Malankara World

Sermons Based on the Lectionary of the Syrian Orthodox Church

Temptation of Jesus Christ

Sermon / Homily on Matthew 4:1-11

"If You are the Son of God"

by Jerry Goebel, One Family Outreach

Gospel Reading: St. Matthew 4:1-11

Matthew 4:1-11

1Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. 2And after He had fasted forty days and forty nights, He then became hungry. 3And the tempter came and said to Him, "If You are the Son of God, command that these stones become bread."

4But He answered and said, "It is written, 'Man shall not live on bread alone, but on every word that proceeds out of the mouth of God.'"

5Then the devil took Him into the holy city; and he had Him stand on the pinnacle of the temple, 6and said to Him, "If You are the Son of God throw Yourself down; for it is written, 'He will give His angels charge concerning You'; and 'On {their} hands they will bear You up, lest you strike your foot against a stone.'"

7Jesus said to him, "On the other hand, it is written, 'You shall not put the Lord your God to the test.'"

8Again, the devil took Him to a very high mountain, and showed Him all the kingdoms of the world, and their glory; 9and he said to Him, "All these things will I give You, if You fall down and worship me."

10Then Jesus said to him, "Begone, Satan! For it is written, 'You shall worship the Lord your God, and serve Him only.'"

11Then the devil left Him; and behold, angels came and {began} to minister to Him.


This is a critical story to all believers in Christ for it tells us

1) that there is a malevolent presence opposing God in the universe,

2) the tools this Evil One will use to manipulate us, and

3) that those tools will backfire and lead to our growth if God if at the center of our lives.

Satan's toolbox is very small – in fact, he only has three tools – and his power actually works against him if we understand his purposes. However, this should never underestimate his tenacity, audacity, or furiousity. He is out to wound God by destroying us.

Look at what Peter learned from a lifetime of Satan's attacks:

(8) Be of sober spirit, be on the alert. Your adversary, the devil, prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour.
(9) But resist him, firm in your faith, knowing that the same experiences of suffering are being accomplished by your brethren who are in the world.
(10) After you have suffered for a little while, the God of all grace, who called you to His eternal glory in Christ, will Himself perfect, confirm, strengthen and establish you.
(11) To Him be dominion forever and ever. Amen.
1 Peter 5:9-11

The trio of tools that Satan employs are redundant but powerful. Each one builds upon the previous temptation and they are progressively harder to resist to those not grounded in prayer and vibrant community. They are revealed by Christ as follows:

The bread

Level One Temptations: Meeting the needs of the flesh. These are the temptations of immediate gratification and a life without turmoil or discomfort.

The pinnacle

Level Two Temptations: The need to belong; for approval, acceptance, or popularity. For those not waylaid by a life ease, gratification, or comfort, Satan increases the stakes. He attempts to manipulate us through our confusion over the difference between unconditional dignity – what God offers – and performance-based approval – what Satan offers.

The glory of the world

Level Three Temptations: Power, Control, and Authority. Here is the "Big League" of temptation. Those unable to resist comfort and acceptance can become very powerful. To those, Satan offers the expedient way where "the ends justifies the means."

Jesus rejects these false forms of leadership instead choosing humility and influence as his leadership style.

Think about it. Which form of leadership would you prefer?

He/she controlled my life.
He/she took power over my life.
He/she had authority over my life.
He/she influenced my life.

Institutions almost always choose authoritative power and the less perceived control they have the more authoritarian they become. Jesus invites us to influence lives, not take them over. He shows us how to become influential in our communities by becoming good news to the poor. Do the poor cross the street or enter our churches to tell us what good news we've been to them?

After resisting Satan, our Lord's purpose was not only clear, but so were his methods. Instead of self-comfort, approval, or manipulation, Jesus would choose humility, service, and influence.

What tools will we use to proclaim good news to the poor?

Matthew 4:1
1Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil.

Then Jesus was led up

Led 321 anago (an-ag'-o);

Jesus was "launched forth" into mission. This is a phrase used for a boat leaving on a voyage. Jesus was christened by God – now he was sent on a mission by the Holy Spirit.

