Message: The End of the Beginning (Pt. 2) | Scripture: Matthew 4:1-11 | Speaker: Stephen Choy
Please follow along with me in Matthew 4:1-11. TWoL: 1 Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. 2 And after fasting forty days and forty nights, he was hungry. 3 And the tempter came and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.” 4 But he answered, “It is written, “‘Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.’” 5 Then the devil took him to the holy city and set him on the pinnacle of the temple 6 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,’ and “‘On their hands they will bear you up, lest you strike your foot against a stone.’” 7 Jesus said to him, “Again it is written, ‘You shall not put the Lord your God to the test.’” 8 Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their glory. 9 And he said to him, “All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.” 10 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.’” 11 Then the devil left him, and behold, angels came and were ministering to him.
Just to recap where we are both in this book and in this chapter, specifically, Matthew 4:1-11 is the end of Matthew’s introduction to who Jesus is and what he’s come to do, namely, that he is the prophesied Messiah come to define the nature of his kingdom by separating a new people to himself. And he can do this because where Adam, Noah, Abraham, Israel, and the kings have failed, Jesus, as the true Son of God, has not, giving him both the divine and human authority to determine who enters his dominion.
These verses in this chapter, here in Matt 4:1-11, are to complete the picture that Matthew is trying to paint of Christ as the fulfillment of history, and more precisely, as the evangelist is writing to an historically Jewish audience, as the true, greater, final Israel as he relives and perfects their experiences. So far, we’ve covered the first two of these temptations that Jesus has faced, and he’s passed them spectacularly. And I’ll note, contrary to a number of well-known and well-respected theologians, theologians we like, like C.S. Lewis, that when I say he’s passed his first two temptations spectacularly, I do not mean to state what is obvious.
What is tempting for us to do here is to mix two ideas together, namely, that of Christ’s human nature and divine nature. We’ll think, “of course, Jesus passed his first two temptations—he did it because he’s God. He had an advantage. He must have divinized his humanity by mixing it with his godliness”
But this kind of thinking is dangerous and misguided as it takes away from the richness of the passage because the Bible clearly teaches that though he was God, he did not come in the form or in the manner of God (John 1:14; Phil 2:1-11). In his coming, and in his incarnation, he was fully human, and as a human, he experienced this life in the fullness of that fact without relying on his divinity to accomplish his earthly tasks. We get a sense of this in Matthew’s own words when he talks about Christ’s hunger in verse 2. Jesus lives the totality of the human life as a human without mixing or communicating his humanity with his divinity. And such a fact is massively important for us as we consider the depth of Christ’s intercession for us—not only on the cross, but even now, as he advocates on our behalf with the Father.
And here, in Matthew 4:1-11, our author shows us the extent to which our Christ—our Messiah—overcame these temptations. In the first, Satan did everything to attack his person and to lure Jesus into mixing his humanity with his divinity. There he says, “if you are God, just do godly things, and turn these rocks into stones. Find sufficiency for your needs in yourself as the one, above all others, who can.” But Jesus thwarts the test of Satan by recognizing that as one who is submitted to God in his humanity on earth, he does not dictate how God acts upon him, but receives whatever it is that God wills for him as he seeks, simply, to be righteous according to the prerogatives of God.
So, Satan, having been unable to compromise Jesus’ person by tempting him to mix his human and divine natures, then attempts to frustrate Jesus’ purpose, and specifically, his purpose in the cross, by bringing him up upon the temple where he tells Jesus to jump off its pinnacle for all to see, thereby triggering God’s promise to catch him with his angels, and resulting in the accumulation of followers who would know, by such miraculous intervention, that he is the Messiah. Why suffer needlessly when the very reason for his coming can be so easily satisfied.
But what the devil doesn’t know is the extent to which God intends to use the cross for more than just bringing followers to Jesus or establishing his Messiahship. Jesus comes to satisfy the fullness of divine wrath, which is the superseding factor that separates him from his people. Any man can jump off a tower, but only Jesus can satisfy the anger of God.
