The Temptation of Christ (Mt. 4:1-11)
Letís begin with some perspectives.
1) On communion
Before we do anything else this morning, letís put communion in perspective. It is important that we accent the point that re-examination of our lives is not the heart and core of communion. It is more a by-product than a key that unlocks communion. The heart and core of communion observance is remembering the Lord Jesus. Our guide is all of Scripture but especially the Gospels. This is how we hear His voice, by going to where the sacrament points us.
2) On the Gospels
If you think about the work of Christ presented in the Gospels in broad overview, it is obvious where it begins and ends: it begins with His baptism and ends with His ascension to the right hand of the Father. Within those two events are sandwiched the three years in which He accomplished the work given Him to do on earth. His accomplished work has this outline:
His proclamation (by word and deed, by parable and miracle)
His baptism, temptation, and proclamation take up about two-thirds of the Gospel accounts and cover all three years up to the final week before the crucifixion. The remaining one-third of the Gospel accounts cover the final week before the crucifixion and the remaining forty plus days until the ascension. Put simply we can illustrate with three oranges representing the Gospels. Two of the oranges cover all of His life except Passion Week and the few weeks after Passion Week. The third orange covers the final weeks from His passion forward.
A series on the Gospel remembrances could cover these six events in the work of Christ one at a time. Today, I would like us to remember the Lord Jesus from the perspective of His temptation.
3) On the temptation
It follows Christís baptism and is therefore an initial act of His work as our great high priest (Matt. 3:13-14, 4:1, to be baptizedÖas soon as baptizedÖthen into the desert). After the temptation and upon hearing of Johnís imprisonment, Jesus embarked on His public ministry (Matt. 4:12, JohnÖin prison; 4:17, from that time on Jesus began to preachÖ). He continues the calling out of a new Israel from the old Israel that was begun by John.
This morning I want to discuss the temptation of Christ in two steps: a) questions about His temptation and b) an overview of the temptation.
1A. Questions about His temptation
1B. Could Christ sin?
It is a myth of free will that insists on the possibility of sin for Christ. This is surely one of Satanís devices to use good to cloak evil. Here virtue is defined as containing within it the ability to do good or evil. Thus it is said that to be a free person Christ must have had the ability to do evil. But being God He does not have the ability to do evil. In holiness He is the same yesterday, today, and forever. If you try the suggestion that Christ could have sinned in terms of His humanity, you divide the person. We must remember that it is God the Son who became incarnate.
2B. Could Christ be tempted if He could not sin?
To answer this we need to distinguish different senses of temptation. It may involve an appeal to lust within. In this sense God cannot be tempted (James 1:13). In this way Christ could not be tempted. But temptation can be an appeal to sin that comes from without. Someone is tempted to sin by being invited to sin even if there is no inward tendency toward sin. In this sense Christ could be tempted.
3B. How could Christ suffer in temptation as stated in the book of Hebrews?
Given that Christ could not sin and that He had no inner disposition of lust that could be prompted to various acts of sin then we might wonder how there could be any tension, conflict, or suffering through temptation (Heb. 2:18, he Ösuffered when he was tempted). An analogy will help us though there is much mystery here. Consider how you would feel if we were invited to a murder. Letís say you were asked to perform the murder. Just bringing this up is not pleasant. But note how the experience intensifies if the person to be murdered were given a name and it turned out to be a loved one. The idea gets more and more distressing and repugnant according to the love that you have for the offended party one hand and for righteousness on the other. This is what makes the action of Abraham with his young son Isaac so horrific. It is an unbearable thought. If this is so, consider how much more it must have been the case for the Lord Jesus because of His perfect holiness and inability to sin, His love for righteousness, and His infinite love for the Father in heaven. For our Lord, it is the case that He would suffer incomprehensibly more than we can imagine when it is proposed that He sin against His loving heavenly Father. This would cause unparalleled anguish of soul.
4B. Who is in control in this temptation?
We have to be impressed by the fact that Jesus is filled with the Spirit (Lk. 4:1) who drove Him (Mk. 1:12) into the wilderness (a desert, Matt. 4:1, is wild, solitary, and uninhabited place). The goal of the Spirit was to bring Him to this place "to be tempted by the devil." A temptation can have more than one design. Satanís design is to harm by sin. Godís design is to prove and strengthen for holiness. God is testing by means of Satanís tempting. God is in control.
5B. What is the point of the fasting (Matt. 4:2)?
Is the point that Jesus is brought to the edge of death, to the point of starvation, and thus to the extremity of physical weakness? On one hand, it was a point of physical weakness and intense need. He was brought to a place of hunger on a critical level. But this does not make Him more susceptible, more prone to temptation, more temptable, or ready to give in.
Letís think of the fasting in another way. Granted, in the nature of the case fasting intensifies hunger but it does so in a kind of cyclical way. That is, the one who fasts goes through various stages of hunger as the body adjusts in service to the goal of fasting. The goal here is intimate fellowship with God in prayer. Prayer and fasting are commonly tied together in Scripture and Jesus welcomed solitude as an occasion for prayer. Here we have the solitude of the desert combined with fasting. We have to conclude that prayer was foundational to our Lordís endurance of temptation over the forty days (Mk. 1:13; Lk. 4:2) and to His endurance of temptation in a definitive and climatic way at the end of the forty days (Matt. 4:2).
We can also note that the weakened physical state of our Lord accents His strength. It proves His strength. Here He shows Himself boundlessly strong. A cue for understanding the temptation in this way is given in the parable of the strong man. Jesus asked, "how do you rob a strong man of his goods?" (Matt. 12:29). First, He tells us, you must bind him then you can carry off his possessions. In context of Matthew 12, the strong man represents Satan. The power of Christ over demon possession shows that He has bound Satan and is plundering him of his goods. When did Jesus bind this diabolically strong "man"? Because He began casting out demons early in His public ministry, the binding must have occurred at the very beginning. So it must have occurred at the time of the temptation.
