Temptation and Christ’s Early Ministry
The problem with mountaintops is that they’re surrounded by valleys. When we last saw Jesus, he was basking in the glow of the Spirit of God while the voice of God the Father declared over him from heaven, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.” Chapter 4 opens right on the heels of that amazing scene and we find Jesus involved in a grueling battle with temptation. “If you are really the Son of God …” evil mocks. A chapter filled with firsts—the calling of the first disciples, the first recorded healings by Jesus, and the beginnings of what would become a crowd of his followers—and it all could have been nipped in the bud by evil.
There is much we can learn about evil and its ways in this temptation narrative. Jesus was fasting—a discipline well known to Jews of Jesus’ day. There were a number of reasons that Jews observed a fast. A fast was included in the prescribed method of annually observing the Day of Atonement, for instance. Saints of old also fasted in connection with grief and loss, or to demonstrate contrition before God, or to cry out in need of Him. Jesus had not eaten for forty days. I am thankful that God has never called on me to fast for forty days—there would certainly be an easier way for Him to take my life! But don’t miss that it was at this point—Jesus weary from many days without food—that evil shows up to test: ‘If you’re really God, what do you say we make a little bread?’ Historically, evil has had some of its greatest success approaching a man’s appetites. Greed? Lust? Pride? Perfect—a stumble de jour among men. But not with Jesus.
We learn another lesson of evil: Temptation often begins with some wholesome sounding aim or even a nugget of biblical truth, and then proceeds to unhealthy excesses or to some twisted application. Consider this quotation, for example: “In boundless love as a Christian and as a man I read through the passage which tells us how the Lord at last rose in His might and seized the scourge to drive out of the Temple the brood of vipers and adders.” Venture a guess who said that. Any preacher could have said that, right? Here’s the remainder of the quote: “How terrific was his fight to rid the world of the Jewish poison.” Care to guess now? Notice that there was a bit of truth at its base—Jesus did run charlatans and frauds out of the Temple. With just that hint of a mention, Adolf Hitler claimed to be continuing God’s work in the Holocaust. You see as much on the evening news. The words, ‘If you repent, I will restore you, that you may serve me,’ come from the book of Jeremiah. That sounds like a loving promise, doesn’t it? Those words serve as the battle cry for one of the most hate-filled organizations in our land—you might know them as the God-hates-fags church. Start with a sentence or two of truth, give it an evil twist, and voila! Evil tempted Jesus beginning with the words, “It is written.”
Matthew identified the evil that tempts Jesus as the devil. Contemporary understanding of the devil usually amounts to a Halloween costume—red tights, horns, tail and a pitchfork. That wasn’t the perspective of Matthew’s audience. In the text Matthew gives no introduction, but rather records Jesus was led into the desert to be tempted by the devil. His initial readers were familiar with evil. That adversary’s role in leading people to sin, in accusing and tempting, were well understood. In the Old Testament the devil is depicted as constantly roaming back and forth throughout the earth looking for people to devour. He had been a part of their ancient story from its earliest episodes—tempting Adam and Eve, human kind’s first parents. A quick look back at that account in the beginning of Genesis will reveal that his methods haven’t changed—appealing to appetites, taking a little bit of truth and twisting. Buyer beware.