This is why Jesus says, “You shall not put the Lord your God to the test,” because why would you question, in your little understanding, dear devil, the will of the one who has only ever done what is good for his people, fitting within his historical plan of redemption, and incomparably wise in its revelation? Why would you want to upset that? And Jesus says, you wouldn’t, and that is why he doesn’t. He submits himself fully to the plan of God over his desire to attract followers to himself. If he is to have followers, he will receive them as God gives them. He takes no shortcuts in fulfilling God’s will God’s way.
This brings us to that third temptation and our third point continuing from last week in verses 8-10:
3) Serve Instead of Compromise
So far, the devil has attempted to corrupt Christ’s person and purpose, and now, in this third, climatic temptation for Matthew, the devil seeks to corrupt Christ’s desire for his prize. This is the nature by which the devil works not only to draw out your desires and have you lust after them in ways contrary to God’s Will but to draw them out so that if you avoid them in one sense, he’ll turn your head, refocus that gaze, and repackage, as even more appealing, what he knows is difficult for you to turn down.
And here, the devil brings Jesus to look upon that thing that he desires most in the world, that is, he desires the world. He desires to be its Messiah. He desires to save it. He desires to call every single one of its occupants his own, for them to know his glory, and for him to treasure their citizenship. We’re to read this temptation and recognize the weight of the devil’s test because he’s evaluating what Jesus is seeing rightly. It’s not just the kingdoms of the world that he’s offering—he’s offering him their glory—their beauty. He’s offering them to Christ knowing that humans are the crown jewel of God’s creation, and which one of us, when we look upon a beautiful gem—upon a rare, beautiful object—whom amongst us wouldn’t appreciate it? Better yet, whom amongst us thinks to himself that possessing such a thing would be to our disadvantage or to our displeasure? None of us do.
Yet, in verse 8, Satan, as one who assumes for himself that he is the ruler and god of this world—that he controls its people—because it almost seems that way, doesn’t it—it seems like he gets what he wants because people keep sinning—he doesn’t just offer Jesus what’s beautiful or rare, even if it sins sometimes. But, as the one who assumes his own godliness and mastery of the world, he offers Jesus the most beautiful and the rarest glory in the universe that exists in that moment.
On top of this, let’s not forget the broader context as Matthew writes to Jewish Christians under the oppression of Rome. Israel has been waiting for its reestablishment. They’ve been waiting to be redeemed from their subjection to the nations, and here comes the one who they’re calling the Messiah. He is supposed to be their social, political, and economic Saviour, and Matthew is providing full disclosure to these Jewish Christians: he had the option to be that. He could have been exactly what Israel expected him to be. And all Jesus had to do in order to receive such a prize was to fall down and worship the devil.
Now, that may seem ridiculous but let’s look at what it entails before we jump to any presumptuous conclusions. To bow down has an obvious meaning, but to worship means to place your adoration, your affection in someone or something that is of a higher power—to gesture your complete dependence on or submission to a transcendent being. And why this is a particularly attractive option for Jesus is because he knows, as the Messiah, as incarnate God, the Second Person of the Trinity, he is to inherit the nations and possess the ends of the earth. We’re told that in Psalm 2.
But he does not yet possess that authority in his humanity. He possesses it in his divinity. So, why not have his cake and eat it too? Why not know that in his divine nature, he owns all things, while skipping a few steps in his human nature to possess all things now as well? His worship of the devil doesn’t even have to be permanent because once all things come to him, not even the devil will mean very much. His supremacy will be complete, his desires, at least humanly speaking, will have been seemingly satisfied, and he would not be required to suffer in order to achieve it all.
What the devil is offering Christ is the prize without any of the cost, and the only compromise that he has to make is to reshuffle his priorities from depending upon and serving his Father to depending upon and serving the one who, on the surface, looks more gracious, attractive, pain-sparing, and unencumbering in his will. Under the devil, Jesus can be the best version of himself without having to satisfy the requirements of the Father. Who needs to fulfill and struggle through the purpose when you can jump straight to the prize? Here the devil isn’t just trying to undermine the cross. He’s trying to make it irrelevant.
