The temptations Jesus endured and withstood are archetypal of Satan’s diabolical work to trap humanity. Where we fall, Jesus stood, though not without struggle, as Hebrews 5:14 teaches: “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are—yet was without sin.”
Facing Jesus’—and Preachers’—Temptations
Not surprisingly there’s a deep potential irony in the process of developing a series on the temptations of Jesus: preachers themselves can face and fall into temptation. That is, it would be remarkably easy to wax topical and colorful on each of the three temptations, pulling all kinds of examples from daily life that would be interesting, provocative, and probably even memorable for listeners and worshipers—all the while ignoring contextual and exegetical issues. But it need not be that way.
There are elements within the Scriptural reports of Jesus’ encounter with Satan that preachers should attend to in order to avoid the temptation of sloth or mere topicality. The result can be a series of tightly integrated sermons and services that will be interesting, provocative, and memorable—for the right reasons.
Contexts of the Temptation Episodes
Accounts of Jesus’ temptation appear in Matthew 4:1-11, Mark 1:12-13, and Luke 4:1-13. Although this series is based on Matthew 4:1-11, significant discussion is needed on all three gospels to grasp the uniqueness of the Matthean temptation espisode.
Mark’s spare but evocative temptation report is not used in the lectionary, yet preachers must deal with it in planning a series on either Matthew or Luke. Each of those gospels would produce a noticeably different sermon series because the contexts in each differ. Both Matthew and Luke provide different reports from Jesus’ early life. And different events in Jesus’ ministry follow the temptations. Though Matthew’s and Luke’s reports of the temptations themselves are similar, they differ in the details that preachers must take into account as they choose how best to communicate the significance of those details in their own contexts.
A good place to begin is by looking briefly at all three Scriptural reports of Jesus’ temptations. Mark’s account is over in twenty-nine Greek words and two verses (1:12-13), with no details of the temptations themselves. His temptation report does not lend itself to a series of sermons; one would do. Still, it is imperative to start with Mark in preparing a series of messages on the temptation episode from Matthew or Luke, because Mark is proleptic and preparatory for Matthew and Luke.
For example, Mark tantalizingly mentions “wild animals” and “angels attending” Jesus that Matthew and Luke do not borrow. Both Matthew and Luke expand on details that Mark only sketches. All three gospels place Jesus’ baptism before his temptations. Many writers and preachers have called Jesus’ baptism the “ordination” or “commissioning” for his ministry. The “Spirit” authenticates Jesus as God’s Son. (Luke alone specifies Holy Spirit, a theme he continues in Acts.) The Spirit “compels” Jesus to go into the desert where he struggles with Satan. Thus in Mark, the temptation is the gospel’s first act of Jesus’ ministry, his early life playing no part, as it does in Matthew and Luke.
Satan the Separator
Matthew and Luke never directly call the tempter “Satan” in their temptation narratives. Matthew only quotes Jesus, “Get behind me, Satan.” Both use instead “tempter” (Greek peirazoon, “one who tests”) or “devil” (Greek diabolos, literally “splitter,” “one who separates”). Indeed, that is Satan’s wish—to separate Jesus from God, so that we humans, whom Jesus perfectly represents, have no way back to God on our own.
A “tempter” is also a “tester.” The devil tried to test Jesus to the breaking point. Perhaps a contemporary image helps drive this point home: manufacturer-certified thirty-pound test fishing line will withstand some sixty pounds or more of pull for a time, but will eventually snap. We will sometime snap and be deviled or split away from God, no matter how strong we think we are. Jesus did not snap and keeps the way open to God that we lost.
Bible students and many listeners will also recall Satan as righteous Job’s accuser. In Job 1 and 2 he is the reckless, wild instigator of cosmic and personal suffering and evil. Job suffers without adequate response or reason. In Mark and Matthew Jesus struggles and wins against Satan, attended by angels, led by the Spirit. Perhaps that gives us wherewithal for our own struggles, if no reasons for it. Sin and evil, as C. G. Berkouwer and others asserted years ago, are ultimately a “riddle,” admitting of no reasonable explanation.
It is indeed a good thing for us that God’s thoughts and ways are not our thoughts and ways (Isa. 55:8) and that God forgives and restores sinners who do fall to the adversary. While we do not understand our own sin or God’s forgiveness and reconciliation, these are no riddles to God. We must accept God’s gracious, inscrutable work with faith and joy.
Stones or Bread?
- The idea that drives this temptation is that the devil offers a trivial use of power or ability for self-gratification.
