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Lead Us Not Into Temptation
Good morning, church. Please go with me to the book of Matthew, chapter 4. And I always try to warn you, because I know we’ve got the verses on the screens, but you’re going to want a real Bible this morning, with headings and all of that so you can notice some big-picture things going on.
We’ve been in a series through the book of Matthew for several weeks now, and to understand what we’re reading it’s helpful to understand the reason Matthew is writing his gospel account. Matthew was one of the disciples of Jesus, so this is a first-hand account of Jesus’ life, but he’s not just writing just to let people know about a remarkable life. We know that because Mark and Luke had already accomplished that by the time Matthew is writing. Mark was the original gospel to Jewish people, and Luke came in as a Roman, a gentile, writing his account to the gentiles who considered themselves superior to the Jewish people and wouldn’t have accepted Mark’s account, just like many people today consider themselves better equipped than the ancients to answer questions about the historicity of events recorded by eyewitnesses.
Matthew’s not writing to set the record straight, Matthew is in full agreement with Luke and Mark, to the degree that theologians call those three books the synoptics, meaning they are all seeing these events the same way. 94% of the book of Mark is repeated in Matthew’s gospel. What Matthew is doing: Matthew is making a case. He’s arguing for something, arguing that Jesus is the one who is going to save the people of Israel, and that in Christ we find the fulfillment of all of the promises of God. “All of the promises of God find their yes in Jesus.”
Matthew is having to argue for that because the people to whom he’s writing didn’t really believe it, just like we today don’t really believe it. In Matthew’s day, people didn’t really believe that Jesus was going to save the people of Israel, because in their minds, Jesus had tried and failed. In the whole vast empire of Rome surrounding the time Jesus lived, there was only ever one mention of his life and work: a single sentence that misspells his name while simultaneously insulting his whole people, as only the empires of the world can do. It calls him Crestus—saying basically there was potential of an uprising in Jerusalem, but we got ahead of it. Problem solved, remember this the next time I’m up for a raise. And most of Judea felt the same way: he really had a chance to save our people from Rome, but they got him. And like the couple walking the road from Jerusalem to Emmeus, they collectively hung their heads and waited for the next person who might have a chance.
That’s why Matthew is having to argue with people in his day, and my hope this morning is that you will let Matthew argue with you this morning. I hope we can be bold enough to admit, every one of us, that we don’t fully believe Jesus is going to save us, either. In some part of our emotion we feel like the people to whom Matthew is writing—we feel like we gave him a chance and he failed. Maybe in a purely spiritual sense we’re saved from some spiritual danger—we’re saved from hell in the afterlife—but the salvation of Jesus isn’t clear to us in the real world, which we tend to believe is this world we live in. For our real world problems, we tend to seek real world solutions.
I want you to let Matthew argue with you. Because Matthew doesn’t believe the salvation of Jesus in a purely spiritual sense. He sees Christ as being the true fulfillment, in this life and the next, of everything we most desperately long for. But even more than that, he sees Jesus as the one leading God’s people, at long last out of the desert of their own rebellion into the fulfillment of everything they had ever dared to dream. Let’s read it, Matthew 4, starting in v.1 [Matthew 4:1-11] This is the word of the Lord; thanks be to God. Pray with me, briefly.
As a whole, this passage is about temptation. In Jesus’ temptation we see a reflection of the temptations we all face day to day. But I want you to notice something subtle here, too, that really begins to become clear in our passage. Two things. I want you to notice that Jesus’ life mirrors the history of the people of God recorded in the Old Testament, and I want you to notice he’s living their history somewhat backwards.
In the Law, mainly in the books of Exodus and Deuteronomy, we find the history of the people of God recorded by Moses. There is a promise given to a very old man named Abram, a covenant. And the promise is that God would give him a new name. You see, what Abram and his wife wanted more than anything was a child. Some of you know that pain. It’s a terrible pain, a gaping hole in a life. Abram’s name means father of a nation, but by the end of his life, he doesn’t even have a child, much less a nation. No descendants. His name becomes a cruel joke.
One day God comes to him, just as he comes to each of us in the midst of our mourning, and just like us God offered to change not just Abram’s name, but his past and future, too. He says I’m going to change your name to Abraham, rav meaning many, so his name now means “father of many nations.” You wanted a people called by your name, a legacy. Instead of a people called by your name, I give you many peoples called by my name. All nations, he says, because I’m not going to just save you and your people from whatever slaveries they enter into, but I will save every people through you and your children. Then, along with the promise, God gave Abraham a child, the first child of the descendancy God would use to save every people.