This is who the devil is. He’s a deceiver. But he doesn’t deceive you in conventional ways. No, he does so by going into your heart, and in drawing out those great and grand desires as the ultimate motivation for how you live your life, he alters your identity. He grounds it in what you have or what you feel you have license to do. He makes you think that you’re supreme rather than dependent, and in so doing, he enslaves you to your appetites—he makes you a servant of your desires regardless of where they take you, because the devil knows, they will inevitably drag you down to hell. And there, he is the master of your weeping. There, he will ensure that you gnash your teeth through the unceasing darkness.
And here’s why Matthew chooses this temptation, different from Mark and Luke, to be his climatic event in these introductory chapters. It is because this is exactly what has happened to ethnic Israel. They have forsaken their identity and dependency upon the only one who cannot be tempted and who tempts no one. They have forgotten that God does not mislead them or seek to malign them. He is not trying to hold back what is good from them, but because they do not like how his goodness is dispensed, or what it takes for them to know his goodness, they fall prey to the devil’s lies that they can determine how they ought to receive it instead.
Yet, their redemption—our redemption—is found in the words of Jesus—remembering that he deserves everything—as the devil comes to him and says, “why do you serve and play second fiddle to a God who withholds what is good from you? Just worship me, and I will give you all that you see.”—as the devil comes and says this to Jesus, Jesus, quoting from Deuteronomy 6—notice all his quotes in Matt 4:1-11 are from Deut 6-8 where Moses is recounting what took place as Israel wandered the wilderness—Jesus says, “Get away from me, Satan, because only God is to be worshipped, and as the only one worthy to be worshipped, he, alone, can determine how our lives are to be lived.”
And why does he say this, other than to fulfill for us Israel’s covenant requirements and reveal to us that he is the set-apart, righteous Son of God (which, in and of itself, is enough)? Two reasons: first, it’s because he knows that what Satan is offering him is a smokescreen. Jesus knows that if he seeks the prize in compromise of his person and his purpose, he will become enslaved to it. If he makes the prize ultimate—if he makes the thing ultimate—then he will live seeking after his satisfaction in something that is not only dependent and contingent, but also that is corrupt in its sin and incomplete in its beauty, which leads me to the second reason why he says these words.
It is because he knows that while these things being offered to him are, in a sense, glorious and radiant, they only reflect the glory and radiance of the one to whom they truly belong, and without the one to whom they belong, they would instantly lose their shimmer and shine. Unless the one being worshipped—unless the one being depended upon—is the one in whom all things depend, what good is it to have all things?
Jesus knows, and Matthew is trying to tell his readers, there is no good without God. There is no joy in things unless our joy is first in God. And there is no glory in the prize unless we have received it in the way that God planned to give it—a plan of which includes Christ’s total, uncompromising service that leads him to the cross whereby, through his righteous life, his death and blood poured out upon that tree, his burial in the grave, his resurrection in glory, and his ascension beyond the heavens to the right hand of the Father as our intercessor and advocate, we, now, have been graciously brought in and made participants in that plan. But I hope you see the connection, because we do not participate simply to be a part of the plan. We participate so that we might also be a part of the glory. We participate because that is the way we experience the real prize—because that is the way we get God.
When I was in the third grade, my best friend was a part of sign language club. Now, at first, I had no interest in sign language, but after our school’s Christmas concert, I became desperate to join because my best friend, after one of their meetings came up to me with a bag of ring pops, chips, fruit roll-ups, all the goodies, and, on top of that, he said that they just watched the latest Disney movie as their end of the year party, and he told me they have these parties at the end of every term. From that moment, all I wanted to be was a part of that club to experience that party.
What I had forgotten when I was signing up was that every Christmas and spring concert would feature a three-song performance by the sign language club before all their friends and family. So, you can imagine my fear on the first day of coming in, I sit down beside my best friend, and our teacher, Mrs. Jones, says, in sign language, mind-you, “okay, these are the three songs we’re going to work on for our performance in June.”
