We are now in the season of Lent–the 40 day period prior to Easter. Lent directly commemorates the time which Jesus spent fasting in the wilderness, a season of disciplined spiritual preparation for His public ministry, which culminated in Him facing the Devil’s temptations. We will examine this story of Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness from Luke 4:1-13 in more detail in just a minute. But first, I want to think about what it means to go through a period of intense preparation and discipline in pursuit of a greater overall goal.
No doubt, most of us have faced such 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. I played high school football and we suffered through what were known as “two-a-days”. Every morning and every afternoon we trudged out into the hot Alabama sun—in early August, to practice and prepare for the upcoming football season. It was tough no doubt,—but what I experienced was an absolute picnic in comparison to the training camp held by 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 field in outdoor temperatures that surpassed 110 degrees. No water was allowed. Scores of players were injured or suffered heat stroke. Bryant ignored their complaints and told them to keep practicing. As the days past many simply quit. As one of the players, Gene Stallings, memorably phrased it, “We went out there in two buses, and came back in one.” But Bryant’s harsh methods of discipline and preparation eventually did pay off. By his third year at Texas A&M, in 1956, the Aggies were conference champions. And of course he went on to win 14 SEC titles and six national titles during his lengthy tenure as head coach at the University of Alabama from 1958-1982. While the players changed over the years, and even the styles and strategies of offense and defense, Bryant’s hard-nosed approach to disciplined preparation for each football season never wavered throughout his career. The athletics world is just one example then of an arena in which people are willing to subject themselves to discipline in the hopes of being able to gain a reward. Paul discusses this fact in 1 Corinthians 9:24-25, contrasting the fleeting glory that can be won in sports to the eternal spiritual rewards that Christ followers can receive. “Do you not know that those who run in a race all run, but one receives the prize? Run in such a way that you may obtain it. And everyone who competes for the prize is temperate in all things. Now they do it to obtain a perishable crown, but we for an imperishable crown.”
Well as we study Jesus’ time in the wilderness, we see Him denying Himself, engaging in prayer and fasting, and then tangling with the wiles of the devil–a spiritual conflict with the highest possible stakes. We start to understand how crucial this period is in terms of preparation for everything that will come after. Jesus will face many obstacles and challenges in His ministerial career, and here in the bleak surroundings of the desert, He forges the spiritual discipline and an utter reliance on God which will enable Him to successfully be a perfect witness for the Kingdom of God, and ultimately, the Savior for all humanity. So as we commemorate this time of Lent, we recognize that it is a period for spiritual reflection, and repentance, in preparation for the joyous celebration of Christ’s Resurrection which will soon come. So during Lent we try to focus on what’s important—what’s truly central in our spiritual lives. So often, we fall into temptation precisely because we don’t have our priorities straight—and we start to seek after things which can never truly satisfy or fulfill us. They are false hopes, and false idols. And in this passage from Luke, Satan tries to lure Christ into turning away from His difficult and demanding mission, to chase after some of these false lures. Jesus stays strong in the Spirit however, even when He is at a low point of physical weakness. He remains rooted in the anchoring truth of Scripture.
So as we study these verses, I think it’s important not to view Christ’s temptations 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. Because even though it might not be fashionable to say it in some churches now—Luke 4 teaches us that Satan is indeed real. His power is considerable and he is the temporary prince of this world. And he is strongest in fact, when we completely discount him. Satan likes nothing better than for people to say, “the Devil—he’s just a fairy tale—he’s not real.” What a lie!—for this world is plagued by evil and by sin—it is a fallen place. And the sobering truth is that we all have shared personally in some of that sin. So let’s turn to God’s Word, and the story of Christ’s temptation from Luke’s Gospel to discover how we can better resist evil, and better imitate the actions of our Lord.
Luke 4:1-13–“Then Jesus, being filled with the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit into the wilderness, 2 being tempted for forty days by the devil. And in those days He ate nothing, and afterward, when they had ended, He was hungry. 3 And the devil said to Him, “If You are the Son of God, command this stone to become bread.” 4 But Jesus answered him, saying, “It is written, ‘Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word of God.’” 5 Then the devil, taking Him up on a high mountain, showed Him all the kingdoms of the world in a moment of time. 6 And the devil said to Him, “All this authority I will give You, and their glory; for this has been delivered to me, and I give it to whomever I wish. 7 Therefore, if You will worship before me, all will be Yours.”8 And Jesus answered and said to him, “Get behind Me, Satan! For it is written, ‘You shall worship the Lord your God, and Him only you shall serve.’ 9 Then he brought Him to Jerusalem, set Him on the pinnacle of the temple, and said to Him, “If You are the Son of God, throw Yourself down from here. 10 For it is written: ‘He shall give His angels charge over you, To keep you,’ 11 and, ‘In their hands they shall bear you up, Lest you dash your foot against a stone.’ 12 And Jesus answered and said to him, “It has been said, ‘You shall not tempt the Lord your God.’ 13 Now when the devil had ended every temptation, he departed from Him until an opportune time.”
