that Jesus really was human. -- Huh? I thought we already covered that? -- We did. When Jesus went out into the wilderness to be tested, he was 100% human, and he passed the test. He had two dynamic resources that gave him the strength to stand up against Satan’s temptations and to stand strong on God’s side with unselfish obedience.
He had two not-so-secret weapons: the Spirit and the Word.
The Spirit “settled on” Jesus. God’s Holy Spirit became a permanent part of Jesus’ life. Throughout Jesus’ life, he spent time cultivating his relationship with the Spirit. He pulled away from the crowd and spent time with God. He followed the Spirit’s leading. He built a strong connection with the Spirit because he always did what God asked him to do. This is the only way he gained the strength to be unselfish when he was surrounded by people asking him to be selfish.
Second, Jesus had the Word. If Jesus was like most Jewish boys, by the age of 12, he would have memorized the Torah (the first 5 books of the Bible) – every word by heart. Then, if he did a good job with that, he would have gone on to middle school where he would memorize the rest of the Old Testament – all 34 other books – by heart, every word, by the age of 15! When Jesus was tempted, he responded to that temptation by letting the Word of God guide his life. He lived by the Word. He shaped his life by the Word.
The good news for us – the wonderful news for us – is that the same two resources are available to us. God has not given up on us yet.
God’s Spirit is still at work in the world. God’s Spirit is still out here correcting our wrongs and giving us the strength to be right. God’s Spirit is still at work in the Church and in us “leading us into all truth” again and again and again (John 16:13). If we will submit ourselves to the Spirit, he will teach us how to live and give us the power to actually do it.
And “the word of God is [still] alive and powerful. It is sharper than the sharpest two-edged sword, cutting between soul and spirit, between joints and marrow. It exposes our innermost thoughts and desires” (Hebrews 4:12). If we will submit ourselves to the word, God’s Spirit will use this sword to cut deep into our hearts to cut out our cancer, to mend our broken spirits, and to purify our hearts and our churches to become like Jesus.
And we still have Jesus “who was tempted in every way just as we are” and “is able to help us when we are being tested.” He has not given up on us. He is still with us.
Many people say, “I don’t have to go to church to be a Christian. I can worship God just fine on my own.”
Here's my answer: Yes, that’s true, technically, but in practice that’s really, really hard.
Here’s my question for all the non-church-going Christians: “Who is going to challenge you to be unselfish? Who is going to keep you from focusing your whole life on yourself, while you’re thinking all the while that you’re living right?” We’re like that bent plastic cup, remember? We are bent in upon ourselves, and our natural tendency is going to be to return to selfishness over and over and over again. That’s just the reality of the human struggle.
In our church, we recognize this. We know we need each others’ help to say no to temptation, to live beyond ourselves, to break the cultural stranglehold of selfishness in our lives. But we also know that just showing up on Sunday morning isn’t enough. We can easily be like Jesus’ disciples who kept asking Jesus to take the easy shortcuts. We can wear Jesus’ uniform but play for the other team.
To fight this tendency in ourselves and in our church, we are taking up five basic practices. These are five simple habits we can do every week to help us actually follow Jesus into lives of unselfish love. We are going to talk about these BLESS practices all year and probably for years to come until they become part of us.
Bless one person outside your family each week.
Listen to God for an hour each week.
Eat with one person outside your family each week.
Study Jesus’ words (the red letters) every day.
Serve your church family every week.
We still face the essential human struggle of selfishness. Maybe it’s human nature, maybe it’s the instinct of self-preservation, maybe it’s original sin — I’m not sure what to call it, but it’s real and it’s here in all of us, and it’s killing us. Selfishness destroys our souls, crushes our spirits, rips apart our families, and bleeds us dry from the inside. It is the essential human disease.
But Jesus has the cure. The cure is Jesus himself. He has shown us the way of love. He died to free us from both our sin and our selfishness, and he has wrapped us into his loving family. The deeper we go into Jesus’ family, the more we learn the ways of love and gain the strength to truly love. That is where the real life is.
And as we do this, “let us come boldly to the throne of our gracious God. There we will receive his mercy, and we will find grace to help us when we need it most” (Hebrews 4:16). And that time – the time when we need help most, my friends – that time is now.