Here’s the context. I knew no sign language, I didn’t really want to learn it, but I also had a major fear of failure. I knew that the only way to get through this club and get to that party was to learn how to sign. I knew the only way not to make a fool of myself in June was to learn how to sign. So, I learned how to sign. I worked hard at it. I learned the songs, so that come June I wouldn’t fumble my way through it—because nothing says “stupid” or “insensitive” like a person trying to fake sign language.
And the day finally came after our concert where we were having our party. I was eating my ring pop, drinking my soda, watching the newest Disney movie, and prior to joining the club, I would have been completely satisfied with that. But then, as we were watching the movie, Mrs. Jones calls me over to her desk. She looks me in the eye. And she tells me, even though she knew I made a bunch of mistakes on stage, even though I hadn’t signed perfectly, she was proud of me. She was proud in knowing how hard I must have worked to learn the language. She was proud to see the faces of my parents as they congratulated me after the concert for a job semi-well done. Then she prayed for me. Handed me a gift with a card detailing the words she had just given me and said, “Go, enjoy the party. It’s for you.”
Brothers and sisters, as one who was looking from the outside in, the party looked like the prize. But let me tell you, it wasn’t. The reward was Mrs. Jones’ favour. It was that speech. It was her prayer. And all that time in service to learning a language that I thought I had no interest in without compromising on its details only served to make the prize that much sweeter. How much more, then, are we to seek the favour of God, even though the way of God is difficult, even though Christ had to bear that cross, and even though God demands faithfulness from us—casting off the devil, the world, and our fleshly passions, as those who have been saved at great cost—how much more, then, are we to seek the favour of God—the favour of whom the Bible describes as better than silver or gold—by making sure that we seek out God’s will, and that we do it his way without taking any shortcuts?
Let it be worth your every endeavour. Let it be worth your very life. Because the Bible also promises that those who are willing to lose their life for the sake of knowing, possessing, treasuring, savouring God through Christ are those who will find it, and not only will you find life, but you will find it in abundance. You will find it in the gift of God himself and the glory he’s planned for you. Let your prize be God, and let your path be the one he’s set for your good.
4) Sympathize Instead of Condemn
Allow me to deal with the last verse in our text, and why it is so important for us in every way. This is what it says, “Then the devil left him, and behold, angels came and were ministering to him,” And my question is what’s happening here? Well, some say that the angels came to feed Jesus. That’s typically what the word διακονέω means, it’s where we get our word “deacon,” which was a reference to waiters who brought food to tables, and it would make sense, as Israel received manna in their longing, so too, Christ is now being fed, yet more profoundly and intimately, as one who has exceeded the righteousness of Israel.
But I think there is more connotation to it than that. This is why most translations interpret the word as “ministering” instead of simply “feeding.” And the key to it is understanding what a temptation is. All of it, I’ve used this word a lot, comes down to desire, and in this case, Christ has been tempted to the limit of his desire. I’ve heard people before, as I’ve talked to them about the gospel, their response to me sometimes is that Jesus simply doesn’t understand what they’re going through. He never sinned. Let alone, he never experienced my sin. He can’t get in my frame of mind. How can he save me from what he, himself, has never truly experienced?
Allow me to answer with a parable I once heard, “There were three men or women (doesn’t matter which gender), and each of them stood beside a cavern of, let’s say, sexual temptation, because that is a temptation that I struggled with for a large part of my life. Then, suddenly, three cords are slung out of the depths of the cavern and are bound, one to each of their waists. The weight of the cord can be tested to a limit of a hundred pounds.
The first man looks into the pit, which seems enticing, yet he knows is also deadly. So, as he’s standing there, the cord starts to exert resistance. Five pounds, ten. He resists and fights. Then, fifteen, twenty pounds. He digs his feet into the ground with all his might, and as the weight becomes heavier, the cord begins to squeeze his waist, thirty pounds, thirty-five, and eventually, he acquiesces. He turns around and jumps in. Click goes the button of his mouse.
