The Temptation of Jesus
One of the major challenges we face as Christians today is understanding and holding on to our true identity in God. We face a temptation to base our identity in how others see us, instead of how God sees us. Jesus faced a similar temptation, and today we will look at how He responded to this temptation, to help us withstand this temptation ourselves.
One of my favorite writers and speakers, Mark Sayers, wrote a book called the Vertical Self. In this book, he helps Christians to understand how our Western culture is trying to drag us along in its identity crisis. In this book, he sets off a view of ourselves based on our relationship with God – the Vertical Self – against a view of ourselves based on how others see us – the Horizontal Self.
He argues that we live in the age of the Horizontal Self. In a post-Christian world where most people don’t believe in a Creator God, there is no basis anymore for an understanding of self in relationship to a divine call. What’s left, is an understanding of self, based on how others see you, or what others say you should be.
In this way, identity becomes something you construct.
You can present yourself to the world in a certain way, depending on how you want others to see you. And there are a lot of different constructed identities up for grabs. You can even choose different ones depending on the environment:
the cool one, the sexy one, the rebel, the smart one, the successful one, the fun-loving one, the super-mom, the sports-guy, the adventurous one or the world-changer. And there are tons of other identities to choose from.
We need to carefully evaluate if the way we live flows forth from a life with God, or if we are playing a role hoping to get the praise from others.
Understand me well, some of these constructed identities are based in personal interests, personality types and natural talents. Some of these roles are good and noble and God-honoring at first glance. Yet, in the age of the horizontal self, these are often roles we’ve learned to play, with the world as our audience. And we’ve become so used to playing those roles, that we don’t even feel the contours of the mask anymore.
We need to carefully evaluate if the way we live flows forth from a life with God, or if we are playing a role hoping to get the praise from others. We need to live from our True Self – the way God sees us and what He has created us for – instead of a False Self – the way we hope others see us.
The Temptation of Jesus
Just as we are tempted to replace a vertical self with a horizontal self, so was Jesus tempted in this way.
Today, we are investigating the passage in Matthew’s Gospel where Jesus is tempted by the devil. But, to understand this passage properly, we need to understand the timing of this story. His temptation in the desert happened directly after His baptism. And so, in our reading, we’ll start a bit earlier in the Gospel.
Matthew 3:16-17 (ESV)
And when Jesus was baptized, immediately he went up from the water, and behold, the heavens were opened to him, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and coming to rest on him; and behold, a voice from heaven said, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.”
Jesus’ baptism marks the start of His public ministry. You could see it as His moment of calling and commissioning. At that moment, He is filled with the Holy Spirit, and God’s voice from heaven identifies Jesus as His Son.
This is a powerful moment where God confirms Jesus’ identity as the Messiah. He is the Anointed One, through who God would bring about His Kingdom. Let’s read the passage directly following this statement.
Matthew 4:1-11 (ESV)
Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. And after fasting forty days and forty nights, he was hungry. And the tempter came and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.”
(notice here, it is a direct attack on His identity)
But he answered, “It is written,
“‘Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.’”
Then the devil took him to the holy city and set him on the pinnacle of the temple and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down, for it is written,
“‘He will command his angels concerning you,’
“‘On their hands they will bear you up,
lest you strike your foot against a stone.’”
Jesus said to him, “Again it is written, ‘You shall not put the Lord your God to the test.’”
Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their glory. And he said to him, “All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.” Then Jesus said to him, “Be gone, Satan! For it is written,
“‘You shall worship the Lord your God
and him only shall you serve.’”
Then the devil left him, and behold, angels came and were ministering to him.
In this passage, the devil tempts Jesus to abandon His True Self – his identity as the Son of God – and instead to base His identity on the way others would see Him. Each of these temptations represent different masks of the False Self that tempted Jesus – and can tempt us – to abandon our True Self.
The first temptation, to turn stones into bread, is a temptation to base His identity off of His power.
Jesus possessed the power to fulfil His every need, and certainly to still His hunger, in an instant way. Giving in to this temptation would set Jesus off on a trajectory to use His power in a way that would reject His calling. His display of power was meant as a way of demonstrating the power of the Kingdom of God – not to put on a show and entertain the crowd.
