Sermon: Matthew 4:1-11; First Sunday in Lent: The Devil’s Game: Seizing Kingship without Cross

Sermon: People of God, in this gospel lesson we will see that Christ is victorious over Satan, and as a result, we are victorious over the tempter when we answer temptation as Christ answered. Let us pray.

Prayer: May the words of my mouth, and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in Your sight, O Lord, our Rock, and our Kinsman. Amen.

As we enter into the Lenten Season we begin considering the temptation of our Lord Jesus Christ. In our study of the Beatitudes –some weeks ago– the eighth beatitude assured us that we will be persecuted for righteousness’ sake. Jesus speaks with full authority because He himself was persecuted; He himself suffered the temptations of the evil one. Peter makes this quite clear when he says that “your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour.”[1] In the great temptation of Matthew four, we have the roar of the adversary versus the roar of the Messiah.[2] The Messiah roars words of truth; the adversary roars words of deception.

Our Lord became man, so that he might taste death for everyone[3], but before tasting death, He endured temptations and persecution, and scorn. All these things were necessary, so He might become the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.[4] Jesus was led into these temptations in order to be tested by the Father. But this is not just any testing; it is the very heart of the ministry of Jesus. The wilderness testing is a sign that if Jesus defeats the devil, then all other accusations and temptations in his earthly ministry will also be defeated.[5]

The passage begins by stating that Jesus was led up into the wilderness by the Spirit. What preceded this event in Matthew’s gospel was the baptism of Jesus.[6] I addressed Jesus’ baptism some weeks ago and I mentioned that Jesus’ baptism was the beginning of His priestly work. In baptism, the Spirit comes upon us and we are called to be priests to the world;[7] those who reconcile the world to Jesus Christ. Baptism is the beginning of our priestly work. But we need to remember that the Christian story is not “before Jesus I had problems, but now with Jesus I have no problems,” rather, the Christian message is “before Jesus you had problems, and after Jesus you may have greater problems.” What is crucial to understand is that problems or no problems, in Christ we are secured; united to Christ we are kept from falling. We need to grasp that though we are in Christ, united to him by faith through our baptisms, yet life is not going to be untouched by problems and temptations. The very first mission of the baptized Christ was to overcome temptation.[8]

The first temptation our Lord suffered is in verse three: And the tempter came and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.” Matthew calls him the tempter. Why is this important? It is important because Matthew is connecting us to the Garden in Genesis three. The tempter of Genesis three is the devil. In Matthew four, the tempter comes again. But now he comes to the Second Adam, Jesus Christ.[9] The importance of this scene is that if the Devil defeats the Second Adam, then He has won the battle. This temptation asks the question: “Will Jesus be the New and True Adam or will He fail like the First Adam?”

The tempter addresses Jesus as the “Son of God.” The devil knows that Jesus is the Son of God[10] (remember this is all a part of the deceitful nature of the tempter); yet, by telling Jesus what to do to satisfy his deep hunger, the devil is re-echoing his words to Eve in the garden. In the garden, the tempter told Eve that it was time to eat of the tree; it was time to eat food; that she needed this to satisfy her hunger.[11] What was the problem with Satan’s suggestion? The problem was that it was not time to eat food yet. If Adam and Eve had continued to be faithful to Yahweh, eventually God would give them access to the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, but it was not time. They were not prepared. They needed to mature and grow in their faithfulness. The same thing is being done with Jesus. The devil knows that it is not time for Jesus to turn stones into bread, but if He can persuade Him to take His reward now then He will have conquered Him. This is not just the devil wanting Jesus to do a magic trick; rather, the devil wants Jesus to fall in the same way Adam fell.

But notice the language. Biblically, “stones” represent the dead kingdoms; we speak of stony hearts because they represent death, but when we speak of bread, we speak of a living kingdom. Jesus knew that first He needed to be faithful to His father before He could inherit the kingdom. As one pastor wrote:

If Jesus turns stones to bread at this point in time, it will ultimately do no good. The Devil is tempting him to seize kingship without the cross. But it is only through the cross that the true Bread of Life can be given.[12]

Jesus’ response is the response that Adam and Eve failed to give in the garden:

“Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.”

This is a quotation from Deuteronomy eight. Jesus is not saying “I don’t want bread,” rather He

is saying there is something more important than bread, and that is obeying the will of my Father. Faithfulness precedes food. Jesus is the Suffering Servant; the beloved of the Father; the greater Isaac,[13] and He knows that there will be a time for bread; there will be a time when He must become bread for the world, but the cross comes first, and glory after. Conformity to God’s word demands that we fast, so later we may feast. There are no short-cuts to life; if you believe there is another way to receive life than by trusting and obeying the Father’s will then you have fallen to the devil’s first temptation.

