The servant's temptations - Luke 4:1-13
An audio recording of this sermon is available.
In his book, The Serpent of Paradise, Erwin Lutzer writes: ‘The devil is just as much God’s servant in his rebellion as he was in the days of his sweet obedience….. We can’t quote Luther too often: The devil is God’s devil. Satan has different roles to play, depending on God’s counsel and purpose. He is pressed into service to do God’s will in the world; he must do the bidding of the Almighty. We must bear in mind that he does have frightful powers, but knowing that those can only be exercised under God’s direction and pleasure gives us hope. Satan is simply not free to wreak havoc on people at will.’
And nowhere do we see that truth being played out so clearly than here at the beginning of Jesus ministry in Luke chapter 4. While Satan’s aim is to tempt Jesus to sin, God’s aim is to test Jesus in obedience (‘tempt’ and ‘test’ is the same word in the original). While the devil intends to wreck, God superintends to rescue. Now this episode is meant to be one of the most reassuring passages in the Bible for the Christian believer, not because it provides us with a model for us on how to deal with temptation, but because Jesus’ success was decisive in ensuring our salvation, so that no matter what the devil might throw at us, no matter how much we might fail in sin, Jesus’ victory in the wilderness ensures our ultimate victory in the world.
So if you have not done so already do turn with me to Luke chapter 4 as we hear what God has to say to us under three headings.
First, the point at which these temptations take place- v1, ‘Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit into the desert, 2 where for forty days he was tempted by the devil. He ate nothing during those days, and at the end of them he was hungry.’
There are two important things for us to notice about when this decisive spiritual battle took place in Luke’s Gospel. First, in time it follows on from Jesus’ baptism at the end of chapter 3 when he received the Holy Spirit and heard the heavenly voice declare, ‘You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.’ Did you know that those are two quotes from the Old Testament telling us who Jesus is? The first, is from Psalm 2, the great Royal Psalm, and it is God speaking, ‘You are my Son, today I have become your Father. Ask of me and I will make the nations your inheritance, the ends of the earth will be your possession’. The point is this; at the commencement of his public ministry, God the Father affirms Jesus as the rightful ruler of the world-he is the King of Psalm 2. The second quote comes from Isaiah, 42, which describes the kind of ruler he is going to be and the way he is going to achieve his saving rule, ‘Here is my Servant, whom I uphold, my chosen one in whom I delight (or well pleased).’ In other words this is to be a Servant King, one who is going to tread the path of suffering, leading to a cross, as we see in Isaiah 53. So Jesus knows who he is and he knows what he has to do: he is God’s chosen King, anointed by the Holy Spirit, whose task is to rescue a captive world through suffering. OK?
The second thing to notice is that Luke places this story in the position after he has given Jesus’ genealogy and look at how that ends in v 38- he talks of Adam as, ‘the son of God’. Now as we shall see, all of Jesus temptations revolve around him being ‘the son of God’ ‘…if you are the Son of God then do such and such.’ Now in the Old Testament, the term ‘son of God’ is a special title. Although Jesus is ‘God the Son’- in that he is God, he is also ‘the Son of God’ in that he has a special role to play. Why was Adam called ‘son of God’? Well, partly because he was meant to rule the world under God, like the son of a King. Israel is also likened to a son in Deuteronomy 8, which Jesus will quote against the devil in a moment. And then King David is referred to as God’s son in 2 Samuel 7, and as we have seen, also in Psalm 2. So ‘Son of God’ means God’s rightful ruler and representative, chosen to rule God’s world, God’s way. And it is in trying to stop Jesus doing that- that the devil targets him as the son of God. Do you see?
Secondly, notice the place where the temptations occur- in the ‘wilderness’. And it is dreadful place- the Sinai peninsular. Why here? Well, it wasn’t because it was a great place for a spiritual retreat –the equivalent to Bridlington. Here we pick up on two episodes in the Old Testament which Jesus came to reverse by doing what others failed to do.
