The First Temptation of Christ – March 13, 2011

Genesis 3:1-7, Matthew 4:1-11

March 13, 2011

I sort of borrowed the idea for the title of this message. (Yeah! Like I never did that before!!) Back in 1960 there was a book written by a man named Nikos Kazantzakis, called “The Last Temptation.” 1988 it was adapted for motion picture by Martin Scorsese. It was called “The Last Temptation of Christ.” You may remember that. And you may also remember it was very controversial!

Well, I don’t want to talk about that movie. But I knew it might have come to your mind when I used this title, so I thought it’d be good to mention it! Actually, I would like to talk about it’s premise, though. Because, oddly enough, as I’ve thought about this passage for today, Kazantzakis was on the right track! His book was about Jesus being tempted by the same things we’re tempted with in our lives. And that’s what Matthew was saying, too. The only difference is that both Kazantzakis and Scorsese, (try to say that fast!) both of “those guys” would like us to believe that Jesus gave into those temptations. And that’s a big difference!

I think it’s important to consider this subject, expecially as we “launch into Lent.” Because one of the most important things I’ve always believed about why Jesus came to earth in the first place, was not only so that we could know God better, but so that God can know us better! God wanted to know, from a human point of view, what it was like to be us. By becoming human, he could know better the kind of things we humans go through, and he could feel the kinds of things we humans feel. Then, when we suffer, God can truly say, “I know how you feel!” So in Matthew, one of the first things that happened to Jesus, even before his ministry began, was this time of his temptation in the desert.

Now, it’s been said by some writers, that these three temptations encompass every kind of temptation that any of us could ever encounter, and that Jesus gives us the solutions to all temptation. Well, I’m not so sure about that. I think that might be stretching things a bit. It seems to be an attempt to make a point about this that “sounds good.” But I’m not sure that’s what Matthew was trying to tell us. And I think that might be grasping for universal solutions for much more difficult problems. But certainly we can learn from this story, and I hope we will!

I think to understand Matthew’s story, we have to think about why Jesus was being tempted. And again, I think there’s truth to the idea that he wanted to understand our plight, and to feel what we feel. I also think that there was a very real attempt here, on the part of Satan, to derail Jesus’ ministry even before it got started. And if you think about it, any one of these temptations had the potential to do that!

Don’t forget that we meet up with the devil, or at least his angels, several times throughout Matthew’s Gospel. And while the people in the stories might have been confused about who Jesus really was, the demons he encountered always knew! I think a whole study could be made just about that, and the way it fits into this story for today. In fact, a case could be made that the real character study here is Satan, rather than Jesus. Because his is an interesting place in this story. How much did he know about what was ahead? Did he know his defeat was imminent. And did he believe he could do anything about it!

Let’s take a look at this story. Let’s look at his “attempts to tempt” Jesus. And let’s try to see what was behind those temptations, and see how Jesus handled them. And as we think about our own “fallen nature,” perhaps we can gain some insight on how this all impacts us, and how we might deal with our temptations.

First, we’re told that Jesus was hungry. He fasted forty days and forty nights. That’s a long, time to go without food! If Jesus was seeking to know what it’s like for people in this world who endure famine and malnutrition, I’m betting he achieved that! And when you think about the millions of the people on this earth who are inadequately fed every day, you have to think that this makes God have even more compassion toward them!

So then, the tempter plays on that hunger, doesn’t he? And I think it’s safe to say that the same happens to us. If you think about it, temptations don’t often come to us “out of the blue.” Sometimes when I go the store I say, “I’m going to see if there’s anything I didn’t know existed that I can’t live without.” Think about that. That’s not how most temptations come to us. We’re not often faced with things that we’ve never encountered, that all of a sudden have a lure for us. I’ll bet, if you think about it, many more of the temptations we face come from things already present in our lives. They may even be things we’ve already struggled with in the past, and maybe we think we’ve “dealt with.” They are what I call the “old patterns” and the “familiar sins.”

So Satan says to Jesus, “Go ahead! Make the bread! Satisfy your hunger! After all you have the power! The lure of something that’s nearby and readily available is often the strongest! And I think it is a feeling that’s very much similar to hunger. It’s a often a “pang” within us. (I decided to give up pretzels for Lent. And that’s a tough one for me, because I have to walk by my pretzel jar every time I go through the kitchen. And the lure is there!!!)

