by Rev. Dr. Mark D. Roberts October 8, 2006
Preached at Irvine Presbyterian Church
Copyright © 2006 by Mark D. Roberts
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Scripture: Luke 4:1-13
1 Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness, 2 where for forty days he was tempted by the devil. He ate nothing at all during those days, and when they were over, he was famished. 3 The devil said to him, "If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become a loaf of bread." 4 Jesus answered him, "It is written, 'One does not live by bread alone.'"
5 Then the devil led him up and showed him in an instant all the kingdoms of the world. 6 And the devil said to him, "To you I will give their glory and all this authority; for it has been given over to me, and I give it to anyone I please. 7 If you, then, will worship me, it will all be yours." 8 Jesus answered him, "It is written,
'Worship the Lord your God,
and serve only him.'"
9 Then the devil took him to Jerusalem, and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, saying to him, "If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here, 10 for it is written,
'He will command his angels concerning you,
to protect you,'
'On their hands they will bear you up,
so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.'"
12 Jesus answered him, "It is said, 'Do not put the Lord your God to the test.'" 13 When the devil had finished every test, he departed from him until an opportune time.
Of all the things I despise in this world, I think I hate sin the most. And I'm not talking about the sin of which I am the victim, though I'm none to fond of being on the receiving end of sin. Rather, I'm speaking of the sin that I do. I hate it, plain and simple.
I hate my sin more than bad country music. I hate my sin more than gaining weight when I'm trying to lose it. I hate my sin more than having to shell out $3,000 to have my sewer line repaired. I hate my sin more than taking a swig of milk without realizing that it's gone sour. I hate my sin more than sitting in traffic on the 405 on Friday afternoons.
More seriously, I hate my sin more than waiting for results from a biopsy. I hate my sin more than when people say things about me that are unkind and unfair. I hate my sin more than when kids at school are mean to my children. I hate my sin more than the thought of Nathan and Kara growing up in a world that's filled with violence and hatred. I hate my sin more than the threat of terrorism. I hate my more than just about anything I can think of.
Why do I hate my sin so much? Well, partly it has to do with the bad things that happen when I sin. My sin causes pain to the people I care about most in the world: my wife, my children, my family, and you folks, my sisters and brothers in this church. Of course my sin also hurts me too, and I hate it when that happens.
But, more importantly, my sin puts distance between God and me. It makes me less useful for the work of His kingdom. It hardens my heart to the guidance of His Spirit. It makes me turn away from God in shame. And it hurts the God I love and want to glorify with all that I am.
So for all these reasons and many more, I hate sin.
But there's something else I hate almost as much as sin . . . temptation! I hate the magnetic pull that draws me to do what I know to be wrong. I hate the feeling of wanting to do that which dishonors God. I hate temptation because it leads to me to sin. If it weren't for temptation, I'm sure I'd do some wrong things out of habit or ignorance. I wouldn't be sinless, that's for sure. But if I could get rid of temptation, most of the sins in my life would disappear. Since I can't get rid of temptation, however, I hate it a lot too.
I don't know if Jesus hated temptation or not. But I do know he experienced it. And I do know he conquered it. By paying close attention to how Jesus dealt with temptation, we'll see how we too can learn, not to avoid it altogether, but to overcome it when we must. Moreover, by looking at the specific temptations of Jesus in our text for today, we'll gain deeper insight into his messianic calling.
The Temptation of Jesus
Led by the Spirit Into the Wilderness
Luke 4 begins, "Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness, where for forty days he was tempted by the devil." This connects neatly with the baptism of Jesus in 3:21-22, where the Spirit descends upon Jesus like a dove. Immediately the Spirit guides Jesus into the wilderness. Why? In Jewish tradition, the wilderness was the place of evil spirits, the place where good and evil collide. And this was exactly what the Spirit willed for Jesus. His temptation wasn't some accident, some divine oversight. Rather, it was part and parcel of God's will for Jesus. In the wilderness He would face temptation that would clarify His calling and solidify His resolve as God's surprising Messiah.
The First Temptation
For forty days in the wilderness Jesus ate nothing. Because of this, Luke explains, "he was famished" (4:2). No kidding! Jesus's hunger sets up the first of the devil's temptations: "If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become a loaf of bread" (4:3). At first glance, there's nothing especially wrong with this challenge, is there? Later in His ministry Jesus will produce food miraculously, so why not bread from a stone?
There are probably two things going on here. First, turning stones into bread was the sort of thing that pagan magicians did (supposedly) to impress the crowds. It was as if the devil were saying, "Jesus, you've got power, so show us your tricks!" Second, the devil's challenge to turn stones into bread must have come during a time when the Spirit still wanted Jesus to fast. This was a "Oh, c'mom. You're human. Hunger is natural. Eating is natural. Just feed yourself." sort of temptation.
Have you ever heard something like that before? Or even used it yourself? It's rather like one of the classic arguments for sexual intimacy outside of marriage: "Sex is natural. Sex is normal. Your body was made for sex. It won't hurt you. It doesn't matter that you're not married. You're in love. So go ahead."