Thus the temptation was not brought upon Christ by the trickery of the moment in which the upper hand belonged to Satan. Instead, the tempting activity of Satan was so governed that it served as an assault on Satanís power and dominion. At the point of greatest physical weakness, Jesus showed Himself stronger than the strong man. If He is this strong in His weakest condition, then how strong must He be? Enduring this trial, Jesus was proven, equipped, and strengthened for the conflict that lies ahead. He won the initial battle. Now He will secure every territory. This account shows us how He goes forth conquering and to conquer.
2A. An overview of the temptation
There are three proposals and we can take them up one at a time. What we find is that Christís work as Messiah and Savior involved a determined and voluntary subjection to the Fatherís will.
1B. First, it is proposed that Christ make stones into bread (Matt. 4:3-4).
The answer given by the Lord no doubt accords with the central thrust of the temptation and it no doubt reflects the main idea of the text of Scripture quoted. It should be clear that there is nothing inherently wrong in changing stones into bread just as there is nothing wrong with changing water into wine. What is proposed is that Christ miraculously supply His need of food and remove His suffering. The need is clear and the suffering is intense; He has fasted forty days while being tempted.
How does Christ respond? He replies that bread is not enough for life. It is not the solution to my present need for there is something that I need more than bread. I need to be nourished according to the will of God.
This is similar to Godís dealing with Israel in the wilderness. He supplied Israel with manna. Otherwise they were without food. He gave them hunger to test them and teach them obedience to His will. They failed miserably and thus were barred entry into the Promised Land.
But Jesus stands strong. He says in effect that by the Spirit I have fasted in fellowship with God. The Spirit drove me here to this place of hunger and temptation at the hand of Satan. It is Godís will that I hunger and that He supply my need. I must live by His will and commandments. The time for nourishment is in His hands to be granted as He wills. Now is the time for fasting, prayer, testing, suffering, and endurance in strict submission to the will of God.
Thus to miraculously create my own bread would be to operate according to my own will. It will not be so, Satan. Man shall live by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God. What Israel was supposed to learn I have learned. I will obey the Father. The Father wills the time of suffering here in this wilderness and here in the wilderness of the world lost outside of Eden. To bring a new Israel back to Eden to the Promised Land, I must suffer in submission under the Fatherís guiding hand.
2B. The second proposal is to "cast yourself down" (vs. 5-7)
The temptation is to test God by an experiment in which it is shown whether or not He can be relied upon. There is no other reason to throw oneself down from some high point of the temple. If a person were to unwittingly stumble over something and fall, that is one thing. But as a wonder working display with no other purpose than a test of God, it would be a bold expression of unbelief. The response of Christ in the quotation of Scripture is to again affirm His submission to the Father, to show His reverential trust. "I trust Him implicitly. There is no need of a test of His faithfulness. There is only need of submission and obedience."
3B. Third, it proposed that Christ worship Satan (vs. 8-11)
Satan makes a promise of kingdom glory: "all this I will give you." There is a bold directness about this proposal for Jesus is the Messiah and He has the promise of kingdom glory. However, His route to glory according to the Fatherís will is over the pathway of humiliation in worship and service to God alone. "I must wait for the Fatherís appointment to glory. I must do so in humble worship and exclusive service." Therefore, he says in effect, "Be gone Satan, I am finished with you for the time being."
The design of the temptation was to show, test, prove, and strengthen Christ in His work as Messiah. How will He save? How will He bring the new Israel from the wilderness into the Promised Land and kingdom glory? He will do so by conquering evil and by binding the evil one. How does He bind the strong man? He does so by a determined, voluntary, and humble subjection of Himself to the Fatherís will. For Him as for us "faith is the victory that overcomes the world."
Implications of His temptation
1B. It reveals the nature of the experience of Jesus as a man
His experience as a man is real. He suffers on earth as the man of sorrows who is acquainted with grief. He did so waiting for the Fatherís appointment to glory. This was His time of suffering. Suffering is not removed by His miracle working power. His experience as a man is suitable. It is fitting that He suffers in order to bring many sons to glory. His suffering was geared to bear the reproaches of His people.
2B. It shows us the golden quality of His character
The temptation causes us to love Him. We love Him because He first loved us. It causes us to understand His mission. He must suffer though equipped for miracle working beyond comprehension. The miracles serve the gospel. The miracle of miracles is His humble suffering in order to relieve our suffering in the gift of eternal life. It causes us to see His patient endurance. He waits in communion with God for Godís kingdom at Godís time. This is also our glory, to walk this way in the present evil age, but to do so with Him, waiting, suffering, for now until the Fatherís time, until His appointed time for our glory.
It causes us to view His joy in suffering. He was out to form a new Israel to bring home to the Promised Land. This was the joy set before Him. You are His joy. His temptation forged the way for the saving of the new Israel.
No doubt the temptation of Christ at the beginning of His public ministry is representative of other temptations that occurred in His life. The writer of Hebrews includes the death of Christ as our high priest within the framework of His temptations (Heb. 2:18). His suffering in temptation is associated with the suffering of death He endured to bring sons and daughters to glory (Heb. 2:10-11). And this involves the formation of a new family, a new seed of Abraham (Heb. 2:16), which is the new Israel that began to be formed through the ministry of John the Baptist (cf. Matt. 4:12).
3B. It calls us to submit to Him in a similar way.
As He subjected Himself to the Father in all things, so we ought to subject ourselves to Him in all things. As we are awed at Him may we appropriately worship, serve, and remember Him.