As we get closer to Easter we are working our way through a short series called "The Testing and Triumph of Jesus". And as part of that we are looking together tonight at the beginning of Matthew chapter 4, so please find that in the Bible.
Easter is all about Jesus' death on the cross and the events surrounding that, so it usual at this time of year to look at a passage from the last week of his life. But this passage comes from the very beginning of Jesus' ministry on earth, about 3 years earlier.
So, why are we looking at this passage? We are looking at it because even here, just as he has started, Jesus will face the temptation to avoid the cross.
But what has just happened before we started to read?
In chapter 3, Jesus has been baptised by John the Baptist and as Jesus was being baptised, the Spirit came on him like a dove, and God the Father spoke from heaven saying, "This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased." This is an echo of Isaiah 42 and publicly declared Jesus as God's son.
But it also links Jesus with the mission that his Father has given him. The mission that would take him to Jerusalem and ultimately to his death on a cross.
That is where this chapter begins and in it we shall see the devil trying to put Jesus off from the mission. His is trying to stop him from getting to the cross.
So let have a closer look at this amazing encounter… We see firstly,
1) Jesus was faced with a test
Have a look at verse 1:
Then Jesus was led by the Spirit into the desert to be tempted by the devil.
Do you see who is taking the initiative here? It is God. The Spirit led Jesus into the desert for this showdown with the Devil. But how can that be! Did God really want Jesus to be tempted! Is this a case of God wanting evil to happen? No! God's purposes are ALWAYS good. And this is no exception. God does not tempt Jesus to do wrong. That is what the Devil will do, as we shall see. But God does test Jesus.
What is the difference? The difference is to do with you actually want to happen. God the Father was testing Jesus and his aim, his purpose, what he wanted was good to be done. The devil was tempting Jesus and his aim, his purpose, what he wanted was evil to be done. Temptation itself is not a sin. It just provides you with a choice: to do good, or to do evil. That is the test.
Let me give you an example of what I mean. You are at home and tired, and in a particularly difficult situation with a daughter or brother or mother or husband or a housemate who is causing your stress levels to soar. You face the temptation to lash out in anger. But that is not your only choice. The test is to see if you can exercise self-control under trying circumstances.
And right through the ages, God's people had been faced with those choices to do what they knew was right (thought it may be painful) or do what is wrong (but pleasurable).
Let me give you some examples of the temptations you and I face in an ordinary day. Staying in bed late - the temptation to laziness. Growling at the breakfast table - the temptation to unkindness. Arguing over who should change the baby this time - the temptation to selfishness. Starting work 10 minutes late - the temptation to laziness. Losing your temper when a colleague crashes your computer - the temptation to impatience. Flirting with that good-looking woman, taking a second look at the good-looking man - the temptation to lust. Refusing to speak to a person who has hurt you - the temptation to hatred. Repeating a juicy story of something that had happened to your neighbour - the temptation to gossip. Lying awake at night imagining having sex with someone not your wife or husband - the temptation to impurity. Taking your anger out on the children after a hard day - the temptation to cruelty. Going out to eat when you can't afford it - the temptation to self-indulgence. Having a second helping and then a third - the temptation to greed. Firing off a hasty letter to a friend who hurt you - the temptation to revenge.
If that list of things does anything it should do this: reinforce in your mind that if our lives were a similar test in the desert we would all fail it miserably. The Israelites too had faced a similar test, but they were actually in a desert. But they too had had failed the test.
But enough about us. It is Jesus who is faced with a test. So what happened next … secondly
2) Jesus was tempted by the Devil
Look at verse 2:
After fasting for 40 days and 40 nights, he was hungry. The tempter came to him and said …
While Jesus was in the desert the Devil (who is the same as the tempter) came to him. We are not told how: but this we do know. The Devil is real and deceitful. When you think of the devil you probably have in mind the stupid red-horned cartoon character that he is often seen as. Listen to how the Bible describes him…
the devil…was a murderer from the beginning, not holding to the truth, for there is no truth in him. When he lies, he speaks his native language, for he is a liar and the father of lies. (John 8:44)
Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour. (1 Peter 5:8)
Satan [another word for the devil] himself masquerades as an angel of light. (2 Corinthians 11:14)
In other words the devil hides his evil intentions so that he appears attractive. And so he doesn't looks or sounds like you would expect him to. His aim is to tempt us into wrong beliefs about God and into wrong behaviour.