Later on, Abraham’s people do enter into slavery. It’s one of their own making, in part; they sell their own brother, and then they flee for their lives to Egypt. God brings them up out of slavery in Egypt and across the sea where they are safe, to a mountain, where they receive the law of God. Then, the Holy Spirit leads God’s people into the desert, because there’s always a desert in each of our lives and stories. And God’s people don’t really make it through the desert. In the desert, they’re tempted, and they fail. Even Moses. They lose an entire generation. But then, they pass through the Jordan, and find a home. Some of you know that pain. It’s a terrible pain, a gaping hole in a life to not have a place and a people who are home for you.
They establish a kingdom in the land, one that under David wins the admiration of every nation across every sea for the richness and peace of it, and kings and queens make long journeys just to be in the presence of David’s son and pay him homage.
I want you to see how Jesus lives this same history, as Matthew unfolds the story of his childhood, but kind of backwards. When he is first born, kings undertake long journeys to pay homage, he flees for his life to Egypt, and then returns across the sea where he is safe. Then Jesus passes through the Jordan River in his baptism as we saw last week, but going the opposite direction of his ancestors. He passes through the Jordan to be led by the Spirit of God into the desert for forty days, like the forty years, to wander, dependent on the Lord for his sustenance. Only he makes it through the desert where his forefathers fell to temptation, even Moses, and yielded to death. Then in chapter 6 we will see Jesus come to a mountain, like Moses, and give a new law which fulfills the one Moses taught on the mountain so long ago.
In this, Matthew is teaching us that the fulfillment of every promise God made is going to be found in Jesus. The promise he made so long ago to a man who desperately longed for a child, longed to be remembered. The promise to a child whose own brothers sold him into slavery, that God would remember him there and free him. The promise to a people oppressed and longing for freedom from Egypt and from Rome. The promise to you, to prosper you and not to harm you. It’s all found in Christ.
Matthew is showing us in this that where we failed Christ is able to succeed. This passage shows us that he was tempted in every way we were. We should recognize in these temptations, our own temptations. Not only is Jesus the new and better Moses, able not only to give the law but to fulfill it, able to face temptation and death and actually prevail. Not only is he the new and better Moses, he’s the new and better you and me. He is able to give life and to heal and to reunite, where we so often do damage and divide, which is where we should start in our conversation about temptation.
When I was young, I thought what was right and wrong was simple, and resisting temptation was mostly just about, in weak moments, not doing the things you knew you weren’t supposed to do and depending instead upon God for strength. And I think that’s very true. Sometimes we need to remember the simplicity of childhood. There are many things the devil tempts us to do which we just ought not do, and it’s not complicated. You shouldn’t commit adultery, for example. Instead, you should treat people like they’re family. She’s your daughter, your sister, your mother, even if all you know of her is a picture. Care for her; don’t use her.
I’ve seen firsthand that particular sin wreck and end lives, friends who have committed suicide in their shame, loved ones who went through years of feeling fully known, and then rejected, which is about the worst kind of pain there is, and you don’t really recover from that. Do we not yet know, the law of God, like any good father, is given to protect you, to help you thrive?
And I have many friends who are sober for good reason, just like Jesus wasn’t eating that day for a good reason, and the temptation to take a drink is daily, and they know it won’t just be a drink, it will be a week, a life, or a relationship lost. So they take it day by day, and I admire them for their strength. This is the kind of temptation we see at first in our passage. Jesus knows exactly where the spirit has led him and why, and he’s fully human.
Offering him bread is cruel—it’s the very thing everything inside of him is craving. It’s like offering a drink to the alcoholic. Sin is cruel. It has no mercy, and hits you when you’re already down. The temptation never comes when you’re doing well, and work is going well, and you just got a raise and your family is thriving. It comes when you’re down already. When it’s late, and you can’t sleep because work has you stressed out. When you and your husband just had the same huge fight again. When you lose someone, or you’re afraid you’ve lost yourself. When your kid shouted at you for the past four hours. That’s usually when temptation comes. Jesus hadn’t eaten for forty days and the enemy offered him bread.
I don’t know what it is for you, the weak part of your armor. For Jesus, after forty days, it was food. For me it’s usually my words. They’re like fire, and when I’m not careful people get burned. Especially when I’m at home, and it’s late, and work was exhausting. One of the kids breaks a rule, and instead of loving correction out of my mouth comes destruction. Or in arguments when I start playing to win, not to win my brother to my side, but to win the argument. To show I’m smarter, to show I have the moral high ground. You may say, that’s not a big weakness, but you haven’t lost the relationships I’ve lost, seen the damage I’ve done in the eyes I’ve looked into.
When Satan offers Jesus the bread, Jesus quotes the Bible, and I’ve heard a lot of people say this is why we should memorize the Bible, and I say memorization is good, but what’s more important is that the truth of God is what is in you, the same way blood is in you. Filling you, keeping you alive, and if you get hurt, it’s what comes out. The truth of God has to be in your veins, and not just the truth of God, but his Spirit, his love for Christ and the rest of his children.
