Complementary Text – Psalm 91:9-12
Preaching Text – Matthew 4:1-17
+ Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, in the unity of the Holy Spirit. Amen. +
Over the last few weeks we’ve been introduced to some of the major figures in the Gospel of Matthew: Mary and Joseph, the parents of God’s Messiah; Herod, the king of Judea who threatened the life of the newborn Jesus; John the Baptizer, the forerunner of Jesus who preached a message of repentance; the Pharisees and Sadducees, representatives of the religious establishment who would soon oppose Jesus’ ministry; and, of course, Jesus himself, the one who came in fulfillment of Scripture to be Immanuel – God with us. Today’s Scripture reading centers on a confrontation between Jesus and another major figure who will not appear again in Matthew’s Gospel, but whose influence on the story (and on our world) is unmistakable. I’m talking, of course, about the Devil – also referred to in today’s reading as Satan and “the Tempter” – who appears in the wilderness to match wits and wills with Jesus after his forty days of fasting. The Devil doesn’t get a lot of press these days; frankly, talking about a single person who represents evil can seem like a relic of the past, and we who live in a “more enlightened” time in history have largely ignored the Devil in our reflections on life and faith. So some people retain this belief in the Devil as the personification of evil, a real and concrete being who still attempts to exert influence over us; others see the Devil as a symbol for otherwise impersonal forces that oppose God’s will; still others dismiss the idea of a Devil entirely, worried about the idea that this belief can lead us to give up responsibility for our actions because “the Devil made us do it”. Whatever you happen to believe about the Devil, as Christians we believe that evil is real, and that God’s will is constantly and consistently being opposed in our world. So we do well to think seriously about the Devil, because the story of Scripture in general testifies to an on-going struggle between God and the forces of evil that threaten God’s good creation. So what does today’s encounter between Jesus and the Devil have to teach us about this on-going struggle? Let’s look at the three titles Matthew uses for Jesus’ opponent for some insight.
In verse three, when the first of the three challenges is issued to Jesus, Matthew refers to Jesus’ opponent as “the Tempter” or “the Tester”. Forty days after the incredible events surrounding Jesus’ baptism, the “Tempter” tries to get Jesus to put that heavenly pronouncement – “This is my Son” – to the test: “If you really are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread!” The first test for Jesus is a test of priorities. Which is more important: his own needs, or his obedience to God’s will? I don’t imagine that it’s too hard for us to think of times where we’ve had to face this test ourselves. All too often, we are presented with the choice between doing what is easy and what is right, between doing what benefits us and what serves others and demonstrates our allegiance to God. Jesus’ response to the “Tempter” is a reminder that life is about more than our wants and desires; it’s about trust in God’s steadfast word and promise.
Now, we turn to the more frequently used title in this story. Four times, beginning in verse one, Matthew refers to Jesus’ opponent by using the Greek term διαβολος, often translated as “Devil” in English. In truth, rather than describing a powerful, demonic presence, this word would be more accurately translated “slanderer” or “back-biter”. The second test of Jesus illustrates this truth perfectly. “The Devil” takes Jesus to the highest point of the temple and encourages him to throw himself off, quoting Scripture to justify the exercise: “If you’re the Son of God, throw yourself down from here, for it is written, ‘He will command his angels concerning you,’ and “On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.’” Psalm 91 is a beautiful passage of Scripture, an incredible statement of faith in God’s providence, and in the Devil’s hands it is twisted beyond recognition so that God is bound by Jesus’ action rather than God’s own gracious will. There’s a huge difference, after all, between “I know you’ll do this” and “You have to do this!” The Devil turns God’s word into a lie, and perverts what should be a source of strength for the faithful by making it a bald-faced challenge of God’s promise. Jesus rightly rebukes Satan by quoting Scripture in return, this time from Deuteronomy 6: Do not put the Lord your God to the test. At the risk of using a cliché, anyone can quote Scripture, and anyone can twist it to his or her own purposes. Jesus reminds us that our use of Scripture must be guided by our knowledge of who God is and how God has promised to act in relationship with us and the whole creation. It is only from that perspective that these words can give life and hope to us and to this world that is so desperately in need of both.
The final title Matthew uses for Jesus’ opponent is Satan, which comes from a Hebrew word meaning “adversary”. The third challenge makes clear that this title is rightly used to describe the Tempter or Devil. Jesus is taken to that high mountain and shown all the kingdoms of the world. Then, Satan speaks: “All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.” With one brief sentence, Satan sets himself directly opposite God and invites Jesus to declare his allegiance. The choice couldn’t be clearer: worship the one who created and sustains all things and who promises to give us what we need for today, or the one who claims dominion over the world and offers it up too neatly and easily. Like Jesus, we face the same choice. As Christians, we have been called and claimed by God, given a new identity and the promise of God’s grace and love, and yet the world continues to offer us alternative identities, alternate paths to “safety” and “security” and “happiness” and “well-being”, often using terms that seem too good to be true. Jesus reminds us of the promises we have received and the promise that we have made in turn to worship and serve God alone.
After Jesus completes his opponent’s third challenge, Matthew says simply that the devil left him, but I don’t think the encounter ends that tidily. Though Satan doesn’t personally appear again in the Gospel, his fingerprints are all over the story as it unfolds. Jesus continues to be subjected to tests at the hands of those who oppose him, often in the form of questions that seem harmless on the surface but in truth represent thinly veiled attempts to trap him. Jesus’ words and actions continued to be misconstrued, and lies about his origins and agenda lead to his betrayal and death. His ministry will be opposed from the very beginning, as adversaries arise to contend with him.
As God’s people and disciples of Jesus, the same may be said about the world we face. “The Devil” may not show up visibly, but sin, death, and evil continue to be active forces in our world, and through them “the Devil” is alive and well. In the face of that opposition, we have the promise of being joined to God in Christ, being sustained for each day by the indwelling of God’s Holy Spirit, and knowing the strength that comes from God’s word of grace and new life revealed in Scripture. This week, brothers and sisters, as we face testing and slander and opposition, may we, like our Lord, stand firm in the knowledge of who we are and whose we are, and may the blessing of God, the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, surround and fill us this day and always. Amen.