The Desert of Temptation
The Jordan River water slowly trickled off our Lord’s wet head. Behind Him the famous Jordan river snaked its way along; before Him the ancient serpent lay in wait. Still drenched with baptismal water, Jesus marched into the desert of temptation. Heaven and hell were about to exchange blows. And in the celestial realm, you could have heard a pin drop.
You are tempted, tempted to view the fight as a spectator, to whoop and cheer for your big brother who’s about to blacken the eye of the bully from Hades. But you are not a fan in the stands. No, you are in Christ. In Jesus, all of you go toe-to-toe with the heavyweight champion of hell. When this one man enters the ring with the tempter, all of you step in with Him. Just as in Adam all humanity fell through temptation into sin and death, so in Christ all humanity will rise through obedience into righteousness and life. You are not in the audience; you are in the desert, for you are in Christ.
When Jesus was baptized, His Father’s voice fell from heaven, proclaiming, “You are my beloved Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased,” (Mark 1:11). But there in the wilderness it did not seem so, did it? After fasting forty days and forty nights, Jesus was hungry. “You are my beloved Son,” the Father had said. Well, if you love Him so much, why are you allowing Him to suffer hunger? “. . . with whom I am well pleased,” the Father had affirmed. Pray tell, if you are so pleased with Him, why have you not given Him so much as a scrap of food to alleviate the wrenching emptiness of His stomach?
Such are the doubts devised by the devil. Satan, too, had heard the Father’s sermon at the baptism of this man. He watched Him fast, he saw Him hunger, so he devised a plan of attack. “The tempter came to Him and said, ‘If you are the Son of God, tell these stones to become bread,’” (Matt. 4:3). Do you hear what is suggested? The devil is saying, “If what that voice from the clouds said is true, then why has He abandoned you to die of starvation? Why is He depriving you of the basic necessities of life?” So, you see, Satan, hungry for victory, has swung his fist at the empty belly of our Lord.
But no more had that swing begun before it was blocked—not by human strength, not by will power, not by argumentation—but by what? Solely by the Word of God. Jesus answered and said, “It is written, ‘Man does not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God,’” (Matt. 4:4). And the word that had proceeded from the mouth of God was this: “You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.” Do you see? The temptation was not simply to turn rocks into food; Satan lured Jesus to turn from the trustworthy words of His Father to the fickle feelings of the human heart. But instead of turning stones into bread, Christ stuffed the stone of His Father’s Word into the devil’s open, tempting mouth.
That same satanic mouth has dropped such doubting thoughts into your suffering heart, hasn’t it? At your baptism, too, the Father said, “You are my son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.” But it doesn’t always seem so, does it? When the bills pile up, have you wondered what use is the Father’s rich grace if you haven’t money to pay what you owe? If you are so loved by Him, why did He allow you to be injured, to become ill, to be widowed or divorced, to spend hour upon hour in pain or misery or heartache or loneliness? If God is good, why is my life so bad? So goes the temptation to despair.
But as it was with Jesus, so it is with you. Satan is luring you to turn from the trustworthy words of your Father to the fickle feelings of your human heart. Do not trust yourself; trust your Father. If He sent His own beloved Son to the cross, do not pretend that He will spare you crosses, sufferings, and pains. But know and believe that behind these masks of suffering is the smiling face of your beloved Father. The Lord disciplines those He loves (Hebrews 12:6). In love He is bringing you, cross by cross, suffering by suffering, into conformity with His beloved Son, and finally, to the glory of the resurrection.
Having failed in his initial assault, Satan circled His opponent, planning his next attack. This time he went for the jugular. “The devil took Him to the holy city and had him stand on the highest point of the temple. ‘If you are the Son of God,’ he said, ‘throw yourself down. For it is written: “He will command His angels concerning you, and they will lift you up in their hands, so that you will not strike your foot against a stone,”’” (Matt. 4:5-6). What is the devil up to, trying to break our Lord’s neck? No, he is far more sinister than that. He is saying, “You claim, then, that you are the beloved Son of God, He in whom God is well-pleased. If that is so, if your Father loves you so much and you are so well-pleasing to Him, then I suppose He will do anything to protect you. Very well then, throw yourself down from the temple. Why, He has even said He will protect you with His angels. You rely on His word—well, then, take Him at His word and fly, O wingless Son of God.”
