The Life of Jesus: His Temptations
For fifteen or so years every January, Clare and I went to Hilton Head for a conference held for ministers of music. At one time as many as 750 ministers participated in that conference. I was sort of the camp chaplain and did a good bit of counseling. Ministers of music need a lot of counseling mainly because of the pastors they work with, not because of other reasons. I also gave a series of devotionals each day. All of that ended about two or three years ago.
When the conference concluded on, the ministers would leave and return to their churches for Wednesday night choir practice. Clare and I stayed an extra day, which was wonderful for us. It gave me some time to recuperate. I was pretty exhausted at the end of that event.
I will never forget the year that was unlike previous years. The hotel cleared out as usual, but a great influx soon followed. A crowd of women began arriving for a huge modeling audition to be held at the hotel. I think I saw the most beautiful people in one location at one time than I had ever seen in my entire life. I told someone I had never seen so many long legs since the time I attended a NCAA basketball tournament.
While Clare and I were having a meal there at the hotel, I remarked, “I hardly know where to look.”
She answered, “Kirk, look at me.”
If I were going to give you a summary statement for the sermon today on temptation, it would be that reply. If you want to resist temptation, look to the one you love. That is exactly the model we see in the life of Jesus.
Last week in our series The Life of Jesus, we talked about the baptism of Jesus in the Jordan River and heard him say to John the Baptist, “I need to be baptized to fulfill all righteousness.” One interpretation of that statement indicates that Jesus was preparing for his sovereign reign. The Wisdom of Solomon, an apocryphal book written between the two testaments, was a well-known Jewish text. We read there that before a king was crowned, he went through a purifying and anointing rite. Jesus did the same with his baptism and when he was anointed from heaven. The Holy Spirit in the form of the dove descended on him, and the voice of God said, “This is my beloved Son in whom I am well pleased.”
The Wisdom of Solomon also tells us that a king was often tested after his crowning. Immediately after Jesus came up out of the chilly waters of the Jordan River and received that divine affirmation – certainly a high point in his life – we learn from Luke 4:1-2, “Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, left the Jordan and was led by the Spirit into the wilderness, where for forty days he was tempted by the devil.” Forty days is a way of saying a long period of temptation. Let me emphasize that Scripture informs us that the Holy Spirit led Jesus into the wilderness to be tempted. Do not be mistaken here. God did not tempt Jesus, but God certainly allowed the enticement.
I have noticed in my own life that temptation rarely comes during times of mediocrity, when I am just kind of moving along and not really doing anything really significant for the Lord. It is when I start something of real significance, when I can feel the Lord working in my life with special power, that I am likely to be tempted. Satan, very smart and very crafty, knows exactly how to hit us in our weakest point. I have tried to be prepared; but more often than not, I have felt his attack on my own family members, which really hurts.
Today is Scout Sunday, and I want to address those Scouts with us today. Scouts, for a number of years I served on the Eagle Scout Board of Review, which examines boys who are ready to receive the rank of Eagle Scout. When the boys came before this board of grisly old Scout Masters, I used to tell them that they carried a special burden of responsibility. Scouts, once you attain the highest rank, you can expect to be tempted to do wrong. What joy Satan would have damaging and bringing down an Eagle Scout. Think about the harm he could also do to so many younger Scouts.
I want to call your attention to the quarterbacks of the two teams playing in the Super Bowl tonight. Peyton Manning is a sixteen-year veteran who is thirty-eight years old. Russell Wilson, in only his second year in the NFL, is much younger. When Wilson was a boy, he looked up to Manning as a kind of model, hero. Now they are playing against each other.
These two men are both very fine professing Christians. Peyton Manning, who does not wear his Christianity on his sleeve, notes that some other players get more vocal about their Christianity, pointing to heaven after scoring a touchdown and praising God after games. He said, “I don’t have a problem with others doing that, but I do not do it. I am not any less Christian. I just want my actions to speak louder. I do not want to be a target for more criticism than I already am.” Instead of praying to God that he will win a game, he prays for the well-being of both teams. He prays that he will do his best. Peyton said, “I really do not think it matters to God who wins the game, but it does matter whether I do my best.” When talking about his personal relationship with God, he added, “I pray every night, sometimes long prayers about a lot of things and a lot of people. I do not brag about it because that is between God and me. I am no better than anyone else in God’s sight.”
Russell Wilson, his opposing quarterback in tonight’s match-up, has similar views to Manning. “Jesus is love,” said Wilson. “At the end of the day we are all looking for someone to comfort us, somebody to be there for us at all times. When we are at the worst times of our lives, when we are battling with something, struggles, whatever it may be, and when we are at our highest point as well, when things are really going well, we want somebody to comfort us and be there for us and to say, ‘Well done.’ That’s Jesus. Jesus has said, ‘I will never leave you and I will never forsake you.’”
