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The temptations of Jesus - Matthew 3:16 - 4:11

This is a sermon by Lee McMunn from the morning service on 12th March 2006.

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Aims: (1) To illustrate from Jesusí example three common temptations that Christians will face (2) To encourage the congregation to focus on the ascended Jesus, our victorious champion, when Satan reminds us of our past failures.

Theme: The devilís attempt to stop Jesus dying on the cross to rescue humanity from their sins Ė either by diverting him from the path of suffering or by disqualifying him from taking on the role of the perfect sacrifice.

When I was about 12 years old my dad almost drove our family car off the top of a bridge. I was in the car with my mum, my dad and my brother. We had just left a family wedding reception in Glasgow and we were driving across what is called the Kingston Bridge, when suddenly, without any warning at all, my dad turned the steering wheel and our family car went rapidly towards the edge of the bridge. Now most of you have never met my dad before, but given what I have just told you about him Iím fairly confident that most of you would now think twice before employing him as your personal chauffeur. But what if I tell you a few more details about what happened that night. Itís true that we were returning from a family wedding in Glasgow and itís true that we were driving across the Kingston Bridge but what I omitted to tell you before was that as we driving across the bridge a car suddenly pulled into our lane, without even the flash of indicator light. Do you know those drivers? My dadís choice was simple. Either keep going and brace for impact or turn the steering wheel and avoid contact. Not surprisingly he chose the second option. But because he did the car started to veer rather dangerously towards the edge of the bridge. My mum was convinced we were about to join the local wildlife down below. But thankfully just before we did, my dad managed to regain control of the car.

No doubt the amateur psychologists among you will have a field day with my childhood trauma. I can already hear the thoughts in your mind, ďAha, that explains why he is slightly peculiar.Ē But do let me encourage you to stay with me. Please donít let your mind be distracted by all sorts of psychological babble because Iíve told you this particular childhood memory, not to get sympathy or to explain my current behaviour but to make the following point. Itís not a profound thought and itís certainly not a new idea. In fact, itís basic common sense. But let me say it anyway. If we want to interpret something properly then the more details we have at our disposal the better.

Itís like sitting down with your friends when they have just got back from their holiday. With great enthusiasm they invite you round to see the photos and there you are trying to make sense of why they decided to take a picture of an empty prison cell. And then they pass you another photograph of the same scene but this time itís in widescreen. And then you get it. This time you see a plague with the words, ďNelson Mandela spent 27 years in this cell.Ē If we want to interpret something properly then the more details we have at our disposal the better.

The same is true when it comes to understanding the Bible. Some people claim that you can make the Bible say whatever you want it to say. Iíve had experiences when Iíve tried to explain a section of the bible to an individual and no sooner have I stopped talking when I hear them utter the immortal words, ďWell, thatís just your opinion. If I ask someone else then no doubt they will tell me something completely different.Ē Because, according to them, you can make the Bible say whatever you want it to say.Ē Now this may come as a surprise to you but I agree with those people. You can make the Bible say whatever you want it to say if you concentrate on the small details and miss out the bigger picture. For example, from Psalm 14 we could make the case that the Bible claims there is no God.

All we have to do is turn to Psalm 14:1 and we read these words: ďThere is no God.Ē Thatís what it says. You can read it for yourself later. So is it true that the Bible can be used by atheists to support their minority position? Yes, of course it can, as long as they concentrate on a small sentence and miss out the bigger paragraph. Because here is what Psalm 14:1 actually says in its entirety. The full sentence reads, ďThe fool says in his heart, ĎThere is no God.í They are corrupt, their deeds are vile; there is no-one who does good.Ē Do you see my point? I know itís not rocket science but let me say it again. If we want to interpret something properly then the more details we have at our disposal the better.

Itís when we switch our vision to widescreen perspective that the smaller sections in the Bible story begin to make much more sense. In fact, itís when we look up from the detail and gaze at the wider story that we discover why the detail is recorded in the first place. Let me show you what I mean from Mathew chapter 4.