But as the devil tried to wrench the sword of the Spirit from Lord’s strong grasp, he sliced open his hand on the razor-sharp blade. Yes, the psalm says, “He will give His angels charge concerning you . . .,” but the deceiver omitted the words that follow, “in all your ways.” Never had the Father commanded Jesus to jump from the pinnacle of the temple; thus to do so would be to “walk in a way” outside God’s Word and command. So Jesus responds, “It is also written: ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test,’” (Matt. 4:7). You shall not test His anger by abandoning His straight Word to walk in the way of man’s twisted thinking.
As Dr. Luther notes, this second temptation—the temptation to abandon the Lord’s clear Word—it is the greatest. With this temptation, the devil has shattered the outward unity of the Church into thousands of sectarian shards. Men and women, walking not in the clear way of God’s Word but in their own muddled emotions and opinions, have jumped from the pinnacle of truth and struck their feet upon the stone of heresy. Do not put the Lord your God to the test; rather, inscribe the Words of God onto your heart that you may not subscribe to the lies of the tempter’s mouth.
Having now been defeated in the first two rounds with our Lord, Satan stepped forward for one final swing. In the first temptation, the devil held adversity and pain in the face of Jesus; here, he holds prosperity and delight before him. The devil “took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor. ‘All this I will give you,’ he said, ‘if you will bow down and worship me,’” (Matt. 4:8-9). The devil knew that Jesus knew what sufferings awaited Him, so he says, “You who claim to be God’s Son are not worthy of this miserable life; see the riches, view the honor, covet the glory I would bestow upon you! All, yes, all this and more I will give if only you will get on your knees before me.”
But our Lord came not to be served but to serve and to give His life as a ransom for many, as a ransom for you. And if He came not to be served, certainly He came not to pursue wealth, fame, and glory. He came to fear, love, and trust in God above all things, and in so doing, to fulfill the law for you. So He said, “Away from me, Satan! For it is written: ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve Him only,’” (Matt. 4:10).
Do you see what our Lord has done in His conquest of Satan with all his temptations? He has utterly reversed the fall of the first man. But that is not all. He has not only reversed Adam’s fall; but He has also brought forward a new humanity, with Himself being a new Adam who bears in His own body the source of all true and lasting life. What you could not do, Christ has done for you. The tempter whom you could never defeat on your own, Christ has defeated. The new genesis, which you could never create, Jesus has created for you.
In the plush Garden of Eden, the first Adam was defeated by the ancient serpent. But in the wasteland of the Judean wilderness, Jesus fought off the temptations of the evil one. Every fiery arrow shot from Satan’s bow was doused in the water of the Word. Heaven and hell stood toe-to-toe and hell was left lying in the dust, that you, O man of dust, might stand toe-to-toe with God and be embraced by Him as a beloved child.
The Lord Jesus fought and won this battle for you. His victory over the devil is your victory as well, for all that Christ accomplished has been reckoned to you as your very own. When you fall prey to the temptations of Satan, flee to the One by whom Satan has already been defeated. Those who are in Christ Jesus cannot be harmed by the enticements of evil. As in Adam you died in sin, so also in the obedient Christ you live. Repent and return to Him. Leave the old Adam with his death and come to the new Adam with all His life. He will receive and embrace you as His very own. He who was tempted for you is never tempted to turn you away. His baptism is your baptism, His conquering of sin is your conquering of sin, His crucifixion, His resurrection, His ascension are all yours. What belongs to the head belongs to the body, and you are the body of Christ, living members of that man who is also God, the One in whom you have the life of the Father.
“Lead us not into temptation,” our Father, but lead us into the One who conquered the tempter for us: Jesus Christ, our Lord.