By the Spirit

By 5259 hupo (hoop-o'); the spirit 4151 pneuma (pnyoo'-mah)

The launching of Jesus into this mission was not on a whim of his own – it was by (under the command of) the Holy Spirit; "Hupo-Pneuma."

This also meant that Jesus was submissive to the Holy Spirit. Here is a picture of perfect unity and an example for the church. There was no I or ego in this exchange. Three in one – Trinity all within the bond of God's redemptive mission. Distinct purposes, yet a united call. All church leaders need to remember this obedient response to God's prompting. At any point that a pastor thinks that he/she is all-important – the custodians should take a free two-week holiday.

Into the wilderness

The wasteland 2048 eremos (er'-ay-mos);

The Holy Spirit led Jesus to a wasteland. This could also be identified as:

A solitary place

A place for prayer in solitude.

A testing place

A place to examine the soul for weaknesses.

The Devil's backyard

This was how the Jews viewed "the wasteland. Yet, what better place to test our fortitude than to sent by God to the tempter's turf in our own lives.

Jesus had to find out where Satan was most likely to tempt Him. In doing so, our Lord proactively takes control of the situation. All of us know full well where we are most tempted – yet, we rarely plan to avoid those places.

In the jail, where I am a chaplain, inmates are released on Saturdays at 11:00PM so the County can collect the extra week's revenue. The jail is located in a neighborhood filled with bars, prostitutes and crack apartments. If those men are not prepared to go straight to the rescue mission or some other place [anago] – they will wander into the jaws of sin within an hour. I have mentioned to the Sheriff on multiple occasions that one way to immediately lower the recidivism rate would be to release inmates in time for church on Sunday morning. Then to collaborate with churches to have a van ministry to the jail at that time. However, I fear how few churches would leap at this opportunity.

There is an additional interesting juxtaposition about the Spirit's leading. Most of us are led by our desires. We follow our desires into sin – rather than the Spirit into solitude. It's like watching all the old "bewitched" television series where Darren, the witch's husband says; "I need a drink," every time he has a problem. As his wife elaborates on the issue, Darren would say, "Make that a double." "No, "Make that a triple."

I can't but wonder if the alcohol companies supplemented his income much as much as tobacco companies pay celebrities today to smoke in movies.

To be tempted

Tempted [G3985 peirazo (pi-rad'-zo)]

The word tempt means to prove one is evil or good. For whom do we need to "prove our value?"

For God? Of course not, he created us in his likeness, yet he knows our sin. We don't need to prove ourselves to him.

For Satan? Not likely... He just wants us to fail – no matter what! More than anything, he knows we will fail if we concentrate on our weakness instead of God's strength?

We needn't prove our worth to anyone but Satan wants us to think we do. We should live only to show what his mercy has done in our life. "Yes, I am the chief of all sinners – but if God can love me – he can surely love you!"

God challenges us to do our spiritual push-ups – not for his ego – but for our confidence. The only purpose to trials is to grow confident of the Lord's power in our lives.

By the devil

The Devil [G1228 diabolos (dee-ab'-ol-os)]

Matthew uses the Hebrew word for the Evil One as there is no Greek comparison. Similarly, the Greek didn't consider evil as an absolute – but relative to the circumstances.

In our previous study, we learned how the Greek mind elevated man to "anthropos"; "a wonder to behold." The Hebrew uses Adam. It doesn't just mean, "all men," but also, "of mud," or "a hypocrite."
When good and evil are relative so is our behavior. Sin is maybe bad or possibly acceptable if we have the "right end" in mind. The bible becomes metaphor – a set of guidelines relative to the era of shepherds and despots. Sometimes quaint but frequently outmoded.

How relative is our scripture today, how quaint is our God? We can judge that by how comfortable we have become with the injustice around us today. Do we find ourselves comfortable at times with the manipulative means used to excuse war, famine, or poverty? Do we excuse our prejudice or indifference with tired slogans like "God helps those who help themselves." Do we even check to see if that is even biblical?