Then the devil took him to the holy city and set him on the pinnacle of the temple [6] and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down, for it is written,

“‘He will command his angels concerning you,’

and “‘On their hands they will bear you up,

lest you strike your foot against a stone.’”

Matthew speaks of the tempter in the first temptation, but now he speaks of the devil as the one tempting Jesus. The word devil is a generic word that means slanderer. The devil slanders God’s people. “He distorts God’s word. He is the fallen angel guide who will now seek to lead men astray.”[14] After having failed the first time, the devil now takes Jesus to the holy city. This is a clear reference to Jerusalem.[15] Matthew is conveying something very particular. He refers to it as “the holy city.” The Holy City is the place where God has chosen to put His name.[16] According to the text, Jesus is at the pinnacle of the temple; literally, the “wing” of the temple. The devil twists the Scriptures to get his way, but at the same time he does not foolishly twist the Scriptures. He is familiar with the Scriptures. In this temptation, he draws heavily from Psalm 91. Psalm 91 is a psalm that speaks of how we as a people will find refuge and strength covered by God’s wings. The reason the devil takes Jesus to the wing of the temple is because he is playing on the wording of Psalm 91. He is saying: “Why don’t you throw yourself to prove that you are under the Father’s wings and protection?” But again, this is another way of tempting Jesus to do what He needs to do without having to go to the cross; without having to endure the tribulations ahead. “Receive the Father’s protection now! After all, why suffer hardships, why endure the pain of the cross, when the Father can take you under His wings and end this before it starts?” And then the devil backs up his temptation by quoting Psalm 91:

“He will command his angels concerning you,’

and “‘On their hands they will bear you up,

lest you strike your foot against a stone.’”

How can you argue with the devil? He has a biblical passage he can claim for what he wants Jesus to do. The passage he quotes is quite true. God protects His people when they are in exile; when they are driven out of Egypt He bears them up on eagle’s wings. So, what is wrong with the devil’s statement?  The central problem with the devil’s statement is that he is saying that this promise can be understood without qualifications. “That is, you don’t have to wait to be driven out. You should presumptuously throw yourself out and the Father must protect you.”[17] But the promise of Psalm 91 is given to those who abide under the shadow of the Almighty; not “those who thrust themselves out from under His wings.”[18] The promise of Psalm 91 is to hold fast to Yahweh’s love; wait upon Him, not to act presumptuously or to act independent of God. James Jordan once wrote:

It is one thing to be driven from the area of God’s official wings, confident that He will extend His wings over you in exile. It is quite another to move out from under His wings on your own, presumptuously counting on His protection.”

Jesus will be eventually driven out of the Holy City, but He is not to force this. It will happen naturally; it is part of His mission. “When he is driven outside the gates and crucified, his Father will prove that he is with him when he raises him from the dead.”[19] “Jesus said to him, “Again it is written, ‘You shall not put the Lord your God to the test.’” If the devil shows how not to read the Scriptures, Jesus shows us how to read the Scriptures. Jesus is a superior exegete; a superior interpreter than the devil. He teaches us how to read the Bible, so that we might know how to resist the devil.[20] Jesus is alluding back to the people of Israel who[21] doubted God’s provision for them in the wilderness. In Exodus 17 we read that the people tested the Lord. They were essentially saying: “If you are God, why don’t you provide water for us.” In the same manner, the devil thought he would test Jesus as the people of Israel tested Yahweh. Again, Jesus knows that this is not the right time; He knows that Yahweh will provide for Him in His mission, and testing the Lord is just another way of saying “you do not trust God to provide for you at the right time.”

The third and final temptation in our passage is the culmination of the temptations: “Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their glory. [9] And he said to him, “All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.” [10] Then Jesus said to him, “Be gone, Satan! For it is written, “‘You shall worship the Lord your God and him only shall you serve.’”

We know this is the greatest temptation because the devil takes him to a very high mountain; an exceedingly high mountain.[22] As we have seen, mountains play a big role in Matthew’s gospel. Mountains are associated with worship. The fact that mountains are places of worship fits well with the devil’s temptation. The devil wants Jesus to bow down and worship him. The text says that the devil shows him all the kingdoms of this world and their glory. He is tempting Jesus through the lust of the eyes. Again, the third temptation is connected to the other two. It takes a third rebuke for the devil to get the point. And what’s the point? The point is Jesus will become bread and He will eat bread; the point is Jesus will throw Himself under His Father’s wings at the right time; and on this third temptation we need to see also that Jesus is not saying “I don’t want the kingdoms; I don’t want glory,” but rather He is saying that the One who is going to give Him the kingdoms and glory is not the devil, but the Father. Jesus will get everything, but the giver is not the devil, it is Yahweh. Psalm 110 promises that the nations will be given to Jesus as an inheritance. The real issue is an issue of timing. The deceiver wants Jesus to receive all things before the appointed time; but he fails, because Jesus knows that suffering precedes glory.

