Facing the Great Tempter

Scripture Readings: Genesis 2:15-17, 3:1-7; Matthew 4:1-11

Children’s Sermon (after reading Mt. 4:1-11) — The story of Jesus being tempted by the devil is like a bad dream. Alone in the wilderness, Jesus is tempted by Satan to turn away from God. How does Jesus resist this temptation? Each time, he answers the devil by quoting from the Bible. By studying the Bible, Jesus learned how to resist temptation. We study the Bible for the same reason. I hope you don’t have a scary experience, like Jesus had, but at times you will be tempted to do what you know isn’t right. When that happens, remembering what you learned from the Bible may help you.

Adult’s Sermon (after reading Gen. 2:15-17, 3:1-7)  The temptation of Jesus in the wilderness is recorded in two of the New Testament gospels. The version in Luke 4:1-13 presents the second and third temptation in reverse order, but is otherwise the same. The gospel of Mark says Jesus was "tempted by Satan" (Mk. 1:13) during his forty days in the wilderness, but gives no details. The gospel of John does not record that Jesus was in the wilderness for forty days, or that he was tempted by the devil.

The liberal Christian view of the passage read this morning is that the devil is merely a personification of evil. Liberals dismiss as "projection" all talk in the New Testament of devils, demons and evil spirits. Only God, for liberal Christians, is not simply a projection. Conservative Christians, however, generally hold that the New Testament report of the temptation of Jesus proves the devil, or Satan, is a real person. After all, in the scripture reading for this morning from the gospel of Matthew, as in the gospel of Luke, the devil speaks to Jesus and Jesus answers.

First century Christians took it for granted that God and the devil were real persons. This is why the Lord’s Prayer in the gospel of Matthew, as translated from the Greek by the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible, says: "deliver us from the evil one" rather than simply "deliver us from evil." (Mt. 6:13) First century Christians could not have talked about Satan and God as "personifying" evil and good, for this language reflects a modern way of explaining human experience.

Yet, the point of the story of the temptation of Jesus does not depend on whether or not we think Satan is a real person. The story is like a bad dream, for the characters in the story represent aspects of the dreamer. Who is the "dreamer" of this story? This is not our human dream. This is God’s dream.

The Spirit, we are told, (Mt. 4:1, Mk. 1:12, Lk. 4:1) led Jesus into the wilderness to be tempted, and after the devil left Jesus, "angels waited on him." (Mt. 4:11, Mk. 1:13). Twice the devil refers to Jesus as the Son of God, and Jesus resists Satan’s temptation by quoting three times from Jewish scripture (Deuteronomy 6:13-16, 8:3, and Psalm 91). Lest we think that the devil is acting on his own, remember that in the story of Job it is God who gives permission to Satan to put Job’s faith to the test.

The temptation of Jesus is God’s dreamlike way of representing the conflicts within God’s story, which is told by the Bible. God, as Jesus, will wake from this bad dream and then live out a new chapter in the story of God and Israel and its enemies. Thus far in this Bible story, God has promised a new heaven and a new earth for those who are righteous, but God has yet to deliver.

In the first century many Jews believed that God would intervene in history to throw off Roman rule and restore the kingdom of David. In the revolt against the Romans of 66 CE, Jews tried to bring into action the great warrior God who, the Bible says, once fought for the chosen people so they might have their own land. Yet, the Romans crushed the revolt in 70, destroyed the Jewish temple, and crucified tens of thousands of Jews on crosses outside the breached walls of Jerusalem.

In the face of such a horrific reality, the New Testament gospels affirm that God has done "a new thing" (Isaiah 43:19) by becoming human and by being crucified on a cross outside the walls of Jerusalem, like so many of the chosen people who believed God would save them. God did not save them, and God did not save Jesus from a cruel and unjust death. Instead, God experienced the punishment that God uniquely deserved for allowing so much suffering and injustice in the world, for so long, for so many.

Was Jesus, the man from Nazareth, sacrificed on the cross to a God who required such a sacrifice because of human sin? That is literally what the New Testament affirms, and conservative Christians today argue that Christians must believe this. Conservative Christians read the story of Adam and Eve to bolster their argument. Adam and Eve disobey God of their own free will, so redemption requires that Jesus freely accept death as God’s judgment for the sins of humanity.

Alternatively, we might ask, was Jesus of Nazareth a man who confronted the unjust Roman and Jewish authorities and, in this sense, gave his life for all people? At least three of the gospel accounts allow such a reading, and liberal Christians argue this is what the story means in our time. For liberal Christians, however, the story of Adam and Eve is unrelated to the heroic death of Jesus in the first century, but is best understood as an ancient myth about why life is full of suffering.

Yet, we must also ask: Is there a living truth here, not merely a literal or a liberal truth?

"We live and move and have our being," Acts 17:28 says, quoting a pagan Greek poet, "in God." Our temptations, our choices, and the consequences of our choices are "in God," which is why our salvation is not simply from or because of Christ but "in Christ." In the Bible story, God, suffers on the cross, as Jesus, for being the source of all temptation. Scripture reveals that, as Christ crucified, God the Great Tempter accepts responsibility for all suffering and death, so we may be freed from resentment for our suffering and our death.

For those with "ears to hear," (Mk. 4:9, 23) this is the good news of the gospel. 

February 17, 2002


 Bob@rtraer.com © Robert Traer 2016