Walking With the Nazarene in the Wilderness: The First Temptation of Christ

tempted

Early in Matthew’s gospel Jesus is led out to the desert, where, alone, in the wilderness, there is a terrible collision of spiritual forces. It is a gripping moment in the gospel, for the devil comes face-to-face with God in human form for a moral battle. It is a unique experience for both the contestants. It is the first (and only) occasion in spiritual time where the devil sees his Maker at a disadvantage, weakened, starving, and as vulnerable as a human being can be rendered. Here indeed we see that Christ “made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant” (Phil 2:7).

St. Matthew informs us that the Lord is in the desert for forty days. It is a highly symbolic number because Israel had spent forty years in the wilderness. Behold! Here is the true Israel, St. Matthew is saying, the promised Messiah whose life an entire nation has been unconsciously dramatising for thousands of years.

Nonetheless, during the forty days the Lord is hidden from our sight, as scripture draws a veil over this desert experience. We can therefore only imagine the baking heat and the chilly nights; the search for shade at noon; and the avoidance of snakes and scorpions by day. We can picture the sweat; the shimmering air; the emptiness; the stillness. But in accordance with his own good purpose, God does not see fit to grant us firm information.

All we are told is that he went without food, and by the end of the time he was “starved”, “famished”, a “hungred”. His desert experience, in other words, was marked by gnawing hunger and weakness. He was plunged into the weakness of humanity.

And then, right on schedule, the devil showed up.

The tempter came to him and said, “If you are the Son of God, tell these stones to become bread.”

We may note that the devil begins his vile work by targeting an obvious vulnerability of the Lord’s humanity. To a desperately hungry man – like Esau coming in from the fields – the prospect of food is nearly irresistible. Survivors of the Soviet gulag often testified that during their imprisonment they thought of nothing but food. They dreamed of it; talked about it with other prisoners; they meditated on it when they were alone, planning the dishes and meals they would prepare when they were free.

We learn here the important lesson that the devil does not fight the spiritual warfare honourably. He never assaults a man where is he most fortified, for what advantage is there in that? Rather he targets our greatest vulnerabilities. Whatever weakness of mind, heart, or body we possess, we can be sure that it will be precisely here that the devil will be most active and his spiritual artillery will focus its barrage.

Thus a man who struggles with avarice will be tempted with money. A woman who struggles with pride will be tempted with self-righteousness and vanity. A man who falls victim to lust will be tempted with sexual impurity. No wonder scripture so often advises us to engage in the self-cleansing work of repentance (Isaiah 1:16; Luke 11:39) and St. Paul urges us to put on the full armour of God that we may stand against the devil. When we “wash our hands and purify our hearts” (James 4:8) we are forced to think about our weaknesses and failures. We are made to see where our battle lines are thin and the enemy broke through and we sinned. We can strengthen those points and guard against the schemes of the devil.

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The First Temptation is a bit of a puzzle. Other than targeting the Lord’s terrible hunger, it does not appear to be an obvious incitement to sin by breaking any of the Ten Commandments.

We may ask, is it a sin to eat? No, of course not. God made us experience hunger so that we would eat. Did the Father command the Lord not to eat during his wilderness experience? Certainly, there is no evidence in scripture that this is so.

Well, then, was the sin inherent in the miracle itself? Would it have been a sin for the Lord to turn stones into bread? Some have argued that since stones by their nature cannot feed people, to use divine power turn them into bread would be a “sinful miracle”. But this is surely a weak conclusion because at the marriage at Cana, the Lord changed water into wine.

Something deeper is afoot than merely eating bread by miracle power. Charles Ellicott in his commentary (1878) put it this way:

The nature of the temptation, so far as we can gauge its mysterious depth, was probably complex.

The clue to understanding the “complex” nature of the First Temptation lies in the Lord’s answer to the devil. As in each reply, Jesus cites from Deuteronomy, which one may note were the very scriptures that were given during Israel’s wilderness years.

In this case, Jesus quotes Deuteronomy 8:3:

Jesus answered, “It is written: ‘Man shall not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.’”

The original context for these words are greatly instructive:

Remember how the Lord your God led you all the way in the wilderness these forty years, to humble and test you in order to know what was in your heart, whether or not you would keep his commands. 

He humbled you, causing you to hunger and then feeding you with manna, which neither you nor your ancestors had known, to teach you that man does not live on bread alone but on every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord.

This thought is continued later in the same chapter:

He led you through the vast and dreadful wilderness, that thirsty and waterless land, with its venomous snakes and scorpions. He brought you water out of hard rock. He gave you manna to eat in the wilderness, something your ancestors had never known, to humble and test you so that in the end it might go well with you. 

