“The Faithful Son”
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
“Then Jesus was led up into the wilderness by the Spirit to be tempted by the devil” (Matthew 4:1). What is going on here? The Spirit of God leads the Son of God out to be tempted? Does God the Father intend temptation for His Beloved Son? Yes. And because Jesus is His only-begotten and Beloved Son the Father knows that here, too, He will be well pleased with the Son’s willing submission and perfect obedience. Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are here working together in their tri-unity as the one God assaults the kingdom of the devil, the slanderer of God and His holy ones.
In the waterless places above the Jordan River, the devil wanders and roams, seeking whom he may devour. Three times the Tempter opens his jaws, and three times he is beaten back with the sword of the Spirit. “If you are the Son of God, command that these stones might become bread” (Matthew 4:3). Jesus is hungry from His forty day fast. He is weak physically, but the devil knows that Jesus has power that does not come from the digestive process of the body. The question is not whether Jesus has power to do what the devil tempts Him to do, but how will He use the power that He has? Will He give up on the Father’s care of Him? Will He do what He, as God, can do and make bread out of stones? Or will He remain the obedient, perfectly trusting Son of God? Yes, Jesus stands firm. He beats back the Tempter because He lives by the Word of God. But here, it is not just any Word of God. Immediately prior to these three temptations is a specific Word of God addressed to the Son: “This is My Son the Beloved, in whom I am well-pleased” (Matthew 3:17). Jesus knows that the Father has not abandoned Him. The Father always keeps His promises, and the Word that came through His mouth is just such a promise: “You are My Beloved Son.” And Jesus trusts this promise without any doubt. Jesus is the perfect Son that neither Adam nor Israel could be. Adam and Eve did not trust God to provide for their every need; they wanted more. Though God had brought His chosen son Israel through the baptism of the Red Sea, Israel complained when he found himself in the desert of Sinai-the consequence of which was to wander for forty years before reaching the Promised Land. But Jesus is the New Adam, who trusts perfectly in the place of the Old Adam. Jesus is the True Israel, Israel “reduced to one,” who follows up His baptism in the Jordan with perfect, 40-day obedience and without complaint.
The second temptation is related to the first: will Jesus trust His Father, who has promised to guard Him in all His ways, or will Jesus test God, which really means to doubt God? The Tempter tries to cause Jesus to slander God by going against a Word of God. “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down [from this high place]” (4:5). But the devil misquotes Psalm 91:11. He says only that “He will command his angels concerning you” (Matthew 4:4). The whole verse says: “For he will command his angels concerning you to guard you in all your ways” (Psalm 91:11, ESV, emphasis added). The devil refuses to recognize whom God has promised to guard with His holy angels. It is only the one who has made Yahweh his dwelling place and the Most High God his refuge (Psalm 91:9, cf. v. 1). That one is Jesus, who rests completely and fully in God. He will not doubt the Word of God by trying to make God prove His love. To make God prove it is really to say that God might not do what He has promised, which is the blasphemous sin of both Adam and Israel. Did God really say…? Will He bring His people to the Promised Land? Will God really give us this day our daily bread? But Jesus is not like Adam and Israel, nor is He like you and me. He does not doubt. He does not question. He knows that God’s Word can be trusted completely. The devil moves freely in the realm of the lie, but God is Truth. Further, it is the devil who tempts humans to sin; to tempt God would only show that we follow the Tempter, rather than God. But Jesus, Faithful Son, will not put His Father to the test.
Finally, it is 200-proof idolatry that the devil tempts Jesus to drink. “I will give to you all these [kingdoms and their glory], if, falling down, you will worship me.” Think again of Adam, placing more trust in the words of the serpent than in the Word of God. Think again of Israel, worshiping his own jewelry in the shape of a calf, rather than waiting for the true God to meet him with His Word. But Jesus is the faithful Son, who will not exchange the glory of His Father for things made with human hands; nor will He trust the words of the Adversary more than the Word of God. He, as the Faithful One, will worship Yahweh and serve Him only (Matthew 4:10). Depart from Me, Adversary! He says (4:10).
Notice that in these temptations, Jesus is not primarily an example for us. If that was the point…well, consider how well you have stood up to the temptation of the devil. Do you ever live as if God was not your loving Father? Have you, lacking any physical or spiritual thing, grumbled against God that He does not seem to provide for you as He does for some of your neighbors? Do you ever treat Him as if He is a vending machine or a convenience store, existing to satisfy your every whim and want? Do you live by every Word that comes from the mouth of God? In the midst of suffering and heartache, are you ever tempted to turn for comfort to someone other than God? Because the devil has all manner of fronts promising power and glory if you will worship him. Yes, you have done these things or left them undone, and so have I. The faithful action of Jesus is not a comforting example for you to follow; it accuses you at every step of unfaithfulness and of surrendering, even gladly, to the devil’s coaxing and prodding. You do not treat him as an adversary and a slanderer of God, but as a harmless business partner, with whom you complete the transactions of the flesh. There is nothing in these words from Matthew’s Gospel that tells us how to escape temptation; attempting to follow Jesus’ example will not guarantee safety when we encounter the devil in all his subtlety. Jesus is perfect, holy, and obedient, and we are not. If we attempt to find the answer to the devil’s temptation in ourselves and our knowledge of God’s Word, we will fail every time; besides, the devil knows the Scriptures better than you do, better than I do.
No, there is only one place to find a fail-proof identity that will withstand the devil’s tempting tales and adversarial attacks: the same place the faithful Son, Jesus, finds His identity: “You are My Beloved Son in whom I am well pleased.” At Jesus’ baptism, the Father declared Him to be who He was: the willing and obedient and beloved Son of God. As a member of Christ’s Body, you do not want to give in to the devil’s temptations. You do not want to feel that nauseating rock in the pit of your stomach, which is the souvenir of your sin. How, then, shall you resist the devil so that he may flee from you, as St. James says (James 4:7)? Very simply: take refuge in your baptismal identity as a son or a daughter of the triune God. He has marked you and you no longer owe allegiance to the devil, your accuser. You are covered in the blood of the righteous one and the devil’s got nothing on you, just as he had nothing on Jesus. We follow our Lord, then, not primarily as an example, but as the one who has made a way for us through the wilderness of our temptation. Our prayer is always the one He has taught us: “Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from the evil one.” Lord God, “Guide the people of Your Church that following our Savior we may walk through the wilderness of this world toward the glory of the world to come” (Collect for Lent I). Now you can say with your Lord, “Depart, ancient Adversary! I am baptized into Christ!” “Now that to the font I’ve traveled,/All your might has come unraveled,/And, against your tyranny,/God, my Lord, unites with me!” (LSB 594, st. 3).
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen. “And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4:7, ESV). Amen.