Right at the start of his ministry; before he’d begun preaching about the Kingdom (Matthew 4:12-17), calling people to follow him (v18-22) or healing the sick (v23-24); before news about him had spread through the nearby towns (v25); before Jesus had done or said very much at all, he faced one of his most significant challenges. A temptation which, had he succumbed to it, would have left his whole agenda dead in the water before he’d even got going:
‘Jesus was led by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. After fasting for forty days and forty nights, he was hungry. The tempter came to him and said, ‘If you are the Son of God, tell these stones to become bread.’ Jesus answered, ‘It is written: “Man shall not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.”’ Then the devil took him to the holy city and set him on the highest point of the temple. ‘If you are the Son of God,’ he said, ‘throw yourself down. For it is written: ‘“He will command his angels concerning you, and they will lift you up in their hands, so that you will not strike your foot against a stone.”’ Jesus answered him, ‘It is also written: “Do not put the Lord your God to the test.”’ Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendour. ‘All this I will give you,’ he said, ‘if you will bow down and worship me.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Away from me, Satan! For it is written: “Worship the Lord your God, and serve him only.”’ Then the devil left him, and angels came and attended him.’ (Matthew 4:1-11)
This story is a great place to start as we think about Easter, because through it we get a glimpse of what Jesus had come to do and the challenges he faced.
40 days. In a wilderness. Anyone familiar with the Old Testament would recognise the symbolism. Jesus was facing here what Israel had faced many centuries before, when God had led them into the desert for 40 years to test and train them, before they entered the Promised Land (Deut 8:2-3). These 40 days were Jesus’ final preparation before his ministry began proper.
He faced three temptations, each of which offered a short-cut to getting to a desirable goal by means other than those which God had planned.
He was hungry after 40 days. God had provided manna for Israel, would it not be reasonable for the Son of God to use a little bit of that power to make some bread for himself?
If you wanted to draw a crowd, what could be more dramatic than some spectacle like throwing yourself off the 300-foot-high pinnacle of the Jerusalem Temple and being safely caught by angels?
And if the goal was to establish a Kingdom over all the world, then a simple one-off act of bowing down and worshipping the Devil is an easy and pain free way to achieve it, right?
But the subtlety of the temptations lay in the things Jesus would have had to sacrifice in the process. And to each temptation Jesus responds with a quotation from Deuteronomy, which exposes the false promise, and asserts his trust in God.
Israel’s hunger was meant to teach them to trust God for provision. If Jesus abused his power to make food for himself, that would demonstrate a lack of trust in God. Instead, he quotes Deuteronomy 8:3. Man doesn’t survive on bread alone. There’s something greater and more sustaining; the word of God.
Psalm 91:11-12 did indeed promise that God would protect his servant, but the Devil’s quotation is clearly manipulative, and Jesus replies by citing Deuteronomy 6:7, ‘You shall not put the Lord to the test.’
And the temptation to worship Satan? Well Jesus came back firmly with Deuteronomy 6:13, ‘You shall worship the Lord your God and him only shall you serve.’
Jesus knew that these temptations would undermine his mission, causing him to sacrifice the things that mattered most. He understood that the Kingdom would come through him undergoing physical pain and deprivation; through being elevated not on the pinnacle of the Temple, but on a cross, where angels would not rescue him; and through demonstrating unwavering allegiance to the one true God, even when it cost him everything.
Jesus knew the Kingdom would come through the events of Easter.
Questions for Reflection
- Hebrews 4:15 says ‘We do not have a high priest who is unable to empathise with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are – yet he did not sin.’ How does it make you feel to know that Jesus faced the very same temptations you did?
- This passage teaches us to trust in God rather than taking shortcuts. Are there areas where you are tempted to make compromises in order to achieve a goal? And what might God be saying to you about that?
- Jesus responds to each temptation by quoting the Bible. How important is the Bible in your decision making and the way you fight temptation?
Thank you Jesus that when tempted, you resisted; when tested, you overcame. And through your commitment to God’s plan, you have made a way for me to be reunited with the Father.
Give me the power to overcome when I face temptation. May I draw strength from your word and your Spirit, and in all things may I bring glory to your name.
You may want to join us for one of our meetings over the Easter Weekend:
Good Friday. 3 April. 11.00-12.30. Pimlico Academy, SW1V 3AT
Easter Sunday. 5 April. 11.00-12.30. The Mermaid Theatre, EC4V 3DB