Have a look at verse 1. Weíre told that Jesus was led by the Spirit into the desert to be tempted by the devil. And then in verse 3 we are told about the first temptation, in verse 6 we are told about the second temptation and then in verse 9 we read about the third temptation of Jesus. The story is a simple one. After 40 days and 40 nights of fasting without food Jesus is confronted by his great enemy, the devil. Three times he is tempted and three times he resists the temptation by quoting a verse from the Old Testament at his tempter. Itís a simple enough story, isnít it? But what does it mean? Why do you think God has preserved these verses for us to read in the Bible? To find out we must switch our vision to widescreen.

To understand these verses properly we must look up from the detail and examine the bigger bible story. The only question is: ĎHow wide should we go?í

For example, we could opt for maximum panoramic interpretation and this would take us back to Genesis chapter 3. We could then compare and contrast the temptation of Adam with the temptation of Jesus, who according to Romans chapter 5 and 1 Corinthians chapter 15, is to be regarded as the second Adam. And this would be very profitable. For example, we would learn that Satanís tactics have not changed. Just as he distorted the Word of God in the garden he also distorted the Word of God in the desert. And just as he lied to our original ancestors in the Garden he also lied to Jesus. His tactics have not changed. They are still the same today. Secondly, we could compare the outcomes of the two temptations. Whereas Adam failed and brought condemnation to the whole of humanity, Jesus succeeded and brought the possibility of rescue to all those who put their faith in him. Or to use the words of Romans 5:19: ďFor just as through the disobedience of the one man the many were made sinners, so also through the obedience of the one man the many will be made righteous.Ē

So how wide should we go? Option 1 is maximum panoramic interpretation. Option 2 is a slightly smaller widescreen interpretation. Let me call it the medium option. Instead of going all the way back to Genesis chapter 3 we could limit ourselves to the opening chapters of Matthewís Gospel. So, for example, we could think back to one of the amazing truths we have been learning about the identity of Jesus over the last few weeks, and then use this to interpret his temptations in the desert. According to the opening chapters of Matthewís Gospel, Jesus was sent to replace the nation of Israel. He was sent to be the unique individual who would obey Godís commandments in the place of a people who could not. Where the people of God in the Old Testament had failed, Jesus would succeed! And so God would build a new people, gathered, by faith, around the Lord Jesus Christ. He would build a new corporate Israel by linking people to Jesus as the one who came to be the perfect Israel.

After reading the opening chapters of Matthewís Gospel, we are supposed to conclude that Jesus has replaced the Old Testament people of God as the object of Godís special attention. We are to regard him as the new Israel. And so because Jesus was sent from heaven to replace the nation of Israel, he too had to suffer a similar fate to them. In order to merit being called the new Israel, Jesus had to relive the history of old Israel.

So do you see what is happening in Matthew chapter 4? In verse 1, weíre told that Jesus was led by the Spirit into the desert. Now please notice the similarity with Deuteronomy chapter 8. Just as God led the old Israel into the desert to be tested so he led the new Israel into the desert to be tested. And then, in verse 2, we discover that after fasting for 40 days and 40 nights Jesus was hungry. Now why do you think we are told Jesus was hungry? Itís pretty obvious isnít it that if you fast for that length of time you would be absolutely starving. So why are we told that he was hungry? Because this is what he read about the old Israel in Deuteronomy 8: ďRemember how the LORD your God led you all the way in the desert those 40 years, to humble you and to test you in order to know what was in your heart, whether or not you would keep his commands. He humbled you, causing you to hunger and then feeding you with manna, which neither you nor your fathers 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.Ē  Or in other words, we see the pattern again. Here is Jesus reliving the history of Godís ancient people. And yet with one important exception Ė where they failed, he succeeded!

We can never earn our way to heaven. We can never make the grade. Godís pass mark of 100% is too high. But letís never forget that there is an individual who has made the grade for us. There is an individual who has met the heavenly standards on our behalf.

And so letís always remember that when we surrendered our life to him, we were united to Jesus, the perfect Israel, by faith and so we became the recipients of his perfect obedience.

And so when we arrive at heavenly passport control we can have the confidence, if we are trusting in Jesus, that we will be waved straight through.