Satan is the purveyer of half-truths and ignorance. Ignorance is the root of prejudice and indifference. That won't change as long Satan is alive and kicking.

Matthew 4:2
2And after He had fasted forty days and forty nights, He then became hungry.

He had fasted

Fasted [G3522 nesteuo (nace-tyoo'-o)]

Fasting was a common practice in Christ's day. However, it was not the same term as we would use for diet. Our country spends more on diet food than most countries are able spend on basic necessities. In fact, we spend more on pet food than most countries are able to spend on feeding children.

Fasting had a specific purpose to the Lord – to remind the follower of their hunger and reliance on God. Here's a simple prayer I remember when I fast; "Lord, let the pain in my stomach remind me of the hunger I should feel for justice and for you."

Fasting is a very private discipline, which one should undertake with common sense and good dietary advice (even professional advice). It is not for when those who are ill and is certainly not to be used to the purpose of hurting one's own body (that's self-centered masochism – not God-centered praise). Remember that the body is the temple of the Holy Spirit and is to be treated with dignity.

Forty days and forty nights

As we previously learned, forty days and forty nights was not an exact amount of time – it was the term used for "a long time" or a "spiritually significant time." Literally, forty would mean, "as long as it took to accomplish God's purpose."

In other words, Jesus was in the desert "as long as it took" to align his heart with God. It may have literally been forty exact days, but the number of days is far less important to the point of this experience.

The Israelites wandered in the wilderness forty years – as long as it took for God to form them into a nation. The skies rained on Noah forty days – as long as it took for God to renew the earth.

Forty years or forty days, will we be patient enough to let God do his work in us. In a world of nanosecond responses to life, even forty seconds can seem untenable. God has the patience for us, do we have the time for him?

How about if we just began by giving God a "Morning 40?" Forty minutes daily for prayer and listening to align ourselves with our Creator.

He was hungry

Hunger [G3983 peinao (pi-nah'-o)]

The Lord's stomach was "pinched" with hunger. It wasn't until he was physically weak that Satan approached him. However, while Jesus was at a physical low, he was also at his spiritual hiatus. He was on the cusp of his mission, his life's purpose. There was no reason to rush God's purposes or force God's hand like Jacob did when he stole his birthright from Esau or Moses had done by murdering an Egyptian overseer.

How much of our lives do we lose by not waiting on God to do his "forty" in our development? Jesus was going to "wait upon" God.

However, it was not leisurely waiting. Our Lord anticipated God's direction like a waiter anticipates a treasured diner's order. Jesus put everything aside; he fasted and prayed in order to discern how the enemy would try and undermine him. Satan did not know that he was actually used by God in order to sharpen our Lord's awareness.

When we lay our agenda aside to hear our Creator's direction, we become incredibly strong spiritually. Look at the quandary in that statement! Giving up selfishness and pride for service to Christ makes us more vital in the Spirit.

How does that contrast with the message of a consumer society? The Spirit sent Jesus forth into a desert. Where – in contrast – do our desires and urges send us?

We head to the couch to be entertained; Jesus heads to the wasteland to be tested. We head to the mall to get "stuff"; Jesus heads to the desert to simplify his desires. We head to the liquor cabinet to get buzzed; Jesus heads to the wilderness to gain clarity. Our search leads to more confusion, dependency, and listlessness – is that what we want?

What would the desert be today? Jesus' wilderness experience could hardly be compared to most retreat experiences we seek. It wasn't a weekend at a mountain villa surrounded by wonderful vistas. It was a desert with soaring heat by day and shivering cold at night. He had no sustenance except God's blessing. He was in a location where most people avoided for fear of their life.

Where are the places people avoid in your community? Where would you find that desert?

I think of the metal detectors I have to pass through in order to visit my friends who are incarcerated, the pretensions I have to shed in order to be relevant to the homeless, the pre-judgments I need to leave behind if I'm going to impact a young person's life.

