Tested in the Wilderness

Tested in the wilderness Luke 4:1-13

Read Genesis 3:1-15

Who is Jesus? Luke tells us right at the start: You are my Son whom I love; with you I am well pleased. The supplementary reading from Genesis in the light of the account of the temptations quite clearly places Jesus as the one man who overcomes temptation and brings life instead of death. The context of the temptations following Jesus’ baptism is important. Who is Jesus? He is the son of God, full of the Holy Spirit, led out to be tested in the wilderness. That puts a different perspective on being full of the Holy Spirit. And as Jesus is tempted, through it we see what kind of Messiah, what kind of Son, he is going to be.

Hebrews 2 talks of Jesus the high priest who has been tempted in every way and who understands our weaknesses. That is true, but what we have happening through the wilderness temptations is even greater than that: for Jesus to have fallen at this point, to have given in to temptation, would have meant deviation from the path God had set for the salvation of human kind. If Jesus was fully human as well as fully divine – and Christians believe he was – then there was the very real possibility of Jesus giving in to the temptations laid before him, otherwise they were a sham. Jesus has been tempted in every way that we might be or have been; he has also overcome much greater temptation, and failure to do so would have had far greater consequences.  

Why read the Genesis story? Because the temptations laid before Adam and Eve are echoed loud and clear in the temptations of Jesus. The evil one comes seeking to exploit a weakness. We get a concise account in both cases, but I would think there was a struggle going on internally. The first point of temptation is human appetite. For Jesus this came after a prolonged period of fasting and so it would have been natural to take the opportunity to eat. Genesis says that the woman saw the fruit was good to eat and pleasing to the eye. The appeal to the senses over-rode the commandment of God with both Adam and Eve.

This is the point Paul is referring to when he says that death came through a man and in Adam all die (1 Cor 15:21-22). The choice the first humans made was to deny the command of God and take things into their own hands. The choice the first humans made was to throw off the authority of God; to refuse to submit to it. The choice Jesus made, although the Son of God – although equal to God – was to submit to the authority of the Father. That is why Paul can also say in those verses from Corinthians that resurrection comes through a man and that it is in Christ we are made alive.

The second temptation of Christ is also paralleled in Genesis. Not only was the fruit pleasing to the senses, but it also promised power: you will be like God said the evil one. Jesus is told that he can have authority over the kingdoms of the earth and have all their splendour. This is where the title Jesus gives the evil one – the father of lies – comes into its own. Whilst the evil one has authority in the earth allowed in the wisdom of God, the kingdoms are not his to give away. In any case Psalm 2 (the place where the quote at Jesus’ baptism comes from) reminds us that not only are the nations the inheritance of the Son already, but they are the gift of God. Adam and Eve are deceived by the lies of the evil one: they could gain wisdom and be like God, but the gift wasn’t the evil one’s to give. In reaching out they removed God from the throne of worship to put themselves in his place.

The third temptation for Adam and Eve was to test the truth of the statement: ‘You must not eat from the fruit of the tree in the middle of the garden, and you must not touch it, or you will die.’ The evil one said they wouldn’t and so they reached out: ‘For as in Adam all die…’  The tempter said to Jesus, “God won’t let you die if you jump off this high point”. Refusing to jump was not lack of faith, or a lack of understanding on Jesus part, but a recognition that you don’t mess around with God, and a maturity that did not and does not need gimmicks to bolster faith or prove the faithfulness and trustworthiness of God. So as a Son of Man is again faced with the temptation to reject the authority of God, the victory is won.

We often say that Jesus was tempted in every way we are, but overcame the temptation. We might however  think these were special temptations and they don’t cover the range we might face. If we sometimes think there might be something Jesus couldn’t empathise with, that we experience, we need to consider the throw away line

When the devil had finished all this tempting, he left him until an opportune time.

Now I think Luke was probably looking towards Jesus agonising in prayer in the garden, but there must have been other times the tempter could have exploited. How often must Jesus have been tempted to confound his critics with a display of miraculous power – although they saw the miracles and still didn’t believe.

