Standing Firm in the Wilderness
Jesus' Temptation, Spiritual Warfare, Temptation
Most of us at one time or another have had what is often called a mountaintop experience—a time when it seemed like all was right with the world. Not to be cynical, but oftentimes what follows a mountaintop experience is a valley experience. It’s not uncommon for us to go from feeling like everything is right with the world to suddenly facing a major trial.
This is really common with couples who get married. We make a huge deal about the wedding day, and the whole world revolves around the bride and groom. On that day, they get to be treated like royalty. The bride gets to wear a beautiful gown, and when she comes into the room, every eye is on her and everyone rises to their feet. The bride and groom get to be the center of the world for a day. All their friends show up and try to do their best to help them out. They get to go to a feast where they are the guests of honor—no one can eat until they’ve gotten their food. People shower them with gifts and compliments. The wedding day is a mountaintop experience.
It usually doesn’t take long after this mountaintop experience for a valley to come. Sometimes it doesn’t even wait until the honeymoon is over. Suddenly, the reality of life sets in. They wake up lying next to each other, realizing that neither one looks much like a prince or princess first thing in the morning. They discover there is no one there to wait on them hand and foot. They are faced with the reality of sacrificing for their mate. They quickly come to realize that while marriage is wonderful, it is also a lot of work.
Jesus had a similar experience. His baptism surely was a mountaintop experience—after all, the Father and the Holy Spirit had both publicly expressed their approval to him. After his baptism, Jesus was immediately led into the wilderness to be tempted. Suddenly the mountaintop experience was over, and he began to descend into the valley. It is this time in the valley that we are going to be looking at this morning. There is great value in observing Jesus at some of the most difficult times in his life—because we can learn a lot that will help us when we find ourselves in difficult times as well.
This morning we are going to look at the three different temptations Satan threw at Jesus. He came to Jesus three different times, trying to get him to act contrary to the will of the Father. I think we will see that at the heart of each temptation was a simple question—do you trust God or not? Jesus stood firm in the face of these temptations, and we are studying his experience so that we can do the same.
Luke tells us that Satan began by tempting Jesus to turn the stones around him into bread. Satan baited Jesus, “If you are the Son of God, tell this stone to become bread.” Notice how he starts his temptation, “If you are the Son of God…” This is significant because it shows the temptation wasn’t really about hunger—it was more a question of whether Jesus was going to trust God. Satan was daring Jesus to rely on his own abilities instead of trusting God. Truthfully, I think this is at the root of all temptation. Satan will use our normal human desires (for food, for acceptance, for sexual fulfillment) and convince us we need to fulfill those desires ourselves, because God doesn’t really care about them. He will try to convince us that God is really out of touch with our desires. Jesus recognized this for the lie that it was.
Jesus responded to Satan by quoting Scripture. He said, “Man does not live on bread alone.” This is from the book of Deuteronomy, where the Israelites were wandering in the wilderness. They had no food, so God provided food—just enough for them to eat each day. God was reminding them that everything they had came from Him, and to trust that he’d take care of them. The question was, would they be satisfied with what God had provided, or would they try to go around him—to make things happen the way they wanted them? It’s the same question Jesus faced, and the one we face too.
After Satan failed with his first temptation, he regrouped. We don’t know whether he came back later, or if he immediately began his next temptation. Regardless, Luke tells us that Satan proceeded to tempt Jesus by somehow showing him all the kingdoms of the world, telling Jesus that if He would just worship him, he’d give him power over all the kingdoms of the world.
It may have been possible for Satan to deliver on this promise, but only in the earthly sense. He could have given Jesus earthly power but it would have ended there. Satan was offering Jesus the chance to be glorified right now, without having to go to the cross. He was again whispering the same lie, “God’s being cruel to you! His way is brutal and unnecessary. Let me show you a shortcut.” Once again the temptation was whether or not Jesus was going to trust God’s timing and plan.
We face this temptation in our lives when we are tempted to take shortcuts as well. Satan will tell you that:
- It’s ok to pad your resume to get ahead
- You can overcharge customers as long as no one will find out
- You can enjoy a sexual relationship without the hassle of getting married
- You don’t have to work hard if other people aren’t
The question is do you trust God enough to do things His way or will you buy into the lies of the devil?
