Eight weeks ago, on the first Sunday after the Epiphany, our Gospel lesson focused on Jesus’ baptism in the Jordan River by John the Baptizer as recounted in the final verses of Matthew chapter 3. Today, on the first Sunday of Lent, our Gospel lesson focuses on Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness as recounted in the first verses of Matthew chapter 4. Because these accounts appear in two separate chapters – and because we study them in two different seasons of the church year – the tendency is to look at them as two unrelated, standalone events.
But that is not how they happened and that is not how the Gospels were written. Ancient writers – including St. Matthew – often wrote one continuous document without any breaks. No chapter breaks. No numbering of verses. None of those boldface subheads that conveniently break Scripture into neat, compartmentalized little sections. So with that in mind, listen as I read the last two verses of the baptism account from Matthew 3 and then go directly into the account of the temptation in Matthew 4: “And when Jesus was baptized, immediately he went up from the water, and behold, the heavens were opened to him, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and coming to rest on him; and behold, a voice from heaven said, ‘This is my beloved son, with whom I am well pleased.’ Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil.”
Changes things, doesn’t it? The temptation didn’t happen at some latter point in time – it began immediately after God the Father clearly identified Jesus as His beloved Son. Jesus came up out of the water and was immediately led by the Spirit to the wilderness, where he fasted 40 days and 40 nights.
Matthew tells us that Jesus ate nothing – absolutely nothing – for 40 days and 40 nights. He adds what is probably one of the great all-time Biblical understatements: “He was hungry.” Then the devil – the tempter – the great deceiver – shows up. And the first word out of his mouth is the word “if.” “If you are the son of God,” the tempter says, “command these stones to become loaves of bread.”
I want to make sure that we all understand what, exactly, the temptation actually is in these first verses. It is not just for Jesus to break His fast and eat something. It’s not just about working a miracle and turning some stones into some mouthwatering loaves of piping hot bread. It goes a lot deeper than that. What the devil is trying to do is cause doubt. He’s trying to make the Son doubt the will and the love and the care of the Father. He’s trying to make the Son doubt who He really is, to question the very words that His Father spoke at His baptism. It’s as if he were saying, if you really think you are the Son of God, then prove it. Let’s see if you really have the power to turn these stones into bread. Where’s the harm in that? God obviously doesn’t care enough about You to give You something to eat, so go ahead and take charge of the situation. Put things in your own two hands. Let’s see if You really are who You say you are.
Doubt is one of the greatest and most malicious tools that the devil has in his bag of tricks. It always has been one of his most effective weapons in his never-ending effort to turn people away from God, starting with innocent-sounding questions that can ultimately lead to unbelief. In today’s Old Testament reading about the fall of Adam and Eve into sin, Satan launched his attack with words of doubt. “Did God actually say?” he asked Eve. In addition to the doubt, Satan skillfully takes a few words that God did say and mixes them with some words that God did not say. Satan asks Eve: “Did God actually say, ‘You shall not eat of any tree in the garden’?” No, that’s not what God actually said. He said that Adam and Eve could eat of every tree in the garden except the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.
God also said that if Adam and Eve ate of that one tree, then they would die. But again Satan does his best to cast doubts. He tells Eve, “You will not surely die. For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God.” Eve – and Adam – fall for the trap. They doubt God’s Word. They buy into Satan’s deception that perhaps – just perhaps – God is hiding something from them. Maybe if they trust Satan instead of God, then they themselves will be like God and nothing could be greater than that – right? We all know what the consequences of those doubts have been for Adam, for Eve, for very man and woman who has ever lived, and indeed, for our entire world.
So here, in the wilderness, the devil is trying his best to get Jesus to doubt. “If you are the son of God,” he says. What the devil doesn’t realize is that as smart as he is, he is never going to be smarter than God. Jesus needs no proof of who He is because He knows who He is. Jesus knows that He is the Son of God. Jesus knows that He is God. He knows that life – true, eternal life – comes not from the things of this world, but from the things of God.
