“When the Tempter Comes Calling” (Matthew 4:1-11)
What are you going to do when the tempter comes calling? Oh, be assured, he will come. The tempter came for Adam and Eve. The tempter came for ancient Israel. He even came for Jesus. So what are you going to do “When the Tempter Comes Calling”?
Who is this tempter? It is the devil, of course. Satan, the accuser, the adversary, the evil one, the enemy of our souls. His goal is to destroy you, to do you evil, to tear you away from your faith in God, to doubt God’s word and God’s goodness. That is what the tempter does. And he will come calling on you, just like he came calling on Adam and Israel and Jesus. What will you do when he starts whispering in your ear?
Let’s look at what some people did when the tempter came calling. Let’s start with Adam and Eve. Now the Lord had blessed the man and the woman with everything they could possibly need. Food in abundance, companionship in marriage, fellowship with God, blessings all around. It was literally living in paradise. But then the tempter came calling. He came in the form of a serpent. He started whispering in the woman’s ear. “Did God actually say?” He started by planting doubt as to God’s word. Notice, the tempter does not start by stating straight out, “Now here I want you to disobey God and fall into sin.” No, the devil is more subtle than that. He kind of comes at you sideways, subtle, not in direct defiance of God, but more in a way that will lead you astray so that you hardly notice it.
Instead of immediately telling the devil to get lost, the woman gets engaged in a conversation. The devil is making headway here. The woman mentions the command God had given to her husband not to eat from that tree, lest you die. The devil smartly picks up on that: “You will not surely die. For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” Now the tempter is getting the woman to distrust God’s word and doubt his goodness: “Oh, you see, the only reason God gave that command is because he’s holding out on you. He wants to spoil your fun. He doesn’t want you making your own decisions about what’s right and wrong. You should be entitled to do that on your own, shouldn’t you? Besides, don’t worry about that empty threat of his. You aren’t going to die.”
Now the woman is hooked. This all sounds reasonable to her. And the more she looks at that tree, the better it looks to her. Man, that fruit would be good to eat! So she says to her husband, “Man, that fruit would be good to eat. Let’s do it.” But instead of standing firm and staying true to what God had directly told him, not to eat from that tree, the man goes along with his wife, and he too yields to the devil’s temptation. They go ahead and eat, and now they’ve done it. The tempter came calling, and they went falling. Falling into sin and bearing all the consequences thereof, guilt and blame and conflict and futility and death.
So that’s Adam and Eve. Next, we turn to the example of ancient Israel. The Lord had blessed them too. He made a promise of blessing to father Abraham: a great nation, a land to live in, blessings all around. Israel went down to Egypt land, where eventually they fell into slavery. But the Lord remembered his covenant and came to rescue them. He raised up Moses to lead them out of slavery and to bring them back to the Promised Land.
The Lord first brought them to Sinai, where they received a way of life that would be good for them and would set them apart as his holy people. But then the tempter came calling. The people became impatient. They wanted to be like the other nations, to have a god they could make on their own–hey, how about a golden calf? Israel kept on grumbling against God and against their pastor Moses: “I’m hungry. I’m thirsty. I don’t like this lousy food you’re giving us. I liked the food better back in Egypt. How long till we get to this supposed ‘Promised Land’ of yours? Are we there yet? Besides, I heard there’s a bunch of really big people living there. How will we be able to drive them out? I don’t think we can. I don’t believe God’s promise about this ‘Promised Land.’ This is too hard. Let’s give up and go it on our own.” The tempter came calling, and Israel went falling. Falling into unbelief. Falling in the wilderness, a whole generation of them.
Adam and Eve, ancient Israel–will anybody ever get this right? Well, yes, there is one. A second Adam, one who will get it right. A second Israel, kind of like Israel reduced to one. One faithful man who will overcome the tempter’s temptations. Adam fell in the garden. Israel fell in the wilderness. Jesus will go into the wilderness and replay the experience of Adam and Eve. He will replay the experience of ancient Israel. And he will “pre-play” the experience of you and me, the temptations we face when the tempter comes calling.
The tempter came even for Jesus. The tempter came especially for Jesus. How did that go? Just like Israel had gone through the Red Sea to be tempted in the wilderness, now Jesus goes from his baptism in the Jordan to be tempted in the wilderness. Israel was in the wilderness for forty years; Jesus, for forty days. Israel was always worried and anxious about whether they would have enough food, if God had brought them out there to die. Jesus goes fasting, and he becomes hungry. Jesus is replaying the experience of Israel.
At his baptism, the Father had said, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.” But now Jesus is out here in the wilderness, hungry, and the tempter comes calling. “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.” Now in the Greek language there are a couple of ways to say, “If you are.” One is to say, “If you were, which you aren’t.” That would be to tell Jesus, “You really aren’t the Son of God.” But that’s not what the devil does here. He’s not that crass, not that direct. He’s more subtle than that. He’s conceding that Jesus is the Son of God. But he’s casting doubt on the “beloved” part, the “well pleased” part: “Jesus, if you are so beloved, then why has God sent you out here into this wilderness to starve to death? He doesn’t seem too well pleased with you now, does he? So why don’t you take matters into your own hands? You’re the Son of God, you know. So go ahead and command these stones to become bread. Go ahead, you have the power to do that. And you deserve it, after all. Think of how good some bread would taste right now!”
