Jesus was Tempted! Matthew 4:1-11)


“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.” 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,’ and “‘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.”

It’s the first Sunday in Lent and we’re back in the wilderness with Jesus.Every year we make this journey – 40 days and 40 nights it lasts! – and every year it continues to be a painful trek (as I think it‘s expected to be).

And I’m conscious of the fact that a lot of ink (real and virtual) has been spilled over the years by the church’s theologians and academics, reflecting on this period of Jesus’ fasting and temptation, and I expect that this is partly due to the fact that we do indeed revisit this scene so often.

And so in my preparation yesterday I thought through again all the questions that have been raised for generations:

  • Was this temptation experience a literal event in the life of Jesus or are we supposed to see it as a parable of sorts?
  • Was it partly that Jesus was hallucinating after 40 days without food?
  • Is Jesus deliberately being presented in these stories as an archetype for the people of Israel, who were themselves tempted in the wilderness for 40 years (and failed miserably).
  • Are the forms of the temptations meant to reflect the temptations that were given to Israel (or perhaps even to Adam)?

These and other similar questions are the ones we tend to get caught up in when we ponder this text. But then it occurred to yesterday that by getting caught up in all these esoteric questions, we run the real risk of overlooking what is surely the most fundamental thrust of the whole passage: namely, that Jesus was tempted!

Whatever happened out there in the wilderness, and however we understand the actual nature of the experience, this is, I think, the one thing that the Gospel writers wanted to make abundantly clear – that Jesus was tempted – and I don’t think we want to underestimate the significance of this.

We struggle down here. We struggle with lust, with greed, with the desire to get ahead (or at least keep up with) the bastards living next door. We covet our neighbour’s car and his bank account, and quite possibly his wife and his ox and his ass as well, and I think we generally assume that God is somehow above all of this and yet we’re told here quite clearly, Jesus was tempted too!

Now you’re probably thinking, “well, I don’t think He was tempted with exactly the same things that tempt me”, but I do think that the temptations we are presented with are supposed to be sort of generic – that within these three temptations, all the temptations that are common to us are covered.

Jesus is tempted to satisfy the ‘lusts of the flesh’, even be it his basic physical hunger, as he is tempted to satisfy that all-too-human lust for power.

John Powell, the late Jesuit psychologist, was fond of pointing out that these two temptations of Jesus – that He satisfy his hunger with bread and that He take authority over all the kingdoms of the world – coincide rather neatly with the two most prominent psychological theories of human motivation.

Sigmund Freud said that all our actions are determined by ‘The Pleasure Principle’ – by our desire to pursue pleasure and run away from pain – and Jesus’ rejection of this first temptation is a rejection of a life determined by the pleasure principle (so says John Powell).

Similarly Jesus’ rejection of worldly authority is a rejection of a life that is driven by the lust for power and significance, which psychologist Alfred Adler (amongst others) suggested was the basic motivational factor behind all human behaviour.

By refusing to become either a consumer or a politician, Powell points out, Jesus defied these two basic human motivational principles. His life was not going to be determined by the pursuit of either pleasure or power.

The third temptation of course, where Jesus is tempted to throw Himself off the temple and let God take care of Him, is a little harder to make sense of in terms of these basic theories of human motivation, but it does strike me that if it’s a temptation to let go of your responsibilities and let God take care of everything, it does tap into something very basically human.

I’ve been working with young men in this parish for nearly 20 years now, and if there’s one problem I’ve found to be surprisingly common, it’s the temptation faced by young fathers-to-be, after they find out that their partners are pregnant, to let go of their responsibilities and run away.

Maybe it’s some genetic left-over (an unwanted remnant from an evolutionary past) where the male of the species no sooner knocks up one female than it’s time to move on to the next, but men struggle with this – lots of men, more than you think, I think. But very few ever talk about it, especially in church, because they feel guilty – not guilty because they’ve actually done a runner but guilty because they feel tempted. But hang on … Jesus was tempted!

“Thus he had to become like his brothers in every way,” says the writer to the Hebrews, “so that he could be a merciful and faithful high priest … Because he himself suffered when he was tempted, he is able to help those who are being tempted.” (Hebrews 2:17-18)

Does that sound like Jesus to you?

