We will soon be entering the season of Lent, that 40 day period leading up to Easter. Lent commemorates the 40 days that Jesus spends in the wilderness in prayer and fasting, prior to the start of His public ministry. At the end of that period of time, Christ faces a series of temptations from the devil, as recounted in Matthew 4:1-11. Now for some of us, the idea of Lent might primarily be associated with the practice of giving something up in order to better identify spiritually with the sacrifices Christ has made on our behalf. But Lent isn’t just about what we give up, but it’s also about what we’re actually doing to prepare for Easter, and the celebration of the Risen Lord. And the concept of voluntarily undergoing a rigorous and disciplined period of preparation is certainly not unique just to the spiritual realm. We’ve all probably faced different times of preparation in our lives. If any of you have played sports you might have had to go through a training camp of some sort before the actual season started.
Few training campus have ever compared to the one held by legendary coach Paul Bear Bryant for his Texas A&M football squad in 1954. This was Bryant’s first year in College Station, and he wanted to set the tone for the kind of rough-and-tumble football he expected his players to deliver. So he decided to take the players out to a forsaken little town in west-central Texas called Junction. And there Bryant put his team through ten days of sheer torture. They practiced on a hard, rocky surface in outdoor temperatures that surpassed 110 degrees. No water was allowed on the field. Scores of players were injured or suffered heat stroke. Bryant ignored their complaints and told them to keep practicing. As the days passed many simply quit. As one of the players, Gene Stallings, memorably phrased it later, “We went out there in two buses, and came back in one.” Now you probably couldn’t get away with some of those rather brutal methods today—yet the overall principle still remains. Football teams practice hard to get ready for the season. And that’s just for a game. But what about in our spiritual lives? Lent ultimately should be viewed not just as a time of preparation before Easter—but also as a preparation for this journey called life that we all must travel, through a broken, sin-filled world. And in this passage from Matthew, Satan tries to lure Christ into turning away from His difficult and demanding mission, to chase after false hopes and false gods. Jesus stays strong in the Spirit however, even when He is at a low point of physical weakness, by remaining rooted in the anchoring truth of Scripture—and we can do so too! I’ve entitled this post “A spiritual duel in the desert”, because as we study these verses, I want you to see the urgency, and immediacy of Christ’s confrontation with Satan. Jesus’ temptations are not to be viewed as some sort of remote cosmic struggle, but indeed as a direct parallel to the spiritual challenges that we as Christians must face every day. And even though it might not be fashionable to say it in some churches now—Matthew 4 teaches us that Satan is indeed real. His power is considerable and he is strongest in fact, when we completely discount him. Now let’s turn to God’s Word and discover how we can better resist evil, and better imitate the actions of our Lord.
“Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. 2 And when He had fasted forty days and forty nights, afterward He was hungry. 3 Now when the tempter came to Him, he said, “If You are the Son of God, command that these stones become bread.” 4 But He answered and said, “It is written, ‘Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God.’ ” 5 Then the devil took Him up into the holy city, set Him on the pinnacle of the temple, 6 and said to Him, “If You are the Son of God, throw Yourself down. For it is written: ‘He shall give His angels charge over you,’ and, ‘In their hands they shall bear you up, Lest you dash your foot against a stone.’ ” 7 Jesus said to him, “It is written again, ‘You shall not tempt the Lord your God.’ ” 8 Again, the devil took Him up on an exceedingly high mountain, and showed Him all the kingdoms of the world and their glory. 9 And he said to Him, “All these things I will give You if You will fall down and worship me.” 10 Then Jesus said to him, [b]“Away with you, Satan! For it is written, ‘You shall worship the Lord your God, and Him only you shall serve.’ ” 11 Then the devil left Him, and behold, angels came and ministered to Him.”
