THE TESTING GROUNDS OF FAITH
Then Jesus was led by the Spirit into the desert 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.” Jesus answered, “It is written, ‘Man does not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.’”
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.’” Jesus answered him, “It is also written: ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’”
Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the
world and their splendor. "“All this I will give you,” he said, “if you will bow down and
worship me.” Jesus said to him, “Away from me, Satan! For it is written, ‘Worship the
Lord your God, and serve him only.’”
Then the devil left him, and the angels came and attended him.
We do not usually think of having to pursue temptations. They come to us – usually unbidden.
The first lesson for today is a case in point. Our first parents were simply going about their business of caring for the garden when an alien voice speaks to them. It suggests that a word quite other than the word of the Lord would be a far superior word to trust. They believe this alien word and all the perfection around them falls apart. They did not go looking for temptation. It came looking for them. It did not make them sin in itself. It only provided the opportunity for looking away from the word that God had given them. They sinned in this, that they, of their own volition, believed that alternate word spoken to them by the serpent.
Jesus Encounters the Tempter
The first thing we note in the text before us, however, is this: Temptation did not come looking for Jesus. Rather, Jesus is thrust into the teeth of temptation. “Thrust” is the proper word. Matthew is kinder when he says “Then Jesus was led by the Spirit into the desert.” Mark is more forthright, saying, “The Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness.” (RSV)
In both accounts (along with Luke) the baptism of Jesus had just taken place. The voice from heaven had spoken: “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.” (NIV) What higher affirmation could one want? Surely he must now go from glory to glory.
But not so! “Immediately” . . . “Then” . . . “At once” . . . Hardly had he been baptized when Jesus was thrust into the desert by none other than the Spirit who had descended on him like a dove only shortly before.
“To be tempted by the devil!” The Spirit drove him out from the relatively safe environment of those who would gather around him in confirmation of the One who had named him as “his Son.” He sends him out, the text tells us, to confront the devil all on his own.
Just as in the narrative of Genesis when the voice of temptation is raised, so now again here: The substance and commitment of the tempted one is tested. Jesus had heard the voice from heaven, affirming who he was. But what did that mean for him? What did it require of him? Such questions as these were the questions that must now be addressed.
Questions of the same sort were placed squarely before our first parents: “Do you want to be unquestioningly obedient children of a word that defines the parameters of your life, or do you want to establish your own parameters for how you will live? Does the word of the Lord count for everything . . . or is it merely a word to be regarded or not regarded according to whichever other voice or voices speak to you?” The serpent provides an alien voice to those first parents, making it possible for them to exercise their will for God or against him. Without an alien voice they would merely be puppets on a string, robots automatically doing what God told them, people with no choice other than to serve God, whose voice stood alone and unchallenged.
God does not want puppets, though. He wants willing servants who believe and trust him. He establishes the boundaries of life and asks that his children honor those boundaries of their own accord – not because they have to, but because they want to.
Accordingly, Jesus enters, not a paradisical garden, but a wilderness . . . a place where, as Mark says, wild beasts reside . . . a place of danger. In the minds of the people of his time the wilderness was where demons resided, where everything foreign to God was located.
There the devil found Jesus who had been driven to this place by the Spirit. There in the wilderness his destiny must be decided. There in the wilderness he had to set his course for the rest of his life as the one clearly designated and affirmed as the Son of the One who had spoken at his baptism, saying, “I am well pleased with him.”
So far, so good. God is pleased with him. But what would please God now? What are the ramifications of this affirmation? For what was he called and to what was he to direct his life from this time on? What would it mean in the future for him to be a faithful Son of the living Lord? These must have been his meditations through the forty days of wilderness dwelling.
There, in the midst of such considerations, the tempter appears. A voice is raised suggesting possible answers to the questions that must have haunted those forty days.
“God is important, but you can’t serve him if you die of hunger,” the voice says. “See this God-forsakenness around you? Surely the One you call Father has little interest in you or your future if he leaves you to die here in the wilderness! Since you are the ‘Son of the Father’ as he said you were, surely you can take care of this situation easily. Turn these stones of the wilderness into bread. Save yourself. You are of no earthly good to God nor will you be of any earthly good to the world if you end up as a skeleton in the desert.” So spoke the alien voice suggesting that the first and foremost responsibility of this man was survival.