You may say to yourself, “My power and the strength of my hands have produced this wealth for me.” But remember the Lord your God, for it is he who gives you the ability to produce wealth, and so confirms his covenant, which he swore to your ancestors, as it is today.

Clearly there is a forceful overlap between Old Testament Israel’s hunger in the wilderness, and Jesus’ experience of extreme privation and hunger in the desert.

But what do these texts teach us about the nature of the temptation?

The constant temptation for Old Testament Israel – a term that has a broader meaning than “illicit desire” as it is often used today – was always to forsake God or grumble against his prophet when privation or hardship came. Israel grumbled about food; they complained about water to the point where Moses was fearful he would be murdered; and they praised Egypt as a slavery better than the freedom of being the chosen people of the ever-living God.

Here the devil was effectively attempting to duplicate that temptation: “You’re God’s Son? And he’s left you starving in the wilderness to the point of death? You are nearly dead! Feed yourself! End your pointless suffering.

Jesus’ answer acknowledges that a man surely lives on bread – the body must be fed or it dies – but the quote also underscores the truth that man never lives on bread alone. Life is more complex than a materialistic matter of eating and drinking. Indeed, Jesus taught in a later sermon, “Life is more than food and the body is more than clothes” (Luke 12:23). A proper understanding of life sees it as more than just a search for the fuel needed to support it. A proper understanding recognises that all the processes of life continue only at the command and behest of God.

It is God who causes the sun to rise and the rain to come so that crops can grow and man can eat. It is God who strengthens the farmer for his work and allows man to develop agricultural technologies. It is God who draws the seedling from the earth. It is God who makes the ground fertile. It is God who gives us each day our daily bread; sets the span of our days; and sends the manna in the desert. By God’s command and instruction, man lives. And when God wills for man to die, then he surely dies.

As St. James writes:

Now listen, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we will go to this or that city, spend a year there, carry on business and make money.” Why, you do not even know what will happen tomorrow.

What is your life? You are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes. Instead, you ought to say, “If it is the Lord’s will, we will live and do this or that.” As it is, you boast in your arrogant schemes. All such boasting is evil.

In Moses solemn prayer in Psalm 90, he also acknowledges this great truth. Man truly lives and dies by the command of God not by his own intelligence or scheming:

You turn people back to dust, saying, “Return to dust, you mortals.”

A thousand years in your sight are like a day that has just gone by, or like a watch in the night.

Yet you sweep people away in the sleep of death— they are like the new grass of the morning: In the morning it springs up new,but by evening it is dry and withered.

So, in the First Temptation the Lord proves himself to be the true Israel. Unlike Old Testament Israel, the true Israel succeeds and passes the test. He trusts the Father with his life, without grumbling. He hungers quietly and patiently in the desert, but never doubts that the Father will sustain him.

As the Second Person of the Holy Trinity, Jesus is not tempted to use his deity against the deity of the First Person, the Father. He does not distrust the Father. Unlike Old Testament Israel, he does not plot treason against the Father by taking matters into his own hands. Rather he stands secure in the splendid simplicity of faith: he knows he will live because the Father commands and wills that he should live.

St. Matthew thus teaches us something about the nature of true faith and what it means to really trust God even in the midst of temptation and trial. No matter how painful the trial may be for the moment, and no matter how tempting it might be to find an early or easy exit from our sufferings – whether it is the burning of persecution or the burning of unfulfilled sexual desire; whether sufferings great or small – the true sons of the kingdom will aim to follow the footsteps of Jesus and answer the devil in similar terms.

I live and exist because of the daily words spoken by God.

I live because in his divine government he wants me to live.

My circumstances are willed by God for his purposes. And I can have the firm confidence that he will never leave me to suffer needlessly neither does he watches me without compassion. I can have faith that my God is good and he will be with me.

In his time – whether now or in eternity – I will see the reward of my suffering and will be truly satisfied.

The Healing of the Paralytic

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“Son, be of good cheer. Your sins are forgiven.” (Mat 9:2)

In the ninth chapter of his gospel, St. Matthew relates a remarkable miracle.

Some men brought to Jesus a man who was a severe paralytic. So immobile, indeed, that he needed to be carried on a mat like a patient on a stretcher. St. Matthew does not tell us precisely how the man was paralysed, but one is left with the impression that this was not a congenital paralysis. Usually the gospel writers are very careful to mention whether an illness or disease was “from birth”.

We do know that severe accidents were relatively common in the ancient world. Our Lord even references a number of people who were tragically killed in the collapse of a tower.