I want to add a practical word here. Jesus was tempted when he was famished. Hunger and weakness no doubt lowered His defenses, though He still was able to defeat the devil. You and I are often not so successful. When we're hungry, or tired, or feeling stressed out, we're much more susceptible to temptation. Think about your own life and see if this isn't true. You come home late from work and are hungry and exhausted. So is your spouse from an equally tough day. One unkind word all of a sudden seems like a cannon blast. Before long you and your spouse are both firing at each other in a way you'd never be doing if you were rested. So, my friends, be aware of times when your physical weakness opens up the possibility of spiritual vulnerability. Sometimes we can fight off temptation by getting enough rest and some decent nutrition.
How does Jesus respond to the devil's first temptation? He quotes Scripture: "One does not live by bread alone." This comes from Deuteronomy 8:3, where Moses was reminding the Israelites of their experience in the wilderness: "[The Lord] humbled you by letting you hunger, then by feeding you with manna . . . in order to make you understand that one does not live by bread along, but by every word that comes from the mouth of the LORD." By citing this passage of Scripture, Jesus shuts down the devil's challenge. My hunger doesn't really matter, he says. Faithfulness to God is what matters.
One of the truly fascinating aspects of Jesus's encounter with temptation is His repeated use of Scripture to fend off the devil's attacks. In all three temptations, Jesus quotes a passage from Deuteronomy, and this vanquishes His foe. I don't know exactly why Jesus chose this particular course of action, but what I do know is that if He used Scripture to fight off temptation, then I should do the same. There is spiritual power in God's Word, power that exceeds my fallible willpower. When I'm feeling tempted, I need to hold onto God's Word for dear life, embracing its truth and wielding it as the sword of the Spirit. My friends, the more we are immersed in Scripture, the more we will find divine strength to defeat temptation. And if you find yourself being tempted, grab onto the Word of God. Say it. Read it. Sing it. Let its power help you defeat temptation.
The Second Temptation
After losing round one, the devil shows Jesus all the kingdoms of the world. We don't know exactly how this happened, whether they were physically transported up into space or whether what happened was more like a vision. As they were admiring the view, the devil says, "To you I will give their glory and all this authority; for it has been given over to me, and I give it to anyone I please. If you, then, will worship me, it will all be yours" (4:6).
Of course this raises the question of whether the devil really had the authority he claimed. The answer is, "Yes/no." Yes, in this world at this time the devil has real authority. Jesus later refers to him in John 12:31 as "the rule of this world" (see also Ephesians 2:2). Yet whatever authority the devil possesses is not his intrinsically. It's been given to Him by God for God's own purposes. Ultimately God will strip away that which has temporarily been turned over to Satan. So, in typically diabolical fashion, the second temptation includes the truth, but the truth intertwined with falsehood.
This gets to the heart of the temptation of Jesus. You see, He had recently been declared the Son of God. And as God's Messiah, the rightful king of Israel and ultimately the whole earth, Jesus would receive glory and authority. These were rightly His to be claimed. So what the devil offered Jesus wasn't wrong. The temptation didn't have to do with the ultimate end, but rather with the means, with the path to glory God had assigned to Jesus. You'll remember from His baptism that Jesus was both the Son of God and the Suffering Servant of God from Isaiah. Therefore, His messianic ministry, His way of bringing God's kingdom, was not the way of instant glory and earthly authority. Rather, it was the way of suffering, of sacrifice, and ultimately of death.
Yet we know that Jesus wasn't thrilled by this. Even as late as the night before His crucifixion, Jesus asked the Father to take this "cup" away from Him. He was tempted to try another route to the kingdom. Of course in the end, as in the beginning of His ministry when he confronted the devil, Jesus chose the path of obedience. He chose a messiahship of suffering, in anticipation of the glory and power yet to come (Hebrews 12:2)
We are often tempted in similar ways, aren't we? For example, we're often tempted to rush ahead of righteousness, to claim what will be ours before its time. I think, for example, of Christian couples who are engaged to be married. They want so much to express their love physically, and they know that time will come. But sometimes the temptation to move sexual intimacy ahead of the wedding is almost overwhelming. How easy it is for them to rationalize and say, "We love each other so much now. And we will be married so soon. So why not express our love fully now?" This temptation is not unlike what the devil presented to Jesus.
How did He respond to the devil's second temptation. Once again He quotes Scripture. Where the devil seeks worship, Jesus says, "It is written, 'Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him'" (4:8). If Jesus is going to serve God alone, then He will walk the path God has chosen for Him, rejecting the quick but wrong road to glory and power. He will be the Messiah who is also the Suffering Servant.
The Third Temptation
Next the devil took Jesus to the pinnacle of the temple in Jerusalem and said to Him, "If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here." But now, after being twice outwitted by Jesus, the devil got smart. He quoted Scripture to Jesus, taking two verses from Psalm 91:
[F]or it is written,
'He will command his angels concerning you,
to protect you,'
'On their hands they will bear you up,
so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.'" (Luke 4:10-11).
Well, the devil's strategy didn't work, because Jesus quoted another piece of Scripture right back, "Do not put the Lord your God to the test." With this, the devil took off until, as Luke says, "an opportune time." If you look ahead in the Gospel, you'll see that this time comes right before the crucifixion of Jesus.
