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“The Temptation of Jesus”

Matthew 4:1-11
Bob DeGray
January 29, 2017

Key Sentence

Satan never changes his tactics, so we need to change ours.


I. Satan tries to distract you from what you really need (Matthew 4:1-4)
II. Satan tries to dictate what God has to do. (Matthew 4:5-7)
III. Satan tries to divert you from worshipping God alone. (Matthew 4:8-11)


Gail and I had a great time in Colorado, cozy in a little cabin with four days of cold temperatures, snow flurries and occasional walks in the serene beauty. She and I are doing a daily devotional this year called New Morning Mercies, by Paul David Tripp, focused on living in grace. We read a little bit of it aloud to each other, and as I started work on this sermon, one of the readings seemed to fit. We’re studying the temptation of Jesus, a key moment in redemptive history, when Christ reversed Adam’s failure and resisted the temptations of Satan, setting the stage for his sinless redemption of fallen people. But I also want to apply the passage to our temptations, and that’s where the reading fit.

Tripp says “It’s a case of modern evangelical schizophrenia. It causes us confusion, frustration, and discouragement. It leaves us with unrealistic expectations, naïveté toward temptation, and regular disappointment. It leads us to ask far too much from the people around us and to expect more than we should from the situations and locations in our lives. It makes us search over and over again for what we will not find. It results in some of us beginning to doubt the goodness of God. “What is this schizophrenia?” you ask. It is the fact that we declare that we believe in forever, yet we live as if this is all there is.

This functional contradiction between our belief system and our daily living cannot work. You cannot make any sense out of the Christian life without eternity. If the One you’ve given your life to doesn’t ultimately fix what sin has broken, so that you can live with him forever without its effects, what is faith worth? And we are hardwired for eternity. Ecclesiastes says God has placed eternity in every person’s heart. That means everyone hungers for paradise. No one is satisfied with things the way they are. Then Tripp gives us insight into Satan’s temptations and Jesus’ victory over them, and ultimately to ours.

Tripp says “So either you try your hardest to turn your life right here, right now into the paradise it will never be and therefore become driven and disappointed, or you live in this broken world with the rest and peace that comes from knowing that a guaranteed place in paradise is in your future. You’re sad that things are as broken as they are, so you work to be an agent of change in God’s gracious and powerful hands, but you’re not anxious or driven.” Satan never changes his tactics, so we need to change ours. Satan tries to get us to satisfy ourselves in the here and now, with no thought of God or eternity. What are his tactics? He tries to distract you from what you really need. He tries to get you to dictate what God has to do. And he tries to divert you from worshipping God alone.

This is how he tried to tempt Jesus, with these three tactics, but each time Jesus responded by trusting God through His Word. Matthew 4:1-4 Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. 2And after fasting forty days and forty nights, he was hungry. 3And the tempter came and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.” 4But he answered, “It is written, “‘Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.’”

We said two weeks ago that many of the Old Testament threads of promise came together in Jesus’ baptism; he was the promised Messiah, offspring of David, representative of Israel and suffering servant. We also saw the Trinity at work. Jesus submitting to the Father’s will, the Father declaring Jesus to be his own Son in whom he was well pleased, and the Spirit descending to affirm Jesus by his presence, which would continue throughout Jesus’ ministry.

Now that same Spirit leads him into the desert. This passage has many references to Deuteronomy chapters 6-8, written at the end of the forty years the people of Israel wandered in the desert after they’d put God to the test, worshipped idols, and distrusted God when they first came to Canaan. It is fitting that God’s Son would be led into the desert to pass the test Israel failed, which was really the same test Adam and Eve failed, trusting God and his Word. Matthew tells us he was tested or tempted by the devil. Just as God allowed Satan to test Job, so the Spirit allows Satan to test Jesus. As the one who was fully God but also fully man, the Son experienced full temptation, yet without sin, that he might fully sympathize with the weakness and need of those he came to rescue.

Yet at the same time, the Father was testing the Son’s trust. In Deuteronomy 8 Moses tells the people to “remember the way that the Lord your God has led you these forty years in the wilderness, that he might humble you, testing you to know what was in your heart, whether you would keep his commandments.” God’s purpose in testing Israel was to reveal the humble obedience. This was also his purpose with Jesus. Satan’s purpose was altogether different; he tempted Israel to doubt and disobey God, and he succeeded. But he would fail every time in tempting Jesus. So, verse 2, Jesus is led into the desert and fasts for forty days, reminiscent of the forty years that Israel was in the desert.

