The four temptations of Jesus

Luke 4.1-13



I like the story of the girl who, on her way back from school, used to go swimming in the local lake. Her mother found out and told her that she should not do that. So the next morning mum checked her daughter’s bag – and found in it her swimming costume. ‘What’s this’, says mum, ‘I told you that you were not to go swimming on your way back from school’. She replied, ‘Don’t worry mum. I wasn’t going to go swimming. But I put it in, just in case I was tempted’.

Our reading today is about the time when Jesus was tempted.

He is, please note, led by the Spirit into the desert.
Please do not think that if you are tempted it means that you are not a Christian. Jesus was full of the Spirit and he was tempted.
Here it is the Spirit who takes Jesus into that place where he will be tempted, where he will begin to do battle with Satan

And this is serious stuff. When Satan comes to him, he doesn’t play around with things like adultery, fornication, stealing, lying or murder. Those temptations are too obvious. They are, in the words of John Piper, ‘games that sub-devils play with weak saints’ (like you and me).

But when Satan addresses the Son of God he means business.
He tempts him by appealing to two of the deepest human desires: the almost overwhelming desire for physical survival, and the desire for glory, to be like God.
And when those two temptations do not work, he tries to get Jesus to question: Can God be trusted, and do I really trust in God?

The first temptation
Satan tells Jesus to turn stones into bread. ‘If (since) you are the Son of God command these stones to become a loaf of bread’
Not in order to get people to believe in him; not in order to feed the starving of the world, but simply to use his identity and his power as the Son of God, to save himself.

Jesus is starving. He has fasted for 40 days.
That could be a symbolic number [there are echoes in this story of the people of Israel being in the wilderness for 40 days] – but I have no reason for not believing that it was also a literal 40 day fast. 40 days without food is about the longest that a person can survive without doing themselves permanent damage, but it certainly will leave a person ‘famished’, and in a pretty serious state.  
And it is then that Satan comes to Jesus and makes the suggestion, ‘Turn these stones into bread’. ‘If you don’t eat, you will die. Use your identity, use your power to save your life’.

But Jesus says, ‘No. Even though every part of my body craves for food; even though my body is beginning to shut down, I know that there is something far more important than bread to live for. ‘One does not live by bread alone’.

The second temptation
Satan tempts Jesus to seek glory for himself and declare his independence from his Father.  
This was a tried and tested. It had worked on Adam and Eve: ‘Eat this fruit’, he said to them, ‘And you will be like God’.
And they believed his lie, and they ate the fruit, and look what happened.

Of course, I am sure that Jesus could have said, ‘With me it will be different. If I am on the throne, and not Herod or Caesar, this world will be transformed.’

Dostoevsky tells the story of the Grand Inquisitor in the Brothers Karamazov.
Jesus returns to Seville at the time of the inquisition. He performs a few miracles and is arrested and sentenced to be burned to death. On the night before his execution, the Grand Inquisitor interrogates Jesus. He condemns him because he resisted each of the temptations – and particularly this second temptation. He tells Jesus: ‘You could have made people believe in you. Look at how much good you could have done. Look at how much suffering would have been avoided’.  And the Grand Inquisitor says to Jesus, ‘We don’t need you because we have gone to the other side. We have decided to take that power for ourselves – and we will compel people to believe, they will have no choice, and we will bring order’.
At the end of his speech he invites Jesus to respond. But Jesus does not speak a word. He is silent. But he kisses ‘the 90-year-old blood dry lips’ of the Grand Inquisitor.

Jesus refused to set himself up as God, because he knew that there is only one God, his Father. And Jesus refuses to compel us to serve him, to obey him, because in his love he wants us to be free to choose him.

So, Satan says to Jesus,
OK you say there is far more to life than the physical cravings of the body
OK you refuse to seize power, because you will only worship God and put him first, and do things his way – whatever the cost

The third temptation
How do you know that this God can be trusted?
Test him,
‘If (since) you are the Son of God, do something that will show that God – your Father - can be trusted. Throw yourself off the temple. God says he will catch you – well then, prove that God keeps his word’.
It is a clever temptation, because if Jesus says, ‘No I won’t do that’, Satan could then say to Jesus, ‘See you do not really trust him’.

But Jesus knows his bible better than the devil. He replies, ‘It says, do not put the Lord your God to the test’.
In other words, I will not presume to test God, because that makes me a judge of God. And nobody, but nobody can judge God. And as for me, I will trust him and I will do this his way.

I don’t know what specific temptations you are facing.
But I do know that, among them, you will face the temptation to put physical things, the body, the desires of the body, possessions, money, the longing for companionship before obedience to God.
That is why fasting can be so helpful. It just reminds us, when we start to feel hungry, that there is something that is far more important than food.
And you will face the temptation to grab glory, to become famous.
I was reading on one news outlet about a particular website which has been set up to help parents make their children famous.
And if we don’t particularly wish to become famous, then we still want to be respected and honoured.
But that is when we need to remember the first lines of the Lord’s prayer: ‘Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name, your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as in heaven .. for the kingdom, the power and the glory are yours..’

And there will also be times when you will be tempted to doubt whether God can really be trusted – especially when the bad stuff happens.
Hold on to the fact that Jesus, the Son of God, knew those temptations.
Hold on to the fact that he battled with Satan and won.

The fourth temptation
In fact, for Jesus, these temptations were only skirmishes with Satan. They were preparing him for a fourth temptation, which only Luke speaks about. It was the greatest and final temptation that he would face.

It did not come in the physical wilderness.

It came as Jesus hung on the cross.
The leaders of the people mock him: ‘He saved others; let him save himself if he is the Messiah of God, his chosen one’.
And then the soldiers say, using the exact same words that Satan has used twice, ‘If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself’ (Luke 23:31)

Use your identity and power to save your physical life
Use your identity and power to come down and show us, and establish your Kingdom
You cannot trust God. You’ve got to do it now your way.

I do not doubt for one moment that Jesus could have saved himself.
But I also know that if Jesus had given in to that final temptation, if he had saved himself, we would not be here today, and there would be no salvation. We would serve him, as slaves, but we could never know him in freedom as friends.

And perhaps, as Jesus hung on the cross, the thoughts – in the sort of way that unconnected fragments of thoughts race round our head and smash into each other when we are in the hell of pain – must have asked: ‘Can God be trusted? Look at what has happened to me? And can I really trust him?’

But we know the answer to that. Because just before he dies Jesus cried out an amazing prayer of trust, a prayer that each one of us is invited to pray, ‘Father, into your hands I commend my spirit’.

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