So how did Jesus even end up in the wilderness? Matthew says He was “led by the Spirit to be tempted by the devil.” Breaking that down a bit—what do we learn? Well, we know from James 1:13 that God Himself never tempts anyone. So clearly the devil is the source of the temptation, and yet Christ is led by the Spirit to the very place where He must unavoidably face this temptation. The Spirit’s involvement here tells us that God is very much with us, even in times of temptation, and that He may even see a spiritual value in us having to go through such experiences. We also know from elsewhere in Scripture that there’s no such thing as a temptation that cannot be overcome. Paul reminds us of this in 1 Corinthians 10:13—“No temptation has overtaken you except such as is common to man; but God is faithful, who will not allow you to be tempted beyond what you are able, but with temptation will also make the way of escape, that you may be able to bear it.” Nonetheless, Jesus is about to face some pretty intense temptations, as part of His “duel in the desert”, each one an example of how Satan attempts to strike us at our weak points. Of course with Jesus having fasted for 40 days and nights, the obvious first weak point to probe would be a physical weakness. He’s starving, quite literally, and Satan tries to use this against Him, telling Christ to turn the stones around Him into bread. Note the mockery in the devil’s tone as he speaks to Jesus in verse 3— “If You are the Son of God, command this stone to become bread.” If…this word reminds me of the questioning, almost mocking tone of the serpent back in Genesis 3, or how the crowd will address Jesus during His crucifixion. Matthew 27:42… “If He is the King of Israel, let Him now come down from the cross, and we will believe Him” Jesus however will not be diverted from His mission, and from His purpose. Turning stones into bread–this is a temptation to prioritize physical needs above spiritual ones. It’s perfectly natural for Jesus to be famished by this point, and desire food. But Satan wants to pervert that good and natural desire and turn it into something else. So he tempts Jesus to seek the right thing—but by the wrong way: to misuse His Divine authority to perform a miracle for solely personal gain.
We see a lot of examples even today of people seeking good results, through less than good methods. I’m sure you’re familiar with Lance Armstrong. His was one of the most inspiring stories in sports history. A man who had been virtually handed a death sentence from cancer in 1996, he recovered to win cycling’s most prestigious event, the Tour de France, a record seven consecutive times between 1999 and 2005. In 1997 he also started the Livestrong Foundation, which has raised millions of dollars for cancer treatment and research to date. Competing at the highest level in athletics, beating a deadly disease, doing extensive charitable work, and inspiring so many people—these were all wonderful aims that Lance Armstrong pursued. Yet the problem lay in the way he accomplished these goals. For after years of rumors, in January 2013, Armstrong, in an interview with Oprah Winfrey, confirmed our worst fears. He had been cheating all along—taking steroids, engaging in blood doping, using a host of banned substances to achieve better performance. He got the right results….but he sacrificed so many ideals and values to get them. But Jesus—with all of the miracles that He performs, all of his wondrous deeds—He never does anything for His own personal gain or benefit. So He rebukes Satan—turning to Scripture to quote from Deuteronomy 8:3.
The Devil won’t give up so easily though, and he tries a different tactic—look at verses 5-7. He tries to get Jesus to test God’s power and authority by throwing Himself down from a cliff, to bring about a Divine rescue. Once again there is that mocking, cynical tone…“If you are the Son of God”… Satan is even more clever here though because after hearing Jesus use Scripture, he too decides to quote from the Bible–from the Psalms specifically. He does this to further disguise himself, and to trick the unwary. He is, after all, the father of lies, as John 8:44 tells us. Here, Satan takes Christ’s desire to be a humble Servant of God, and tries to reverse it—so that Jesus is now the one being served. A story was once told of a king in antiquity who was looking for a new chariot driver. And to test the candidates, he brought them all up to a mountainous road with a sharp bend, and a very steep drop-off on one side. Then he asked each candidate to demonstrate their driving skills, by showing how close they could take the chariot to the precipice. The first driver raced through, and proudly demonstrated that he could bring his chariot to within 6 inches of the cliff, and still maintain control. The next driver, improved on that, taking his chariot a mere three inches from the edge. But then the last driver came up, and before he even got into the chariot, he looked at the king and said if “I were driving you, I would make sure that we went no-where near that cliff!” Two men just wanted to show off their abilities, but the last man wanted to ensure the king’s safety at all costs. Jesus’ desire to do God’s Will is always going to be greater than any need to showcase His own power, and so Christ rejects Satan’s temptation. Interestingly, the Greek word used in verse 7 is “ekpeiraseis”, (ἐκπειράσεις) and it’s a relatively obscure one, featured only a few times in the New Testament. It means to attempt to seek proof of God’s character and power—to put Him to the test, as some other translations read. Christ steadfastly refuses to do this, and instead maintains His humble commitment to do the Father’s will—quoting again from Scripture–this time from Deuteronomy 6:16.
Lastly, let’s look briefly at Matthew 4:8-11. The devil is nothing if not resilient, and so he tries to spring one last trap for the Son of God. Now he tempts Jesus to seek worldly power. This is the desire in fact of many who surround Christ. When they discover the following that this charismatic preacher has, and even better when they hear of His miraculous deeds, the first thought in many a mind is—if we can only harness this power for political ends. John 6:15 tells us in fact of an incident right after the feeding of the 5000, where some people are trying to come and force Christ to become a King. This is an aim thats reek of ambition, and of pride—which is of course the root of all sin. And ambition, earthly power, pride—these are all in Satan’s domain—they are his gifts to bestow. John 12:31 spells it out plainly—Satan is the ruler of this world–not permanently of course—but for a temporary period. The thing about those worldly aims and ambitions is that they can never truly satisfy us, because they’re so temporary, and fleeting—for us who have been made in God’s image, created for the eternal.
