Humble Beginnings #2: Jesus' Temptation in the Wilderness
Today we are continuing to follow the Narrative Lectionary in the Gospel of Matthew. We are focusing on the humble beginnings of Jesus’ earthly ministry. Last week we saw that Jesus humbled himself to be baptized by John. When God became human in Jesus, God humbled God’s self to enter into the full experience of being human. John’s baptism was a baptism of repentance: he taught people to turn away from sin and to turn towards God. We learned that living this way brings peace into our lives. Jesus is our model for this. He lived a life turned away from sin and turned towards God. He started his earthly ministry with baptism by John. We saw last week that God further humbled Gods' self at Jesus’ baptism when the Holy Spirit descended upon Jesus. The Holy Spirit descended like a dove. This symbolism reminds us that in Jesus by the power of the Holy Spirit, we are new creations, we are given power to turn away from sin, and we are given peace. All of this begins with humility.
We would think, then, that now that Jesus has been baptized, now that the Holy Spirit has descended like a dove on Jesus, now that Jesus is experiencing new creation and peace, that he would go out in power. But the very next verse, which is the first verse of our Matthew passage this morning, shows us a very different situation. In Matthew 4:1 it say, “Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil.” Remember last week we talked about reading the verbs in Scripture. On Christmas Eve we talked about how God came down from heaven to become human, that God humbled Gods' self to become human. And then last week, we noticed that the Spirit descended. Just as the Apostle Paul says in 2 Corinthians 12, God’s power is made perfect in weakness. God’s power comes from humility. But two surprising things happen in 4:1. First Jesus is led up into the wilderness. And second, the purpose of this is to be tempted.
Now, you might say that this direction of being led up is simply a matter of topography because the Jordan is literally lower than the wilderness. But, Jesus keeps being brought to a higher place during this temptation in the wilderness. In verse 1 he is led up to the wilderness by the Spirit. Then in verse 5, the devil takes him to the top of the temple, and in verse 8 the devil takes him to a very high mountain. Whereas the power of God, thus far, has been shown in humility and in descending, Jesus is now going up. As he does this he encounters the wilderness and temptation. This is another example of how Jesus enters fully into the human experience because I think that we experience this in our own lives and here we see that Jesus went through it, too. But most of us have not been to the top of the temple or to the top of a mountain… Let me explain what I mean.
I think we all know in our heads that humility is essential to the Christian life, is essential to following Jesus. But sometimes we forget and we start living without humility. We might find that we are raising ourselves up and approaching life with arrogance or an expectation that we will get what we want. Or, it could be that circumstances give us a powerful position and we find ourselves lifted up. Whether we raise ourselves up or find ourselves lifted up, it is tempting to use that to get what we want. But instead, we always have to return to humility. It’s helpful to remember how Jesus responded to this very same thing happening to him.
Jesus is raised up because of circumstances outside of his control: the Holy Spirit does it first, and then the devil does it twice. In that experience, Jesus could have lifted himself up, too, and responded with arrogance and he could have expected that he could get what he wanted. He was offered exactly what he wanted, in a way that seemed trustworthy. Let’s see how that happened and how Jesus responded so that we can learn how we can respond when we are lifted up and tempted and how we can respond to that temptation with humility.
We know that it is the devil that is tempting Jesus so why did I say that the temptations seemed trustworthy? Because the devil quotes Scripture when he offers Jesus the things that he knows Jesus wants. When Jesus says no, he quotes Scripture right back. It is surprising that the devil uses Scripture to tempt Jesus and it’s a lesson for us. It’s important for us to read Scripture and to incorporate it into our hearts. But it’s also important to remember that we can find a verse of Scripture to justify anything. Using the Scriptures to guide us in our Christian life is not about finding the right verse for things. One person could find a verse a justify their position, and another could find a verse to contradict it. The Scriptures guide us, together. Since we are not Jesus, and we don’t have perfect knowledge, it’s important for us to learn the Scriptures, read them together, and listen to each other so that we can learn how God is speaking to us through the Scriptures as a group, as the body of Christ.
Jesus knows that even though the devil is offering him what he wants, and quoting Scripture in the temptation, that getting those things in that way is not God’s will. Jesus knows that God has a plan and that the devil’s easy way out is not the will of God. God’s plan for these things is long and difficult. Jesus responds to the devil’s temptations by humbling himself to accept God’s plan. What were those temptations?
