When I was in first grade music class, our teacher, Miss Fowler, gave us a test one Friday morning. Her final instructions before we started were, “No cheating.” I don’t want to brag on myself but I made an effort all throughout my school years to keep from cheating. Except for that day. During the middle of the test, I whispered to a friend, “What do you call the side of a bass?” “Ribs,” he replied. Within a few seconds, Miss Fowler had taken both of our test papers from us. Not only were we going to get a “0” on the test, we were embarrassed because the whole class knew what happened.
It’s one thing to face a test in first grade music class, but how should we respond when God tests us? Let’s see how Jesus did it.
Matthew 3:13-4:11 says, “13 Then Jesus came from Galilee to the Jordan to be baptized by John. 14 But John tried to deter him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?”
15 Jesus replied, “Let it be so now; it is proper for us to do this to fulfill all righteousness.” Then John consented.
16 As soon as Jesus was baptized, he went up out of the water. At that moment heaven was opened, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. 17 And a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.”
4 1Then Jesus was led by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. 2 After fasting forty days and forty nights, he was hungry.
Let’s stop here for a moment and look at what’s happening. Jesus is beginning his ministry as the Messiah. Just as Israel came through the Jordon River when they invaded the Promised Land to be a kingdom of priests, Jesus came up out of the Jordon River when he was baptized for the forgiveness of Israel’s sin. At this moment, God filled him with the Holy Spirit and acknowledged that Jesus was indeed his Son and that he was proud of him.
Just as the nation of Israel was led into the wilderness by God when they disobeyed him by refusing to go into the Promised Land, Jesus is led by the Holy Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil.
The wilderness mentioned in this verse is a dry, arid region in the Judean desert located west of the Dead Sea. There would be few resources of food and water to sustain Jesus even if he wasn’t fasting. He was physically weak at this point.
3 The tempter came to him and said, “If you are the Son of God, tell these stones to become bread.”
4 Jesus answered, “It is written: ‘Man shall not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.’”
The devil knew who Jesus was and seemed to have some understanding of the significance of Jesus’ baptism. He starts with a challenge to Jesus’ very identity by saying, “If you are who you say you are, prove it.” Satan has a way of tempting us to go off-course when God gives us a mission to complete. He also tried to get Jesus to take the easy way out by reminding Jesus of the severe challenge he was facing at that exact moment – dehydration and hunger. Satan wanted Jesus to give up waiting on God to rescue him by taking matters into his own hands. However, Jesus understands what’s happening and brings the focus back on God. He quotes a scripture which says that being faithful to God is more important than being comfortable. So, Satan tweaks his approach.
5 Then the devil took him to the holy city and had him stand on the highest point of the temple. 6 “If you are the Son of God,” he said, “throw yourself down. For it is written: “‘He will command his angels concerning you, and they will lift you up in their hands, so that you will not strike your foot against a stone.’”
Satan still challenged Jesus’ identity with “If you are the Son of God” but since he wasn’t successful when he challenged Jesus’ physical needs, he challenged Jesus’ ego and pride while quoting scripture himself. He’s asking Jesus, “Don’t you want people to know how great you are? Jump off your Father’s temple and let the whole world see how he rescues you. After all, your Father’s own word says he’ll do this.”
7 Jesus answered him, “It is also written: ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’”
Jesus told him, “No. God the Father is more important than I am. I’ll be faithful.”
8 Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor. 9 “All this I will give you,” he said, “if you will bow down and worship me.”
At this point the devil quits trying to appeal to human weaknesses and simply says, “Forget your Father. Just worship me and I’ll give you power.”
10 Jesus said to him, “Away from me, Satan! For it is written: ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve him only.’”
Jesus had had enough. He told Satan, “I’m not giving in to you. You might as well leave me alone.” As scholar N.T. Wright states, “When Jesus refused to go the way of the tempter he was embracing the way of the cross.”
In the book of Numbers, we read the nation of Israel was also sent into the wilderness. This happened to them because they rebelled against God. God had told them he would lead them into the land he had promised Abram centuries earlier. So, they sent spies into the land to check it out. The spies came back and, other than Joshua and Caleb, reported the land was too well fortified and the people were too strong for them to conquer it. The people then grumbled against God and wished to return to being slaves in Egypt.