“Bread is important,” came the reply. “I do not deny it. But bread alone will neither define me nor my mission nor my place on this earth.” His word comes from the scripture, the word Moses spoke to Israel in one of his parting speeches. He told them that God had sustained them through their years in the wilderness “to teach you that man does not live on bread alone but on every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord.” (Deut. 8:3) Vital though bread may be, it is even more important to take seriously that which God requires of those who call themselves by his name. That was to be a primary concern of Israel . . . and Jesus.
“Why, of course,” the tempter’s voice responds. “Why did I not think of that myself? Surely the word of God is of first importance. To trust it in every and all situations is of utmost concern. And how readily you can prove its power by throwing yourself down from this high point of the temple in what appears to be a suicidal jump, only to have all the people see you caught up in the safe arms of the angels who will protect you. It is surely true, is it not, that ‘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’? This is a sure word of the Lord! When people see how miraculously you are protected by your Father, whose word you trust, they will follow you wherever you ask them to go! That surely must be what it means to be God’s Son, to have the people honor you, looking to you as the One so carefully guarded by God that no harm will befall you – for, of course, that will mean no harm will befall them either. What a superb lord and king you will be! Faithfulness to his word will be at the heart of your reign! Trust his word and you will be successful beyond imagination, for nothing will be impossible for you!”
“Faith and trust do not lead to attempting spectacular things to get attention or seeking objectives never provided for or promised by my Father,” came the reply. Again he turned for support to Moses who warned the people in that parting discourse, “Do not test the Lord as you did at Massah.” (Deut. 6:16) As Moses had warned the people to obey the word of the Lord conscientiously without putting God on trial in the process, so Jesus speaks: “I will do what is given me to do. But I will not ‘put him on trial,’ for it will be he who ‘puts me on trial’ in how I conduct my life.”
Now the mask came off. The devil who had spoken ever so subtly and ever so deceitfully stood boldly before this Jesus of Nazareth and said, “You surely know that what lies before you is anything but pleasant. It is clear to me as you must assuredly recognize by now that the Father, in naming you his Beloved, means little other than that you have a mission of some sort that will restore the world to its rightful owner.
“You know, do you not, that I own the world!?!? It rests in the palm of my hand. Look around you and see. Is this a world ruled by God? If so, he is certainly a strange sort of God to permit – no, to even bring into being -- such a terrible state of affairs as you see spread before your eyes as you stand here surveying all the kingdoms of the world. Wars and rumors of wars, famine and floods, sickness and death, corpses cluttering the landscape, troubles of every sort . . . all are marks of the world. And, if I may boast a bit, they are the works of my hands. I have wrested possession of this world out of the hands of your Father whom you call good. And you will have to pay a terrible price to get it back from me.
“Be clear on this: it is mine to do with as I will. I stand as prince of this world and none can challenge me.
“But . . . now let’s talk common sense here . . . if you should really want it bad enough I would gladly hand it over to you lock, stock and barrel simply to have the pleasure of hearing you admit that I am sole possessor of this ‘mess’ you call the world. Were you to speak thus, acknowledging my sole power in this place you have come to ‘rescue,’ (for surely I do not misread you nor the Father in understanding that you have come to take it back from me) I would be most pleased to give it to you without cost. I would save you an immense amount of trouble. For to tangle with me can mean only the worst imaginable scenario for your future. Just say the word. Admit that this world belongs to me and as a reward for that honest evaluation I shall turn everything over to you. You can clean it up, straighten it out, make of it what it was when first I encountered it long, long ago. I ask little and offer much. What say you?” Thus spoke the tempter in what he slyly set forth as an ultimate gesture of friendliness. “Why act with such malice toward me when I really am only looking out for your own good?”
“Away from me, Satan! For it is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God and serve him only.’” (Deut. 6:13) Once more Jesus fell back on the word of Moses, warning the people of Israel before leaving them that they must carefully avoid all the gods that the nations around them would make available to them. They will all speak with alien voices to Israel. Only one word was to be heard – and that was the word of the Lord. It was the only word to be listened to now.
Satan had no lack of words in speaking with Jesus, but Jesus refuses to enter into discussion with him. He will have nothing of Eden’s conversation – “Has God really said?” “Surely he could not have meant what you thought you heard!” “Come, now, try this on for size. God will not mind.” Nothing of that sort. In the face of temptation Jesus fell behind the word of the Lord. He refused to openly confront Satan, but hid in the one safe place to which he could flee. For listening to Satan is always catastrophic. Listening to God is the one thing to which we are called.
“Then the devil left him, and the angels came and attended him.” It had become clear through those days in the wilderness and the temptations that surrounded them – for surely those three temptations are only ways of saying what went on in serious consideration of his entire future during those wilderness days – that his fate was sealed.