In the same way, we may face the temptation to base our identity off performance. Instead of using our gifts and talents for the glory of God, we may use them to get recognition from others.
The second temptation, to jump off the highest point of the Temple, is a temptation to base His identity off prestige.
The Temple was the most visible building in Jerusalem, it was always busy there – and nonetheless also the center point of the Jewish religion. By jumping off, and being caught by angels, Jesus would have immediately received super-hero status. The argument over whether he was the Messiah, would have been settled there and then.
Yet, in doing so, He would have abandoned the call of God to live humbly and to serve others, instead of being served.
In the same way – we may face the temptation to base our identity off our achievements. Instead of dedicating our life to fulfil God’s calling, we may aspire a certain status, based on our achievements.
The Kingdoms of the World
The last temptation is the most vicious one. The devil tells Jesus to bow down to him, and in return, Jesus would get the rule over all the kingdoms of the world.
We need to understand here that this is exactly what Jesus came to do. He came to reclaim the rule over all the nations – that which the devil had stolen from God in the Garden of Eden. Yet, Jesus came to do this through His death and resurrection, destroying the power of sin, the means by which satan was ruling the nations.
Satan offers Jesus a shortcut from His true calling, and to base His identity off of His possessions and position.
In the same way, we may be tempted to bow down to the idols of this world as well, instead of bowing down to God, in view of the empty offers of the devil. We could base our self-view off of our possessions or position.
The Struggle Is Real
Yet, all of these temptations offer us poor substitutes to our true identity and calling in God. The alternatives the devil offers us are false and fake. And the struggle is real! We face them on a day to day basis.
The devil loves nothing more than bringing us to a deserted place, in total isolation, trying to tell us that God has abandoned us and that all we have left to live for is the praise of other people. But the devil is a liar! He offers you something that looks good, seems nice and promises to fulfil a need that you have – like the fruit in the Garden of Eden – but He is out to set you on a fast track away from God’s presence in your life, God’s promises over your life and God’s call on your life.
The devil is out to set you on a fast track away from God’s presence in your life, God’s promises over your life and God’s call on your life.
Withstanding the Temptation – learning from Jesus
And so, to finish off this message, let’s look at two things we can learn from Jesus in how He withstood the temptation.
1. Jesus’ answers were rooted in Scripture
Jesus responded to the temptation through quoting Scripture. The better we know God’s Word, the better we will be able to identify the lies of the devil, and reject his empty offers. Be grounded in Scripture. In Ephesians 6, Paul encourages us to put on the armour of God to stand firm against the devil’s strategies. Part of that armour are the belt of truth, the helmet of salvation and the sword of the Spirit.
By being grounded in the truth of God’s Word and your identity in Him, you defuse the temptations of the devil.
2. Jesus reaffirmed His identity in God
In His responses, he kept on referring to Himself in terms of how He related to God. When the devil offered Him a false identity, He responded from His true identity.
To the temptation to misuse His power He said:
- I live from God’s Word
To the temptation to jump off the Temple and get instant recognition He said:
- I don’t test God, I obey Him and trust Him. I follow the path that He has set out for me, even if that includes disappointment and suffering.
To the temptation to bow down and get possession over all the nations of the earth
- I worship and serve God alone! No possession or position could ever satisfy like doing what I was created to do.
With these powerful statements, Jesus anchored Himself deeper and deeper in His True Identity in God.
And this is something we can take to heart as well. In life, we will be faced with many testings and temptations. We may go through times when our sense of our True Identity in God gets polluted.
Yet, when we get grounded in the Word again, and choose to place our position as children of God, loved and accepted by the Father, and called to be ambassadors of His Kingdom in this world at the core of our lives again – overcoming these testings and temptations will only make us stronger.
Romans 5:3-5 (NLT)
We can rejoice, too, when we run into problems and trials, for we know that they help us develop endurance. And endurance develops strength of character, and character strengthens our confident hope of salvation. And this hope will not lead to disappointment. For we know how dearly God loves us, because he has given us the Holy Spirit to fill our hearts with his love.
- Which temptation does the devil use most often to swerve you from your True Identity in God?
- How have overcoming these temptations grounded you deeper in your True Identity in God?