What would you say is the greatest conflict in our world today? The worldwide battle against radical Islamic terrorism or the refugee crisis? Global poverty or global warming? What about in our own country? Is it the vicious politics of left vs. right or the deterioration of American morality? Is it one of the great ongoing wars our society is waging against drugs, homelessness, or poor education? Maybe the battle is closer to home. Are you fighting a cold or a disease or depression? Are things with your spouse or sibling or child or friend rocky at the moment and the conflict has left you drained? Maybe you are fighting to make ends meet or fighting for every breath. If we were to take a poll of average Americans, it’s probably a safe bet that some of the aforementioned battles would be on their list. Perhaps some have made your list. But do you know what? You would be wrong. The fiercest battle in the world isn’t over Islam or politics or finances or healthcare; the greatest battle – one that has been raging since Genesis 3 – is the one for immortal human souls – your immortal soul. Satan has successfully distracted much of the world – and, sad to say, much of Christianity from this most important conflict. But the fact remains, this is the most important conflict in the world. Why? Because unlike any other conflict you can think of, the consequences of this battle extend beyond death into eternity. This battle is what Matthew sets before us this morning: as Jesus begins his public ministry he enters the field of battle to engage Satan in the war for your soul and mine.
A bit of context is necessary before we step onto the battlefield. Our lesson follows right on the heels of Jesus’ baptism where He publicly received his role as the representative and substitute for the entire human race. Jesus enters the desert to battle Satan, not for his own benefit, not for his own sake; but for our benefit, for our eternities’ sake. Why? Why did we need a champion to go to war for us? Simply because, like Adam, like Israel, like every human before us, we have failed God’s test. The test of living up to His holiness. The test of submitting our reason to God’s authoritative Word. The test of putting obedience to his commands before the desires of our flesh. Because humanity had failed God, God’s Son had to go to war for us.
Matthew begins: 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. Notice two things: the Holy Spirit led Jesus into the desert with the express purpose of facing temptation. Don’t we sometimes think of temptation like we think of dessert if we’re on a diet? Keep it out of the house and it won’t tempt you? Stay away from certain places and certain people – and Satan can’t get you. That’s a very naïve and dangerous way to think of temptation. The fact is that even if you were able to totally isolate yourself from every single source of evil in this world – you wouldn’t be able to avoid temptation. Our enemy is powerful and his greatest ally lives in our own flesh. No matter how hard you try, you can’t avoid his temptations. Which is precisely why Jesus had to enter the desert to be tempted; if he was going to be our substitute, he had to face the exact same temptations we face…with one big difference: where we fail, miserably, repeatedly; he had to emerge absolutely victorious, without even a hint of sin. Secondly, note how the circumstances differ from Genesis 3: when Adam was tempted to eat the forbidden fruit, he was surrounded by more food than he could ever hope to eat. When Jesus faced down Satan, he was hungrier than you and I can imagine: he had eaten nothing for forty days and forty nights.
It was this natural, human need for food that Satan chose to attack first. The tempter came to him and said, “If you are the Son of God, tell these stones to become bread.” “Jesus, you’re hungry and you’re God – put those two things together and make yourself some food.” It sounds so harmless that we almost miss the trap, don’t we? What would be wrong with Jesus making himself a sandwich? Nothing…except the biggest thing. Satan was using Jesus’ aching stomach to lead him to distrust God’s loving care and to disobey God’s will – because his Father wanted him to go hungry. If Jesus made himself a meal, he would be sinning against the first commandment – much like Israel did when, after God had brought them out of slavery in Egypt, they suggested that it would be better to have died in Egypt than to starve to death in the wilderness. (Exodus 16:1-3)
How does Satan lead you to distrust God’s promise to provide? Has unemployment or underemployment led you to doubt that he really cares? Do you anxiously check the stock market every day because you have begun to trust it to provide for you rather than God? Have you sacrificed your duties to your spouse, your family and your God on the altar of work for the idol of a paycheck? A salesman who was trying to sell me whole-life insurance once asked me “what is your most valuable asset?” The answer he was looking for was my potential to work and make an income. Have you ever valued your own talent and ability over and above God’s promise? Of course, in those ways and many more we, like Israel, have failed the test. We have sinned. We have obeyed our stomachs instead of trusting our God.
For Israel’s failures and ours, Jesus endured a grumbling stomach without grumbling against God. While we often mistake needs for wants and necessities for luxuries, Jesus saw the insidious nature of Satan’s proposition and he defeated it – not with an army of angels – but with the sword of the Spirit: it is written: ‘Man does not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.’ So hearing a sermon can serve as a meal replacement? (How’s that for a dieting plan – the Desert Diet – remember, you heard it here first!) No, that’s not what those words mean. Jesus understood and trusted that all the bread in the world would not keep him alive if his Father did not want him to live and that if his Father wanted him to live, he would keep him alive even if he didn’t eat for another forty days. Food or no food, our lives are in God’s hands. Jesus trusted that. Imagine having that kind of faith! Now stop imagining and believe, because Jesus did this for you! His obedience is credited to your account. You have God’s promise and you can have that kind of faith…so act like it. Jesus: 1; Satan: 0.