For the first one, in verse 2, Jesus has been fasting for forty days and forty nights and it says that he is famished. So, of course, in verse 3, the first thing the devil offers him is to turn stones into bread. Jesus says no. He is sure that God will provide for his physical needs and we see at the end of our passage in verse 11, that angels came and waited on him. The word translated “waited on” is the same word used to describe the work of the deacons in Acts chapter 6 when they are assigned to be sure that the distribution of food to the widows is fair. We are to understand that the angels provided for his every need. But not right away; he humbled himself and waited for God’s timing.
The second temptation, in verse 5, happens at the top of the temple, where, in verse 6, the devil offers him the power to command the angels to save him from death. Jesus says no. He knows that God is not calling him to throw himself off the temple in order to command the angels to save himself. Jesus knows he has this power to call on the angels to save himself and here he passes the test that he won’t use that power even in the most dire of circumstances to save himself. This comes up again, when Jesus is arrested in Matthew 26:53. Jesus has just been praying in the garden of Gethsemane asking that God would not send him to the cross. In verse 53, the people have come to arrest him, he is in the process of being arrested and his disciples are trying to fight them off with swords. But Jesus tells them to put their sword away says this in 26:53, “Do you think that I cannot appeal to my Father, and he will at once send me more than twelve legions of angels?” to save him from crucifixion. This temptation at the top of the temple with the devil prepared him for this moment in the Garden of Gethsemane when he was arrested.
We know that Jesus didn’t want to be crucified, and we know he knew he had the power of the angels behind him to stop it if he chose. But instead, he humbled himself and took the long road, the difficult road that God was calling him to take. The result of Jesus’ humility and obedience - salvation for the whole world - is so much more powerful for the whole world than the act of calling down the angels in that moment would have been. The second temptation we read this morning in chapter 4:6 shows that when Jesus is tempted to use his power for his own benefit, he will humble himself and follow God instead.
Now, in the third temptation, the devil offers Jesus something else. In verse 8, he takes Jesus to a high mountain and offers him all the kingdoms of the world, all the nations. We didn’t talk about this last week, but one of the things that John the Baptist said to the religious leaders was that they had been placing their faith in their ethnic identity as children of Abraham. They had thought that because they were Jews they would always be in God’s good graces and that it didn’t matter how they lived. John tells them that their ethnic identity as children of Abraham will not save them and that what they need to do is bear fruit worthy of repentance. This is a theme throughout the Gospel of Matthew. Jesus often turns on its head this idea that our ethnic identity saves in the Gospel of Matthew. Rather, that we need place our faith in God and constantly turn away from sin and turn towards God. This is a theme that Jesus uses to teach that He has not come just for the Jews, but for the Jews and the nations. Jesus’ mission in the Gospel of Matthew is to fulfill the prophecies from Isaiah that God is going to bring salvation to the nations. And that this salvation will be by placing our faith in God and turning towards God and away from sin; it is not in our ethnic identity.
And so in this third temptation, the devil says, I will give you the nations and Jesus says no. He could have just taken it there and been done. But instead he chose to humble himself to follow God on the longer and harder road. And we see in Matthew 28:19-20 how salvation in Christ goes to the nations. This is after the crucifixion, after the resurrection, it is the result of all of that. Jesus says, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations [ALL nations], baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always to the end of the age.” By choosing the humble response during the temptation, by taking the longer, harder road that God had set before Him, Jesus receives much more than what was offered in the temptation.
Jesus is our model for living a life turned away from sin. When he was lifted up and tempted to take things that he really wanted, he responded with humility. He said no. He humbled himself and followed God on a longer and harder road and received the desires of his heart more completely and profoundly than he could have ever asked for or imagined. Sometimes in our own lives we find ourselves lifted up, out of humility into arrogance or power and find ourselves tempted to leave God behind and choose and easier road. In those moments of our lives, we can remember Jesus, we can remember that his response was always humility. When he was tempted to turn away from God and take a different path toward, what appeared at first glance to be the same things that God was calling him to, he did not turn away from God. He might not have seen how God’s path would get him there, but in humility He followed God anyway, in faith. May we remember Jesus and follow him as our model. Sometimes we are tempted to turn away from God. Sometimes we can’t see the good in following God. When we are tempted to turn away from God, may we respond with humility and choose to follow God anyway, in faith. Amen.