Those are the deserts I see in our world today.

Matthew 4:3-4

3And the tempter came and said to Him, "If You are the Son of God, command that these stones become bread."

4But He answered and said, "It is written, 'Man shall not live on bread alone, but on every word that proceeds out of the mouth of God.'"

The Tempter

The Tempter [G3985 peirazo (pi-rad'-zo)]

Here is another word for Satan – the Tempter. We've previously seen the verb used and explored how the role of temptation – from God's point of view – is to strengthen us and draw us closer to him. Alternatively, the Tempter uses temptation to expose our weaknesses and then to rub our faces in it. Essentially, he wants us to give up trying and quit.

The words most indicative of Satan's style might very well be, "I told you so..." He wants us to expect failure and live down to it.

How does that differ from our Lord's expectations of us? Jesus expected the blind would see and the cripple would walk. He expected his followers to carry on for him and the church to reach the world.

So are we an expectant people or an "I told you so," people?

Do our words lift people up or tear them down? Do we "fast" from cynicism and strive for enthusiasm? Enthusiasm is a learned trait, it can be targeted and grown in our lives. It is a practiced skill that is a blessing back to God. It is the vocabulary of the prophet:

(3) Encourage the exhausted, and strengthen the feeble. (4) Say to those with anxious heart, "Take courage, fear not behold, your God will come with vengeance; the recompense of God will come, but He will save you."

(5) Then the eyes of the blind will be opened and the ears of the deaf will be unstopped.

(6) Then the lame will leap like a deer, and the tongue of the mute will shout for joy for waters will break forth in the wilderness and streams in the Arabah.

Isaiah 35:3-6

Arabah was a city in the valley of the Dead Sea and the Dead Sea was where streams went to die. Could you imagine your life, your community, being hope where dreams go to die?

That's where we are called. It is where we will be attacked by the temptation to return to what's comfortable, to give in to the complacency of our peers, and to use cynicism to drown out other voices of hope. Those are our temptations today.

"If you are…"

How masterful the manipulator who first make us doubt that we are truly loved. Satan wants us to doubt that our Creator is personally interested in our well-being.

(25) "For this reason I say to you, do not be worried about your life, as to what you will eat or what you will drink; nor for your body, as to what you will put on. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? (26) "Look at the birds of the air, that they do not sow, nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not worth much more than they?

(27) "And who of you by being worried can add a single hour to his life? (28) "And why are you worried about clothing? Observe how the lilies of the field grow; they do not toil nor do they spin, (29) yet I say to you that not even Solomon in all his glory clothed himself like one of these (30) "But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the furnace, will He not much more clothe you? You of little faith! (31) "Do not worry then, saying, 'What will we eat?' or 'What will we drink?' or 'What will we wear for clothing?' (32) "For the Gentiles eagerly seek all these things; for your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. (33) "But seek first His kingdom and His righteousness, and all these things will be added to you.

(34) "So do not worry about tomorrow; for tomorrow will care for itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.

Matthew 6:25-34

Almost every manipulative statement in life consists of "if" and "prove." "If you want to be part of our group…" "Prove you love me…" "You would be beautiful, if…"

Any time that a person or a system asks us to prove our worth, we should see the conditionality of acceptance. Performance-based approval is not love, it is manipulation. Love, on the other hand, is unconditional dignity. "I will treat you with dignity no matter how you act towards me.

That is how God treats us and how he loved his son. His son then turned and loved us like that. Then, upon parting, gave us but one commandment, that we love others like he loved us."

Do we offer others unconditional dignity? Are we so steeped in Christ that we can recognize the Temptor in messages of performance-based acceptance? No power is so liberating today, then the person who offers us love without conditions.

"It is written."

Written [G1125 grapho (graf'-o)]

It is written means that it was very important – important enough to write down in a time when papyrus was difficult to come by. It was also a statement one would make when referring to scripture, or – as we might say – "The Bible says…"

In this story, we see that Jesus used Scripture to deal with temptation and it was an effective tool in counteracting Satan. However, Satan also knew the bible. So did the chief religious leaders of Christ's day. Yet, they used it against the Lord. Obviously, the words of the bible can be used – and have been used throughout history – to manipulate people.