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 in their hands, so that you will not strike your foot against a stone.’” Again, if you’re not paying attention, it would be easy to miss the trap – after all, doesn’t God promise to send angels to protect believers? Well, yes, but if you read Psalm 91 carefully, you will see that Satan left out an important line. For he will command his angels concerning you to guard you in all your ways. (Psalm 91:11) Psalm 91 is about the protection that God promises to provide from the dangers that come near believers as they are busy living for God; not taking unnecessary risks to see if he will really do what he says. The trap Satan had laid was to see if Jesus would put his Father’s promise to the test.
Hundreds of years earlier, Israel had failed that test at a place called Massah (“testing”). The Israelites were camped at a place where no water was to be found. So what did they do? They quarreled with Moses and said, “Give us water to drink.” Moses replied “why do you put the LORD to the test?” (Exodus 17:1-7) But certainly grumbling and complaining would never come out of our mouths and hearts, would it? We would never adopt an attitude that says, “God, you promised to provide for me richly and daily, so where are the riches?!” We would never needlessly expose ourselves to danger or embrace a diet or lifestyle guaranteed to shorten our lives, would we? Honestly? Yes, we would, we have and we do. We, too, are tempted to take Scripture out of context and lodge outrageous claims against God in things he has never promised. God hasn’t promised you a long life if you decide to slowly kill yourself with gluttony or laziness or prescription pills or alcohol. God hasn’t promised to send his angels to guard you if you find it thrilling to break the speed limit. God hasn’t promised to keep every hardship, disease, or accident from you. God hasn’t promised to put food on the table if you will not work. God has promised to provide what you need – but on his timetable, not yours. And yet, how often we test God in these things.
But Jesus didn’t. Jesus answered him, “It is also written: ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’ Jesus knew that God hadn’t promised to send his angels to catch him if he threw himself off of the temple. He didn’t test his Father. But he also displayed perfect trust in his Father’s protection and plan. We witness that perfect trust when Jesus was calmly sleeping in the boat on the stormy Sea of Galilee, even as his disciples – seasoned sailors themselves – panicked. (Matthew 8:23-27) We hear that trust when he prays in the Garden of Gethsemane: Father…not my will, but yours be done. (Luke 22:42) We see it as he is hanging on the cross, flattened under the hammer of God’s wrath we deserved, when he submissively commits his spirit into his Father’s hands. (Luke 23:46) Because we have tested God in things he has not promised and failed to trust the promises he has made, Jesus overcame Satan’s temptation in our place. He won. Jesus: 2; Satan: 0.
Finally, 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 you,” he said, “if you will bow down and worship me.” This time, you would have to be sleeping to miss the trap. The devil brazenly tempted Jesus to become a Satanist. Why would this even be a temptation? Because Satan was proposing a shortcut to the glory God had promised Jesus; a shortcut that didn’t involve blood and sweat and suffering and death. The instances in which Israel failed this test are too numerous to list. One of the more memorable ones took place at the foot of Mt. Sinai, right under God’s nose, when Israel decided to worship and praise a golden calf instead of the LORD who had led them out of Egypt. (Exodus 32:1-35) What shortcuts to glory has the devil highlighted on your path through life? I know they’re out there, because I know Satan hasn’t given up. Marriage can be hard work – if it gets too difficult, why not get out and find greener pastures? Raising children to know and fear and love the Lord is not easy either – why not let daycare and the schools and the church do the dirty work? Going day after day to a job you can’t stand takes persistent effort – winning millions in Powerball, that’s no sweat. Open and honest repentance is embarrassing – why not just find a church where they will tell you that God loves you just the way you are? Whatever the shortcut – if we follow Satan’s path instead of God’s we are no better than Satan himself and deserve to suffer his punishment.
Once again, Jesus didn’t give in. He refused to betray his Father in favor of a shortcut to glory. Away from me, Satan! For it is written: ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve him only.’ Jesus held out against this third and most attractive temptation even though he fully understood that it would mean a path of rejection and betrayal, blood and tears, suffering and death. As we begin Lent, this battle has given us a pretty good indication of how the war will end on that hill outside Jerusalem, doesn’t it? Jesus: 3; Satan: 0.
So, now you have the handbook to defeating Satan and his temptations. Just do what Jesus did. Know your Bible as well as he did. Identify both Satan’s traps and the specific passage that will serve as the perfect sword to shred his lies. Do that, and you too can be victorious! No, no, no. If you walk out of church this morning thinking that Jesus has done nothing more than give us an example to follow, I have failed you miserably. Jesus didn’t enter the battlefield to simply show us how to resist temptation (although in a secondary way he does show us that the Word of God is our only sure defense) – he came to defeat Satan and temptation for us. Perfect obedience to God while he was near starvation was how Jesus began his work of destroying Satan’s power over us. And, because we have failed so fully and so frequently, he would continue his march all the way to Calvary to pay for our sins himself. Through faith, his perfect obedience is your perfect obedience. That is the victory Jesus fought and died to win for you. That’s why, as you leave here to go back to your personal battlefield, don’t ever give up the fight. And, more importantly, don’t be afraid of Satan or his traps – because although the war rages on, the victory is won. Amen.