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The Temptation of Jesus (Matt 4:1-11)

We’re lucky enough in our congregation to have some talented engineers. And one thing engineers do (I’m told), is ‘stress-test’ any buildings, machinery or other pieces of technology that they’ve designed.

Whether it’s a nuclear reactor or just a row of shelves, engineers like to put their designs through their paces to ensure that they are fit for purpose. Is what they’ve created able to withstand all the forces and pressures it will face once in full operation? If something fails a stress-test, then its ‘back to the drawing board’ and a better solution needs to be found!

In our Bible reading from Matthew this morning, we meet a ‘stress-tested’ Saviour who passes every test. We meet a Messiah who is found to be fully ‘fit for purpose’, and well-worthy of our trust.

If you were here last week you’ll remember that we looked at the dramatic events that accompanied Jesus’ baptism in the river Jordan. You’ll recall that the heavens opened, the Holy Spirit descended on him like a dove, and the voice of God declared him to be “my Son, whom I love, with whom I am well pleased.” These remarkable events marked out Jesus as the Heaven-sent Messiah, and marked the inauguration of his God-given mission. A mission that was meant to culminate with his sacrificial death in the place of sinners.

But was Jesus up to the task? Did he have what it takes to be the Messiah, given all the forces he would face and all the pressures he would endure? When faced with persecution, pain and suffering, would he stay true to his vocation or simply opt-out?

Jesus’ commitment to his mission was put to the test as he was led by the Spirit out into the wilderness. Matthew tells us that he was there for 40 days and 40 nights. ‘Isolated, alone and without food, his commitment to his Heavenly Father was sorely tested. His dedication to his God-given task was repeatedly tested by the devil.

But who is this figure? He is given various names in the Bible. In our passage today he is described as the tempter (v.3), the devil (v.5) and as Satan (v.10). Elsewhere in Scripture he is compared to a serpent, a roaring lion, and even a dragon. This evil figure is a fallen angel, a sinister supernatural entity, a real force for evil in the world. A demonic being opposed to God and to goodness.

So it is unsurprising that the arrival of God’s Son in our world aroused the devil’s attention. And it is equally unsurprising that he then sought to divert Jesus from his God-given mission. In today’s passage Matthew tells us of three temptations that the devil put before Jesus, and we’ll briefly look at each in turn.

  1. Obey God – feed on his words (v.3-4)

The first temptation was all about food. The devil selected Jesus’ hunger as his first line of attack. Listen again to how Matthew describes the scene: “Jesus was led by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. After fasting forty days and forty nights, he was hungry. The tempter came to him and said, “If you are the Son of God, tell these stones to become bread.”

As God’s Son it was well within Jesus’ power to turn stones into bread. Later in his ministry we know he would feed 5,000 with a few loaves and fishes. So what could possibly be wrong with making a miraculous meal for himself now?

The answer, I think, is that turning stones into bread would have been a self-serving miracle. A supernatural act done to satisfy Jesus’ own needs not the needs of others. Crucially, it would have been a miraculous act done on his own initiative rather than one done in obedience to a command of his Heavenly Father. Jesus had heard no ‘voice from above’ telling him to turn even a single stone into bread.

So Jesus resists the devils first temptation and says in verse 4: “It is written: ‘Man shall not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.’” With those words Jesus is quoting Deuteronomy chapter 8 and saying, in effect, that his Father’s commands will set the agenda for his actions.

Throughout his life and ministry, Jesus will not act on his own self-interested initiative – but only in obedience to his Father’s words. Jesus would even obey his Father in the Garden of Gethsemane, on the night before his crucifixion, when he prayed “You will – not mine – be done”. Wonderfully for us, Jesus’ total obedience to his Father’s will ultimately took him to the cross for our salvation.

Pray that we too will have a single-minded determination to serve God and not ourselves. May we feed ourselves daily as we read the Bible, so we too can learn how to please him in our daily lives. So let’s obey God, by feeding on his words.

  1. Trust God – don’t put him to the test (v.5-7)

We’ve seen that Satan’s first line of attack failed. But he tried again. This second time Matthew tells us that “the devil took Jesus to the holy city and had him stand on the highest point of the temple. “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.’”

The devil’s tactic this time is to encourage Jesus to test his Father’s love. At his baptism the Father’s voice had declared his devotion to his Son – but did he really? Here was an ideal opportunity for Jesus to put his Father’s care to the test. After all, didn’t Psalm 91 (the psalm quoted by the devil) say that the Messiah’s foot would be prevented from even striking a stone? Here at the top of the Temple complex was a chance to see whether that promise would be kept! Would angels sweep down to save Jesus if he jumped?

But Jesus would have none of it. He rejected the devil’s proposals with another quote from the book of Deuteronomy: “Do not put the Lord your God to the test.” Jesus was not willing to create an artificial crisis in order to test his Father’s love. He was willing to trust his Father, not test him! Jesus trusted his Father because of his past acts and because of his promises. Past acts like the voice from heaven at his baptism, and numerous promises from the Old Testament that God would preserve his Messiah, such as the one in Psalm 91.

And we too can trust God today for the exact same reasons. We too can look back to the past for assurance of God’s love for us. Above all:
• We can look back to his gift of his Son for us at the first Christmas; and
• We can look back at Christ’s death and resurrection for us on the first Easter weekend.

We can also hold on to God’s promises to his Church in the New Testament. Promises of his unfailing love for us and his determination to get us to glory. Promises to be with every Christian believer through thick and thin, having placed his Holy Spirit within us. So let’s trust God, not put him to the test!

  1. Worship God – don’t idolise anything else (v.8-10)

Having been thwarted twice, the devil tries to tempt Jesus for a third time. As we read in verse 8: “the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendour. “All this I will give you,” he said, “if you will bow down and worship me.”

It seems that the devil’s tactic this time was to divert Jesus from his costly mission by offering him power and glory on a plate. Jesus knew that his path to power and glory went via the cross, but the devil offered him a short-cut. Jesus could become ruler of the world right now – if only he would worship Satan. Surely bowing before the devil was a much easier way for Jesus to inherit a Kingdom than the route that his Father had in mind?

It might have been easy, but it was wrong. So Jesus firmly rejected it: “Away from me, Satan!” he said, “For it is written: ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve him only.’” As our all good creator and our heavenly Father, only God is worthy of our worship. To worship anything else, whether it’s the devil or our career or our possessions or our hobby or anything else is idolatry. Jesus knew that, and so should we. As the Son of God, Christ had been wholeheartedly devoted to his Father for all eternity, and the devil could never hope to come between them.

And for us today, worshipping God remains our greatest privilege and the ultimate purpose for our lives. Tempting as it may be sometimes, we are not to let anything or anyone else diverts us from our supreme vocation to love and serve our God. So let’s worship God, not idols!

Conclusion (v.11)

After three unsuccessful attempts to derail Jesus from his messianic mission, Satan could see that he was beaten. As Matthew tells us “the devil left him, and angels came and attended him.” It is ironic that as the devil, the fallen angel departs, God’s angels arrive! Having survived his ordeal, Jesus is comforted and fed by angelic assistants. He remained on course to complete his mission, and ready to launch into his public ministry – as we shall hear about next week.

But as we finish today, we can be confident that Jesus is a Messiah who has been tried and tested and is ‘fit for purpose’. We was wholeheartedly dedicated to his mission. He was willing and able to be our Saviour.

As a consequence, Jesus is the perfect antidote for those times when we ourselves do succumb to temptation. He is the one we can confidently to turn to for forgiveness when we ourselves have sinned. Today’s passage teaches us that Jesus is the perfect, stress-tested Saviour that we all need.

Phil Weston