This fasting set the stage for the first temptation. Verse 3: The tempter came and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.” In English the phrase ‘if you are the Son of God’ seems to lean the temptation in the direction of making Jesus test the Sonship or Deity affirmed in his baptism. But the Greek is less like ‘if’ and more like ‘since.’ ‘Since you are the Son of God.’

Satan is not so much wanting Jesus to doubt his Sonship as to doubt God’s goodness and provision. Can you count on God? Shouldn’t you provide for yourself? This is the same tactic he used with Adam and Eve in the garden. Shouldn’t you know good and evil for yourself? Can you really trust what God says?”

Jesus’ answer is profoundly simple: It is written, “Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.” Don’t take lightly the well-known truth that Jesus answers every temptation from Scripture. It doesn’t matter if you are here today as a new believer, one who just put your trust in Christ, or as a grizzled veteran of the faith who has been walking with Jesus for years, this truth is still for you. Don’t try to escape temptation or live life apart from God’s Word. Reading it, studying it, using it, delighting in the God it reveals and the Son he loves, these disciplines bless all of God’s people. If Jesus himself profited from studying and knowing the Scriptures so that he could use them at this key moment, then none of us is too old for this truth.

Notice that this temptation was an invitation to substitute the meeting of his felt need, hunger, for the meeting of his real need, intimacy with God through his Word. How many of our temptations are like this? Satan tries to distract us from our real need. Our heads know that God is sufficient, that his provision is eternal and that is plan is perfect. But our desires battle against those truths, and Satan wants us to believe that if we just satisfy ourselves a little with other things, with alcohol, with porn, with greed, with anger, with selfishness, we’ll be alright. ‘A little of this will help me get through. A little won’t hurt, right?’

Wrong. Satisfying worldly desire cannot truly satisfy. You always have to have more. God says. “You can’t live on what the world provides. You really need what I have given.” It reminds me of the form of starvation called Kwashiokor syndrome. If a child is only getting rice or some staple with no protein or nutrients, they can die of starvation even while eating every day. In the same way, if all you eat is what the world provides, giving in to every temptation and consuming it every day, you will die spiritually. God says “Bread is not enough. You need what my Word provides, knowledge of God, nutrition for your soul.” Satan will try to distract you from what you really need.

He’ll also try to get you to dictate what God has to do. Verses 5-7 Then the devil took him to the holy city and set him on the pinnacle of the temple 6and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down, for it is written, “‘He will command his angels concerning you,’ and “‘On their hands they will bear you up, lest you strike your foot against a stone.’” 7Jesus said to him, “Again it is written, ‘You shall not put the Lord your God to the test.’”

The holy city is Jerusalem, the location of God’s temple. The highest point of the temple is probably not on the sanctuary itself, Josephus describes the towers at the entrance as being taller than everything else in the temple complex, and in addition, they are built into the walls of the city. A jump from one of these towers would land you deep in the Kidron valley. So it’s a great place to postulate a lethal jump from which only an act of God could save you.

Notice how Satan uses the Bible to try to convince Jesus. Since you are the Son of God, certainly this Scripture will apply to you: “He will command his angels concerning you,” “On their hands they will bear you up, lest you strike your foot against a stone.” The enemy is quoting Psalm 91:11-12. This is a psalm of comfort and confidence to those whose trust is in God. It begins “He who dwells in the shelter of the Most High will abide in the shadow of the Almighty. 2I will say to the Lord, “My refuge and my fortress, my God, in whom I trust.” Satan’s deceit lay in encouraging Jesus to force God’s hand, to put himself in a circumstance where he’s trying to manipulate God’s behavior.

So Jesus' refusal comes not from doubting whether he or his Father could command the forces of nature, but because Scripture forbids putting God to the test. His reply is taken directly from Deuteronomy: “Again it is written, ‘You shall not put the Lord your God to the test.’” The word ‘again’ is interesting: Satan has quoted Scripture, but Jesus says that one Scripture is not allowed to trump another Scripture: they have to be seen in light of each other. The existence of a promise does not give you permission to break a command. Sometimes when we’re tempted we find ourselves saying ‘well, God is loving and gracious and he’ll forgive me. I’ll do this and count on his forgiveness later.’ But that’s putting God to the test and it’s not a test you want to make. Even forgiven sin has consequences.