- Connecting with John 1, Jesus, the pre-existent Word, created the world. To make a meal for himself would be a petty use of his power, distracting Jesus from his mission to defeat sin and make all things new.
- How did Jesus face the devil? He responded not on his own strength, but with the history and power of the Word of God: “It is written: ‘We do live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.’” The quote comes from Deuteronomy 8:3, where Moses told Israel they would not live by bread alone. They were in the desert too, tempted to return to Egypt where they had food. Yet God fed them manna for forty years so they could learn again to be God’s dependent people.
- What might this first temptation sound like in our language today? The devil tempts us to waste our powers and gifts on ourselves, becoming less than the generous people whom God made in his own image, splitting us from God and others.
Possible examples: Our civilization could grow enough to feed the world twice. We could arrange transportation and develop basic education to teach hungry people how to grow food. Instead our world spends billions more on weapons and war or dithering and entertaining distractions than on food production, education, and health. That makes us less than God made us to be.
“Jump, Jesus, Jump”
- Defeated once, the devil comes back for a second round. His tactic is spiritual judo, using the opponent’s weight and strength to beat him. Satan takes Jesus to the holiest of places—the temple. He uses belief/faith: he’ll believe Jesus is the Son of God, if only Jesus endangers himself frivolously.
- The devil quotes Scripture (Ps. 91), as Jesus did in the first temptation. But the old splitter misquotes Scripture, promising protection for recklessness, not for obedience. Lying—that’s what the “father of lies” does best, to derail Jesus or us.
- The temptation to Jesus is to let his will be done, rather than his Father’s, to trust in himself rather than God. Our temptation? To try to cut deals with God, thus breaking our covenant and loyalty with God. Again, the devil could split us from God.
“Bow Down, Jesus”
- How does Jesus win Round 2? Using Scripture (Deut. 6:16) in the context of testing, Jesus “trusts and obeys” rather than trying to manipulate God.
- While the surface issues of loyalty to God and competition with God are readily discernible in the third temptation also, this is the most exegetically complex temptation of the three. As the climax temptation, we recognize it as one to which Matthew gives final emphasis—thus the one he wants us to remember longest.
- The scene is all-important: a “high mountain,” yet still in the desert. Whenever mountains appear in Matthew, something central to Jesus’ identity or mission is at stake.
- A desert always recalls Israel’s forty-year pilgrimage. Jesus preached on a mountainside (5:1). Jesus was transfigured on a “high mountain,” witnessed by Moses and Elijah (17:1-13). And after his resurrection, Jesus claimed “all authority” on a mountain in Galilee (28:16-18).
- The final temptation highlights a central Matthean theme in this gospel written for Jewish people: Jesus is greater than Moses. That point needed proof, because Moses was considered the greatest leader of God’s people.
In Exodus Moses received the Ten Commandments from God on a mountain. Yet he succumbed to temptation caused by anger and by confidence in his own power—he struck a rock for water instead of speaking to it, as God instructed (Num. 20). Jesus, on the other hand, withstood the third temptation to break loyalty to God to which Moses yielded. Standing on the Word of God again (Deut. 6:13), Jesus reminded the devil that only God is worthy of worship.
- Jesus faced and withstood temptation three times. Three is a biblically complete number. Jesus stayed in the tomb three days—completely dead. Yet after three days he arose, completely conquering death.
The devil leaves, beaten three times.
Temptations come and temptations go. But Jesus stays, for he is Immanuel (Matt. 1:23), God with us, before and after Moses, with us now and until he returns, just as he promised: “Surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age” (28:20).
Suggested Liturgical Resources
Calls to Worship
A (from Ps. 95)
O come, let us sing to the Lord; let us make a joyful noise to the rock of our salvation!
Let us come into his presence with thanksgiving; let us make a joyful noise to him with songs of praise! For the Lord is a great God, and a great King above all gods.
In his hand are the depths of the earth; the heights of the mountains are his also. The sea is his, for he made it, and the dry land, which his hands have formed.
Let us worship and bow down, let us kneel before the Lord, our Maker! We are the people of his pasture, and the sheep of his hand.
B (based on Col. 2:3; Rev. 5:12)
The Lord Jesus who calls us to worship today
is the same Jesus who refused the temptation
to worship the evil one.
Rather than receive the glorious kingdoms of this world,
he endured the shame of the cross,
and today is Lord of lords and King of kings.
Now are gathered in him all the treasures
of wisdom and knowledge, glory and power.