As we mentioned earlier, Jesus is at a physical low point when He comes face to face with the tempter. He has fasted for 40 days. He is weak, sunburned, and blistered by the desert heat and wind. He is lonely and no doubt longing to return to familiar surroundings, to friends and family. And yet He has been guided here, after His baptism, by the promptings of the Holy Spirit. He is listening to God’s voice, and following it with perfect obedience as He always does. And this, not surprisingly, is the point at which Satan chooses to attack Him. The Devil doesn’t often bother going after us when we’re living sinfully, when we’re in effect, living his way. But when we try to live right, when we seek after God and His righteousness, then we can expect temptation and trouble to follow after us. Yet we find here that Jesus, in a moment of supposed weakness, is actually stronger than ever. Note the mockery in Satan’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 how the crowd will address Jesus during His crucifixion. Matthew 27: 40-3… “If He is the King of Israel, let Him now come down from the cross, and we will believe Him” The questioning word “if”, embodies the voice of the tempting skeptic, and the cynic. In both cases though, Jesus will not be diverted from His mission. What exactly is the nature of this first temptation? Satan knows Jesus is hungry, and he simply tells him to turn the stones into bread. Simple enough, right? But 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, which is how the Devil always works. 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. Lance Armstrong was once 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. 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, blood doping, using a host of banned substances to achieve better performance. He got the right results….but he sacrificed all of his ideals and values to get them. Now Jesus—with all of the miracles that He performs, all of his wondrous deeds—never does anything for His own personal gain or benefit. The miracles are always for the glory of God, and as signs for those who would follow after. As John 20:30-1 says “Truly Jesus did many other signs in the presence of His disciples …these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing you may have life in His name.” No miracles for personal gain—and so Jesus rebukes Satan—turning to Scripture to quote from Deuteronomy 8:3.
The Devil is nothing if not resilient however, and so he tries to spring another trap for the Son of God. Now he tempts Jesus to seek worldly power in verses 5-6. Seeking after worldly power, is in fact 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. Many Jews want Jesus to overthrow the hated Roman rule—to be an earthly king, a general, a man of power. But these are aims that 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. And so these kingdoms belong to him—as do other worldly things. This raises then the question—what part of the world is standing between you and God? The thing about world aims and ambitions is that they cannot satisfy us. The main reason they can’t is because they’re so temporary, so fleeting—for us who have been made in God’s image, created in fact, for the eternal.
I’m reminded of a great quote at the end of the movie Patton, a film which tells the story of General George S. Patton, one of the great American military leaders of World War Two. Patton is a student of history, and as he thinks back over his many conquests and honors, another thought intrudes. He reflects on the ancient Roman Empire. And the movie ends with Patton repeating these lines… 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 strange animals from the conquered territories, together with carts laden with treasure and captured armaments. 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, or rode the trace horses. 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, and short-lived. He died in a car accident in December 1945, not long after the end of World War Two. Glory is fleeting.
Consider the epitaph on the tomb of Henry II. He was an English king during the Middle Ages who fought many wars during his long reign from 1154 to 1189, expanding the territories of the crown into Wales and France. But in death at least, his ambition was checked. His epitaph reads….”I was Henry the King. To me diverse realms were subject, I was duke and count of many provinces. Eight feet of ground is now enough for me, whom many kingdoms failed to satisfy. Who reads these lines, let him reflect, upon the narrowness of death. And in my case behold, the image of our mortal lot. This scanty tomb doth now suffice, For whom the Earth was not enough.” Jesus rejects Satan’s 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?”
The Devil won’t give up easily though, and he tries one more tactic—look at verses 9-11. He tries to get Jesus to test God’s power and authority by throwing Himself down from a cliff. Once again there is that mocking, cynical tone…”If you are the Son of God…why then surely you can do this.” 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. The Devil can quote Scripture, and he can twist it around to suit his own wicked purposes. 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. But so often we still fail to recognize Satan when he comes to tempt us. There’s a great old episode of the TV series The Twilight Zone—perhaps some of your remember this show from back in the days of black-and-white television. It always dealt with interesting and unusual topics. One episode, called “The Howling Man” featured an American traveler named David Ellington, who while on the road late one evening, stops to stay 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 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 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. Satan is always capitalizing on our inability to recognize him. We become immersed in sin—without realizing that he is at work, and without realizing that he can only work where we allow him to. Jesus however sees through Satan’s attempts to appropriate the Word of God, and with a final citation from Deuteronomy 6:16 he banishes the Devil. But note verse 13….”Now when the devil had ended every temptation, he departed from Him until an opportune time” As we said, Satan is nothing if not persistent. This is why 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.”
So what do we ultimately learn from Christ’s encounters with the Devil? How is Jesus able to resist Satan on three successive occasions, even when He is weak from hunger and fatigue? He turns to Scripture. By staying rooted in the Word of God, Jesus is able to ensure that no trick or strategy of Satan can distract Him from His true mission. During this time of preparation in the wilderness Jesus triumphs in a way that demonstrates not only His Divine authority but His humanity. You see Christ faces temptations just like all of us do—and He demonstrates to us how they can be defeated. Remember Paul’s words 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 the temptation will also make the way of escape, that you may be able to bear it.” We can defeat evil, we can overcome. Remember Satan, like Jesus would be a “fisher of men.” So stay rooted in the Word, remain spiritually disciplined, and with the power of the Holy Spirit Satan can be defeated. As James 4:7 eloquently states, “Therefore submit to God. Resist the devil and he will flee from you. Draw near to God and He will draw near to you” Amen!!