Matthew 4 tells us a story which finds its source in the wilderness testing of Israel. His forty days fast in the wilderness mirrors Israel’s forty years journey. While his test is similar to the challenge that the people of Israel faced, unlike Israel, Jesus does not fail.
4Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. 2He fasted forty days and forty nights, and afterwards he was famished. 3The tempter came and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.” 4But he answered, “It is written, ‘One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.’”
5Then the devil took him to the holy city and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, 6saying to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down; for it is written, ‘He will command his angels concerning you,’ and ‘On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.’” 7Jesus said to him, “Again it is written, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’”
8Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor; 9and he said to him, “All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.” 10Jesus said to him, “Away with you, Satan! for it is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.’” 11Then the devil left him, and suddenly angels came and waited on him.
To start with, it was the Spirit that led Jesus into the desert to fast for forty days and forty nights so that when Jesus was at his weakest the Devil comes to tempt him. At the end of the fast Jesus is weak and hungry. Some would argue that Jesus, as the Son of God, could have used his special powers to miraculously provide food for himself. But another reading suggests that Jesus, as Son of Man, a title he used from himself, would have set such powers aside. In the context of the wilderness the question is: will God supply the needs of one of his children during a difficult spiritual journey? Life, in its fullest sense, comes by relying on “every word that comes from the mouth of God”. Unlike the children of Israel, who constantly failed the test of faith Jesus relies on God’s promise to sustain him through his wilderness journey. It is a safe thing to assume that when we’re at our weakest and in that part of our lives in which we are most vulnerable we will face the greatest challenges in our spiritual life.
The tempter takes Jesus to a projecting part of the temple. “I tell you what I’m gonna do…” the tempter tells Jesus. “We’ve this promise that He will command his angels concerning you,’ and ‘On their hands they will bear you up“. Do you really believe that? If so, If you are the Son of God, take the big leap and throw yourself down. The devil’s test is that Israel’s acceptance of the Jesus as messiah can be guaranteed by a powerful sign. But for the messiah to rest on signs and wonders is to question God’s way. Jesus response was Jesus said to him, “Again it is written, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’” In the wilderness (Num.20) the people of Israel failed the test both trust and of testing God. But Jesus does not fail.
Deuteronomy 34 describes how Moses went up from the plains of Moab to Mount Nebo, to the top of Pisgah, which is opposite Jericho. And the LORD showed him all the land, Gilead as far as Dan, and all Naphtali and the load of Ephraim and Manasseh, and all the land of Judah as far as the western sea, and the Negev and the plain in the valley of Jericho, the city of palm trees, as far as Zoar. That’s like the view Jesus sees, the world laid out before him, over which Satan offers Jesus dominion, but on Satan’s terms. All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.” Israel had long ago compromised their faith and looked to the Golden Calf and their own devices to help attain the promised land. Was this an offer too good to refuse? In recent weeks some have expressed the belief that much of the Christian church inked such a contract with the tempter to ensure access to high government officials. Jesus said to him, “Away with you, Satan! for it is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.’” Jesus did not fail this test, but rather, he chose the way of faith rather than rely on expedience and capitulation.
Then the devil left him, and suddenly angels came and waited on him. Surviving the tests the aid that Jesus was unwilling to ask for himself was then provided by attending angels.
Does the Lord support his servants as promised, or is self-help necessary? The people of Israel weren’t all that different than us and like any modern day congregation they grumbled and doubted their way from Egypt to the promised land. The Lord had promised to provide all their needs for the journey, yet time and again they doubted. Unlike them, Jesus did not doubt, rather he rested totally on God’s provision for his vocation.
We modern day wilderness sojourners have our calling and we are bound to rely on the provision of the Lord. For example, Jesus asks us to communicate the gospel to our broken world. His word tells us that this gospel is the “power of God unto salvation for all who believe.” So, we don’t have to rely on selling techniques, psychological manipulation or group dynamics, to achieve results. Doubting God’s promise is to court disaster.
Is the Lord’s mission self-authenticating, or does it need promoting? Other than Christ, Moses was probably the greatest of the leaders of faith but even he felt the need to authenticate both God’s plan and his place in it. The sign of water from the rock was his downfall. Jesus faced a similar test, but did not fail. The need to authenticate the church is with us today, as it was all those years ago. There are those who look to miraculous signs and there are those who look to a more subtle authentication. We put the Lord to the test when we forget that God’s program when it is actualized, is self-authenticating.
In a recent conversation with some folks from Boundary County I learned that while the community was struggling with the threat of snow collapsing the roofs of schools and public buildings thirty Mennonites had come up to quietly provide assistance. You have to look no further than our foyer three days a week and see volunteers from local churches, most from Assumption Parish – they are not there to authenticate the church – they are at work because Christ’s Spirit is at work within them. But, in their obedience provide the very authentication that seems important.
One thing to take away from this passage is that, like the tempter, sincere people can quote scripture to support in a way that supports their distorted point of view. In this instance Satan was not entitled to his own interpretation. It was wrong; it was not an alternative truth.
Temptations appeal to natural human desires. Nothing wrong with desire in itself… no sin in having desires. But to twist into an recognizable form God’s way for humans to treat humans is sin. Satan could not create within Jesus the willingness to even consider violating what he knew to be God’s will in order to satisfy his desires. Why did Satan fail? Because of Jesus’ perfect moral excellence… there was no darkness in Him… not even a momentary confusion about whether He would violate God’s command or not (1 John 1:5; John 1:1-4,9). The nearer we get to that same perfect moral excellence, the more successful we will be.
Jesus possessed great power, but did not use it improperly. Just because one has the ability, opportunity or power to do a thing does not make it the right thing to do. Jesus understood this, but many, like Herod, Judas or Pilate; do not. Just like us, Jesus was tempted in all things.
Is the victory the Lord’s, or does he need help? Israel sensed their vulnerability and were quick to look nostalgically to the symbol of Egypt and its might, the Golden Calf. Jesus faced the same test. Rather than submission and sacrifice, the kingdom could be his if only he would submit to dark powers. We are most clearly faced with a similar temptation today as individuals and as the church.
The Christian church has often feared for its very survival so there is nothing new in the withering away of visible aspects of contemporary Christianity. Yet, to build our security on the systems of this age, on structure rather than substance, or relevance rather than reality, is a disaster. “Unless the Lord builds the house, the builders labor in vain.” Ps.127:1