His life was now set on a course that could end in no other way than a direct and final confrontation with this tempter when all the chips were down. Who would have the last word in the future of this world? There was to be no compromise with this one who spoke to him in the desert. They would constantly encounter one another in the months to come until that final moment. The temptations would echo throughout his ministry. . .
His good work of feeding thousands of people would become the tempter’s words through the people who were fed: Be our king! We want someone who will supply all our needs with the power of a single word. Jesus must constantly warn people against speaking about his mighty deeds lest they be turned against him instead of for him. And in the end there would be another taunt about survival and self-serving actions: “You, who are going to destroy the temple and build it in three days, save yourself!” (Matt. 17:40) It was an echo of “Turn this stone into bread!”
People would pursue him as a miracle worker rather than as a spokesman for his Father. They would see how powerfully the word of God worked through him. He would have to say, “Your sins are forgiven” before saying “Take up your bed and walk,” for the two were coupled in him, and a mere temporary healing was not the end to which his ministry was directed. In the end there would be another taunt about throwing himself down from a high place: “Come down from the cross, if you are the Son of God.” (Matt. 27:40) Again an echo is heard: “Throw yourself down, for it is written, ‘He will command his angels concerning you.’” Do the spectacular and we will believe in you!
He would be under constant pressure to take up the powers of this earth to accomplish his purposes. The people looked for and yearned for one who would throw off the yoke of Rome. Even his disciples kept looking for that. “Let one of us sit at your right and the other at your left in your glory.” (Mark 10:37) Which, of course, raised terrible envy on the part of the other disciples, all of whom hoped for the same thing and were very angry that James and John would beat them to the punch! On Palm Sunday the tempter was there in all the hosannas and “blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord” exclamations. “If you will bow down and worship me I will give you all this!” was the echoing whisper in all the acclamations. “’He saved others,‘ they said, ‘but he can’t save himself!” (Mark 15:31) So they spoke in that terrible hour.
It was so. Had he saved himself, he would not have saved others. If he was, indeed, to save others, he dare not save himself. For us this would have been a most horrible dilemma, but for him it was the way of perfect obedience . . . a way that began back in the hot, barren desert of his temptations and could only end here on the cross where the salvation of the world was worked out by the faithful One who was named by the Father as his beloved Son.
The cross was the last desert into which he was thrust. “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Mark 15:34) He was driven to the desert immediately after his baptism. And he was driven to the cross because of what happened in that desert. It was to this that he had been called by the Father. And it is in this that we find our salvation!
The Testing Grounds Of Faith
Have you recognized anything of your experience in all this? We do not have to look for temptations, as we suggested at the beginning. They come looking for us. The temptations are there at every turn. Do you recognize them in these temptations set before Jesus? In many ways they are universal temptations. They are all, in a sense, temptations to take control of our own lives – to set objectives of our own apart from God – to lower our sense of what God wants of us as we seek self-fulfillment and self-satisfaction rather than self-giving obedience to him.
Temptations all have at their heart the intention of turning us away from God. They are sometimes subtle and sometimes very urgent senses of things that demand our attention, turning us away from God, regardless of the consequences. At times they assault us in what seem to be very innocent moments such as those that came to Adam and Eve in the garden, and at other times they are blatant assaults on our faith itself. They surround us on every side.
Jesus was not immune to all this. He was, in fact, probably more subject to temptation than any of us, for, after all, Satan has little interest in tempting those who already belong to him. That is a waste of time! The presence of temptation is strongest in those who are named as the children of God. It is they, after all, on whom the tempter makes his strongest assault, for he seeks to destroy the kingdom of God and to claim its citizens as his own.
By whom was this violent assault felt more than our Lord Jesus, declared to be “My beloved Son with whom I am well pleased”? It is his faithfulness to the end for which God had sent him that is our hope and our salvation. To him we turn when temptations assault us. He it was, after all, who taught us to pray thus: “Lead us not into temptation.”
But it was also he who taught us to pray, “Deliver us from evil.” It is this prayer upon which we unfailingly fall back when temptations overwhelm us and we feel ourselves to be sunk deeply into the pit of sin and guilt and when we are near despair in our failures to be obedient. For if, on the one hand, we look to him to “lead us not into temptation,” we know above all that by him we are, indeed, “delivered from all evil” through his life, suffering, death and resurrection in which forgiveness, life and salvation is offered to all who hide in him.
Hubert F. Beck, retired pastor