So how wide should we go? Let me show you option 3, the smallest widescreen interpretation of all. Have a look at 3:17. After Jesus has been baptised in the river Jordon he hears a voice from heaven which says, ďThis is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.Ē Now if you were here last week you will already be an expert on where these Old Testament quotations come from. Jesus may well hear the voice of his heavenly Father but the words of his heavenly Father are taken straight from two significant places in the Old Testament. The first half is taken from Psalm 2:7 and the second half is taken from Isaiah 42:1. Psalm 2 is all about the glorious King of Israel, the Son of God who is destined to be given all the nations of the world as his inheritance. But Isaiah chapter 42 has a very different focus. It begins a number of key chapters in the book of Isaiah, which direct our attention to someone called the Servant of God - an individual who would not be honoured by the nations but an individual who would be killed by the nations. An individual who would bear the punishment of Godís people so that they could enjoy peace.

But listen to that voice from heaven again: ďThis is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.Ē Do you see what God the Father has done? He has fused the two figures into one. As he speaks to his beloved Son, who has just been baptised, he pronounces that he is both the Son of God and the Servant of God. He announces that Jesus is both the glorious King who will rule the nations and also the suffering servant who will be killed so that his people can enter his Kingdom with their sins forgiven. The Bible always makes it clear that there can be no forgiveness without the shedding of blood. Our rebellion against God carries a penalty that must be paid.

So for rebels like you and me to be made forgiven subjects of Jesus the King, he had to become the Servant of God to bear the punishment for our disobedience. 

Now let me ask you to do something you have probably never been asked to do before. I want you to stand in the shoes of Satan. Just suppose you were the arch enemy of God and not only did you hate God but you also hated all the creatures he had ever made and were determined for them to remain separated from God and under his judgement. If you were Satan, what big event in the history of the universe would you try and make ineffective? The death of Christ. If you could either stop the death of Jesus from taking place or make it ineffective even if it did then you would condemn the whole of humanity to the judgement of God. If you could either divert Jesus from taking on the role of the suffering servant or disqualify him from acting as the suffering servant then you would win.  Because without a perfect substitute, who could be the perfect sacrifice, then every individual would have to pay their own penalty for their disobedience. So do you see what Satan is trying to achieve in Matthew chapter 4? He is trying his best to make the cross ineffective.  All of his temptations are deliberately designed to either stop Jesus from going to the cross or to make it pointless for Jesus to venture to the cross, even if he wanted to.

The temptation to doubt Godís reliability (Verses 1-4)

Take his first temptation, for example, what Iíve called the temptation to doubt Godís reliability. He says to Jesus in verse 3, ďIf you are the Son of God, tell these stones to become bread.Ē ďSo you think you are the Son of God Jesus. You think you are the King of Israel. Well, what are you doing in the desert without any food? Thatís no position for a king. You should be well fed, with banquets, and wine and you should be surrounded by corgis. But not out here, all alone and without even a basic cupboard filler like bread. I thought God the Father was supposed to be looking after you.

I thought he had told you that you were his beloved Son, in whom he was well pleased. Perhaps heís changed his mind. Or maybe he wants to help but he canít provide for your needs out here in this desolate place. Either way, why not use your great powers to turn these stones into bread? If God can raise children for Abraham out of the stones then a little bread should not be too difficult for the Son of God to manage.Ē

Do you see the temptation for Jesus? In his painful suffering, through lack of food, he was tempted to doubt Godís reliability. Could he still trust his Father even when times were tough? We find his response in verse 4. Jesus answered, ďIt is written: ĎMan does not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.Ē Or in other words, Jesus says to Satan, ďNo matter what I am experiencing I will continue to trust that ultimately my Father in heaven will look after me. I will trust in his reliability.Ē Which was a vital truth for Jesus to acknowledge when you remember what was coming next. He would never have trusted his Father in Gethsemane if he could not trust him in the desert. If Jesus could not trust his Fatherís plan through the pains of hunger then he would never trust his Fatherís plan to take him to the cross. And Satan knew this. So from the very beginning of Jesusí public ministry he tried to sow the seeds of doubt in Jesusí mind, which he hoped would ultimately prevent Jesus from walking to the cross. But wonderfully for us, Jesus resisted the temptation. Where so many have failed in the past, Jesus succeeded. Despite his physical suffering he still continued to trust that God was looking after him and so he was not diverted from his mission to die on the cross.