Isn't it fascinating that the devil uses Scripture itself to tempt Jesus? Unfortunately, Satan can do the same for us. If we take portions of Scripture out of context, if we project our own desires into the text, if we do not let our brothers and sisters correct us, then we too can be led astray even by the written Word of God. Historically, the Bible has been used to support slavery, senseless violence, and political tyranny. It's been used as a defense of racism and the abusive subjugation of women. In my own ministry I've known people who have used Scripture to justify all measure of sin, especially sexual intimacy outside of marriage and gross materialism. Jesus does indeed promise the abundant life (John 10:10). Many have taken this as license to decide for themselves what the abundant life means, and then to assume that God wants this for them.
How can you keep from being tempted by the twisting of God's Word? First, you can devote yourself to know Scripture well, not just superficially, but deeply through regular mediation and study, both individually and with others. Second, you can test your interpretations in the context of Christian community. If you think the Bible is leading you to do what the vast majority of Christians think is sinful, odds are pretty high that your interpretation is off base. Check it out with others before you act.
The Good News in this Passage
As I wrap up, I want to highlight some good news in the passage. Part of this news is so obvious I might almost forget to mention it: Jesus was truly tempted. Therefore he understands when we are truly tempted. As it says in Hebrew 4:15:
For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin. (ESV)
Jesus is the high priest who can sympathize with our weaknesses. He has been tempted just as we are.
This, my friends, is incredibly good news. I say "incredibly" because for much of my life I didn't really believe it. I always thought of the temptation of Jesus as somehow not really being temptation. For example, if I go to a Christmas party at your house this year, and you offer me a slice of chocolate silk pie, I will be truly tempted to over-indulge. But if you offer me a piece of fruitcake, I might say, "Oh, that's tempting," but the truth is that it isn't tempting at all, because I don't especially care for fruitcake. It won't even help if you offer to cover it with hot plum sauce. When it comes to the temptation to sin, Jesus was truly tempted. He felt the magnetism of sin. And this means He understands when you and I feel the same.
I don't know about you, but I find this to be wonderful news. It means that when I am tempted, I can run to Jesus. I can shout out "Help!" and He gets it. I don't have to be ashamed of my temptation because my Jesus understands in his gut. Wow!
The other good news in this passage that I want to underscore is that Jesus defeated temptation. He did not sin. He stayed the course of honoring God. And because Jesus was victorious over temptation, He will help us to be the same.
How does Jesus help us? Partly it's by offering his understanding so we feel free to turn to him. And partly, as I mentioned earlier, Jesus helps us by teaching us to use Scripture for spiritual strength. One verse that I continue to claim when I feel tempted is 1 Corinthians 10:13. It reads:
But remember that the temptations that come into your life are no different from what others experience. And God is faithful. He will keep the temptation from becoming so strong that you can't stand up against it. When you are tempted, he will show you a way out so that you will not give in to it. (NLT)
When we are tempted, God will show us a way out. God will help us so that we, like Jesus, can overcome temptation.
One part of this way out, I believe, is the help of Christian community. Jesus was alone in the wilderness, facing the devil mano a mano. He had the strength to overcome, even though His temptation was powerful. You and I, on the other hand, are not meant to face temptation alone. God has placed us in fellowship with other believers who can help us when we are weak. And this help is invaluable if we have the guts to seek it.
Some years ago I was in a covenant group with several pastors from churches in the area. During one of our group meetings, a man shared his temptation with us. He was in a tough time in his marriage, and he found himself attracted to a woman in his congregation. He asked us to pray for him and to hold him accountable. I felt proud of my brother for his courage and honesty. It was a risk to open up in this way. But the reward for him was huge. We did pray for him and encourage him and hold him accountable. Even the act of sharing his temptation with us helped to set him free from it. He resolved to remain committed to his wife and to work on the marriage. In time, the temptation passed by God's grace. Would he have fallen into sin without our help? I think it's probable, even likely. Part of the "way" out of temptation for this brother was sharing with us.
There is one more piece of good news implied in this passage, though it's not stated outright. It's the good news that Jesus did not sin, combined with the good news that he chose the path of suffering, the path that leads to the cross. Why is this such good news? Because it means that He is our Savior, the sinless One who bore our sin on the cross. And this means that when temptation gets the better of us and we sin - and all of us experience this in our lives - we can be forgiven. We can be restored in our relationship with God. We can be renewed and empowered for the next bout of temptation. We do not have to be conquered by sin. Through Christ, our Savior, sin will be defeated in our lives. This is good news, indeed!
So, sisters and brothers, we all face temptation to sin. Sometimes that temptation is so strong it seems impossible to overcome. But the good news is that Jesus understands. And that God will provide a way out. He's given us His Word and His Spirit. And He's given us this family of faith so that we might help each other overcome temptation. But if temptation overwhelms us and we choose to sin, Jesus, the sinless One, Jesus, the Messiah and Suffering Servant of God, Jesus offers forgiveness . . . a fresh start . . . a restored relationship with God. This, my friends, is the best news of all!