As Jesus deals with Satan, we see him laying down some ground rules for the use of the scripture in our lives. Chief among those rules is that we don't interpret the bible by our desires and actions. Instead, we interpret our direction by the bible.

Satan and the religious leaders would use the bible to further their personal agendas, increase their power or further their ideology. Jesus used scripture to direct his response to the temptations of life. While working with inmates, we would offer this four-part action plan for confronting temptation in our lives:

Say "NO!" clearly and adamantly as soon as you sense temptation.

Name the sin that you are confronting by its biblical name: "That's lust of the flesh!" "That's gossip!"

Choose a healthy alternative; "I'm going to exercise." "I'm going to talk with a prayer partner."

Leave the situation either mentally or physically. Get involved in a different activity or actually move from the spot in which you find yourself.

Whatever you do, don't try to confront the temptation head-on. That is like saying, "Don't think of chocolate ice cream!" The mind never hears "not!" When you say to yourself, "I am NOT fat." "I am NOT going to think of alcohol." You're mind focuses on what you are trying to avoid.

Replace the thought by doing something else. Do it immediately and without hesitation. In this scenario, it is very true that "he/she who hesitates is lost."

Matthew 4:5-7

5Then the devil took Him into the holy city; and he had Him stand on the pinnacle of the temple, 6and said to Him, "If You are the Son of God throw Yourself down; for it is written, 'He will give His angels charge concerning You'; and 'On {their} hands they will bear You up, lest you strike your foot against a stone.'"

7Jesus said to him, "On the other hand, it is written, 'You shall not put the Lord your God to the test.'"

"You shall not put the Lord your God to the test."

Satan begins his last temptation quoting from the following Scripture passage:

9 Because you have made the LORD your refuge, the Most High your dwelling place, 10 no evil shall befall you, no scourge come near your tent. 11 For he will command his angels concerning you to guard you in all your ways.

12On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone. 13You will tread on the lion and the adder, the young lion and the serpent you will trample under foot.

14Those who love me, I will deliver; I will protect those who know my name. 15When they call to me, I will answer them; I will be with them in trouble, I will rescue them and honor them. 16With long life I will satisfy them, and show them my salvation.

Psalm 91:9-16

In response, Jesus recants the incident at Massah:

1From the wilderness of Sin the whole congregation of the Israelites journeyed by stages, as the LORD commanded. They camped at Rephidim, but there was no water for the people to drink. 2The people quarreled with Moses, and said, "Give us water to drink." Moses said to them, "Why do you quarrel with me? Why do you test the LORD?" 3But the people thirsted there for water; and the people complained against Moses and said, "Why did you bring us out of Egypt, to kill us and our children and livestock with thirst?"

4So Moses cried out to the LORD, "What shall I do with this people? They are almost ready to stone me." 5The LORD said to Moses, "Go on ahead of the people, and take some of the elders of Israel with you; take in your hand the staff with which you struck the Nile, and go. 6I will be standing there in front of you on the rock at Horeb. Strike the rock, and water will come out of it, so that the people may drink." Moses did so, in the sight of the elders of Israel. 7He called the place Massah and Meribah, because the Israelites quarreled and tested the LORD, saying, "Is the LORD among us or not?"

Exodus 17:1-7

The people of Israel had seen miracle after miracle as the Lord freed them from the slavery of the Pharaoh (probably Amentohep II, ca. 1453-1426 B.C.). Yet, despite the grace and mercy of the Lord they continue to question Moses' leadership and God's presence. To test [nasah] meant to put someone to trial or to make them "prove their worth." The fundamental issue of Massah and Meribah was that the Israelites were telling Moses, "If God is leading us, make him prove it."

Satan tries to trick Jesus into the same situation. "If you are loved by God, make him prove it."