The first is the temptation in the Garden of Eden. There Adam was tempted in a place which had everything and so he had every good reason to trust God, but instead decided to listen to Satan. The result is that he was cast out of the garden into a world of ‘thorns and thistles’-a wilderness and in a sense the world has been a spiritual wilderness ever since. Think of our land; the land of the Reformers, of Bunyan, of Wesley, of Wilberforce and Shaftesbury. Our spiritual heritage is second to none, but now what do we see? We see churches and chapels being turned into warehouses or mosques, we see God’s laws trampled on, we see people enslaved by materialism. When I speak to my African Christian friends they cannot believe what is happening in Britain which gave them the Gospel- they look over at us and see a barren wilderness. But it was also the place into which the people of Israel were tested for forty years so that God could to teach them to trust him. This is why what Satan sees as tempting is used by God as testing. This is how God explained it in Deuteronomy 8, and notice how the son language comes in, v 5 ‘Know then in your heart that as a man disciplines his son, so the Lord your God disciplines you’. It is a way of making disciples. Bishop Frank Retief of South Africa puts it like this: ‘Imagine that you had been brought up in the perfect family. You never heard your Mum and Dad exchange a cross word with each other. They were patient and kind all the time. You too were perfect from the day you were born. You never had nappy rash; you never had mumps, you never had colic or measles or any other the other things babies tend to have. Of course when you went to school everything worked out just right for you. You never failed an exam; you were always top of the class, excelled in sports, and were exemplary in behaviour. You never had to go to the dentist to have a brace fixed because your teeth were fit for a Colgate ad. Then you managed to get to university and there you sailed through with all the top grades, you were even voted student of the year. You never got drunk, never were late for a lecture, you always went to church, and you were just a fantastic person. Later you met this stunner of a girl. And guess what? She came from a perfect family also! She never had nappy rash or mumps, she got all the right grades, had the right hair and perfect teeth. Then you got married and had the most brilliantly paid job, wonderful house and car- no student debts to pay for you. In due time children came along and- yes you’ve guessed it- they were perfect, never having nappy rash, never having mumps, not a sleepless night. They in turn grow up as Christians; never put a foot wrong and sail through school and university, get married and on and on it goes. At the ripe old age of 107 never having had a day’s illness in your life you pass over from this world to the next. But then ask this question: ‘Who would ever know that you were a Christian?’ You may say you are, but how will people really know unless you faith has been put to the test? Similarly with Jesus, how would we know that he is worth trusting in and able to help us when we feel tempted if he himself wasn’t tempted and overcame it all?
So by being tested in the wilderness Jesus is being put forward as the new Adam, the new Israel, the new David who is shown to be God’s anointed ruler and representative on earth.
So what is the purpose of the temptations?
As I have already mentioned, it all revolves around Jesus role is as ‘the Son of God.’ I can assure you that you will never be confronted with these temptations. At no point will the devil try and get you to turn stones into bread. He is not that stupid. And why? Well, because you are not the son of God. These temptations only make sense because of who Jesus is.
So we come to the first test in v3, ‘The devil said to him, “If you are the Son of God, tell this stone to become bread.” 4 Jesus answered, “It is written: ‘Man shall does not live on bread alone.’ At the end of verse 2 we are told that Jesus fasted for forty days and nights and at the end of it all he was ‘hungry’. Why state the blindingly obvious, of course he was hungry? Well, it is mentioned because it is meant to take our minds (as it clearly did Jesus’ mind) to the Book of Deuteronomy chapter 8 where we read, ‘Remember how the Lord your God led you all the way in the wilderness these forty years, to humble and test you in order to know what was in your heart, whether or not you would keep his commands. 3 He humbled you, causing you to hunger and then feeding you with manna, which neither you nor your ancestors had known, to teach you that man does not live on bread alone but on every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord.’ That is what God did then to his ‘son’, Israel who failed and this is what he is doing with his son Jesus now who succeeds.
So how is the devil trying to get Jesus to modify his calling to be ‘the son of God’? Well, in this way: the devil is trying to get Jesus to think of his kingship solely in terms of Psalm 2, the conquering King. When Satan says, ‘If you are the son of God’, he is not trying to get Jesus to doubt his identity, quite the opposite. It’s as if the devil is saying, ‘If you are the son of God – and of course you are- then exercise the prerogative of the Son. God has already affirmed that you are his son, so which father would want to see his son suffer. Since he has given you all these miraculous powers- use them. A Messiah who is starved to death isn’t going to be much good to anyone, so here are the stones, you have the power- feed yourself.’ It sounds so plausible. But this would involve Jesus denying the other dimension of his kingship, the Isaiah 42 aspect of a Servant King. You see, other kings might use their power to make life more comfortable for themselves, but not this king. If he has been given any powers then they are to be used to help others, not himself. So when it came to the point later on in his ministry when he saw 5,000 people in the wilderness hungry, he had no hesitation in taking five loaves and performing a miracle to feed them. That is the kind of King he is. And Jesus knows this, which is why he says that there are more important things to feed on than bread, there is the bread of God’s promises. Didn’t God take care of his son Israel in the wilderness, then why should Jesus not think that he will take care of his son in this wilderness? If God had said it, that was good enough for Jesus. And you know what? It should be good enough for us.
And so the devil moves on to the next temptation in verse 5. In some sort of vision Jesus is shown all the kingdoms of the world and how mighty attractive they would have seemed. And so the devil tries to cut a deal by saying that Jesus can have every single one of them, and all the glamour which goes with them, if only Jesus will bow the knee to him. What’s that all about?
