This year during the Lenten season we will be looking at some key moments in the life of Jesus leading up to the cross. This week we look at a familiar story which comes to us courtesy of Matthew’s Gospel:
Then Jesus was led by the Spirit into the desert to be tempted by the devil. After fasting forty days and forty nights, he was hungry. The tempter came to him and said, “If you are the Son of God, tell these stones to become bread.”
Jesus answered, “It is written: ‘Man does not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.’ ”
Then the devil took him to the holy city and had him stand on the highest point of the temple. “If you are the Son of God,” he said, “throw yourself down. For it is written:
” ‘He will command his angels concerning you,
and they will lift you up on their hands,
so that you will not strike your foot
against a stone.’ ”
Jesus answered him: “It is also written: ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’ ”
Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor. “All this I will give to you,” he said, “if you will bow down and worship me.”
Jesus said to him, “Away from me, Satan! For it is written: ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve him only.’ ”
Then the devil left him, and angels came and attended him.
Forty days and forty nights Jesus fasted in the wilderness. This is where the forty days of Lent comes from.
By passing through the Jordan at his baptism and then heading out into the wilderness, Jesus recapitulated Israel’s journey through the wilderness and into the Promised Land, but in reverse. The forty days Jesus spent in the wilderness parallel the forty years Israel spent there.
Now at this point an interesting question surfaces. Why did Matthew choose to include this episode in his Gospel account? Why did Mark and Luke include it in theirs (they tell the same story but slightly differently)? You see, not a whole lot was written down in ancient times. Papyrus wasn’t cheap, and few people knew how to read. So if Matthew, Mark, and Luke wanted to go to all the trouble to include this, there must have been a very compelling reason. And here it is: Each of these temptations was, for Jesus, a temptation to opt for the world’s way of doing things, the way of power and of me-first, the way that ran contrary to everything Jesus was and everything He was all about. This struggle would be a recurring theme throughout Jesus’ ministry, right up to the very end when He went to the cross.
So Jesus fasted forty days and forty nights, and then the devil came to him when he was at his weakest. His first temptation was to turn stones into bread. It was as if the devil was saying, “Come on, Jesus. I’ve read your book. I know who you are and what you’re all about. You can do this. Who’s going to miss a few stones from out here in this godforsaken country where it’s nothing BUT stones?”
Any worldly king would have killed for that kind of power. And if they had it, they almost certainly would have used it to transform stones into bread–to “transubstantiate” stones into bread–in that moment. But Jesus didn’t bite. Instead he answered the devil as one under the old covenant: “Man does not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.” This was an allusion to Israel’s time in the wilderness when God provided bread for them on every day of the journey. Jesus refused to use his power to meet his own needs. He came not to be served, but to give his life as a ransom for many.
Next they go to the temple. How did they get there? They walked, in all probability. Meaning that Jesus and evil personified–they spent some time together. They went to the highest point of the temple. Now this was not some spire on top of the temple building, as you might imagine. It was the southeast corner of the temple courtyard. You look down from here, and it is a sheer dropoff of hundreds of feet into the valley below. Had Jesus thrown himself down into that ravine, as the devil had asked him to, and emerged unscathed–it would have had a tremendous effect.
The devil even quoted some Scripture at him. Two could play at that game. The modern version of this is all over the place in evangelicalism: Just believe, just have faith, just quote a verse–and God will come through for you. He has to.
Jesus answered by quoting Scripture: “Do not put the Lord your God to the test.” These same words were spoken by Moses to the Israelite nation, at a point when they felt themselves entitled to certain things by virtue of their status as God’s chosen people. You don’t understand, he said. It doesn’t work that way.
If you think that by doing such-and-such things, you can get God to respond in the desired way–that isn’t Christianity. That’s magic. That’s religion that plays right into the world’s way of doing things–the way that Jesus came to turn upside down.
So now we come to the third temptation. The first two were merely warmup acts, in which Jesus and the devil were getting to know each other. This temptation was the main event.
They went up to a high mountain. How did they get there? They walked. They spent time together. Likely they went atop one of the mountains north of Jerusalem. They went at night. They saw the whole city lit up at night, in all of its splendor. About sixteen miles away was Jericho, likewise lit up at night in all of its splendor. This was the epicenter of the presence of God in the lives of the Jewish people. It is as if the devil was saying, “Feast your eyes on this, because I know this is why you’re here. I can give you all this. All you have to do is bow down. Not for all time, just for a moment. Just acknowledge that it is mine to give.”
But that is not what Jesus came for. He did not come to barter for a kingdom, but to establish a kingdom. This would be a kingdom of conscience, established in the hearts and minds of his followers. A kingdom where power and influence were not exercised for the exclusive benefit of the powerful and influential. A kingdom where the subjects were not at the whim of the rulers. A kingdom where the subjects were not required to lay down their lives for the king, but the other way around. A kingdom like none that had existed previously.
So then the devil left him. Luke tells us that the devil left to wait for an opportune time. In other words, he wasn’t finished. This was just round one. All of these temptations would be recurring themes throughout Jesus’ ministry, and they would be present right up to the very end, when he went to the cross.
Jesus was tempted in ways that we all are tempted, yet he refused. Why? Because he came not to take over, but to take away the sin of the world. Even he came not to be served, but to give his life as a ransom for many.