In the ancient world, people unfortunate enough to be badly injured usually died. Medical technology of the era simply could not cope with extreme conditions and so the injured were “left in the hands of God” – as we always are, even if modern medicine sometimes deludes us into thinking we are not.

People who survived accidents with broken and deformed bodies – especially men – lost most of their economic capacity. They essentially became beggars, reliant upon their wife, children, or friends to provide the essentials of life. It was an unenviable and pitiable condition. Particularly if they lived with chronic pain.

St. Matthew tells us that our Lord “saw their faith” – the faith of the paralytic’s friends.

This is a remarkable observation. We know that Christ could see into the hearts of men with perfect perspicuity. But St. Matthew intends us to see that the faith of these men was demonstrated in action: they invested effort to bring their friend to Jesus, and they came with expectancy. This was not a scholarly expectation. It was not theologically complicated.

Their comprehension was simple and straightforward: This is the One who can heal!

When Jesus saw the paralytic he did not immediately tell him he was going to be healed from his paralysis. Instead, the Lord tells him to “Be of good cheer! Your sins are forgiven”. Do we get what St. Matthew is saying here? Forgiveness of sins is the first order of business. Indeed, righteousness with God was always the foremost priority in the economy of our Lord who sees and knows all things.

The forgiveness of sins! If we see things rightly, then we understand that reconciliation with God is greater than even being able to walk again. People who have found salvation come to understand that this is the foremost source of “good cheer”.

Could there be anything greater? To be a criminal engaged in a longstanding civil war against our Creator and King, only for him to set aside his royal robes; step down from his throne; and descend to our level in order to tell us that all who lay down their weapons; all who sign the Armistice; all who surrender and come into his presence – even if only with a trembling, weak, solitary sinew of faith – will be received. Will be forgiven. Will be reconciled. They will be given the right to call their former enemy, “my Father”.

It is only after addressing the paralytic’s soul that our Lord heals his broken body. Yet even this is done with purposeful deliberateness, to confirm the reality of the forgiveness he had bestowed.

No matter what the devil will try to tell us about the importance of earthly gain, or that we should look for happiness in sin and material goods, the reality is that a man can only really be at peace – to “be of good cheer” – when he has encountered Christ in faith and heard his words spoken as unto the very recesses of his soul:

“My son, your sins are forgiven.”

Do you hear that welcoming voice? Has your heart ever yearned for unconditional, compassionate and understanding love – the love of Christ, a wellspring of affection that is reserved just for you from the centre of heaven itself?

Have you grown weary of the dusty wilderness tracks through the desert of unrighteousness? Do you feel any tug on your heart at all?

You do not need it to be complicated. You do not need to have the same experience someone else had. You do not need complex doctrinal understanding. You need only to have an atom of desire toward Christ and enough faith to come – fainting, wounded, paralysed – into his presence. For all who truly come, he will never cast away.

In the words of the old revival hymn:

I hear Thy welcome voice,
That calls me, Lord, to Thee;
For cleansing in Thy precious blood,
That flow’d on Calvary.

I am coming, Lord!
Coming now to Thee!
Wash me, cleanse me, in the blood
That flow’d on Calvary!

Though coming weak and vile,
Thou dost my strength assure;
Thou dost my vileness fully cleanse,
Till spotless all, and pure.

And he the witness gives
To loyal hearts and free,
That every promise is fulfilled,
If faith but brings the plea.

Joy, the Characteristic of an Authentic Encounter with Christ

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This morning, the pipes burst from the water mains to my house. A great spray of water was sent across the lawn, and the water pressure in the house dropped to zero.

I went to church glad that it had been spotted early.

This morning I spoke about the believer’s joy, which is fixed by the certainty of our entrance into eternal life and grounded in the love of Christ. This happiness is not tangential to the Christian experience. It is part of the promise; it is part of the proof of being in Christ. For Christ himself said, “I have spoken these words that my joy might be in you, and your joy might be complete“. The devil’s greatest tool to destroy this joy is to rob people of their assurance and confidence that they will enter that sunlit land, and one day inhabit the City of God in fellowship with Christ and his saints forever. This joy exists independent of our momentary troubles and worries.

Truly, even “the desert blooms as paradise when God is with His people there“.

After worship was ended, I was talking to a brother about joy and Christian happiness. We ended up comparing notes about our troubles with our homes. The conversation ran something like this:

Me: “Well, this morning the pipes burst in my house!”
[Insert joyous laughter]
Brother: “Well, my roof is leaking in three places and I don’t have the time to fix it!”
[Insert more joyous laughter]
Me: “Well, this week I received a letter from the people who built my home warning me the roof could cave in!”
[Joyous laughter again]

It would seem madness to the world. Glib; insane; not being a realist. Yet for the Christian who is strengthened by Christ, the difficulties of life are trivia compared with His joy. Our conversation was a small, yet vivid proof of Christian joy that can exist independent of one’s circumstances.