You can memorize a passage and not internalize it, and I love that Satan proves that to us in this same passage, in the second temptation. You can use the Bible without believing it. And you can be filled with the truth of God and the Holy Spirit and love without being able to quote the scriptures. What matters is what’s filling you. Bad trees don’t produce good fruit. “And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing.”
So sometimes temptation is simple. I knew that when I was young, but for a while I forgot it, and I needed to remember—maybe you need to remember, too. Sometimes we know what the right thing to do is, and the only thing lacking is obedience. The only thing lacking is you confessing your sins one to another and doing differently.
Now that I’m older though, I’m realizing two things: one, how very weak I am, and two, how subtle temptation can be. This second temptation with the enemy quoting the psalms should remind us of our own weakness. When I was a child, I thought I had a strong will and was able to largely resist the temptations of my life. Now that I’m an adult, I realize more and more as I mature, how deeply broken I am, how often I fall to temptation, and how much damage I’ve done in the world, how desperately I need a savior, both from this world and from myself. It’s when I look at Christ that I realize how far I am from the way humanity was meant to be, and I long desperately to be made whole, more like him. I pray this morning the Holy Spirit would bless each of us with conviction of how wretched we are, and at the same time, how beloved.
Again, this second temptation should remind us of our weakness. “We are not as strong as we think we are.” We love to rest in confidence on the absolute truthfulness, the infallibility of Scripture, and that’s true. God is infallible, this passage bears witness to it, and the scriptures are true in every way they mean to be true, but what we like talking about less is how fallible we are. The scope or sight of a gun can be true down to the millimeter and we can still miss the mark through human error. We can shoot our brothers. We can hurt our neighbors. Scripture is powerful. We should be wary of it when it is used carelessly or when placed not in the hands of trustworthy people.
Satan quoting the scriptures should show us how much damage we can do simply with our misinterpretation of the true and beautiful words of God. And this is what I mean by recognizing the older I get how very weak I am: I’ve been wrong so many times as I’ve tried to interpret and teach scripture. I know this because I’ve changed my mind, which means I was either wrong before, or I’m wrong now, or then there’s always the lovely thought that I might have changed my mind from one wrong idea and believed something else that’s also wrong. What I know for sure in changing my mind is that I’ve been wrong.
In response to Satan, Jesus responds by quoting the same passage in Deuteronomy over and over again, one that expresses what he later identifies as the heart of the law and the prophets: That God is one, and you should love him with everything and love your neighbor because he loves them. He keeps going back to that, because again, if that’s not in your veins, whatever else you know is meaningless.
So I’m learning how weak I am, and I’m learning how subtle temptation is. This last temptation is one Jesus faced over and over again in his life. A temptation I’ve only rarely seen someone resist, which is the temptation to use what is rightfully yours for yourself, or another way to say it is, the temptation to take by force something God has already given in grace. It’s the same temptation we see in the garden when the enemy tempts two people who are already made in the image of God with godlikeness, and in this we should see that the enemy has not changed his tactics in the many years between the garden and this desert, and he has not changed his tactics in the many years between this desert and our lives today. He doesn’t need to change. We’re still falling to this temptation today, in subtle ways.
You have to realize all of the kingdoms of the world already belonged to Jesus. He already holds the power Satan is tempting him with. So you can see how subtle this is, the temptation is to pick power up and use it. Rule instead of suffer on the cross. Overthrow instead of serve. But Jesus makes the choice to hold it, not to use the power given to him, but to carry it, and even to destroy it so it can’t be used as a weapon ever again. Only rarely have I seen someone do this, and it is beautiful to behold.
Can you imagine someone who is eternal, Lord over creation and every nation, miracle worker who uses that power to rule absolutely, to crush dissent, to uplift his own people at the expense of the rest? What a terrifying thing that would be. Praise be to Christ, who chose, even in the midst of his own weakness, to suffer and die at our hands, for our sake, rather than call his armies to save him. The king of all creation who chose to live without a home so we could be welcomed into his father’s house.
I would invite you this morning to admit this morning that you’ve been wrong. That you have fallen to temptation. Maybe you’ve simply done something you knew was wrong. Or you’ve taught something to your children, to your people, that was wrong. Or maybe, more subtly, you’ve taken what’s given to you and used it to lift yourself high rather than serve the people around you. The time given you, the intelligence, the position, the money, the family, the morality. We need forgiveness, and we need a savior.
Every week we pray the Lord’s prayer here, which includes the line “lead us not into temptation,” and this week I hope we can understand that in order to spare us from the trappings of the enemy, Christ allowed himself to be led into temptation in this desert of our wanderings. He crossed out of his kingdom, out of the city of God, out of the promised land, over the Jordan, into the desert so we, even in our sin, could come into the land, the city, and the kingdom. When we were unable to come to him, Christ came out to us even when we were lost in the desert places of our lives.