With the popularity he gained, he must have been tempted to take the path of power and glory, rather than that of humility, obedience and death. The adulation he received could have been a temptation to accept it and all that went with it and all it promised, but he followed the path of obedience. We may read the account of the wilderness temptations and think that was temptation done with. However, it would be naive, especially since we believe Jesus was fully human and so subject to the same temptations affecting you and I, but he overcame. This is what Hebrews says:

For this reason he had to be made…fully human in every way, in order that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in service to God, and that he might make atonement for the sins of the people. Because he himself suffered when he was tempted, he is able to help those who are being tempted. Hebrews 2:17-18

Stop and reflect on the temptation in the garden – perhaps the greatest temptation – to walk away from the mission he had been given, and in doing so walk away from torture, ridicule, humiliation and death. In the film ‘The Passion of Christ’, at the end of the scene in Gethsemane, Jesus is shown crushing the head of a snake slithering by, with his foot. It signified his resolve to submit to the Father’s will and hearkened back to Genesis 3:15. In the scene where Jesus gives up his spirit, Satan is portrayed as despairing, because he has realised Jesus has won the victory over sin through his perfect and selfless sacrifice. Paul says to the Corinthians when talking about the resurrection

For since death came through a man, the resurrection of the dead comes also through a man. For as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive. 1 Corinthians 15:21-22

Temptation has been overcome completely and in achieving this Jesus has brought salvation.

So what can we take from this account of the temptations? Well if Jesus was tempted, then as his followers we can expect to be tempted as well. The tempter will come with the question ‘if’ in all sorts of ways, often questioning whether you really are a Christian, whether God can really forgive you for something in particular or challenging faith in the loving goodness of God.

If you are a Christian, a child of God, why aren’t you as materially blessed as other Christians? Why aren’t you enjoying the material things they enjoy?

This is the lie of the prosperity gospel and the incorporation of materialism into the gospel of salvation. I was listening to a brief interview with Yonggi Cho the now retired lead pastor of a church in South Korea of enormous proportions and example of prosperity teaching. He was saying that it is clear God blesses believers materially. When they become believers, they give up gambling, or drinking or squandering their money, so they become richer. Undoubtedly the Holy Spirit has worked in their lives and transformed people if these things happen, but that is bringing them back to living wisely and using the resources they have wisely. It is enabling them to live life as it should be, but is not the same as ‘become a Christian and God will make you rich.’

Undoubtedly changed hearts brings about changed lives, but nowhere does Jesus promote prosperity as a consequence of following him. If anything, Jesus taught that material things were unimportant and only caused worry. There are things that are important for life, but if we make them the reason and purpose for life, they become idols that displace God.

Jesus didn’t promise prosperity and the disciples didn’t lead materially prosperous lives. If this becomes our goal and aim in life, we lose our way and all becomes a burden. Jesus did call us to be fishers of people; to be salt and light; to be counter-cultural. If you want to know how, read the sermon on the mount in Matthew’s gospel. Jesus did call us to take up our cross and follow him. That is not to seek persecution and suffering, but often his followers experienced and experience that, because following Jesus puts them at odds with culture.

If you are a Christian, why do you struggle and suffer? I thought Psalm 97 said that the sun shines on the righteous? Whilst we rejoice in the blessing of God, we are not promised that because we follow Jesus all will go well. We live in a fallen world and are subject to the same sadnesses and difficulties of the world. The difference is we have the assurance that we

do not have a high priest who is unable to feel sympathy for our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are – yet he did not sin. Let us then approach God’s throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need. Hebrews 4:15-16

If you are a Christian, surely God wants you happy. It can’t be wrong to want the good things around you. Your ambitions are perfectly understandable – why wouldn’t God want you to fulfil them? When I was 14 I was convinced that God was calling me to be Christian minister. The minister of my church was quite excited…didn’t want to be financially strapped… Jesus said seek first God’s Kingdom, and all that you need will be provided. Get the priorities right.

You may be thinking we have strayed a long way from the temptations, but aren’t these the things we struggle with in life; and don’t they mirror the temptations of Jesus in so many ways? I believe Jesus enjoyed the life he lived on earth and brought joy, happiness and freedom to those he met. He and his disciples were probably supported in their ministry by those who had extra resources, because they were not working as they ministered. In life he also faced all the temptations we face and greater, because he was also the Son of God. In Genesis, the clear intention was that God wanted humankind to enjoy the world he had brought into being; but creation and all it had to offer was not to displace God who is to be worshipped over all.

The temptations Jesus faced were designed to take his focus from God and redirect it on himself. Jesus kept his focus on God the Father and overcame. We follow in his footsteps and as Paul says

No temptation has overtaken you except what is common to mankind. And God is faithful; he will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear. But when you are tempted, he will also provide a way out so that you can endure it. 1 Corinthians 10:13

Jesus has given us his Spirit and in his strength we can be over-comers. As we seek God’s Kingdom first, we are not losing out. We will find fulfillment and the blessing of God.