Jesus doesn’t get sucked into the trap. Immediately he responds with the word of God: “It is written, ‘Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.’” Jesus has his priorities straight. There’s something more important than feeding our bellies, than satisfying our appetites and cravings. It’s living on the basis of the word of God.
The tempter tries again. He takes Jesus up to the pinnacle of the temple in Jerusalem and says: “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down, for it is written, ‘He will command his angels concerning you,’ and ‘On their hands they will bear you up, lest you strike your foot against a stone.’” Now the temple, in Jerusalem–this is the center of Jewish life and the Jewish nation. “There will be tons of people there, all the religious leaders. All these people would witness you jumping off the temple and not being hurt. This would prove–prove!–that you are the Messiah of Israel. This would be a lot easier and quicker than having to go through this whole rigmarole you’re about to embark on, having to put up with opposition and rejection and, heck, suffering and dying! Who wants to go to a cross, for crying out loud! You don’t deserve that! Wouldn’t it be a whole lot easier just to jump off this pinnacle and prove to everybody who you are? Hey, look, you like to quote Scripture, ‘It is written,’ and all that. So I’ve got some Scripture for you: ‘It is written’ that God will command his angels to protect you, so you won’t get hurt. You can look it up, Psalm 91. There. So go ahead and do it.”
But Jesus won’t be having any of this: “Again it is written, ‘You shall not put the Lord your God to the test.’” Jesus knows when Scripture is being taken out of context. He knows he has come to do the will of the Father, and that means he won’t be taking any short-cuts, any easy ways out. No, Jesus will go ahead with his mission, even if it means going to the cross.
One more time. The devil tempts Jesus with all the kingdoms of this world and their glory. “It’s all yours, Jesus, if you just fall down and worship me!” But Jesus doesn’t fall for this, either: “Be gone, Satan! For it is written, ‘You shall worship the Lord your God and him only shall you serve.’” Jesus will not be shaken from his firm footing. The tempter came calling, but Jesus ain’t falling.
How about you? Do you ever fall for the devil’s traps? Does he come whispering in your ear, tempting you set aside God’s clear word? “Oh, just for a while, you can come back to it later. I mean, look, look how appealing that thing would be. Just cheat a little bit on that test, and you’ll get a better score, and nobody will be the wiser. Just cheat a little bit on your taxes. The government takes enough of your money anyway, and you could really use it. Just indulge in that little sin–well, let’s just call it a little pleasure. It’s no big deal. Nobody gets hurt. You deserve some fun, some pleasure. And besides, God will forgive you anyway.”
Does the tempter ever come calling on you like that? I bet he does. It’s what he does. So how will you respond to his temptations? Let me suggest a couple things. Fall back on the word of God. It’s what Jesus did. “It is written.” The word of God is your firm foundation. Know the Scriptures. Read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest them. They’ll become part of your being. The Holy Spirit will use the Holy Scriptures to fortify you against the devil’s tricks.
And with that, fall back on Jesus. He is your strength, your rock, your cornerstone. In Christ, in his death and resurrection for you, you know a loving God, beyond a shadow of a doubt, no matter what your circumstances. Even when it looks like God has forgotten about you, he hasn’t. You are his beloved child. You are baptized into Christ. God loves you like he loves Jesus, and that’s pretty good.
Jesus would not be deterred or detoured from going forward with his saving mission. He had a job to do, and he would do it. His assignment, his task, which he willingly undertakes, is to redeem sinful mankind. The world needed a second Adam, one who would get it right, one who would stomp on the serpent’s head. And there will be a faithful Israel–in this case, Israel reduced to one–who would carry out God’s mission in the world, to be a blessing to all nations. It’s Jesus. No easy ways out. No short-cuts. The cross it will be. No looking back.
This is how Jesus will do the redeeming job. He will endure the cross, despising the shame, for the sake of the joy set before him: the joy of knowing that this will fulfill the Father’s will, the joy of saving sinners like you and me and making us God’s holy people. Only in this way, by Jesus going the way of the cross, will the job get done. It will take the death of the Son of God, dying in the place of fallen sinners–it will take Jesus shedding his holy blood on our behalf to cleanse us from our sins. It will take Christ our Savior rising from the dead to ensure our own resurrection.
And Jesus has done what it takes! We see it happening today out in the wilderness. When the tempter came calling, Jesus wasn’t falling. So lean on him when the tempter comes calling on you. Rely on God’s word, firmly set in your heart and mind, to give you guidance and strength. Remember Jesus, your Champion, who stomped on the serpent’s head for your salvation. Your sins are forgiven! You have life in Jesus’ name! And you will have life forever, with God and with all of God’s people, in Paradise restored, in the Promised Land of heaven.