The Deuteronomy passage is about an incident at Massah, in Exodus 17 where the Israelites "put the Lord to the test" by demanding water and threatening to rebel against Moses. God gave them what they wanted, but that became one more step toward their ultimate refusal to enter the land of Canaan; the consequence of that was 40 years in the desert.

The alternative to testing God this way was trusting God. Would he have provided the water without their grumbling? Probably so. Would the incident then have had any negative long term consequences? No. It would have glorified God, and Moses may not have gotten sinfully angry the next time the people begged him for water. Jesus recognizes Satan’s temptation as this sort of contrast between trusting and testing, and he trumps Satan’s Scripture with that truth. He will not force God’s hand.

So the question for us, living in a fallen world with many dangers and fears is this: will we trust God or will we try to make him do what we think he has to do. I’m afraid our Christian culture is often guilty of trying to force God’s hand. Let me give four examples. I hate to do this, because in some of these cases I’m trampling on people’s hope. I apologize, but I want us to see that we can trust God even when it means living through trial or testing or suffering.

How do we try to force God’s hand? Think first of the prosperity Gospel. Preachers like Kenneth Hagen, Joel Osteen or Creflo Dollar manipulate God’s promises and rip them out of context to assure us that if we just pray right, God must give material wealth. For example, James 4:2 says “You do not have because you do not ask God.” Prosperity preachers say “if you don’t have, it’s because you haven’t asked enough or haven’t asked right,” ignoring the next verse that says “When you ask, you do not receive, because you ask with wrong motives, that you may spend what you get on your pleasures.” Creflo Dollar says: “When we pray, believing that we have already received what we are praying, God has no choice but to make our prayers come to pass.” I’m sorry, God is not a vending machine. He gives us riches or need for our good and his glory.

Second, I believe some of us try to patriotically manipulate God. The verse often used is 2 Chronicles 7:14 “If my people who are called by my name humble themselves, and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven and will forgive their sin and heal their land.” This is a great promise, but it was made to the people of Israel. It’s also a great principle, one I think we can trust, that God will hear the prayers of his people when they confess sin and seek forgiveness. But it is not intended to say that a country like the U.S.A is assured of God’s blessing. Whether you are hopeful about President Trump’s administration or deeply concerned, you should not, I believe, try to force God’s hand, put him to the test, in his dealings with our deeply sinful nation. He calls us to trust him, whether he rescues or judges.

The same thing happens in the area of healing. My heart goes out to those who are sick or chronically suffering. We’ve seen so much of this lately. But I don’t believe God ever promised to automatically heal, even in response to fervent prayer. He can heal, and he does, but he also allows sickness and suffering to continue for some, and uses it to deepen and strengthen spiritual life and trust. We do people a disservice when we promise that a certain prayer or fasting or person will heal, and an even greater disservice when we put down someone’s faith who is not healed. Joni Eareckson Tada often tells of the early days of her paralysis when people would tell her that if she just had more faith, she could be healed. But she grew wise enough to seek what she calls “a deeper healing,’ a healing of her soul in an intimate and eternal relationship with God.

Finally, and this may be the most touchy of all, we sometimes try to manipulate God out of deep parental concern for our kids. We say “train up a child in the way he should go; even when he is old he will not depart from it.” This is a verse from Proverbs, which is more about principles than promises and tells us the way things tend to work, not the way God guarantees. So we try to raise up our children in the ways they should go, and many of them do not depart from those paths. But some do, even in the most faithful families. Should we berate God, or condemn ourselves as a result? I don’t believe so. First of all, we don’t know how the story will end. Second, we do know that God created each individual with the ability to make choices, and he has allowed those choices to have consequences. We cannot force him to override those choices. Instead we are called to trust in his revealed character and will, that he is faithful and trustworthy and is working for our good and his glory. We can find comfort in the fact that Jesus came to suffer the ultimate penalty of those choices. And Jesus himself trusted God enough to not put him to the test.

What does Satan do? He tries to distract us into satisfying our own needs, or to stake our faith on what we think God has to do. How does Jesus respond? He turns to the Word, which calls us to trust God’s provision and God’s faithfulness beyond what our eyes can see. Satan’s third ploy is a bit different. He tries to divert us from worshipping God alone. Verses 8-11: Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their glory. 9And he said to him, “All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.” 10Then Jesus said to him, “Be gone, Satan! For it is written, “‘You shall worship the Lord your God and him only shall you serve.’” 11Then the devil left him, and behold, angels came and were ministering to him.