Well, the devil is still approaching Jesus as the ‘son of God’, although he doesn’t explicitly prefix this temptation with that term. The devil is saying that the kingdoms of Psalm 2 can all belong to Jesus if only he ‘worships the devil.’ Now that may seem like a crude temptation which borders on the stupid. If Satan appeared here this morning and said, ‘OK start worshipping me’, I don’t think that many of us would fall it. You see, it depends on what you understand by the word, ‘worship’. There is the full blooded praise and adoration of God- worship in that sense. But there is also a less intense form. The word used here means to ‘bow the knee’. And so it could be that what the devil is tempting Jesus with is much more subtle. Notice how the devil emphases his ‘rights’ and ‘powers’ in v6, ‘I will give you all authority and splendour’, which means that he is claiming to have a higher authority in order to give authority. That is exactly what he goes on to claim, ‘for it has been given to me, and I can give it to anyone I want to.’ Now in one respect the devil is quite correct. There is a sense in which the devil is, as Jesus says in John’s gospel, ‘the ruler of this world’. And so the devil in effect is getting Jesus to be pragmatic and simply acknowledge that the devil is a key player that he has to come to terms with- maybe accomodate. He does exercise tremendous power in the world of politics, the media- even religion, so just wise up to that Jesus, adapt, bow the knee ever so slightly in that direction. And by playing the political game- at which the devil excels- Jesus could become the King of Psalm 2 without having to go the way of suffering of Isaiah 42. And you know Christians and the church have been tempted in this direction ever since. Think of all the political machinations of Rome- the Borges and all that; think of the attempt of present day Christian leaders to impress the public by focusing on political issues, so the Gospel gets sidelined. Pretty well every Christmas sermon I have heard from every Archbishop of Canterbury of the last few years have all been like that-political. Think of how TV evangelists have tried to ‘wow’ the viewers with great displays of glamour with their golden thrones, Armani suits and finely groomed hair. People want power, and the devil has it in spades- that is bound to get you a following, just get aligned with the real world, compromise a bit and save yourself a whole heap of trouble Jesus. That is what the devil is offering.
But Jesus wasn’t having any of it. Again going back to Deuteronomy he says, “It is written: ‘Worship the Lord your God and serve him only.’ (6:13). Jesus actually adds the bit about ‘serving God only’. It is a fair unpacking of what true worship means. Since God has already promised to give all the kingdoms of the world to his Christ in Palm 2, what worth is the devil’s promise? You see, if Jesus had taken the devil’s deal, there would have been gain, but it would have been only short term. Sure, there would have been political stability, maybe with Jerusalem being at the centre of a new world order. But the world’s fundamental problem would have remained which is not political but spiritual. Human beings would remain under the devil’s rule. They would still be guilty in their sin and when the political rule eventually came to an end, then an eternity of hell would follow. No, Jesus had his priorities absolutely right; he was going to serve God (and us) by being the servant King in going to the cross to die for us.
And so we come to the third temptation. Jesus is placed by the devil on the pinnacle of the temple and he is encouraged as ‘the son of God’ to take the 460 feet dive into the valley below and simply to do what he has been doing so far, trust God by believing the Scriptures, after all the promise of angels is right there in Psalm 91 which the devil quotes. There is no suggestion that there was a crowd around so that Jesus was being tempted to perform some kind of stunt which will get people to believe in him. Rather, the devil, under the guise of trusting God is trying to get Jesus to test God. Does Jesus need to test out whether his Father cares for him or has the power to protect him? No, because he has already said he would when he quoted Isaiah 42 at his baptism. If God had said it, then he doesn’t have to be forced to prove it. And while God has the right to test us, we do not have the right to test him- which was the sin of Israel. And so Jesus recalls the command which Israel broke time and time again- and if the truth be known- us too- ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’ When we find our backs to the wall isn’t that when we so want to do to prove there is a God by asking him to do something as if he were our pet genie? But not Jesus.
Then look at verse 13, ‘When the devil had finished all this tempting, he left him until an opportune time.’ You know, another time was to come when Jesus would be put to the test again. When people would cry out, ‘If he is the son of God, let him come down from the cross and we will believe him’; ‘Let him save himself if he is the Christ of God, the chosen one.’ The same temptations, but this time made under conditions even more severe than these. Tell me, are you not glad that Jesus did resist and pass the test? Where Adam, Israel, David and us have failed, he succeeded- he lived out his life under God’s rule perfectly. So that for all those who put their trust in him, his perfect life is reckoned as theirs, his obedience makes up for all our disobedience, and his death on the cross has guaranteed a kingdom for us which will last forever- and the devil can’t touch it.
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