Now I donít know what you are going through in life at the moment. I donít know what personal circumstances may be collapsing all around you. But I do know this. As a Christian, as someone who by faith is called a Son of God, the devil wants you to doubt Godís reliability. He wants us to stop trusting that God is looking after us when times are tough.

He wants us to reject Godís instructions when they will make life more difficult. He wants us to doubt that Godís instructions are for the best. Let me give you an example. What would you do in this situation? Suppose your family has massive financial worries. You are finding it tough to pay the mortgage and your big decision is whether to work many more hours during the week. But you know that if you do your ability to meet up with Godís people on a regular basis will suffer. So what should we do if we find ourselves in that situation? Well, the devil wants us to be self-sufficient. He wants us to doubt that God will look after us if we follow his instructions. And one of those instructions is to meet up with Godís people regularly. Admittedly, God may well change our standard of living but we can be confident that the God who redeemed us will never let us down. We can be confident that in all things God is working for the good of those who love him. So let me ask you: Do you trust God? And does the evidence of your behaviour support what you have just said?

Temptation 1 is the temptation to doubt Godís reliability.

The temptation to reject Godís plan (Verses 5-7)

Temptation 2 is the temptation to reject Godís plan. Have a look at verse 5. Weíre told that the devil took Jesus to the holy city of Jerusalem and made him stand on the highest point of the temple. Now what a sight that must have been! Youíre going about your daily business in the market place when suddenly you see a large group of people beginning to gather around the temple. And thatís when you see the figure of a man standing at the very top, looking down. He looks as if he is going to jump. But there is nothing you can do. You are too far away from the action. You simply have to wait and watch. But all the time you are thinking to yourself, ďWhat is going through his mind? What has brought him to this? And why doesnít he jump?Ē The answers are in verses 6 and 7. In verse 6, the devil says to Jesus, ďIf you are the Son of GodĒ or better ďSince you are the Son of God, throw yourself down.Ē

ďWhat an opportunity Jesus. Can you see the crowd gathering down below? What a spectacle it would be if you were to throw yourself from the top of the temple and be rescued by the angels of God? The people down there wouldnít forget that in a hurry. In fact, they would be so impressed that they would instantly recognize you as the Son of God. So why not throw yourself off and wait for the angels to catch you? And if you are worried that they might not make it on time then donít forget what is written down in Psalm 91. Do you not remember the place where God promises that he will never allow your foot to strike a stone? So what are you waiting for? Your adoration as King is just a few seconds away.Ē

Do you see the temptation for Jesus? He was tempted to reject the plan of God for him to be the suffering servant. Instead of entering into his glory through the cross, and so bringing with him a whole collection of forgiven sinners, the temptation Jesus faces at the top of the temple is to create such a dramatic miracle that people will be left in no doubt about his true identity. But that wasnít Godís plan. And so Jesus had to resist the temptation for short-term popularity at the expense of long-term salvation for the guilty rebels who needed his forgiveness.

At first sight it seems incredible, doesnít it, that the enemy of God should use the word of God to achieve his purposes? And yet from the very beginning this has been one of Satanís most powerful weapons in his war against humanity. He loves to distort the word of God in his desire to get human beings to sin. He did it in Genesis chapter 3, he does it in Mathew chapter 4, and, my friends, he still does it today. Just because someone is quoting the Bible doesnít make what they say biblical. In fact, quoting from the bible may often be the sheepís clothing of the false prophet. So we must be careful who and what we listen to Ė even if the teacher concerned frequently quotes from the Bible. It should not surprise us that the Bible can and does appear in the mouth of Satan.

Jesus, however, knows that the Bible cannot contradict itself so he replies to Satan, in verse 7: ďIt is also written: ĎDo not put the Lord your God to the test.íĒ Jesus is absolutely confident that Scripture cannot contradict itself and so he is completely certain that Satanís interpretation of Psalm 91 must be wrong. He knows that to test his Father would be a sin and he knows that to sin would disqualify him from being the perfect sacrifice. Therefore, let us again be thankful that Jesus resisted the temptation to reject Godís plan and so continued in his mission to be the suffering servant.