So, now let us have a look at the temptations that the devil throws at Jesus. They are the temptations to stop obeying, trusting and serving the Father.
Look at verses 3
The tempter came to him and said, "If you are the Son of God, tell these stones to become bread."
What is wrong with that? To eat is not a sin, especially not after a 40 day fast surely! And Jesus did later do something similar when he fed 5,000 people with 5 loaves of bread.
So why is this a temptation?! The devil's aim is to attack the love between the Father and Jesus. You see, Jesus knew that he had been led to this situation to be taught an important lesson: obedience to his father, even if this meant suffering. Jesus' mission was to obey the Father's plan for his death on the cross despite the suffering.
The devil is here offering a short cut thought his suffering and tempting Jesus to STOP OBEYING THE FATHER. If Jesus did not endure the suffering now, he would not have endured the cross and that is exactly what the devil was after.
And that is not all. Look now a verses 5-6.
Then the devil took him 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 next tries to suggest that Jesus create a crisis by jumping of the 90 metre high Jewish temple. The idea is that Jesus tests to see if God will really do what he said he would: to protect anyone who trusts him. Why is this a temptation? Because it puts God to the test. The temptation is for Jesus to STOP TRUSTING THE FATHER.
Finally, look at verses 8-9.
Again, 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."
This is the devil's final temptation. What is it about? It is not subtle is it! He wanted Jesus to swap sides. Abandon the Father's plan to give him the kingdoms of the world, but through suffering on the cross and to instead join the 'dark side', with an offer of a much more comfortable ride. He was tempting Jesus to betray his father and STOP SERVING THE FATHER!
Do you see how his intentions were evil! His intention was that Jesus would stop obeying, trusting and serving the Father. But fundamentally his aim was that Jesus would not walk to the cross. That is what this who episode is all about: Will Jesus fail, just as we so consistently fail? And remember he faced a unique temptation because he had a unique mission. The mission to go to the cross to die so we can be forgiven for all the tests that we have failed.
So Jesus was tempted by the Devil. And remember … Jesus was faced with a test. So, how did he do? That is my third point …
3) Jesus passed the test!
When faced with the temptations how did Jesus react?
Did he stop OBEYING the father? No! Look at verse 4:
Jesus answered, "It is written: 'Man does not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.'"
Did he stop TRUSTING the father? No! Look at verse 7:
Jesus answered him, "It is also written: 'Do not put the Lord your God to the test.'"
Did he stop SERVING the father? No! Look at verse 10
Jesus said to him, "Away from me, Satan! For it is written: 'Worship the Lord your God, and serve him only'."
He did what we could never do! He believed the truth the Father had told him and continued obeying, trusting and serving him! The battle was won! Jesus has done it. He had not stopped obeying the Father.
The significance of that is amazing. The Bible tells us that Jesus came to this earth with one mission. One aim. To obey the Father and die on a cross so that we can be forgiven.
And this was the first battle. If Jesus had fallen here there would have been no cross and so no forgiveness of sins and so no way we could have a relationship with the true and living God.
But he did win, and later he would win the war! He would die on the cross and so make it possible for us to be forgiven.
So the devil failed in his aim to stop Jesus from getting to the cross. That was a unique temptation to Jesus. But the devil is still up to his tricks. When Jesus returns the devil will be destroyed forever, but until then he still tempts us. And our temptation is also to stop going to the cross. Because it is at the cross that we find life and freedom and forgiveness.
So if you are here and feel weighted down by guilt for all the battles you have lost. All the temptations we have given in to time and time again. Imagine this: that God has taken a huge blackboard and has written on it everything you've ever done wrong, all that you feel guilty for, all that you regret. The Bible promises that if you come to the cross and ask him to forgive you, he will wipe the slate clean. Then you can start again. You can be forgiven.
If you are a Christian what do you do when you find you have not obeyed or trusted or served the Father. Are you tempted to despair. To stop going back to the cross? Why? Jesus came and won the battle and he went through all the suffering to bring us life. Go back to the cross and ask for forgiveness and start again.
If you have never been to the cross. If you have never asked God to forgive all your sin, what is stopping you? If you need have questions why not join Christianity Explorer or What Christians Believe to find out more. Or if you are ready to, then why not do that now as we all take a minute or two to pray silently, alone, responding to God as is appropriate for us.