Grace, mercy and peace be to you from God our Father, and from our Lord Jesus Christ.
Text: (Matthew 4:1-11)
Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil.
Prayer: May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, our Rock and our Redeemer. Amen.
Martin Luther once said: The greatest temptation is having no temptations.
When we are tempted, we join in with Jesus in his temptation, and it is a kind of wonderful privilege. And also, when Jesus was tempted, he also shared in our temptations.
The difference between Jesus’ temptation and our temptation is this: Jesus’ temptation results in his complete and total sinlessness shining through, and his temptation results in his perfect victory.
Our temptations result in our complete and total sinfulness shining through, and our temptation results in our complete failure.
Against the devil, we don’t stand a chance. The devil has been around a lot longer than any of us, and he knows us well, much better than we would like. But the devil is completely unable to harm us Christians. This is not because of our strength but because we have someone who fights for us and always wins the victory: Jesus Christ.
And so, here we are: us on the one hand with all our failures, and our defeats from the devil. And on the other hand, we have Jesus with his success, his victory. And then Jesus does us a swap: he connects us with himself. He baptises us with his Holy Spirit, and we become one body with Christ. We receive his body and blood in the Lord’s Supper week after week.
And what happens? Our failure is Christ’s victory. Jesus goes to the cross, bearing the heavy weight of the cross, being nailed to it. Jesus suffers and dies, and to the human eye, from human wisdom, Jesus looks like a failure. He becomes a failure for us. People go and taunt him as if he were failing: “Let him come down from the cross and we will believe in him.” But in actual fact, Jesus Christ’s death on the cross is his wonderful victory.
On the other hand, Christ gives to us his victory as a gift. When we are at our weakest, when we are crushed, when we are poor, humbled, deflated—it is precisely at those times when Christ says to us: “My grace is sufficient for you. For my power is made perfect in weakness.” He doesn’t say “my power will help in weakness”, but my power is made perfect, perfect, perfect—it is accomplished, it is brought to fulfilment—in your weakness.
But it is precisely at these times of weakness, when the devil then comes along and wants to rub our noses in it. The word “devil” means “accuser”. So he says: “Look at you, you stupid fool. Look at you, you miserable wretch. Look at you, you failure. You’re worthless. You’re useless. You’re pathetic.” At these times, the devil comes along and wants to drop-kick us. The devil comes along to the courtroom, to our trial, and says: This person is not worthy of God, not worthy of Jesus, not worthy of the Holy Spirit. This person is unclean. This person is worthy of death.
And he is right. And so we agree with him, and we think the devil’s got us. He’s got us pinned. He’s got us right where he wants us.
But along comes Jesus, the Lamb of God, our High Priest, our Advocate, with his own blood. On behalf of the miserable, lost and condemned criminal, He comes before the judge and offers his suffering and his death in our place, His perfect achievement and his perfect victory over all our enemies.
What a wonderful thing this is! What a wonderful thing it is to have a friend like this who would come and step in for us like this!
Then God’s holy and living voice comes roaring from his judgment seat saying: Cancel the accusation. Tear it up! That guilty person is acquitted for Jesus’ sake from all guilt and punishment. That person is justified, and totally freely, without price Christ’s righteousness belongs to that person. It is credited to that person.
And this forgiving judgment which happens in heaven, is proclaimed on the earth in the pulpit in preaching, it is spoken at the font at baptism, it is spoken at the altar in the Lord’s Supper, and it is spoken every time a pastor opens his mouth to speak the absolution, publically or in private: I forgive you all your sins in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. This is God’s will being done on earth as it is in heaven.
And this is the reason we sing: Though devils all the world should fill, All eager to devour us, We tremble not, we fear no ill, They shall not overpower us. This world’s prince may still Scowl fierce as he will, He can harm us none; He’s judged, for e’er undone; One little word can fell him.
What a wonderful Saviour we have: A high priest who is not unable to sympathise with us in our weakness, but one who is every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin.
So in our Gospel reading today, we don’t have a reading about Christians being tempted, but Christ himself being tempted by the devil. And Jesus Christ himself wins the victory. And that victory then is the victory of every Christian for the rest of time. When we are tempted, it is not the time for us to fight, but it is the time to call in the champion, our Saviour Jesus Christ. He knows how to fight for us, and the victory belongs to him. As St Paul says in 1 Corinthians 15: Thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.
Now, our reading today is full of supernatural things and profound mysteries that belong to the spiritual life. It is a strange reading, because there was no one else around to see the event. Jesus was by himself, all alone. It says that he was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness. And in the same way, St Peter in his second letter, says that the holy men of God who wrote the Scriptures, such as St Matthew here—or Mark or Luke who wrote the event in their gospels—were carried along by the same Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit led Jesus into the wilderness, and also the same Holy Spirit carried along the evangelists and apostles as they spoke and wrote the gospels.
So let’s make a list of these supernatural realities that St Matthew describes: first of all, we have the Holy Spirit. Then we have the devil. We have the miracle where Jesus fasts for forty days and forty nights. We have Jesus being called the Son of God. We have the devil taking Jesus to the holy city and setting him on the pinnacle of the temple—this is quite strange: the devil pushing Jesus around in his time of weakness. We have the devil also taking Jesus to a very high mountain: once again, very strange. And at the end of the reading, we have angels. It says, the angels came and were ministering to him.