Why is it such a sin to ask God to prove himself?

God is not our servant, he is not our pet. When humanity has viewed God in such a light – when we formed God into our own image and made him fit our ideology instead of making our values and mores fit his – that is when we have been the cruelest. Even worse, it is those times when we use religion to justify our cruelty instead of stop it. There is nothing more dangerous than saying to God; "Listen Lord, your servant is speaking!"

We live in a world tainted by sin; thousands upon thousands of years of self-centric thinking and elevating ourselves to supreme status. The result is what we see today; the disease, pain, and brokenness of our world that pours calamity upon all – good and bad.

Yet, we must never lose sight of the God who created us, walks beside us in the Holy Spirit, and sent his Son to die for us. What further proof could anyone give of their love than to let their loved one die for another? To ask for "more proof," is to insult God and say, "What you have offered isn't enough."

Matthew 4:8-11

8Again, the devil took Him to a very high mountain, and showed Him all the kingdoms of the world, and their glory; 9and he said to Him, "All these things will I give You, if You fall down and worship me."

10Then Jesus said to him, "Begone, Satan! For it is written, 'You shall worship the Lord your God, and serve Him only.'"

11Then the devil left Him; and behold, angels came and {began} to minister to Him.

"You shall worship the Lord your God, and serve Him only."

Satan is done with subtlety and turns his full force on to Jesus. The Temptor drops his pretense and quits offering trinkets. Jesus is a powerful force so Satan offers him more power in exchange for worship.

There is no attraction to Jesus in Satan's offer for, "For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul? Or what will a man give in exchange for his soul?"

When a person knows that they have God's unconditional blessing centered deeply in their heart, the temptations of this world pale in comparison. Satan offers Jesus "things," we can only presume that some of the "things" include people; you and I and our children. It gives us insight into the darkness of Satan's heart, where things are more important than beings. Where beings are used to get things. Where beings are a means to an end.

To God, the world was created to reach his children. The "things" of this world definitely do not include beings, and beings are never a means to an end. Whenever we use beings to get things, we are operating out of Satan's framework, not God's.

Jesus has seen all the Satan has to offer. He is done with the Evil One's vanity and warped view of reality. Our Lord quotes from Deuteronomy:

13The LORD your God you shall fear; him you shall serve, and by his name alone you shall swear. 14Do not follow other gods, any of the gods of the peoples who are all around you, 15because the LORD your God, who is present with you, is a jealous God. The anger of the LORD your God would be kindled against you and he would destroy you from the face of the earth.

Deut 6:13-15

But dismisses Satan with a word, "Begone [hupago G5217]," it means to "slink away," like a coyote who is suddenly confronted by a shepherd.

Satan does slink away, but he will return. However, in the future, he will never return in boldness. He will come clothed in the gilded words of Nicodemus to compromise with the religious leaders, the enticement of Peter to avoid Jerusalem, the subtlety of Pontius Pilate to accommodate an easier truth.

Through this story, Jesus reveals to us all of Satan's tricks: All three. That's it, three.

Acceptance; and

Satan cannot think beyond self. As a result he is unable to understand any motive that is centered in God and centered in love. This is the ultimate story of how to recognize truth and temptation in our world. It is also the ultimate story that will help us differentiate between God's love and Satan's manipulation.

It should always call us to ask, "What drives us?" "What is our motive?"

Jean Vanier, the founder of L'Arche Communities, who has lived with the handicapped in community since his young adulthood (following a stint as a Commander in the British Navy), once said, "I have fallen in love with the truth and can see God in it."

That is why Jesus tells us this story.

About the Author

Jerry Goebel is a community organizer who started ONEFamily Outreach in response to gang violence and youth alienation in a rural community in Southeastern Washington. Since that time, Jerry has worked with communities around the globe to break the systemic hold of poverty by enhancing the strengths of the poor.

Copyright © 2007 Jerry Goebel. All Rights Reserved.

See Also:

Sermons and Commentaries for 40th Day of Lent (40th Friday)

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