In Mark’s version of this story, a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” The mission of Jesus began at that point. Our baptism says who we are, and we have a mission, too. I still think it is the most amazing thing that parents ask the church to give the one being baptized the totally new identity of being a child of God. As Matthew tells his story, Jesus is now ready to carry out his mission.
He knew his own identity, and now he was ready to act accordingly. The devil presented Jesus three classic sins. He could provide for his own hunger and that of others by making bread from stones. We who live in a land of plenty have dikfficulty understanding that many people in Jesus’ time gave their entire attention to providing food for their family, and some still do.
Their whole world was concerned with having enough to eat. And if Jesus was the miracle-worker sent from heaven, then he could get all the glory and recognition he wanted by making bread for the hungry. That is, if Jesus gave in to sins of the flesh, to the hungers of the body, then people would flock to him in great numbers. Jesus rejected that idea. While he knew that the body is the temple of the Holy Spirit, he knew also that bodily satisfactions seldom bring spiritual benefits. He had a single-minded purpose for his life. The lesson we learn here is that the ultimate source of life is God, not satisfaction for our bodily needs.
The second temptation has to do with the misuse of God’s power. If Jesus were to plunge headlong from the highest building in town, angels would surely come, Satan said, to prevent his death. Lots of people think they have a religious outlook, but it amounts to little more than a misunderstanding of what God is all about. That is, we fall into the temptation of expecting God to make life better or happier for us than for non-Christians.
We think God is supposed to prevent our sudden stop at the end of a long fall.
When we lament that someone we love is in trouble, terminally ill or in some other disaster, and get the idea that God is unfair for letting this happen to such a good Christian, we are making an announcement to God. We are telling God that we expect him to use his power more for our benefit than than for the benefit of others, particularly if we draw the line between Christians and non-Christians. What we forget, sometimes conveniently, is that God looks upon all people, every single person, including the convicted killers, sexual deviants, wife-beaters and all the other heinous crimes as well as people who worship a different God because they were born in a different culture – and God says, “These are all my children.”
In the third episode of the story, Jesus is tempted to bow down before Satan in exchange for the kingdoms of the world. But it is treason to do the right thing for the wrong reason. How many of us are tempted to trim a little here or cheat a little there, in order to reach a perfectly good and honorable objective? Our temptations, we think, are of a different order, a different magnitude. Have any been tempted to try to turn stones into bread, or to jump off a high building to show a spectacular power to land gently, or to engage in devil worship just a bit in order to become a world ruler? Only if we are truly delusional.
Jesus was tempted at these points where Satan could profit from his yielding. If Satan could make him take his mind off how to accomplish his mission, then Satan would remain safely beyond the reach of God’s power. But if he could not deflect Jesus from his mission, the mission to overcome the sins of the world with death and resurrection, then Satan would be exposed for the fraud that he is. Jesus kept true to his purpose, in that he decided to stick with methods consistent with his goals and mission.
A friend and I drove from Georgia to Indiana to attend a national church meeting many years ago. That was my first trip through some of the states along the way. I would have liked leaving our route at numerous places and going into some of the big cities, look around, act like tourists. But we were not tourists. We were meeting with other worship leaders, and there was no time for detours, no matter how attractive.
How I wish — and you do, too – that life could be like a big road trip with some kindly authority figure keeping us on the right road. Just so, Jesus was not sidetracked by bright lights and cheering crowds, because he had his mind on his mission. He could have sold his birthright for a mess of pottage. Instead, he stuck to his purpose, and was therefore able to make himself our model. Jesus was ready when Satan came along, and that may be the most important thing about the story of his temptation for us. Jesus was ready because he lived a disciplined life. He was in contact with his heavenly father from the time he came to self-consciousness about being the Messiah. He did not have some magical or superhuman inside track with God.
He was not masquerading as a human being while in his mind he kept a great secret that he was God in human clothes. There was a time in the history of the church when some teachers said that Jesus the infant had a fully developed mature mind, so that his growing up was merely a period of marking time for his body to catch up to his mind and heart. That error was firmly rejected. He was brought up by his parents in such a way that he was at home in the village synagogue. As a young man he sought out his cousin, John the baptizer.
He looked on the whole of life as being primarily a religious venture. Long before he came to the temptation, he was a religious person without knowing that he was Messiah. To be ready for temptation before it appears, we need to begin preparation a long way back. My daddy put it rather succinctly, I thought, when he said to me on numerous occasions, “Don’t wait till you meet the bear to load your gun.” We never hunted bear.
We cannot wait until temptation is fully developed, breathing down our neck, to think about what should have been done several miles back to avoid calamity now. When trouble falls upon us, and we are ready to blame God for the outcome, we need to ask ourselves if we would be in such trouble if we have been talking regularly with God? How is it that people who almost never talk to God during clear weather can suddenly remember his name in order to blame him for the sky falling in? How is it that people who never thank God for the good days will blame him for the stormy nights?
We must talk with God when we think we don’t need him, so we’ll know he’s with us in times when we think he is far away. Jesus was ready long before he went into the desert, ready to accept God’s mission, ready to accept God’s methods for bringing in the kingdom.
But there is no doubt that he had the choice to make. Jesus was not pretending to be human, playing a charade. As terrible as the consequences may have been, or disappointing to his father, Jesus could have yielded. To deny him that opportunity would set him apart from the humanity with which we are burdened. Because Jesus was human, we do not pray to a dull and lifeless idol. Because he chose not to succumb to Satan, we, his brothers and sisters, can make a wonderful claim on God:
We pray to a God who has experienced what we experience, who knows what it is to see an attractive detour, and yet maintain the resolve to stay on the right highway. God’s authoritative and benevolent word of direction was not bought cheaply. God’s word to us is the word of experience. His word is also the starting point for our mission in life.
Whatever our burdens and temptations may be, the example of Jesus gives us the courage to take it to the Lord in prayer. That is the best advice we shall ever hear.
Jesus has been there. He has experienced human life. His victory over temptation is our guarantee that God walks, lives, suffers, and rejoices with us daily.
When we worship the Lord and serve only him as our God, then we can be sure that while we may not recognize their faces or know their names, angels come and minister even to us.