Have you ever felt like you just don’t have it in you? Life has a way of leaving us drained emotionally, psychologically, physically, and, most importantly, spiritually pulling us away from God—away from the one who gives us life in the first place. Today we’re talking about a time when Jesus himself was drained. He’s just been baptized—recognized publicly as the Son of God as the Spirit has just descended upon him. Then Matthew writes that the same Spirit led him into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil himself. Jesus fasts for forty days and forty nights, and Matthew writes that he gets hungry. What we see in this part of the Gospel narrative isn’t only the temptation of Jesus and the danger that he’s in, but also three things that keep us all from God as Satan brings them to Jesus one by one.
#1 False Perception of Physical Needs
The first of these temptations has to do with our perceptions of physical needs. The “tempter” comes to Jesus and tells him, “If you’re the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.” If you’re the Son of God, as was supposedly revealed at your baptism, why go hungry? This is Satan’s wisdom that he offers to Jesus in his time of physical need. “Why fast? Just because God led you out here to die?” But Jesus rejects Satan’s worldly wisdom and instead trusts in God even when his circumstances appear to indicate he shouldn’t. He says, “It’s written,‘Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.’” Not you Satan, but God.
When we ourselves perceive that our lives are in physical danger, we—understandably—become afraid. Satan finds us in that visceral fear and offers to us physical strength as if he was the one who created us in the first place. As if he knows the world better than God himself. He promises that if you do it his way, you’ll be better off. Have you ever encountered that temptation? The temptation to do something for self-protection even when you know you shouldn’t?
#2 False Sense of Spirituality
It’s not only with physical things. Satan also touches our false sense of spirituality. Matthew writes that after the devil is unsuccessful with this first attempt, he takes Jesus to the holy city and places him on the very peak of the temple itself. He says to Jesus, “If you’re the Son of God”—there it is again if you’re the Son of God—“throw yourself down.” Because Jesus said that he trusts only in God’s word, well that’s precisely what he’s given! The devil says, “for it is written, ‘He will command his angels concerning you,’ and, ‘On their hands they will bear you up, lest you strike your foot against a stone.’” And Jesus, with the word of God counters Satan, but it’s also written, “You shall not put the Lord your God to the test!”
Satan attempts to skew our understanding of the physical world as well as the spiritual giving us just enough of the truth to convince us of a lie. He doesn’t want Jesus to come in humility but in pride as the angels would lower him down in the air to demonstrate his authority. That’s what false spirituality is. It’s a false sense of control over the spiritual world, which is becoming more and more common in American culture. When we’re weak, tired, burned out, at our wits end, we’ll go for just about anything sometimes. You see it everywhere, and Satan capitalizes—but he can’t convince Jesus.
#3 False Sense of Authority
Finally, the devil takes Jesus to what Matthew refers to as a “very high mountain,” and he shows Jesus “all the kingdoms of the world and their glory.” This isn’t just physical need or spiritual desperation. This is power and authority over others. And the devil continues by saying, “I’ll give you all of these, if you will fall down and worship me.” Beware of anything or anyone offering these false securities. Those people are out there. For some people allegiance is the only virtue there is.
Of course, God would never have us make power plays over others. He guides us to serve him by loving those around us. Giving into the coercion of earthly kingdoms—demanding the servitude of others—is to fall on our knees before Satan himself. Jesus would rather die at the hands of the kingdoms of this world than be like them. And that’s exactly what happens.
Jesus Overcomes Temptation for Us
So, Jesus finally says, “Be gone, Satan!” Get away from me! Going back to his initial response, Jesus quotes the word of God, “You shall worship the Lord your God and him only shall you serve.” Satan has nothing more to offer. Matthew writes that the devil left and “behold, angels came and were ministering to him.” Even amid these temptations—temptations that we all face in our lives at one point or another—Jesus turns to his Heavenly Father every single time.
We are—probably more often than we like to admit—successfully tempted into trusting in ourselves—trusting in our own understanding of the physical and spiritual world—over trusting in the one who created it all. And yes, it’s very tempting and seemingly safe to establish ourselves in positions of authority over others to make sure things go our way—to attempt to control our own circumstances. This happens in both good times and bad. Especially when we’re drained, we become desperate, and we gravitate toward these things which end up just pulling us away from God. I can see it in my own life at times, and I hope that you recognize it in yours as well. If not, you should learn to do so. Even when everything seems to be going well—even when we’re not drained—we don’t always realize the spiritual danger that we’re in.
Jesus overcame these temptations from the very outset of his ministry leaving Satan powerless over him. The Spirit that was with Jesus at his baptism and in the wilderness, is the same Spirit that was with us in our own baptisms and remains with us throughout our lives. The angels who ministered to Jesus after what I can only imagine was a grueling 40 days—they’re watching over us as well.
At the lowest point in his life, at his own crucifixion, even then Jesus does the exact opposite of everything that Satan advises in the wilderness—as he thirsts on the cross, as he’s mocked and shamed by the religious elite, as he’s killed by the kingdoms of this world. Then—even against all earthly wisdom—he’s raised back to life—victorious. When we put our trust in Jesus, he forgives us of what we’ve done in our weakest moments, and his victory becomes our own.