Jesus stood firm in resisting this temptation. He knew Satan’s shortcut cost far more than it delivered. He knew that nothing Satan could offer would be worth turning his back on God. In other words, Jesus knew that the end did not justify the means. He once again turned to Scripture for strength. He reminded him that Scripture says that you should, “Worship the Lord your God and serve Him only.” Jesus chose to stand with the Father instead of falling for the lies of Satan.
When Satan launched his third attack, he changed tactics a little bit. This time he took Jesus up to the highest point of the temple and quoted scripture to Him. He quoted to Jesus a part of Psalm 91, which said that God would protect the one who trusted in Him. He said in effect, “God said he would protect you. Imagine the impact it would have if you were to jump off the temple toward the ground some 450 feet below, and if people saw that God protected you, preventing you from so much as stubbing your toe on a rock! People would surely then recognize you for who you really are!”
Jesus responded that the Bible also says that we should not put the Lord our God to the test. What a good reminder it is for us that Satan can twist Scripture for his ends as well. Satan often whispers to us ways that we can justify our actions—sometimes even going so far as to bring a Bible verse to mind. Jesus was smart enough to know that Satan was misrepresenting what the Bible taught. He knew that God said we should not try to force His hand. He knew that God had created the world with certain rules—for example, when you jump off of a tall building you fall. Ignoring those rules and then asking God to save us from the effects is putting God to the test.
That makes sense to us in the context of jumping off a building. Here’s the problem, we do the same thing all the time! God tells us that certain things have certain effects, and then we ask Him to prevent those effects from happening. We test God when we:
- Ask Him to give us health while simultaneously overeating, failing to exercise, smoking, and doing other things that are detrimental to our health.
- Ask Him to protect our children and help them to grow up to follow Him while simultaneously neglecting to raise our children to put God first in their lives.
- Ask Him to answer our questions about Him or about our lives in general while neglecting to study His Word to see what He says on the issue.
- Ask Him to keep us from sinful thoughts, attitudes, and behaviors while simultaneously filling our minds with trash that leads us to those things.
- Ask Him to provide for us financially while simultaneously neglecting to be good stewards of what He’s already given us (by overspending and failing to give back the tithe he’s commanded we give).
We need to trust God enough that we will live the way He tells us to—or accept the consequences of ignoring Him.
Learning from Jesus’ Experience
Jesus withstood all three of the temptations that Satan threw at him. I think it is important for us to note something at this point. While Jesus was fully God, he was also fully human. It would be easy for us to assume that because Jesus was also God, it was easier for him to withstand these temptations. But Jesus did not exercise his power as God; He faced these temptations the same way that we face them—as a frail human being.
So, if Jesus stood firm in the face of these temptations, and if like us, he really was tempted to sin, what can we learn from His experience?
First, we learn that God doesn’t always lead us into situations that will be easy. Notice that it was the Spirit who led Jesus to the desert to be tempted. Matthew, Mark, and Luke all record this detail, and Mark even says that Jesus was immediately led into the desert to be tempted. This is significant because it reminds us that just because something is difficult doesn’t mean that it is not something God wants us to do.
We often buy into that idea in American Christianity. We seem to think that if God has called us to do something all of the obstacles will suddenly disappear from our path. When things get difficult, we think, “God must not have wanted me to do this after all.” When we face obstacles or struggles, sometimes it is because we have ignored God or moved from His path. But it is not the only reason that obstacles crop up. When we face difficult times, we need to ask if they were brought on as a result of our disobedience, or if God is allowing them for another reason. Sometimes trials are just part of the job of being a Christian.
Second, we need to be reminded that Satan likes to run the same plays over and over. As we read the account of Jesus’ temptation, we should be reminded that he faced the same kinds of issues that we face today. As a matter of fact, the writer of the book of Hebrews says,
For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are—yet was without sin. (Hebrews 4:15, NIV)
He tells us that Jesus was tempted in every way, just like we are, but He was without sin. This fact should be exciting to us—we can come to Jesus for help whenever we face struggles. For some reason, this does not come naturally to us, but it should. We do it all the time with our friends and family. Whenever we face a difficult situation or decision we seek out someone who has been through it too. We seek the advice of someone else who has:
- Lost their job
- Been through a divorce
- Made a similar purchase to the one we’re considering
- Been on vacation to the place we’re going
Why do we do this? Because their experience can help us! They can tell us about the things that they did. They can tell us what worked well and what pitfalls to avoid. So, it seems like a no-brainer that when we face temptation, we ought to ask for Jesus’ help. We can draw from his experience and apply it to ours.
