TEMPTED, TRIED and TESTED (Matt. 4:1-11)
Bible verse at end...
When the Union Pacific Railroad was being built across the American West, the chief engineer designed an elaborate trestle bridge to cross a large canyon in the Rocky Mountains. Then he loaded a train with double its normal payload and had it driven onto the bridge and left there for a day. His assistant got worried and asked him if he was trying to break the bridge? ‘No,’ he replied. ‘I'm trying to prove that the bridge won’t break.’.
Similarly, Jesus, before he set out on his life ministry, spent forty days in the desert and was subjected to all sorts of temptation. Now the word we translate tempt also means test. The temptations Jesus endured were primarily tests whose purpose was not to see if he would fail, but to prove that he wouldn’t. And because of this, with his help the same will be true of us when we are put to the test.
The Bible says that it wasn’t by chance that Jesus ended up being tested in the wilderness but that he was deliberately led there by God’s Spirit (which reminds us that times of testing are part of God’s will for us). The Jews called this region ‘the Devastation’ because of its emptiness and furnace like heat. Jesus spent forty days there, preparing himself - body, soul and spirit - for what lay ahead.
It’s important to note that this happened immediately after one of the high moments of his life – his baptism - when the Holy Spirit had come upon him and he’d heard the voice of God say, “You are my son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.” One of the facts of life is that we are particularly susceptible to temptation and testing following times of elation, because our defences are down.
It reminds me of that intriguing story from the life of Elijah – the greatest of the Old Testament prophets. He ministered at one of the lowest points in Israel’s history. Ahab was the King, of whom the Bible says: “he did more evil in the eyes of the Lord than any of those before him.” He was married to Jezebel, a foreign princess who introduced Israel to the worship of the idol called Baal.
Elijah was one of the few brave enough to oppose them and eventually provoked a confrontation between himself and 400 priests of Baal on Mount Carmel, which resulted in the people of Israel turning back to God. It was Elijah’s greatest moment. But then he heard that Jezebel was out to get him and he fled into the desert. Why having confronted Jezebel’s powerful husband, he should now go to pieces because of her , seems a mystery.
However, we now know that following times of great success, when we’ve been living on adrenaline, we become emotionally depleted and susceptible to depression. The remedy is food, rest and recreation, which is exactly what God provided for Elijah. But if we neglect that and try to keep on surging forward, we leave ourselves open to emotional and spiritual depression. It’s when we are feeling good about ourselves that we most need to be on guard, which is why the Bible says; “let him that thinks he stands take heed lest he fall.”
I said that the word tempt also means test. The three temptations that came to Jesus were essentially tests to see if he could be diverted from doing what he’d been called by God to do by choosing to take easier and more attractive ways of doing it.
The first was to use his power to make bread. Now, you are probably asking what’s so wrong about that? There’s nothing wrong with satisfying hunger when you are famished. But clearly, Jesus was aware of something more insidious in this.
William Barclay reckons this was a double temptation. Firstly, it was a temptation to use his powers selfishly and for his own benefit – something Jesus always refused to do.
The second was to show the world that he had the power to provide bread whenever he wanted, and by exercising this power he would win the world the easy way. It was a temptation to bribe people into following him by filling their stomachs.
There were two occasions when Jesus actually did provide bread for the masses. But he was under no illusion that it would cause people to become his disciples and he told them so.
The Church has always faced the same temptation – to buy people’s allegiance by providing material things. It is right to be concerned about human need and seek to relieve it. But we should never think that true disciples can be bought.
The next temptation gave Jesus a vision of the world and told him he could have it, providing he was prepared to worship the one who controlled it – Satan. The Bible describes Satan as “the prince of the power of the air” and “the ruler of the darkness of this world.” It teaches that this world, though created by God, is a world in rebellion, controlled by forces of darkness. God’s people are like an underground resistance movement that refuses to submit, waiting for the day when the true King will return.
The temptation here was to win the world by compromise; except of course that he wouldn’t really have it; he’d merely become a vice-regent of Satan. In the same way the temptation is still there for the church to make its mark on the world by compromise – fulfilling its mission by dependence on government support, even when it means turning a blind eye to its own principles..
