There are two things going on in today’s Gospel that I think need to be distinguished. The Lord Jesus is fasting, and he is being tempted. These are two different sorts of experience that we often conflate but that should be kept separate from each other.
Jesus is in the desert fasting for 40 days at the prompting of the Holy Spirit. This is a good thing, it is of God, and it strengthens him for what is to come in his ministry.
At the end of this period he is tempted by the devil. This is a bad thing. The devil does this, and the devil’s malicious intent is to weaken and distract him from his ministry.
Being tested and being tempted are not the same thing. In fact, I think we can say that Jesus being tested is what makes him ready to face being tempted.
And this is not unusual in the Scriptures. Israel as a chosen people was tested in the desert for 40 years; Jesus is simply repeating this same pattern, and we know this because in every temptation he eventually faces he quotes from the book of Deuteronomy to thwart the devil, and Deuteronomy is a reflection on Israel’s sojourn in the desert right before entering the land of promise.
I quote from chapter 8, where Moses is addressing the people: “You shall remember all the way which the Lord your God has led you these forty years in the wilderness, that he might humble you, testing you to know what was in your heart, whether you would keep his commandments, or not. And he humbled you and let you hunger and fed you with manna, which you did not know, nor did your fathers know; that he might make you know that man does not live by bread alone, but that man lives by everything that proceeds out of the mouth of the Lord.”
This I suggest is our way in to understanding Jesus’ experience of testing because it is his way of understanding it. These verses from Deuteronomy are obviously on his mind since he casts them in the devil’s face when he is eventually tempted.
Israel was tested in the desert for 40 years by God to try their hearts, to see if they would keep God’s commandments and be worthy of their calling to be God’s witness to the nations. During that time God fed Israel with the food of angels, manna, to show to them that no one lives by earthly bread alone but by God’s sustenance and provision.
At the end of the 40 days of fasting, only then, does temptation come. It is only then in fact that Jesus feels hungry, that is, feels the effects of his having been tested.
And let’s try to be very clear about what exactly the devil’s temptation consists in. I think it’s everything to do with this insidious little word, “If.” This is how the devil always works; his only power is that of deception, and he uses it to undercut our confidence in the promises of God. Jesus has just heard, in the immediately prior verse to this reading, God the Father himself proclaiming from heaven, “This is my beloved Son.”
What could be clearer? Yet no sooner does that happen than the devil right away begins playing his games of nasty insinuation. “Are you really the Son of God? Did God the Father really say he loved you?” “If you are the Son God, then why not prove it?”
Now normally this temptation to turn stones into bread is interpreted as an enticement to gratuitously display supernatural power: If you are the Son of God then do a magic trick. I think that may be part of it, but I don’t think that’s the whole explanation.
Jesus’s answer to the devil, which again comes straight out of Deuteronomy, tells the whole story. The reason Jesus refuses to turn stones to bread is not so much because he refuses to do a magic trick but because he is reliant on the promises of God to provide what he needs. To say as Jesus does that we live by everything that proceeds from the mouth of God is to say that we live by the promises of the Father. The point of his answer is that he doesn’t need to provide himself with bread because God has promised that one way or another, even when it seems like our need is very great, God will provide us with everything we require.
It is I suggest precisely the same issue that is at stake in the second temptation our Lord faces, which again is couched in this cynical hypothetical tone: “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down” from the pinnacle of the temple.
Once again, the whole story here only comes into clarity if we read Jesus’ response against he background of Deuteronomy, which again Jesus quotes verbatim but incompletely: “You shall not tempt the Lord your God” comes now from chapter 6, where Moses tells the people of Israel, “You shall not put the Lord your God to the test, as you tested him at Massah.”
So what is that? Well, it’s a place and a place of some import during Israel’s journey though the desert. It was there that the people of Israel complained that they had no water to drink and condemned Moses for having led them out of Egypt to their graves. When Moses appeals to the Lord, God commands him to strike a rock with the same staff that was instrumental in the plagues of Egypt, and water in abundance bursts forth from the rock. Moses then names the place where God wrought this miracle “Massah,” which in Hebrew just means “testing,” and he names it this because he says there the children of Israel found fault with God and “put the Lord to the test by saying, ‘Is the Lord among us or not?’” The miracle at Massah proves that the Lord is with his people and that he will provide what they need.
So, when Jesus tells the devil that he will not put God his Father to the test what he means is that he will not question whether God his Father is with him, and he will once more instead trust God to provide what he needs.
The devil’s last try casts aside all subtlety and goes right for the jugular: “Worship me, and I will give you all the kingdoms of the world and their glory.” Once more Jesus’s answer recalls a verse from Deuteronomy: “You shall fear the Lord your God and serve him only.”
At this time Satan departs, and Matthew tells us that angels came and ministered to Jesus. I suspect this too is a deliberate reference to Israel’s experience in the desert, when they ate manna, the food of angels, as we have just been reminded by our Lord’s first reference to Deuteronomy. The Greek word translated here as “ministered” is “diekonoun,” which is where we get our word “deacon.” The most literal meaning of this term is someone who serves by waiting at table, providing food. Since Jesus is now hungry, I think it likely Matthew is telling us that angels brought food to our Lord upon his routing of the devil’s three-fold temptation.
If I am right, then notice something very interesting. In the end Jesus gets from his Father exactly what the devil promises and yet cannot deliver himself. The devil tempts Jesus to eat bread, and God provides him with bread from heaven. The devil tempts Jesus to summon angels from heaven, and God sends angels to minister to him. What about the last one though? Satan promises Jesus authority over the whole world. This too is not his to deliver, but God does crown Jesus the beloved Son with authority over all things. Just not yet.
Because there is one final temptation that Jesus must resist. It comes much later and not from the devil himself but from someone who is speaking diabolically. This final temptation has that same telltale formula: “If you are the Son of God…”
Matthew, chapter 27, verse 40. The witnesses to our Lord’s crucifixion put one last temptation before him. “If you are the Son of God, come down from the cross.”
Jesus successfully resists temptation three times at the very beginning of his ministry. And once more at the end.
And he is able to do so I think because he trusts God from beginning to end.
When Jesus has won the final victory over Satan, over death, and has been raised by the Father to new life, then and only then does he claim for himself what the devil vainly promised in exchange for forsaking God, dominion over all things: Matthew 28, the risen Lord Jesus’s final words to his disciples: “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me…and lo, I am with you always, to the close of the age.”
Those words of promise are the ones we should trust in when facing our own temptations and difficulties. Jesus Christ trusted in the Father who called Israel to be his own people and who promised to be faithful and loving to them. That same heavenly Father is made fully known to us in his Son, Jesus Christ. And he has promised us that he will be with us forever.
Lent is a time to remind ourselves of this truth. We do this by imitating our Lord’s life and practice. Jesus begins his ministry and readies himself for temptation by 40 days of fasting. The church wisely asks us to do the same and for the same reason: Fasting prepares us for the challenges of ordinary life and draws us closer to God in trust. We forgo things we are accustomed to providing for ourselves in order to tangibly live out our belief that ultimately all things come from God. We part with our needless possessions to demonstrate our confidence that God will give us whatever we really need. And we redouble our commitment to prayer and spiritual discipline because this proves to ourselves that are not just physical beings with physical needs but spiritual creatures who require relationship with our maker to be fulfilled.
The Lenten way is the Lord’s own way. If we will follow it, we will endure our own tests, vanquish our temptations, and share in the final victory that Jesus Christ has won on our behalf. Amen.