The hot blistering wind blew coarse sand into Jesus’ eyes and mouth, a drastic change from a few days earlier when he felt the cool refreshing water of the Jordan dripping from his face.
How things had changed. Just the other day, he was publicly recognized as God’s beloved son and reassured by the words “with him I am well pleased” (Matthew 3:17).
Now alone, tired, hungry and thirsty, the only words he heard were the hostile words of an adversary who stood opposed to everything Jesus came to do. This little wilderness side-trip was proving difficult.
Matthew places this story from Jesus’ life back-to-back with the story of his baptism and confirmation at the Jordan. When viewed next to each other, these scenes are like black against white.
As we journey through life seeking to remain true to the way of life God has called us to, we find similarities with this event in Jesus’ life. Our own lives are cluttered with Jordan River scenes, with long walks in the desert and everything in-between. There are moments of great hope and moments when despair follows like our shadow. We find there is a great adversary seeking to destroy the work of God in us and the work God is doing through us. We find great rewards for obedience, but there are temptations ever pulling us toward disobedience.
What do we do with all of this? We do what Jesus did—we stay focused on loving and serving God.
Matthew shares three of the temptations Jesus faced in the desert. To each temptation Jesus responded by asserting his devotion to God and the way of life that devotion produces. The devil, hearing Jesus’ growling stomach, tells him to make the stones become bread (Matthew 4:3).
I have read this passage many times and, on each occasion, Jesus’ response grabs me. Jesus reveals he will not be distracted from the truth that God alone gives life, and that life is much more than a full belly. What is a full stomach with no purpose or desire or goal to live for? Is that life? The word of God offers the life we seek, the kind of life that goes beyond a full belly (Deuteronomy 8:3).
The second temptation can be somewhat confusing. We find ourselves standing on the highest point of the temple at Jerusalem (Matthew 4:5). The temptation is for Jesus to prove his relationship with the Father by jumping off of the temple and having the angels catch him. Jesus reveals that jumping off the temple doesn’t prove he is the Son of God, but the proof is in how he relates to the Father—respecting and loving him enough to not put him to the test (Deuteronomy 6:16). Our relationship with God is most effectively seen in our love for him and in how that love affects our conduct in life. It’s not about proof; it’s about relationship.
The final temptation reveals more about the devil’s heart than anything else. The devil offers the world—its kingdoms and wealth—to Jesus. If Jesus would only fall down, offering his adoration and devotion to the great adversary, then it would all be his (Matthew 4:9).
As we have already seen, Jesus is radically devoted to the Father and his response only reasserts this more clearly. Jesus, no longer willing to play this game, sends the devil away with the resounding words that only God deserves our worship and service (Deuteronomy 6:13). Jesus knows his Father alone has ownership of creation, why would he offer his worship to the created instead of the creator?
We see temptation is unavoidable—even Jesus was tempted. Temptation comes to us even when we do everything in our power to avoid it. What makes us think we will escape temptation? The great problem Jesus addresses with his example is that a life spent resisting temptation is just that; a life spent resisting and accomplishing little else.
After this story, Jesus begins his ministry by setting out as the Messiah bringing the kingdom of heaven to those who desperately need it, including us. He didn’t stay in the desert and argue with the devil. Jesus set about doing the task he was called to do, and we can learn from that.
The great hope we see in Jesus’ example is when we shift our focus and pour all of our energy into loving and serving God like Jesus did, then temptations and distractions will fade into the background. We will be able to tell the devil to get behind us, so we can move forward toward the prize of the heavenward call of God (Philippians 3:14).
Questions to explore
• In what ways am I being tempted today?
• What is the bread of my life or what do I turn to in order to have a full life?
• How do I try to prove myself in ways that go against my relationship with God?
• What or who do I serve to gain power and/or the riches of this world?