Can you imagine how delighted Satan would be to bring down one or both of these Christian men? Can you imagine what a victory that would be for evil? Each man has the potential power of a strong witness. When a person has that potential, the attack of Satan is certainly close at hand. One theologian has said, “Being committed to the way of God in the world does not exempt us from the struggle. In fact, it is those who are most engaged in the way of God who seem to experience most intensely the opposition of evil.”
You can see why the devil would want to tempt Jesus, to try to defeat him. This is part of God’s plan. God allows this temptation to occur, but God does actually participate in the tempting.
My dad explained it this way, “Kirk, God knows your weaknesses and wants you to be strong for Him. God is like a blacksmith who puts a piece of iron into the fire and hammers that hot metal into a useful tool. In the process the iron becomes tempered steel.”
This period in the wilderness of Judea had a purpose. It was a time of strengthening for Jesus. He went into the hot, dry, and dusty wilderness of Judea where he was tempted. If you look at all the temptations, you might ask, “Is it really so bad to turn stones into bread? Is it bad to try to claim all the kingdoms of the world? Is it bad to demonstrate the power of God in a spectacular way by jumping from the pinnacle of the temple and allowing God’s angels to rescue someone?” Sin gets its power from compromise. Sin gets its power when we look to ourselves and lose our focus on the One we love. Sin gets its power when we decide that our own needs are more important than the issues at hand.
In the book The Screwtape Letters, C.S. Lewis gives us a good glimpse of how easy it is for us to fall prey. Lewis says, “All that we call human history – money, poverty, ambition, war, sexual immorality, empires, slavery – is the long, terrible story of people trying to find something other than God which will make him happy.”
John Piper, a pastor in Minnesota, says that sin “gets its power by persuading me to believe that I will be happy if I will follow it.” Sin never makes a person happy. It might offer a thrill for a moment, but it never brings joy.
On the old television show Heehaw, a man complaining of a broken arm tells Doc Campbell, “Doc, I broke my arm in two places.”
Doc replies, “My advice would be to stay out of those two places.”
A big part of resisting temptation is staying away from places where we know we will be tempted. When fleeing temptation, we should not leave a forwarding address.
Let’s look closely at the text recorded in the three Synoptic Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke. Remember that Jesus was alone during this experience in the wilderness. No disciples were with him, and no one took notes. How do we get the story? Jesus related his personal experience from his own lips. He shared the story with his disciples, probably to make the point that nobody is exempt from temptation, including himself. He had experienced temptation, and he wanted to train his disciples in how to face and resist that evil force.
The temptations we see here in the Gospel accounts are unique to Jesus. I would never be tempted to turn stones to bread, never be tempted to jump from the pinnacle of the temple 450 feet above the Kedron Valley, not even with a bungee cord. I do not have the power that Jesus had.
According to Scripture Jesus is full of the Holy Spirit through all of this experience. We are never told that the Holy Spirit departed from him – even during the period of temptation. Satan comes to Jesus and offers him three things that look pretty good: bread, wealth, and power. The devil does not offer him things that look bad. Sometimes we are not tempted to do bad things. Instead, we may be tempted to do less than our best. We may be tempted to make a choice between two good things – one sort of good and one much better.
These temptations, which are personal to Jesus, define his ministry and affirm his Son-ship. He does not yield to the temptation of some who want him to be a political messiah, to overthrow the Roman government. Some would want him to be a priestly messiah, to purify the worship of Israel. He does not do that, though he does cleanse the temple. Some would want him to be an economic messiah and preach that prosperity gospel that is so popular. Jesus refuses all temptations. It is no wonder that the Apostle Paul says that Satan himself masquerades as an angel of light. Sometimes his offers look pretty good, but we must stay focused on the One that we love in order to resist.
After forty days of fasting, Satan tempts Jesus to turn stones to bread. I have always thought that meant that he was really hungry and that this was a moment of great weakness. I am not sure that is true. The more I think about it the more I have tried to understand fasting, which is one of many spiritual disciplines. It is certainly just one that he called forth out in the wilderness. Jesus, who could feed a multitude with loaves and fish, did not yield to Satan. Jesus might have actually been at his strongest. He might have been in peak condition, ready and prepared for the battle. Though his belly was empty, he was filled with the Holy Spirit. He is spiritually strong because of his spiritual disciplines. We must learn that we cannot be strong if we do not exercise the spiritual disciplines at our disposal.