Because of their reaction, God told them, “29 In this wilderness your bodies will fall—every one of you twenty years old or more who was counted in the census and who has grumbled against me. 30 Not one of you will enter the land I swore with uplifted hand to make your home, except Caleb son of Jephunneh and Joshua son of Nun. 31 As for your children that you said would be taken as plunder, I will bring them in to enjoy the land you have rejected. 32 But as for you, your bodies will fall in this wilderness. 33 Your children will be shepherds here for forty years, suffering for your unfaithfulness, until the last of your bodies lies in the wilderness.34 For forty years—one year for each of the forty days you explored the land—you will suffer for your sins and know what it is like to have me against you.’ 35 I, the Lord, have spoken, and I will surely do these things to this whole wicked community, which has banded together against me. They will meet their end in this wilderness; here they will die.” – Numbers 14:29-35
Then God did exactly what he said he would do.
In his book, Far As The Curse Is Found: The Covenant Story of Redemption, author Michael D. Williams says, “The generation in the desert was going to school. Those forty years in the desert between Sinai and Canaan were crucial…. those were the years in which Israel learned to live by the word, love, promise, and grace of Yahweh. Now the real work would begin, the building of Yahweh’s kingdom, the shedding of Yahweh’s light.”
Yet the people who came through this experience still worshipped other gods, struggled with sinful self-indulgences and forgot their purpose.
God sends us into the wilderness to learn the same things as the Israelites. No, he doesn’t send us into a literal desert but he sends us into physical deserts when we have health problems, financial deserts when there isn’t enough money at the end of the week and emotional deserts when we feel we’re at the end of our rope and can’t hang on. These tests are to see if we will remain faithful and trust God. Although we despise them when they come our way, James 1:2-3 says, “Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds, 3 because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance. 4 Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything.”
Unfortunately, many times we too come out of the desert worshipping other gods, struggling with sin and forgetting our purpose.
Jesus, however, managed to remain faithful when he was tested. All of the passages Jesus quoted to the devil in Matthew are taken from the story of Israel wondering in the wilderness as Moses retold it in Deuteronomy. Jesus is identifying his journey in the wilderness with Israel’s. This is because Jesus came to do what the nation of Israel didn’t do – fulfill the law and unite the world with God.
When Jesus didn’t give in to Satan’s tempting offers, Matthew 4:11 says, “Then the devil left him, and angels came and attended him.” After, and only after, Jesus trusted God through his wilderness experience and remained faithful, God rescued him and met his needs.
Since we’re like the ancient Israelites in many ways, how do we make it through the wilderness? The following four points are a good place to start.
Learn scripture and know how to use it. The church in the United States is becoming biblically illiterate. Far too many American Christians don’t know the Bible or how powerful his word is when we live by it. Jesus knew the power of God’s word. He used it to pass the tests before him and not give into the temptation to take the easy way out.
Keep your eyes on Jesus and trust him for everything. Jesus was able to accomplish what both the nation of Israel and we can’t do in our own power and strength. He resisted Satan and passed the tests. We can’t go through the wilderness and pass these tests on our own. We fail over and over again when we try to do it without Jesus.
Remember your purpose – to bring God’s light to the world. Our purpose isn’t to be comfortable inside of our sanctuary. It’s to take the love of Jesus out into a world that’s dying.
Say “no” to the voices trying to lure you back into the darkness. The world around us, Satan, and, at times, other Christians will encourage us to take the easy way out. We have to have enough resolve to say no. Our temptations aren’t simply trying to get us to selfishly meet our needs and wants. They’re also trying to distract us from being faithful to God.
Miss Fowler had mercy on my friend and me by letting us retake the test the following Monday morning. That experience taught me to never again try and take the easy way out on a difficult test. We have to have the same attitude when God tests us. We faithfully stand firm as we go through the wilderness, call upon the strength of Christ to help us, and wait for God to deliver us.