Satan bluntly asks Jesus to worship him, which seems ludicrous on the face of it, until you recognize that Satan is offering Jesus a way out of his suffering. In his baptism, Jesus was recognized as the Suffering Servant of Isaiah. Jesus knows, if no one else does quite yet, that his rescue will involve his sacrificial sufferings under the weight of our sins. At the end of Matthew we see that among his greatest sufferings was the temptation to turn away from bearing our sins. Jesus goes to the Garden of Gethsemane and in anguish prays “My Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me.” He was tempted to derail God’s plan. But then he says “nevertheless, not as I will, but as you will.” That’s trust. He knows what he wants, but he chooses what God wants.

So here, at the beginning of his ministry, Satan is offering him a way out of that ultimate suffering. He offers an alternate path to the authority and kingdom that Jesus has come to inaugurate, one that sidesteps the suffering and the sin bearing and the separation from His Father. Sounds good.

There’s only one little clause in the fine print: that Jesus the creator has to fall down and worship Satan, the rebel creature. Which would of course be Satan’s ultimate victory. He had first corrupted himself and rebelled. He had corrupted myriad fellow spiritual beings and led an army of fallen angels in rebellion. He had corrupted Adam and Eve, led them to their downfall. He had corrupted countless men and women for centuries, millennia, getting them to worship false gods and his image in countless forms and to worship the satisfaction of base desires and themselves and the world’s false security. Now, if he could corrupt the one God had sent to save his victory would be complete. But Jesus will not forsake God for this counterfeit way out of suffering.

But Satan and his minions and the world system he’s in charge of are still trying this ploy against us, often successfully. We are prey to the glorious pictures the world paints of short cuts to happiness, sidesteps of suffering. But there is still one little clause, one little phrase in the contract: you have to worship these things, rather than the God who created you and the Lord who died for you.

Think about the world’s false promises: Worship power and you won’t need more. Worship sex and it’ll all be ecstasy. Worship money and you’ll have security. Worship the bottle or the needle; the pleasure is worth it. Worship yourself; look out for number one; no one else is going to. Worship self-interest. Relationships, commitments, whether in family or the church are disposable when they no longer satisfy you. Or stake your life on an ‘ism:’ communism or capitalism; socialism or conservatism; libertarianism or materialism. A new ‘ism’ is bound to make the world right. Satan offers all of this and more. Put anything other than God in first place. That’s all Satan asks. That’s all this temptation is about. Let anything other than God have priority in your day tomorrow and he promises you’ll miss the suffering. It’s a lie.

Though countless of us believe this lie, Jesus doesn’t. He again turns to Scripture, to the Ten Commandments in Deuteronomy 6: “You shall worship the Lord your God and him only shall you serve.” Trust and worship go hand in hand; you worship what you trust and you come to trust what you worship. Jesus chooses to trust and worship God. That’s what we need. But by worship I don’t mean showing up on Sunday morning to sing a few songs. True worship is moving the focus of your heart from interests and isms and desires to Jesus; moving the eye of the hurricane of the storm of your thoughts to the peace of God. J. I. Packer says in the introduction that his great book, Knowing God, grew out of a Copernican revolution in his thinking, “through realizing that I am not the center of things, but God is, and that I am his creature and child exist for him rather than he for me.” That’s the revolution we all need. That’s worship.

Every temptation attacks trust and every sin shifts worship. If you trust money or equity or security or employment to get you through life, then that’s what you worship. If you trust pleasure or sex or a high of some kind to get you through the week, then that’s what you worship. If you trust your own abilities or competence or intelligence or persuasiveness to get you what you want, then that’s self-worship. If you trust people apart from God to meet your emotional, spiritual and even relational needs, then your idols will fail you. Jesus reminds us today “You shall worship the Lord your God and him only shall you serve.”

So Satan attacks Jesus at the point of trust – can you really trust the Father or do you need to do this yourself, to test him, to sidestep his plan? It’s the same place he tested Adam and Eve, “Did God really say?” “You will not surely die.” “And when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate, and she also gave some to her husband who was with her, and he ate.” But Jesus says “I don’t need bread. I need God. I don’t need to put him to the test. I trust his plan. I don’t need to worship created things – I worship the creator.” Strengthened by the Spirit and the Word, Jesus alone avoids the misstep that caused Adam and all of us to fall. Satan’s tactics haven’t changed, but we can adopt Jesus’ successful tactics: knowledge of God’s word and trust in God’s plan even when we don’t understand it.