We know Jesus suffered. We know He suffered on the cross – that he suffered physically and perhaps even at some spiritual level when he took on the sins of the world, but according to the writer of the letter to the Hebrews, and according this story that comes up in each of the first three Gospels, He also struggled with the same basic human drives with which we all struggle, which means that He can sympathise with us in all our struggles.

This is important, I think, and comes to the very heart of our understanding of the incarnation of God in Jesus. In Jesus we not only see God. We see ourselves. And I don’t only mean ourselves as we could be, can be and should be. I mean that we see ourselves in all our human weakness too.

To quote the from the letter to the Hebrews again:

“Our High Priest is not one who cannot feel sympathy for our weaknesses. On the contrary, we have a High Priest who was tempted in every way that we are … … (Hebrews 4:15)

The affirmation of faith here is that there is no struggle that we go through and no weakness that we experience that Jesus does not sympathise with and understand, which is what makes Jesus a much better Saviour than you or I would be!

You’ll forgive me (I hope) if I say that I pride myself on being reasonably sympathetic with people who are weak. Over the years I’ve heard quite a lot of confessions, and a number of pretty hairy ones! And I don’t only mean formal confessions, but also people who have confessed to me over coffee about crimes that they have committed, things that they have stolen, acts of violence and abuse that they have carried out, lies they have told, people that they have hurt, and for the most part I have been a sympathetic listener. Why wouldn’t I be. I don’t really consider myself to be any better. Even when people have confessed to me how they have stolen from me and committed other injustices against me or against people I love, I have managed (for the most part) to be sympathetic to them in their weakness, but I have my limits…

There are some weaknesses that I find very hard to sympathise with. People who have abused children – I find it hard to listen to them talk about what they have done without hating them for it. Also, people who have unusual sexual preferences (eg. orientations that extend beyond living human beings) are likewise people that I find it very hard to sympathise with. I don’t understand what motivates them. There is no point of identity there for me, and so I find it hard to be sympathetic. Jesus though, we are told, sympathises with us in all our weaknesses!

This, I think, is the very meaning of the Incarnation of God in Jesus. It means that we not only see God becoming human in Jesus, but also that in Jesus we see something of our humanity lifted up into God. And hence we find in God someone who feels what we feel and who sympathises with us in our struggles, even when no one else can sympathise with us in those struggles.

Jesus is tempted in the wilderness. He knows what it is like to feel pain and want and overwhelming passion and temptation. He goes there with us and he struggles with us and he suffers every kind of temptation known to women and men, and yet … He overcomes, which means that there is hope for us too!

One final insight into the battle against temptation comes from the ending of our Gospel story today, which finishes on a comforting note:

“Then the Devil left Jesus; and angels came and helped him.” (Matthew 4:11)

The battle is over, the victory has been won, the devil has gone and the angelic corner team has now come in to patch Jesus up and towel Him down.

But it’s interesting that Matthew puts the verb ‘to leave’ in the present tense – literally, ‘the Devil leaves’ – the implication being that while he is exiting, stage left, he actually hasn’t gone very far. He is indeed still waiting in the wings!

In Luke’s version of the temptations it is even more explicit. Luke writes:

“The Devil left Jesus until an opportune time.” (Luke 4:13).

The point here is that for Jesus, as for us, overcoming temptation was not a one-off fight. The temptation experience that we read of today was, if I might extend the boxing analogy, more like one key round in a fight that went on and on, one round following another, and didn’t finish until Jesus said, “It is finished”, when he claimed victory at the most shattering of moments.

This for us too though is the battle: not to go out, arms flailing, in a desperate attempt to knock the devil down, after which we can retire victorious from the ring, claim our trophy and wear the victor’s belt for the rest of our lives. No. Rather, the idea rather is simply to survive the round .. today. And tomorrow, we fight tomorrow’s round, and so on, until the fight comes to an end.

But it’s a long distance race – a fight with many rounds, and there’s a lot of hard slog still ahead of us. And we won’t win all the rounds, but we know that with Jesus in our corner, sympathising with us in our weakness, comforting us when we fail, and strengthening us to persevere, that we will still be on our feet when the final bell sounds.

And then we can say, “I have fought the good fight. I have run the race. I have kept the faith.”

First preached by Father Dave Smith at Holy Trinity Dulwich Hill, February 2007. 

Rev. David B. Smith

Parish priest, community worker,
martial arts master, pro boxer,
author, father of four.


About Father Dave

Preacher, Pugilist, Activist, Father of four
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