With the saints of all ages we say,
“Worthy is the Lamb, who was slain,
to receive power and wealth and wisdom
and strength and honor and glory and praise!”
—RW 27:40 C
The trumpet of the Lord sounds, calling us to exam-
ine our souls,
for we have not only met temptation, we have felt
The trumpet of the Lord sounds, calling us to mend our
for we have not only committed sin, we have felt
The trumpet of the Lord sounds, calling us to rend our
for we have not only witnessed forgiveness, we have felt its power. O come, let us worship the Lord! (TWS J.1.2.7)
—p. 58, Litanies and Other Prayers: For the Revised Common Lectionary, Year B by Phyllis Cole and Everett Tilson. © 1991, 1994, Abingdon Press.
Litany of Confession
“Our World Belongs to God,” stanzas 14-16
(available online at www.crcna.org/whoweare/ beliefs/ourworldbelongs.asp)
Prayer of Confession
God of exodus and wilderness,
God of refuge and help,
hear us now as we make our confession to you.
In times of temptation
we forget what you have done for us.
You give us everything we need,
yet we often remain unsatisfied;
you trust us to care for creation,
yet we often abuse that trust
and spoil what we have been given.
You show us the way we are to follow,
yet we often continue on the path
of self-indulgence and self-centeredness.
Forgive us, we pray.
We ask for your direction, your patience, your love,
in the name of Jesus Christ,
who, in spite of his temptations,
was faithful to your saving Word. Amen.
—Nancy E. Hardy in Celebrate God’s Presence (pp. 154-155).
© 2000, United Church Publishing House. Used by permission.
Prayers of the People
[Be sure to include prayers for those facing temptations; here is one example. See also pages 24-25 for prayers based on the Lord’s Prayer.]
You are holy, O God of majesty,
and blessed is Jesus Christ, your Son, our Lord.
As one of us, he knew our joys and sorrows
and our struggles with temptation.
He was like us in every way except sin.
In him we see what you created us to be.
Though blameless, he suffered willingly for our sin.
Though innocent, he accepted death for the guilty.
On the cross he offered himself, a perfect sacrifice, for
the life of the world.
By his suffering and death, he freed us from sin and
Risen from the grave, he leads us to the joy of new life.
[Intercessions for the church and the world may be included here.]
Lead us, O God, in the way of Christ.
Give us courage to take up our cross
and, in full reliance upon your grace, to follow him.
Help us to love you above all else
and to love our neighbor as we love ourselves,
demonstrating that love in deed and word by the power
of your Spirit.
Give us strength to serve you faithfully
until the promised day of resurrection,
when, with the redeemed of all the ages,
we will feast with you at your table in glory.
Through Christ, all glory and honor are yours, almighty
with the Holy Spirit in the holy church, now and forever.
Amen. (TWS K.4.4.3)
—Donald Wilson Stake and Harold M. Daniels; rev. Marney Ault Wasserman, alt. in Liturgical Year. The Worship of God: Supplemental Liturgical Resource 7 (pp. 145-148).
© 1992, Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). Used by permission of Westminster John Knox Press.
A Reading for Committing Ourselves to God
(Selections from 1 John 3)
How great is the love the Father has lavished on us, that we should be called children of God!
And that is what we are! Now we are children of God, and what we will be has not yet been made known. But we know that when God appears, we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is.
Everyone who has this hope in Christ is purified by him, just as he is pure. Yet everyone who sins breaks the law; in fact, sin is lawlessness.
But we know that Christ appeared so that he might take away our sins. And in him is no sin. No one who lives in him keeps on sinning. No one who continues to sin has either seen him or known him.
Dear friends, do not let anyone lead you astray. Whoever does what is right is righteous, just as Christ is righteous. He who does what is sinful is of the devil, because the devil has been sinning from the beginning.
Yet we know that the Son of God appeared to destroy the devil’s work. No one who is born of God will continue to sin, because God’s seed remains in us; we cannot go on sinning, because we have been born of God.
This is the message you heard from the beginning: We should love one another. And we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us.
That is why we should be ready to lay down our lives for our brothers and sisters. If anyone has material possessions and sees his sisters or brothers in need but has no pity on them, how can God’s love be in them?
Dear friends, let us not love with words or tongue but with actions and in truth. That is how we know that we belong to the truth, and how we set our hearts at rest in God’s presence whenever our hearts condemn us.
Barbara Howatch’s novels, among them Glamorous Powers, Glittering Images and Absolute Truths, provide stimulating background reading for the temptations that face professional religious persons of great talent, ambition, and also a desire to use those gifts wisely.