The second man goes through the same thing, but now his weight and the squeeze around his waist is carrying forty, fifty pounds. But this man knows how terrible the consequences of the pit are. So, he resolves himself. “No, I will not fall in.” Sixty pounds, sixty-five. His breathing gets shorter. The pain around his waist becomes intense. Seventy pounds, and there, he’s reached his limit. He stops resisting. Jumps into darkness. Click.
The third man begins being pulled into the pit. He resists and fights. Sixty pounds, seventy pounds. The cord gets tighter restricting his breathing and threatening to rend the fabric of skin and bone off from around his waist, and he feels his feet slipping. So, he cries out for help, reaches out his arm, and there, he finds help—one who has come to minister to him—and to remind him of that wife who is going about her day, trusting him, his children who are playing in admiration of him, his friends who are struggling and looking to him as their encouragement and support.
And filled with passion as he looks out at them, he holds fast. Eighty pounds, ninety, ninety-five, and the tears flow unbidden down his cheeks because the struggle is nearly unbearable but for the sake of those whom he loves he bears it. One hundred pounds. The rope snaps. No click. Question: which of these men knows the full power of temptation? Which of these men can you trust to throw you a rope and get you out when you fall? Which of these men can best sympathize with you in your struggle?
What Jesus went through on our behalf in these verses—what he goes through in his life, for this isn’t the only place where he’s tempted to lie, to steal, to covet, to take revenge, to lust, to be self-pitying, to murmur, to boast, he goes through it all for us—and for him to have fought and resisted all the way to the end is inconceivable to our little, sinful minds.
And yet, we have the audacity to think that in our sin, he will not understand or sympathize with us. We have the audacity, in our sin, to think that we cannot run to him. To plead with him. To be like that third man when the temptation is most unbearable and cry out not simply to find someone to minister to you but to find a branch in the shape of a cross that will not snap as you cling to it. We have the temerity to ignore Christ as he suffered the full effects of the consequences of all those times you gave up and jumped in, and he is there, calling out to you this time, “don’t jump in! Look to my cross!”
See, so often we think of this temptation narrative as a victory for Jesus, which it is. But the picture that we’re given at the end doesn’t look like it. No, it’s a man weakened from battle as the angel has to hold him and minister to him—not just feeding him but reminding him that his journey is not at an end, the cross is still to be borne, but there on the other side of it—there awaits him glory that cannot be outshone, so, “Jesus, for the sake of that glory, for the sake of your people who are depending upon you, keep going.”
This is why I think having a proper understanding of Christ’s humanity is so important—that he bore the full extent of his temptations not as one whose divinity made his humanity easier. But as one who is like us so that he might be able to sympathize, in every way, with us. We need him to be the man who, in verse 11, is victorious yet wounded. Upright in character yet barely able to stand. Worthy of honour, glory, and praise yet stricken, smitten, and afflicted for us. All so that when he tells us, keep going, we do not go to a place where he has not gone before.
Let that sink in the next time your temptation bids you to jump. And when your brother or sister is struggling with their sin, understanding in a new way what Christ has done for you, and how difficult it is for you to withstand your own demons apart from his merciful and gracious intervention, don’t meet them with condescension or condemnation but with sympathy.
As Christ has sought to do what you could not do for yourself, seek to do for others what they cannot do for themselves. Suffer with them. Minister to their souls. Point them with all gentleness back to the cross of Jesus—for it is there that Christ faced his greatest temptation to save his own life and to avoid the wrath of God. And it is there where he called out for help again—someone to come minister to him—ελωι ελωι λεμα σαβαχθανι—and because in that moment he was not one who was resisting sin but who had the full weight of our sin placed upon his shoulders—as he is placed into the chasm of our wretchedness—he receives no response. And he is broken for our despair.
Remember this, dear Christian, and make every effort to do God’s will God’s way knowing always that you have a Christ who has taken no shortcuts, who suffered on your behalf beyond your comprehension, and who now, sitting by the Father, intercedes for you, enabling you to persevere to the end. Give him his glory and let him be your reward.