Jesus’ baptism, which was the topic for the sermon last week, ended with a declaration from the Father: “This is my Son, the Beloved, in whom I am well pleased” (Matt. 3:17). His baptism marked the beginning of his ministry, and at that significant point he was given the title “the Beloved,” which was probably a central factor in shaping his identity. We can imagine what a magnificent holy moment it was for Jesus, as he rose from the baptismal water to hear this accolade from heaven: “the Beloved.”
Surprisingly, the very next verse in Matthew’s narrative about Jesus’ life speaks about him being tempted by the devil in the wilderness (4:1). This temptation immediately followed the high, holy moment of baptism. One following the other may seem startling at first, but it represents a common pattern for the children of God: that temptation often follows a deeply meaningful sacred experience.
- Can you relate to this sequencing of temptation so closely following a holy moment? Has that ever been your experience?
- Knowing that such a pattern is not uncommon, how might it help you in the future?
Jesus evidently went into the wilderness, which was the desert, for a time of retreat when he could pray and fast, seeking the presence and guidance of the Father. Perhaps it was planned as a time when Jesus would think through the focus and direction of his ministry. Then, after fasting a very long time, the devil came to tempt Jesus.
- Does it surprise you that Jesus, even Jesus, was tempted by the devil? What is significant for you about that fact for you?
Perhaps in the wilderness Jesus went through many temptations, but three in particular are related in the story of Matthew 4:1-11. The first temptation was to turn stones into bread. Jesus was famished from fasting; his body was surely demanding food. It was an opportune time for the tempter.
- Have you noticed that temptations are particularly prominent when you are run-down, weak, exhausted? Why might that be the case?
As humans we are complicated creatures, made up of both body and soul. And we make choices every day about how to care for our bodies and how to care for our souls. In Jesus’ example, when tempted to turn stones into bread, he said “no.” There were many reasons. One has to do with priorities: he chose “food for the soul” above food for the body, and he responded to the devil by quoting scripture: “One does not live by bread alone but by every word that come out of the mouth of God” (Matt. 4:4).
- Are there times when you make choices between “body and soul”?
- We cannot neglect our bodies if we want to be healthy enough to be faithful servants, and we cannot neglect our souls if we are going to be in tune with God’s will. Do you sometimes feel a tension between those two responsibilities? How do you work through that tension?
The second temptation for Jesus had to do with the idea that Jesus should jump off of the pinnacle of the temple in Jerusalem, knowing that God would send angels to rescue him (Matt. 4:5-7). Jesus again refused the tempter and said that such an act would amount to testing God. This temptation had to do with Jesus’ identity and mission, with the kind of Messiah that he would be. Would he be the sort who used the supernatural in spectacular ways in order to draw a crowd? Jesus refused to that option. Apparently he knew that such spectacle would actually undermine his mission.
He also knew that to do as the devil said would be an attempt to manipulate the Father into doing what the Son wanted. Such would be an effort to “force God’s hand” into rescuing Jesus from bodily harm.
- Is it the case that people today sometimes try to manipulate God into doing what they want? Can you think of any examples?
- Have you ever been tempted to manipulate God to do your will? Why is that such a bad thing to do?
The third temptation of Jesus is most dramatic: a temptation for him to worship the devil in exchange for receiving all the kingdoms of the world to rule (Matt. 4:8-10). Of course, Jesus refused. Such a temptation was a direct assault on the first commandment, in which God says “You shall have no other Gods before me” (Exod. 20:3).
The demonic challenge also amounted to the temptation of thinking that the end justifies the means. It suggested that the goal of getting all people to recognize that Jesus is king was so important that it justified the means of joining forces with the devil. Jesus would not do that.
- We are also tempted sometimes to think that a good “end” justifies a bad “means.” That is almost never the case. Can you think of some examples of people trying to accomplish a good goal by the wrong means? Is that sometimes a temptation for you?
The story of Jesus’ temptation tells us a lot about the integrity of our Lord. It also provides an example for us. If Jesus was tempted, of course we are, too. We are tempted every day.
- We are sometimes tempted to put the cravings of the body over the needs of the soul.
- We are sometimes tempted to try to manipulate God into doing what we want instead of seeking the Father’s will.
- And we are sometimes guilty of trying to use the wrong means to accomplish a worthy goal.
May Jesus’ example of resisting temptation be a model for us. The devil is still using many of the same strategies to tempt us to deny God’s will for us. This narrative helps us to be on guard for such temptation. It also gives us the encouragement that we, too, can refuse when tempted — that we, too, can make the choice to live faithfully as “the Beloved” of the Father.