The book entitled The Celebration of Discipline, by Richard Foster, considers the spiritual disciplines of the Christian life. It would be a wonderful book for a Sunday School class study.
Notice that Satan tempts him in at least two of the disciplines by saying, “If you are the Son of God, prove it.” Jesus does not bite on that. We see here another characteristic of Satan; he is the father of lies. He says, “All the kingdoms of the world are mine. I will give them to you if you will bow down to me. Compromise. Take a short cut. Let’s be expedient here.” Jesus rejects that temptation. He does not choose a compromise; he chooses the cross.
The third temptation brings to mind the word daredevil. This temptation resembles the stunt Evel Knievel planned – jumping over the Grand Canyon. Satan tells Jesus, “Go to the top of the pinnacle of the temple, and cast yourself down. The angels of God will lift you.” Satan even quotes Scripture to Jesus. Satan can use Scripture to tempt you too. Jesus rejects all temptations that would have satisfied some personal aspects in his life. They did not, however, adhere to the kind of messiah he plans to be.
We see soon after this wilderness experience that Jesus goes directly to the synagogue in Nazareth where he sits down and reads one of the Servant poems from the scroll of Isaiah. He declares, “Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” He is not an economic messiah, not an expedient messiah, not a compromising or political messiah. Jesus is a suffering servant, which he declares in this first sermon in his hometown of Nazareth.
Nikos Kazantzakis wrote the fictional book entitled The Last Temptation of Christ. Many considered the movie version to be a sacrilege as it probably went too far. Consider this passage from Hebrews 4:15: “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to empathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are—yet we have one who has been tempted in all things as we are, yet without sin.”
Do you believe that Jesus was tempted in all the ways that we are tempted? Start with the seven deadly sins: pride, lust, gluttony, greed, sloth, wrath, envy. Could our sinless Savior really have been tempted in all of these ways? That is what the Scriptures assert. He knew how to defeat temptation because he was filled with the Holy Spirit. He was prepared with spiritual discipline.
Verse 13 is haunting: “When the devil had finished all the tempting, he left him until an opportune time.” What is that opportune time? This verse claims that this battle will be ongoing. It is not settled here in the wilderness early in the gospel account. Margaret Thatcher said, “You may have to fight a battle more than once to win it.” That is exactly what Jesus has to do. Luke describes that opportune time, which comes in the Garden of Gethsemane:
39 Jesus went out as usual to the Mount of Olives, and his disciples followed him. 40 On reaching the place, he said to them, “Pray that you will not fall into temptation.” 41 He withdrew about a stone’s throw beyond them, knelt down and prayed, 42 “Father, if you are willing, take this cup from me; yet not my will, but yours be done.” 43 An angel from heaven appeared to him and strengthened him. 44 And being in anguish, he prayed more earnestly, and his sweat was like drops of blood falling to the ground.
45 When he rose from prayer and went back to the disciples, he found them asleep, exhausted from sorrow. 46 “Why are you sleeping?” he asked them. “Get up and pray so that you will not fall into temptation.”
During the last temptation of Christ, which occurred in the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus kept his eyes on the One that he loved and surrendered to God’s will. He resisted Satan. Notice that he told his disciples to pray that they would not fall into temptation. Earlier he had taught them how with a model prayer that is thoroughly Jewish. Notice that the prayer acknowledges our need for daily bread. It also assigns the proper place for power and glory. That model prayer is one of surrender, asking that God’s will be done here on earth as in heaven.
I invite you to bow with me in prayer. At the conclusion of this pastoral prayer, we will join together and repeat the Lord’s Prayer, which Jesus gave us.
Gracious God, in our own strength, we cannot defeat the adversary. The tempter is lurking, always ready to deceive us, to leave us astray. From the time in the Garden of Eden to the end of time, the tempter continues to prowl this earth like a roaring lion. We look to Jesus, the sinless one, the one who was tempted in all ways as we are tempted and yet was without sin. We need his strength. We need to be filled with the Holy Spirit. We need the disciplines of the Christian life. We need to surrender and look only to the One that we love.
Together we pray the prayer that Jesus taught his disciples to pray, saying,
Our Father, which art in heaven, Hallowed be Thy name. Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done On earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread and Forgive us our trespasses As we forgive those who trespass against us. Lead us not into temptation But deliver us from evil, For Thine is the kingdom And the power and glory forever. Amen.
Have you acknowledged Christ Jesus as your Savior? If not, could I extend that invitation to you today? Make him your Savior. Make him the Lord of your life. You know how the Lord is leading. We invite you to respond.Kirk H. Neely © February 2014