I’m reminded of a great quote at the end of the 1970 movie Patton, a film which tells the story of General George S. Patton, one of the legendary American generals of World War Two. As the film concludes, Patton, a student of history, is reflecting on the ancient Roman Empire, and he shares these words: “For over a thousand years, Roman conquerors returning from the wars enjoyed the honor of a triumph – a tumultuous parade. In the procession came trumpeters and musicians…and carts laden with treasure… The conqueror rode in a triumphal chariot, the dazed prisoners walking in chains before him. Sometimes his children, robed in white, stood with him in the chariot…A slave stood behind the conqueror, holding a golden crown, and whispering in his ear a warning: That all glory is fleeting.” Well Patton’s own triumphs would indeed be fleeting, as died in a car accident in December 1945, not long after the end of World War Two. Glory is fleeting. And of course this devil’s offer of glory would come at a terrible price. In verse 9, we find the Greek verb “proskyneses”, (προσκυνήσῃς) which means to “fall down in reverence before someone.” It’s also the same verb that is used to describe how we pay honor to God, by worshipping Him. So the devil is quite literally asking Jesus to render to him the kind of devotion that belongs to God alone. Jesus rejects Satan’s blasphemous offer of worldly power and prestige, again by quoting from the Word of God. We are reminded that nothing the world can offer is worth what God can give us, and nothing worldly is worth endangering our souls for. As Jesus says in Matthew 16:26: “For what profit is it to a man if he gains the whole world, and loses his own soul? Or what will a man give in exchange for his soul?”
So what can we learn from Jesus’ spiritual duel in the desert? We certainly see the importance of spiritual discernment. As 1 Peter 5:8 warns us in frank terms: “Be sober, be vigilant, because your adversary the devil walks about like a roaring lion, seeking whom he may devour.” We know that we’re going to face temptation in the world out there, just as Jesus did, but in order to prepare ourselves spiritually for those moments, we first have to be able to recognize when they’re coming. Some of you may remember that quirky and somewhat creepy old television series The Twilight Zone. One episode, called “The Howling Man” featured an American traveler named David Ellington, who while journeying late one evening, stops to spend the night in a monastery somewhere in Europe. Deep in the night, he awakes to hear a man screaming, literally howling. He eventually finds the source of the noise– it is a bedraggled, yet highly cultured and intelligent man who is allegedly being kept prisoner there in the monastery. The man is very persuasive and he begs David to release him, assuring him that all of the other monks are insane, religious fanatics. One of the monks later tells David to stay away from the cell at all costs, because the man imprisoned there is in fact the Devil himself. But David doesn’t believe the monk and after waiting for the opportune moment, he goes to release the prisoner. Curiously he notices that the staff which bars the door is easily within reach of the prisoner himself. But the howling man insists that he cannot be freed unless David removes the staff. So he does, and the prisoner exits. And as the freed prisoner walks towards the castle door, his appearance changes with every step, until he has assumed horns and a tail, and then suddenly vanishes in a plume of smoke. After discovering what has happened, the monk then sadly tells David that an inability to recognize the Devil has always been mankind’s great weakness. We can fall for a temptation, and become enmeshed in sin—all without realizing that the devil is at work, and without realizing that he can only work where we allow him to. But the good news is that we know God is with us, even in the midst of our spiritual trials. And just as Jesus did, we can safeguard ourselves spiritually by staying closely connected to the secure guidance of the Bible. As Psalm 119:105 says “Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path.” Lastly, the story of Jesus’ temptation in the desert, which of course ends with Christ’s complete victory, should serve as a powerful reminder to His followers that we’re already on the winning team! We will have our struggles this side of heaven, but the final victory of God, and all those love Him in faith is assured. And if you have any additional doubts, just read the Book of Revelation some time, and see how it concludes! So this Lenten season, take some time to reflect not just on giving something up, but on actively engaging in spiritual preparation. We know that challenges, and temptations will come for all of us. But we also know that we serve a good God, both merciful, and powerful. And as that long ago desert duel showed us, no power of evil can ultimately vanquish us when we have the Word of God in our hands, and the One who is the Word made flesh, Jesus Christ, by our sides! Thanks be to God!