And by the way, have you noticed the number of problems that people have today that are now called “addictions?” There are “food addictions,” “gambling addictions,” “sexual addictions,” even “shopping addictions.” And I think that term recognizes the fact that such things can be great desires – almost like a “hunger.” And I certainly wouldn’t want to belittle something that anyone might be struggling with. Because those things can be very real. The only thing I would say is that sometimes we use such a term as an excuse. We think “can’t do anything about it,” so we don’t bother! And I’m glad to say that there are things we can do about it!. And I applaud people who take those steps, and seek the change!

When I look at Jesus’ answer to this temptation, I have to say that, in light of these kinds of desires, his answer that seems almost trite, or cliché. “Man cannot live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.” That’s tough to hear, isn’t it? We know what Jesus was trying to say. These great desires within us – which are big – should be balanced by listening to God. But we think it’s not as easy as all that. This is still tough stuff!

Well, the next temptation is a little more insidious. “God loves you, Jesus.” he said. “Do you want to see how much?” And then Satan took him to play pinochle in the Temple. No no, he took him to the pinnacle of the temple – the highest place around. And he said, “Throw yourself down. God will catch you! You’ll see how much he cares for you!”

This was a very tricky temptation. It was based on what sounds like a noble thought. God loves you! But it turns out to be what has been called “the sin of presumption.” In other words, “forcing the hand of God.” And I think that’s a very real temptation for all of us! We want God to do something for us, so we think of noble reasons why he should. But that makes me wonder if we really mean that bit about “thy will be done?” It’s tough to seek God’s will, isn’t it!? It’s either that, or we’re looking to prove God’s will – to be sure of God’s will. Because we want to assure ourselves, don’t we? I mean, trust in God great and all, but boy, wouldn’t we rather have a guarantee sometimes?!

If you think about it, this amounts to a desire to play God. And I think that’s a huge temptation. It’s one that touches all of us! In it’s most innocuous form, it’s the desire to be god of our own life. In its worst form, it’s the desire to be god over others. It’s the temptation to control! And again, Jesus goes to the word of God. “It is said, ‘You shall not tempt the Lord your God.’” I’ve wondered, is he referring to Satan tempting him, or is tempting God what we’re doing when we try to force his hand?”

Ok, so up to now, Jesus has been tempted with the fulfillment of desires, with the thought of playing God. Now, in this last temptation, he’s tempted to have everything! He’s taken to the mountaintop, and there he’s offered all the kingdoms of the world! And if you think about it, since what Jesus is asked to do in return is the most obvious thing he shouldn’t do – that is, to worship Satan – this must be the greatest of temptations. And remember, it is within Jesus’ power to do exactly that – to have dominion over all the world! As we celebrate at the culmination of the church year, we celebrate Jesus as King of Kings and Lord of Lords! But Jesus is wise enough to give his answer is about the “worshipping Satan” part.

There’s always a catch of some kind, isn’t there? That’s always a big part of giving into any temptation. And I think whenever we face temptation, we should ask ourselves how much of our heart and soul are we about to give up. In the case of this being the ultimate temptation, Jesus was offered the rule of the whole world, but the conditions given him would have made him slave to the tempter. So think about it. And ask yourself, “How much of ourselves am I ‘giving up’ when I’m ‘giving in?’”

So the lesson for us today is that God indeed knows what we’re going through. He knows our struggles. He knows our pain. He knows what it’s like to face temptation. And he can give us the strength to face that temptation. If we will make the choice to stay faithful, he will “minister to us” – the way the angels ministered to Jesus. Think about these things this Lenten season, as you prepare your hearts for the coming of Easter, and as you grow in your devotion to and service of the kingdom of our Lord, Jesus Christ.

And to him be glory and power and praise, world without end, Amen!


Eternal God, we are grateful that you are with us through the trials of this life, and that you do know how we feel because you became one like us. Help us this Lenten season to know where we need to grow, and to draw closer to you. For this we pray in Jesus’ name, Amen.