“One Little Word” (Luke 4:1-13)
The incident in today’s Gospel, the temptation of Jesus, occurs early in his ministry. In fact, it happens more or less right away, even before he begins his public preaching and teaching. It was immediately after his baptism that the Spirit led Jesus into the wilderness. For forty days he was out there, fasting in that harsh and lonely terrain.
Now if you know your Bible you know that Jesus here is replaying the experience of ancient Israel, when they wandered in the wilderness for forty years. Jesus is, in a sense, Israel reduced to one, the one true and representative Israelite–the one who gets it right. While Israel was wandering in the wilderness for those forty years, they were tempted to grumble and complain. And they gave in to that temptation all too often. Why was God making this journey so difficult for them? They grumbled and complained about the quality of the food that God gave them, the manna. But at least they had something to eat! Jesus had nothing. Notice that Jesus too was being tempted by the devil for a time of forty, forty days. But Jesus is the one faithful Israelite who did not grumble or complain.
Remember, Jesus is true man, with a real body, and so naturally this prolonged fast made him very hungry. This is when the devil strikes. He says to Jesus, “If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become bread.” Let’s pause here for a while. There’s a lot here to consider. Starting with that little word, “if.” What does the devil mean by, “If you are the Son of God”? Is the devil denying that Jesus is the Son of God? In our English translation it might sound like it: “If you were the Son of God–which you aren’t–then. . . .” Now there is a way to say that in the original Greek, but this is not it. No, the devil is not that crass. He’s more subtle. His “if” does not deny that Jesus is God’s Son. Instead, just the opposite. The devil is granting the fact that Jesus is God’s Son. The “if” is almost like our “since”: “If you are the Son of God,” meaning, “Since you are the Son of God, then. . . .” The devil is not denying that Jesus is God’s Son. He’s just using that as his set-up for what follows.
That Jesus is God’s Son has already been established. At Jesus’ baptism, just before this temptation, the voice of the Father came from heaven: “You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased.” And as if to underscore the point, Luke chooses the place in his book right between the baptism and the temptation to put in a genealogy of Jesus that goes all the way back to the beginning of Genesis: “the son of Seth, the son of Adam, the son of God.” So now when we come to the temptation, we the readers know that Jesus really is the Son of God. Jesus knows it, the devil knows it. It’s not in question, not directly, at least.
The devil’s temptation lies in what he wants Jesus to do with the fact that he’s God’s Son, what he wants Jesus to make of it, given his current circumstances. “If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become bread.” Notice the subtleness of the temptation: “So God says you’re his Son, does he? That’s what he said at your baptism, wasn’t it? ‘You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased.’ Well, if you’re so beloved, then why has God sent you out here into this God-forsaken wilderness? Why is he letting you go hungry like this? What kind of ‘beloving’ is this? Doesn’t God’s Son deserve better than this?”
That’s how the devil operates, kind of from the side, usually not head-on. The devil wants you to doubt that God really cares about you. He wants you to get the wrong idea about God, like God is some mean old grouch who’s holding out on you and wanting to spoil your fun. That’s how the devil worked on Adam and Eve, wasn’t it?
Come to think of it, Jesus is replaying their temptation, too. As I said, in the verses right before the temptation account, Luke traces Jesus’ ancestry all the way back to Adam. So maybe he wants us to have that episode in mind and make the comparison between Adam and Jesus. Jesus as the one true and representative man, the second Adam, the one who overcomes the devil and gets it right.
We can see some parallels between the two accounts. Adam was in a garden. Jesus is in a wilderness. The devil comes at Adam and Eve somewhat indirectly, wanting them to doubt God’s goodness. And he comes at them through–guess what?–food, something to eat. “You know that tree there, the one God told you not to eat from? Why would he do that? Why would he tell you not to eat from it? I mean, it looks like a perfectly good tree. And, hey, didn’t God put you in charge of this place? That’s a pretty high responsibility. If God thinks that highly of you, then why would he not let you eat from this one tree? You know, I think I know what it must be: God is holding out on you. He doesn’t really care about you. Now look at that fruit there. Doesn’t it look good? Go on, you know you want it. Come on, take matters into your own hands. Go for it!”
Does this sort of approach sound familiar? Does the devil whisper in your ear like this? I bet he does. This is his standard M.O. Doubt God’s goodness. Doubt God’s word. Be your own God. Make your own decisions about what’s right for you. You can have it. You deserve it. It’s what you want, isn’t it? Go and get it. The temptation is always to be your own God, independent of that mean old guy in the sky who wants to spoil your fun.