The third temptation was to win people’s support by doing something sensational. Satan took him to the highest point of the temple in Jerusalem, towering over the Kedron Valley. Then, quoting a verse from the Old Testament (out of context) which promised that God would “command his angels to lift you up in their hands” he tempted Jesus to create a sensation.
But Jesus, even though his ministry was filled with miracles on behalf of people in need, saw through the temptation. He knew that those who try to do so find they have to keep on coming up with something bigger and better to maintain the crowd’s attention. “Don’t make senseless experiments with the power of God,” he said. And that’s a truth that much of the church has yet to learn.
These three temptations were tests to see if he would take the easy way to win people’s allegiance. But Jesus knew that in the spiritual life there is no easy way, only the way of service and sacrifice.
The first epistle of John summarizes all human sin as falling into three categories: ‘the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes and the pride of life.’ These three mirror the temptations that tested Jesus.
At the most basic level testing comes through our physical desires – the lusts of the flesh.Physical desires in themselves natural and are God given for our wellbeing. But there’s a point where legitimate physical desire goes beyond what God intended and begins to enslave us: erotic love becomes lust; appreciation of food becomes gluttony; enjoyment of a drink becomes alcohol abuse.
‘The lust of the eyes’ is the spirit of unbridled acquisitiveness that believes that happiness is to be found in the things that money can buy. It’s so evident in the, shop’ till you drop mentality of our age. It is a modern form of the old sin of idolatry whereby we believe that our lives will find meaning if we continue to fill them with more and more things. Now, by the time we reach middle age, most of us have learned that this is a lie, yet we keep on doing it.
‘The pride of life’ refers to pretentious egotism, the desire to draw attention to ourselves and become a celebrity. It’s the insidious need to boast and brag about who we are and what we have or what we’ve done, and so gain power over people by having them admire us and wish they could be like us too.
These three areas of temptation are very similar to the temptations that came to Jesus - using his powers to satisfy hunger without having to work; getting what he wanted the easy way by compromising with the ways of this world; and winning people’s allegiance by making a spectacle and becoming a celebrity.
So, what should we do when we are put to the test? Is it reasonable to expect that we should be able to pass the test as Jesus did? The first thing, of course, is to recognize that we are weak. The moment we think we are beyond temptation we are set for a fall; indeed, we have already fallen into the greatest sin of all – pride.
But recognizing our weakness doesn’t mean we should not apply everything at our disposal to face the temptation and meet the test. Neither does it mean that when we do fall, we shouldn’t pick ourselves up, seek God’s forgiveness, which He promises to give to all who genuinely ask for it, and then to go on with life.
What we can take comfort from is that very practical advice from the Bible that says: ‘Resist the Devil and he will flee from you.’ And that other piece of wise advice that says: ‘Put on the Lord Jesus Christ and do not make provision for gratifying your sinful nature’ In other words, don’t put yourself in positions that are going to inflame your weaknesses.
Like Jesus, we are all subject to the testing that comes through temptation. And it’s not a one-off event. It continues through life, and as we journey the testing often becomes more intense. And so it is with temptation. To be tempted is to be tested. Satan may intend for it to destroy us, but God intends for it to make us strong.
4 Then Jesus was led by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted[a] by the devil. 2 After fasting forty days and forty nights, he was hungry. 3 The tempter came to him and said, “If you are the Son of God, tell these stones to become bread.”
4 Jesus answered, “It is written: ‘Man shall not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.’[b]”
5 Then the devil took him to the holy city and had him stand on the highest point of the temple. 6 “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 in their hands,
so that you will not strike your foot against a stone.’[c]”
7 Jesus answered him, “It is also written: ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’[d]”
8 Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor.9 “All this I will give you,” he said, “if you will bow down and worship me.”
10 Jesus said to him, “Away from me, Satan! For it is written: ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve him only.’[e]”
11 Then the devil left him, and angels came and attended him.