Our Lord’s forceful and powerful declaration concludes the temptations: “Be Gone, Satan!” You will notice that Jesus doesn’t say: “Be gone Devil” or “Be gone Tempter!” rather he says: “Be gone, Satan!” Satan is a word that means adversary. This word can be used in a legal fashion to speak of a prosecutor. Satan is the prosecutor who brings accusations against God and His people. But here, the prosecutor sits down and quiets himself. He has nothing else to say. He has no more authority.

Jesus responds once more with a passage from Deuteronomy: “You shall worship the Lord your

God and him only shall you serve.” We are called to worship God with our heart, mind and

strength. In the pursuit of righteousness there can be no idolatry. Jesus is establishing a foundation of worship for His people in resisting the devil. The result is that …the devil left him, and behold, angels came and were ministering to him.”

Jesus as the Son of God has moved from being created a little lower than the angels now to be exalted over the angels. They are now ministering to him, serving him.

The devil left him, but it is only for a season. He will show up again in many forms throughout the life of Jesus … even in his own disciples. But for now, there is a time of rest.[23]

Jesus is being refreshed for his earthly ministry.

How shall we then live?

This morning we are being refreshed for our ministry to the world. In this liturgy, God is renewing us and preparing us to conquer the world.

In this gospel lesson, what we see is that Jesus is tempted three times. All three temptations have a similar theme. The theme is to be rewarded, to be exalted before the proper time. For us, this speaks significantly to our calling as Christians. This is a summary of what it means to live by faith and not by sight. We can look at the pleasures of this world; the pleasures of instant gratification; and we can be tempted to think that what we see is what we most need, but in reality this is just another devilish temptation. The Garden sin was a sin of possessing without approval. God will give you all things, but we must be patient to wait for His timing; His approval.

The Christian faith is a future oriented faith. Much of the Christian faith is to deny yourself now for something better later. This is the way of the cross. It is the way our Lord lived.

Enduring tests of your faith is not easy, and I am not saying that it will be. Resisting temptation is not easy. It always seems better to take the quick and easy route, the route which avoids the cross instead of taking it up and dying. We want it all and we want it all now, when the reality is we will have all in God’s timing. And that waiting patiently will be our greatest reward; for in waiting we will see that God is always with us amidst our testings and trials.

What must we fight in this Lenten Season? What is it that so deeply entangles us? What sin is it that needs to be confessed? What role does prayer and biblical wisdom play in those things you long for? Have your desires been so conditioned by the world that they have become worldly desires? There is nothing inherently wrong in possessing things; but there is something wrong when your desires for possessing things are void of godly patience. The devil’s game is to persuade you that kingship comes without the cross, but Jesus offers the better way. He endured temptations, so that we would be strengthened to endure temptations. As Paul said:

“No temptation is greater than that which we can bear.”[24]

This morning our joy is in knowing that because Jesus authoritatively defeated the devil, we too, united to him by faith, have the same authority to declare: “Be gone, Satan!” Only the Lord God will I worship and serve.

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.


[1] I Peter 5:8

[2] See Jeremiah 25:30

[3] Hebrews 2:9

[4] John 1:29

[5] The temptation of our Lord is rooted in the messianic battle stated in Genesis 3:15.

[6] Jesus’ baptism was a form of inaugural priestly ministry; also, a re-living of Israel’s journey. Jesus is the faithful Israelite.

[7] Peter says we are a holy priesthood.

[8] See I Corinthians 10:12-13.

[9] As the first temptation was on a mountain (Garden); the second temptation is on a mountain.

[10] The Greek can easily be translated in this way: Since you are the Son of God.

[11] To satisfy her curiosity and immaturity.

[12] Rev. Bill Smith.

[13] Genesis 22.

[14] Rev. Bill Smith.

[15] Nehemiah 11:1.

[16] Smith.

[17] Bill Smith.

[18] Ibid.

[19] Smith.

[20] Stanley Hauerwas writes: “Jesus is able to resist the devil, a devil able to quote scripture, by

being a superior exegete to the one who would tempt him. Jesus, the faithful interpreter of

Israel’s scripture, teaches us how to read so that we might know how to resist the devil.”

[21] Exodus 17.

[22] Mountains are gardens; in Genesis the four rivers flowed down. The Garden of Eden was on a mountain.

[23] Bill Smith.

[24] I Cor. 10:13.

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