But letís also be aware that Satan would still like Godís people to reject Godís plan. According to 1 Corinthians 1:18, ďthe message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.Ē Satan, however, would like us to believe that the message of the cross is useless for bringing anyone to faith in Jesus Christ. He would love to see us move away from a confidence in the message of the gospel. ďWhat an outdated messageĒ, he will say. ďPerhaps you should try something new. What about a few miracles? Maybe thatís what the people of Hull need? In fact, why not wait until the miracles happen before you say anything to anyone about Jesus Christ?Ē Are we still convinced that the gospel, the message about who Jesus is and what he has done, is the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes? How many of us are still convinced that the spreading of this message in large meetings, in small meetings, in homes, at the office, in cafes, in schools and in kitchens around the city is the plan of God for the salvation of those who have no personal relationship with Jesus Christ?

Letís be confident that the gospel is powerful and letís show we are confident by using the opportunities that God gives to us to share this message with others.  Letís invite people to Men at the Top or After Eight or TNT or Wednesday at Ten or Christianity Explored. Or why not buy a St Johnís DVD and give it to a friend or a neighbour or a work colleague? Just think about what could happen if they hear the gospel message. Or just think about what will happen if they donít hear the gospel message. My friends, we need to believe that the gospel is the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes. We must resist the temptation to reject Godsí plan.

The temptation to worship Godís enemy (Verses 8-11)

We finish with Jesusí third temptation. Have a look at verse 8. ďAgain the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendour. ďAll this I will give you,Ē he said, ďif you will bow down and worship me.Ē Heís got some cheek hasnít he? Heís like an estate agent who shows a person around a property they have no right to sell. Satan cannot give Jesus all the kingdoms of the world, they are not his to give. They are the rightful possession of Jesus but he will not be presented with them at the devilís award ceremony. No, as promised in Psalm 2, he will receive them as a gift from his heavenly Father.

Now at first sight this temptation seems rather crude and unsophisticated. Are we really supposed to imagine the Son of God rejecting his Father and worshipping the devil? Has Satan lost his marbles? Does he really believe that a blasphemous lie will convince Jesus to abandon his God? Well, letís not forget that throughout the history of humanity blasphemous lies have been a very successful strategy for the devil. Think back to the original fall of the human race. How did that come about? It was caused with a very unsophisticated lie. ďYou will not die if you eat the fruit from the tree of knowledge. I know thatís what God says but let me tell you something different.Ē And so he managed to convince the first human beings to worship him instead of serving their creator. And letís not be naÔve, he is still doing this today. All around the world people are believing his lies. Admittedly, the number of people who would write Satanist on their hospital admissions card is very small but the bible assures us that if we are not serving God we are serving his enemy.

And I think we see this most clearly today as we observe the millions of people who devote their lives with fanatical religiosity to the false gods of Satanís creation. The god of money, the god of sex, the god of career, the god of fitness and even the god of family. When will these people learn that security, intimacy, love and acceptance are not to be found by worshipping those false gods but are gifts of the living God, received by us when we reconnect with the God we have rejected? Well, not until they stop believing Satanís lies that he can give them what he promises.

So maybe the lie of verse 9 isnít such a waste of time after all. Satan actually thinks his crude lie will prove to be successful. Dazzle Jesus with what he deserves anyway and who knows what this human being will choose to do. Well, thankfully for us Jesus again resisted temptation and so he continued on his path as the suffering servant.

I want to end this morning by quoting the comforting words that we read in Hebrews 4:14-16. You can find them at the end of your sermon notes: ďTherefore, since we have a great high priest who has gone through the heavens, Jesus the Son of God, let us hold firmly to the faith we profess. 15 For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are ó yet was without sin.  16 Let us then approach the throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need.Ē

My brothers and sisters, when we are being severely tempted we need to remember two things. First of all, that Jesus knows what it is like. He has walked the path before us. In fact, he has been tempted beyond what we could ever imagine. And so therefore he can and does sympathise with our weaknesses. But, secondly, we also need to remember that our sympathiser is also our saviour. Although he was tempted in every way, unlike us, he remained without sin.

Our past and our future will be littered with failures. But Jesusí life was full of success. So when Satan tempts us to despair and tells us of the guilt within, what should we do? We should look up. We should look up and see him there, the one who made an end of all our sin. And we should remember that because the sinless Savior died our sinful souls are counted free. For God the just is satisfied to look on Him and pardon me. Letís pray.

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