Third, the key to victory is not so much that we “Just say no” to sin as it is that we “Just say yes” to God’s way of doing things. Many Christians go through life this way, focusing on not messing up, on not giving in to temptation. I think a better course of action is for us to focus on doing what is right, on saying yes to God’s wisdom for our lives.
We need to start by knowing what God wants us to do, and then do it. If we fix our minds on trying to please God, we will necessarily avoid sinning. We need to focus our minds in the right place. So, when facing temptation, change your perspective. Don’t try to “Just say no” to Satan, but “Just say yes” to God.
Practically speaking, there are several things that we should be doing right now to become more like Jesus. First and foremost, we need to work at knowing what the Bible says. I’m a big advocate of memorizing Scripture. I think it is helpful to commit to memory the exact wording of portions of Scripture so that we can recall it at a moment’s notice. This is the reason that we believe so strongly in the AWANA program. We think it is a great idea for children to begin learning to memorize Scripture at a young age so they can develop a habit they will follow for the rest of their lives.
So how do you get started in memorizing Scripture? You could start by memorizing the verses that Jesus quoted. There are three verses, all of which are fairly short. Write them down on cards, carry them with you, and take them out during the course of the day to re-read those verses. Read them, and then try to say them without looking at the cards. It just takes a couple of minutes a day, but soon you’ll start having verses committed to memory. After you can say the verses without even looking at the cards, you’re ready to learn a new one.
Second, we need to know the Bible. Jesus knew the importance of reading the Bible as a whole. You can make the Bible say all sorts of things if you divorce passages from their context. I recently heard a preacher who stated it quite eloquently: “If you take a text out of its context, all you are left with is a con.” Reading a passage in context doesn’t just mean reading a chapter in its entirety, it means interpreting everything in the light of the whole Bible.
So get started in reading through a book of the Bible. You don’t necessarily have to start in Genesis, although sometime I’d recommend you to read the Bible front to back. Start reading the whole Bible, learning to understand God’s character. Whatever amount you read, the challenge is to focus on learning God’s character. It’s easy to get bogged down in details, to gloss over portions, or even get confused in some parts of the Bible, but I challenge you to ask two questions as you read: 1) What does this passage teach me about God’s character, and 2) How should that affect the way I live my life? As you read through the Bible and start to understand the nature of God, you will start to understand how to better please Him.
Finally, remember that idle hands are the Devil’s workshop. I don’t know what Jesus did during his 40 days in the wilderness, but my guess was that he spent a lot of that time focused on God. We get into trouble when we begin to fill our time with things that distract us from God.
- When we spend time aimlessly wandering around the internet, we invite trouble because we will look at things we shouldn’t or be tempted to buy things we can’t afford.
- When we spend most of our time with people who have different priorities than God does, we invite trouble because their priorities will start to become our priorities.
- When we spend all our “free” time at home sitting in front of the TV, we invite trouble, because we absorb the world’s values instead of God’s.
Instead of inviting trouble, I’d challenge you to make time for things that will repel trouble.
- Make worship and Bible study a priority.
- Rather than spending hours in front of the TV, do something productive. Read a book, talk to your family, pray, write a letter to a missionary.
- Make “down time” work for you. Turn on Christian radio or Christian music while you are in the car. Talk to friends and family about what you’re learning from the Bible when you are sitting at a ball game.
- Find a place to serve God. Maybe you can visit people who are hurting, or write letters, or share your faith with your friends. Find something you can do that involves you devoting time to serving God.
The key is that if we want to avoid temptation, we need to work at drawing close to God. Notice the operative word—work. If we do not work at developing our relationship with God, our relationship with Him won’t develop. Think of it like a marriage. If you neglect your relationship, you will find one day that you hardly know this stranger who lives in your house. The key in marriage is to constantly work at developing your relationship together—and the same is true with God. The more we learn about Him, the better we will be able to please Him, and the healthier our relationship will be.
If we will put in the hard work of developing our relationship with God, if we will put our focus not just in trying to avoid giving in to temptation, but instead on trying to do what He wants, it will prepare us to stand firm with Him—both on the mountaintop, and in the wilderness.