If we really look at this passage, we can see that there are many things here that we can so easily blink and miss, and so many things that are offensive to a sceptic.
But all of these things are there in their own place, and in a very distinctive place.
The main business has to do with Jesus himself and the devil.
But there’s the Holy Spirit too, quietly in the background. We read: Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. In Mark, it says the Holy Spirit, drove Jesus out into the wilderness. Also, this is the first event after Jesus’ baptism. The Holy Spirit comes down on Jesus in the form of a dove, and then that same Spirit drives Jesus out into this lonely place. The Holy Spirit sets up the situation, and the opportunity for Jesus to meet the devil.
Now look at how Jesus faces the devil—how simple it is. Later on, when Jesus is arrested, and Peter cuts off a man’s ear, he says: Put your sword back into its place. For all who take the sword will perish by the sword. Do you think that I cannot appeal to my Father, and he will at once send me more than twelve legions of angels?
Now, here, at this time, we might think that this is a good time for Jesus to call on the twelve legions of angels. But he doesn’t. Instead, Jesus tells the angels to stay right out of it. Only after the devil leaves Jesus—at the end of our reading, we read—behold, angels came and were ministering to him.
At the end of John 1, Jesus says: Truly, truly, I say to you, you will see heaven opened and the angels ascending and descending on the Son of Man. The only time we see the angels actually doing this in the Gospels is in the times of his profound suffering, when he is being tempted by the devil, and when he is praying in the Garden of Gethsemane. (This fact should also be a great comfort to us!)
But now, we come to the actual temptation itself, when the devil throws his arrows at Jesus, and Jesus stands his ground. But notice here, that there’s no great wrestling match between Jesus and Satan. Jesus and Satan are not equals, so there is no ongoing struggle.
In fact, just imagine that this whole business were a silent movie and we were watching it. Who would look like the strong one, and who would look like the weak one?
Jesus is hungry, he is weak. The next moment, he is taken by the scruff of the neck and finds himself looking down metres and metres down to the ground from the top of the temple. The next moment, Jesus is whisked up to some high mountain and promised all the kingdoms of the world.
Jesus looks like the weak one. But in actual fact, what happens is that at the end, the devil leaves him.
Now, let’s imagine the whole scenario not as if it were a silent movie, but a talkie! A normal modern movie with sound! Now, this helps us to see where Jesus power lies: in his words.
The devil wants Jesus to prove that he is the Son of God, by turning stones into bread. The devil wants Jesus to prove that he is the Son of God, by putting himself in a dangerous situation and making the angels come and rescue him. And in the last temptation, the devil tempts Jesus to submit to him and worship him, in exchange for all the kingdoms of the world.
Each of these temptations is an attack on Jesus’ authority. And spiritual warfare has to do with nothing but authority. We are under Jesus’ authority, and this is where our victory comes from too.
In Luke 10, after Jesus sends out his seventy-two disciples, they come back and say: ‘Lord, even the demons are subject to us in your name!’ And he said to them, ‘I saw Satan fall like lightening from heaven. Behold, I have given you authority to tread on serpents and scorpions, and over all the power of the enemy, and nothing shall hurt you. Nevertheless, do not rejoice in this, that the spirits are subject to you, but rejoice that your names are written in heaven.”
But back to our reading for today… in each of these temptations, the devil attacks Jesus’ authority, and in each situation, Jesus defeats the devil with the greatest weapon of all: his word. Jesus says: It is written, ‘Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.’ He says: Again it is written, “You shall not put the Lord your God to the test.” And finally he says: Be gone, Satan! For it is written, ‘You shall worship the Lord your God and him only shall you serve.’
Jesus is the Son of God, but he is also the Word of God. In each case, Jesus quotes the bible—in fact, all the three passages that Jesus quotes are from Deuteronomy. The devil knows the bible too, and he also tries to use it against Jesus. But the devil wants Jesus to break the commandments of God.
The devil is right: the angels probably would bear him up and not let his foot strike against a stone. But the devil is wrong, when he asks Jesus to throw himself down.
And so here we see the victory, which Jesus wins purely through his word. Jesus is the Word become flesh, and he stands against the devil, and speaks this word against him, and wins.
With us, we win the victory with Christ only through his word. Apart from Jesus’ word, we have absolutely no authority whatsoever. You don't have the Holy Spirit, you don't have the angels, you don't have Jesus, you don't even have God, if you don't have God's word. Parents, children, pastors, hearers, church presidents and bishops, governments, leaders, citizens—no-one has any authority at all except God’s word. The devil will always want to convince parents, pastors, bishops, governments that they can do whatever they like because they are who they are. But Christ rules through his word, and the victory over the devil is won when the word of God is taught in its truth and purity, and we as the children of God lead holy lives according to it. Help us to do this, dear Father in heaven!
If we want to fight against the devil, we will always lose. He can’t be defeated by sinners like us! He can only defeated by Jesus Christ, and even he himself defeats the devil not even with physical strength, but in his time of great weakness simply through the speaking of his word.
So let us also live by every word that comes from the mouth of God. Be of good cheer! Your sins are forgiven you! Thanks be to God who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ!
Our Father in heaven, lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.