Sunday’s Exhortation: Blessed from Before all the Ages

Glory

Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in the heavenly realms with every spiritual blessing in Christ. For he chose us in him before the creation of the world to be holy and blameless in his sight. (Ephesians 1:3-4)

St. Paul’s letter to the churches at Ephesus begins with what could only be described as an “outburst of glory”!

For twelve amazing verses Paul plunges into the ocean of blessings given to the believer. He surveys the scope of the glorious future of the believer and the definitive work of God. This definitive work of God, as we shall see, is to save the believer from coming wrath, to make the sinner righteous, and to fit him for readmission to paradise.

The starting point for Paul is praise – which is the natural response of any heart that has been properly brought into the light of Christ.Offering to God thanks and praise is the supreme duty of every human creature. For this end we were created. For this purpose we were saved, that we might evermore show forth the praises of him who called you out of darkness and into his marvellous light (1 Peter 2:9).

The man was formed with a mouth and eyes, ears and a mind so that he could indeed “shout to the Lord” in ceaseless joy and thanksgiving. Given the high point of man’s origin, it is a dreadful indictment on the human condition that these instruments that should have been wholly given to praise, are debased and misused. The world abounds in eyes that long to look upon iniquity; ears that delight in gossip and slander; mouths that frame lies and profanity; minds that contemplate evil. Indeed, one of the evidences of salvation is that the man begins to use his very being for praise and thanksgiving again.

Effects

Paul tells the Ephesian Christians that they have been given “every spiritual blessing in Christ“.

Immediately, this phrase brings a division between the believer and unbeliever.

To the person dead in trespasses and sins and estranged from God, this is not an impressive statement. “Spiritual blessings,” says the unbeliever, “sound theoretical, abstract and not real. They are second class blessings. I want earthly blessings. I want the blessings of prosperity, and health, and fame, and a big house, and my morning cup of coffee. These are what I consider real blessings. You can take these so-called spiritual blessings and keep them!

An unredeemed person cannot begin to understand the motives of the great saints who were put to the sword, lived in caves and holes in the ground, who went about in animal skins, were sawed in half, and wandered through the earth in “order that they might obtain a better resurrection(Heb 11:35). What madness is this! To live a life of misery solely to obtain some ethereal spiritual blessing in the hereafter? Insanity! I’ll take my pleasures here and now, thank you very much!

But to those who know the reality of God, these blessings are not second class, neither are they insubstantial. Rather the spiritual blessings are the best blessings of all.

These are not abstractions. Not in the slightest. Rather these blessings have tangible and concrete outworkings in a person’s life. Everything is affected. The manner in which a man chooses, thinks, loves, desires, dreams, labours, prays, spends his time, and reckons. The blessed believer lives on a wholly different plane of life flowing with divine life and glory.

What does God offer through these blessings? Nothing less than readmission to paradise. Our first parents were expelled from Eden in Genesis 3 and every human being since then has lived in a shadow world that is a pathetic parody of what we were created to experience. But in Revelation 22, the redeemed reenter paradise. There they take up eternal residence where the river of life, the tree of life, and the city of God exist in the endless illumination provided by Christ himself.

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This is what these spiritual blessings point to: to gaining a sinless condition where there are no longer any barriers between man and his Creator. And, in losing his sin, man looses the plague and curse of sin. He is freed from death, sorrow, separation, loneliness, sickness, and misery. He is renewed and can look forward to endless trillions of years of life. Elevated into a world of love.

In the fourth verse, St. Paul takes us on a journey – soaring through space and time – back past Bethlehem, back past the prophets Isaiah and Jeremiah, past Moses, Abraham, Noah, and even back beyond Adam himself. Paul launches us into the time before Genesis 1:1, when, before the creation of the world, “God chose us in Christ“. Before the universe was called into existence; before Christ formed the spiralling galaxies; before the stars began to shine and the sun rose on the first day, God selected a people for paradise.

A select people! Therefore anyone who savingly meets with Christ is operating under a principle that is more ancient than the ground beneath their feet. To be lifted into glory – not because the sinner is better than anyone else, or had a particular upbringing, or some special exposure – but because God ordained an eternity ago that the sinner would meet with Jesus. And not only meet with him, but to behold his glory and love – like Moses, to “see him who is invisible” – and be brought into communion with him forever.