In the second temptation, Jesus is again tempted to doubt. The devil again begins with that same word: “if.” “If you are the Son of God,” he says, “throw yourself down” from the pinnacle of the temple – probably a drop of a good hundred feet or more. Here – just like he did with Adam and Eve – the devil takes the Word of God and tries to make it say something that it does not say. He quotes from Psalm 91, which focuses on how God does, indeed, protect His people – but this protection doesn’t include those who would tempt God by doing stupid, foolish things like jumping off of a high building. It’s like the devil is saying OK, Jesus, God says that he will use His angels to protect You, so let’s see if You really believe that by jumping off this high place. It would kill anyone else – but if You really are the Son of God, just try it and see what happens. Show me how much You really trust Your Father.
But once again, the if word is meaningless, because Jesus knows just who He is. Jesus knows that He is God. He knows that He and the Father are one. He answers by quoting words from Exodus chapter 17 when God – speaking through Moses – warned the Children of Israel against testing God. Jesus would have been guilty of that same sin if He had found it necessary to prove God’s power just for His own personal fame or glory or satisfaction.
In the third temptation, the devil changes his tactics. Making Jesus doubt the Father and doubt who He is didn’t work, so now he tries to tempt Jesus with glory. It’s the same temptation that worked so well with Adam and Eve, the temptation of wanting the glory that belongs to God – and belongs to God alone. It’s the same temptation that Peter fell for when he wanted to stop Jesus from going to Jerusalem by offering to build some tents up on the Mount of Transfiguration.
The devil took Jesus to “a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their glory. And he said to him, ‘All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.’” The word that we translate here as “fall down” typically means to throw oneself on the ground, to prostrate oneself in a position of total worship and obedience. But it can also mean “to be destroyed” or “to die.” And when we see the word “fall” – especially in light of today’s Old Testament reading describing how Adam and Eve first sinned against God – we can’t help but think of the word “fall” with a capital “F.” As in “The Fall.” The Fall into sin. Satan knows that if Jesus takes the bait and falls down before him, then Jesus will be as guilty of sin as Adam and Eve, as you and me. If that were to happen, then Jesus would no longer be the sinless Son of God – but just another sinner like everyone else. But it didn’t happen. Jesus didn’t sin. And He commanded the devil to leave.
People often look at today’s Gospel lesson with the idea that when Jesus resisted temptation, He was setting the example by which we should live our lives. The idea that Jesus becomes our role model for how we are to live – the idea that by His action, Jesus is showing us how to resist temptations when they come flying at us. The idea that since we’re wise to the devil’s tricks, we can somehow be strong enough to resist his temptations. Well, that’s just wrong.
When we read these verses of Scripture, it is wrong to see Jesus as our example. What is right is to see Jesus as our Savior. To see Jesus as the one who fought the devil and won the battle. Jesus is not showing us how to fight – He is fighting for us. Throughout His life He continued to fight for us. In His death He fought for us. In His resurrection He fought for us. And He won. We are His. The devil can and will attack each of us over and over, but he can’t win. And the reason why he can’t win is that Jesus has already won. His victory is complete – and it is final.
But you know what? The devil is going to keep trying and he will never stop trying. Never underestimate the enemy, my friends. The devil can and will do everything within his power to put doubts in your minds. To make you think that those things you do – even if God says not to do them – are really not so bad. To make you think that if you really buckle down and try hard enough you can defeat the devil by your own power and on your own terms. To make you think that perhaps – just perhaps – you really don’t even need Jesus.
Only one man in all of history could resist any and every temptation thrown at him by the devil. Only one man in all of history could defeat the devil. Only one man – the one who came to be baptized in the place of sinners, who resisted the temptations that we cannot and do not resist – the true man and true God, Jesus Christ. Our Savior. As we sang in the timeless words of Martin Luther in our sermon hymn:
With might of ours can naught be done,
Soon were our loss effected;
But for us fights the valiant One,
Whom God Himself elected.
Ask ye, who is this?
Jesus Christ it is,
Of Sabaoth Lord,
And there’s none other God;
He holds the field forever.