Adam and Eve fell for that temptation–and what a fall it was! The curse fell, and death came into the world. “Dust you are, and to dust you shall return.” Death comes down to us. But Jesus came to reverse that curse, to do something about the sin and the death and all the misery that comes in its wake. So here at the temptation the devil wants to stop Jesus before he gets started. The devil tries the same approach with Jesus that worked before with Adam: God doesn’t care about you. You’re hungry. You’re entitled. You can do something about it. Go for it. “If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become bread.”
The devil’s temptation starts with one little word, “if.” It’s the little word that sets up the big trap to follow. If God cares about you, then why is he letting you suffer like this? If God loves you, then why is your life so miserable? Maybe he doesn’t love you. Or another “if”: If God forgives sins, then why not go ahead and sin some more, since God will forgive you anyway? You see, there’s always a little grain of truth in the devil’s set-up. But then he twists it and uses it to lead you off in the wrong direction.
Well, to the devil’s little word, “if,” Jesus has a little word of his own: “It is written.” Jesus doesn’t entertain the devil’s temptation; rather, he stops it cold in its tracks. “It is written.” It stands written, and you can take your stand on it. God’s word is a sure thing, a solid footing. God has spoken. His word is true. Don’t listen to the devil’s lies and half-truths. Instead, shut him up and shoot him down. Do so with the reliable and trustworthy word of God. “It is written.”
“It is written, ‘Man shall not live by bread alone,’” Jesus says. You see, there’s more to life than just serving your belly and satisfying your own desires. Just satisfying the desires of your flesh, independent of God’s word and will–that would be to fall into the devil’s trap. But Jesus doesn’t fall for it.
Of course, we too often do. But that is why Jesus came. To do what we don’t do, what we so often fail at. Jesus is our representative, our stand-in, our Champion going out to do battle for us. Jesus does what we don’t. He refuses temptation, stops it cold in its tracks. Finally, there is a man who will say no to the devil! Adam didn’t. We don’t. Jesus does.
And here is why it is so absolutely vital and necessary that he does: so as not to get diverted from what he came to do. You see, Jesus came to reverse the curse of sin and death, and the devil wants to keep him from doing that. Jesus came to save you. The devil doesn’t want that to happen. He’ll do anything to keep Jesus from accomplishing his mission.
So the devil plays on Jesus’ status as God’s Son, in order to get him to use his sonship to serve his own desires. The devil tempts Jesus with all the kingdoms of the world–which Jesus is entitled to and will end up getting eventually. But the devil offers him a much easier path to get them than the hard road of the cross. The temptation doesn’t work. Jesus answers him, “It is written.” The devil tempts Jesus with the offer of quick success and power and popularity. “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself off the temple where everybody can see you, and they will surely acclaim you as the Messiah–which is what you want, isn’t it? God will surely protect you. After all, you are his Son.” “If you are the Son of God.” There’s that little “if” again. But Jesus has a little word of his own: “It is written.”
Jesus will not be deterred or diverted from the road he has taken, the way of the cross. For that is the only way Jesus could accomplish his mission and save sinful mankind–and save you. There were no shortcuts or sidesteps or easy ways out. Straight ahead, full speed ahead–that was the way for Jesus. He went to battle with the devil as your divine Champion. And he won! And he gives you a share in his victory. Jesus would let nothing stop him from doing what he set out to do, which is to go to the cross, to carry your sins on his back—that sinless back that would endure flogging and beating for your sake. Jesus was faithful to his Father’s mission. This is the good news today that we can from the story of Jesus’ temptation. Nothing would stop our Savior from reaching his goal!
And reach it he did! All of your sins are paid for, by virtue of God’s own Son dying for them in your place. The curse of death that comes from sin has indeed been reversed, as Jesus’ resurrection proves. Your enemy, the devil, has been defeated. Now, when he comes at you with his temptations, you can say, “Take it up with Jesus, devil! He is my Champion. He stopped you in the wilderness, he defeated you on the cross, and he will stop you–and stomp on you–here and now.” And at those times of temptation we also cry out to Jesus: “Help me, Lord! You are stronger than I am! I’ll take my stand on your completed work. God’s word is sure. Help me to say with you, Lord, ‘It is written.’”
The devil comes at us with his little word, “if,” twisting and turning the truth, planting doubt and leading us astray. But Jesus comes out on the field of battle as our Champion, and he comes with a little word of his own, “It is written.” Because Christ would not be diverted from going to the cross, you and I can take our stand with our Champion, Jesus, confident in his strength and victory–victory over sin, death, the devil, and yes, even over temptation.
This world’s prince may still
Scowl fierce as he will,
He can harm us none,
He’s judged; the deed is done;
One little word can fell him.