Standing the Test

Lent, Matthew 4:1-11

Mosaic of the Temptations of Christ in the Basilica of St. Mark, Venice, 12th century (Wikimedia Commons)

Following his baptism at the Jordan River by his cousin John the Baptist, Jesus “was led by the Spirit into the desert to be tempted by the devil” (Matthew 4:1).

Biblical scholar William Barclay reminds us that the Greek word peirazein might be better translated as “test” than “tempt.” We speak of temptation as a seduction to sin. Testing, rather, is a way to prove strength. Jesus was put to the test. When he stood the test and proved himself equal to the task, he said, “Away with you, Satan.”

Testing is an important part of every manufacturing process. Steel can only prove to be good steel by rigid testing. Jesus was tested out in the wilderness: “Because he himself suffered when he was tempted, he is able to help those who are being tempted” (Hebrews 2:18).

Because Jesus won the battle, we are encouraged and empowered. Jesus faced the devil. We face the devil. Martin Luther, the great Church Reformer, wrote in one of his hymns, “Though this world with devils filled should threaten to undo us… still our ancient foe doth seek to work us woe.”

In the Lord’s Prayer, we pray, “Lead us not into temptation.” Does God lead us to temptation? No, absolutely not. In recent times, there is a movement, headed by Pope Francis, to correct that phrase, which is an incorrect translation. The Prayer is probably better interpreted to say, “Save us in the hour of trial.” In other words, it is a plea for strength to stand the test and make the most of the moment.

Before his public ministry, Jesus spent 40 days in the wilderness in meditation, contemplation and prayer. He was tempted three times by the devil and stood the test. He also set a good example to his followers that they can resist temptation when they rely on God and are spiritually armed with His holy word. Jesus answered the evil one with, “It is written.” That indicates to us that we need the guidance of the Holy Spirit to empower us in times of temptation.

Lonely and dreary, faint and weary, Jesus went to the desert to be tested and passed, because as a human being, he trusted in God.

In the temptation story, everything Satan suggested to Jesus was in fact something good, something valuable. Here are some noteworthy observations.

The first temptation was to turn stones into bread. Satan told Jesus that the way to win the hearts of people was to give them bread. He knew the importance of food. His own hunger in the desert served to remind him of the world’s desperate need for food. At the beginning of his public ministry, he was faced with the temptation to elevate the material side of life, above the spiritual.

But Jesus saw through Satan’s real motive and understood that there is something more important than bread. There are deeper meanings in life than those that satisfy the physical hunger of people. Jesus’ answer to Satan that “man does not live by bread alone” reflects that we should place our emphasis on spiritual values.

The second temptation was to make Jesus a wonder-worker and make people follow him. This deceptively subtle temptation reminds us that there are limits to what people can and should do to impress others. Shortcuts should not be used to reach certain goals. The end does not justify the means. Satan tried to tempt Jesus to stand atop the temple’s pinnacle and leap down, and by landing unharmed, present himself as a miracle-worker. To support his temptation, Satan quoted the Bible: “He will give His angels charge concerning you, to guard you in all ways. They will bear you up in their hands, that you do not strike your foot against a stone” (Psalm 91:11-12). Jesus’ quote from Deuteronomy 6:16, “Do not put the Lord, your God to the test,” is a direct answer to the tempter. In other words, no one should try to force God’s hand in order to get the response he wants.

The third temptation deals with Jesus’ ultimate mission. Satan took him to a high mountain, showed him all the kingdoms of the world, and said, “All these can be yours if you will fall down and worship me.”

The aspiration to power in order to change the world for the better is surely a good thing. The tempter was suggesting another route to save the world. Jesus refused to conduct his life and ministry by the standards of the world. 

Temptation will come to us in forms that are equally subtle. We can never deal with it unless we come to terms with the subtlety of its nature. Martin Luther wrote, “The devil can tempt us in a masterful way. If he couldn’t, he wouldn’t be the devil!” If Satan came to us in a red suit and pitchfork in his hand, we would flee him like a plague. But, he comes to us like he came to Jesus, quoting scripture!

Temptation is alluring. In Homer’s The Odyssey, the Trojan War had ended, and Odysseus and his men were leaving Troy, heading home. On their journey, they stopped briefly at an island. Some of the sailors went ashore. There, they tasted the lotus plant. The sweet fruit enticed them so much that they didn’t return to the ship, but chose rather to stay with the lotus-eating natives. Odysseus brought the sailors back to the ship by force, tied them, stowed them under the benches and forbade any of the others from going ashore. 

When the devil failed to trap the Savior, Jesus said to him, “Away from me, Satan! For it is written: ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve him only.’ Then the devil left him, and angels came and attended him” (Matthew 4:10-11). As angels were sent to minister to Jesus after his time of testing, angels are sent to minister to us. Remember, as Jesus was led by the Spirit to be tested, sometimes He lets us be tested. But He always has angels ready to give us comfort and solace. Those angels are sometimes friends and neighbors who minister to us when they don’t even know they are doing so. 

Finally, the temptation story needs to fit into the context of the life of Jesus. It took place at the beginning of his ministry. Very often it is at the beginning of a project or a life of service that the devil can most effectively squash our enthusiasm and commitment. Jesus won that round. We can, too. 

There is a fable about a dog that boasted about his ability as a runner. One day a rabbit outran him and got away. Naturally, the other dogs ridiculed the boasting dog. His reply was, “Remember that the rabbit was running for his life. I was just running for my dinner!”

Maybe we should remember that in fleeing the tempter, we are really running for our lives!

Rev. Dr. Vahan Tootikian

Rev. Dr. Vahan Tootikian

Rev. Dr. Vahan H. Tootikian is the Executive Director of the Armenian Evangelical World Council.
Rev. Dr. Vahan Tootikian

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