“When the devil had finished all this tempting, he left him until an opportune time.”
You have probably heard many sermons on Ash Wednesday or during Lent about the Temptation of Jesus. They usually focus on the three temptations of Christ from this passage.
The first: “If you are the Son of God, tell this stone to become bread.”
Jesus was hungry after 40 days of fasting in the wilderness. In fact, hungry was an
understatement. Jesus was starving – and the reddish-brown stones worn smooth and round by the wind-blown sand looked very much like loaves of bread. Their appearance made Jesus all the more hungry – and were themselves a temptation.
But Satan – the accuser – added to the temptation by challenging Jesus to prove His Messiahship by doing something miraculous. Satan knew that the Son of God had been actively involved in the Creation – and Satan was asking Jesus for an encore performance of His creative power to prove that He and the Son were one in the same.
Of course, Jesus shot back, “Human beings do not live by bread alone.” Matthew’s account adds “but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God.” Jesus’ fellowship with His Father and the power of the Holy Spirit in Him were enough to keep Him going.
The second: The devil led him up to a high place and showed him in an instant all the kingdoms of the world. And he said to Him, “I will give You all their authority and splendor, for it has been given to me, and I can give it to anyone I want to. So if You worship me, it will all be Yours.”
Have you ever heard the expression, “The Longest distance between two points is a shortcut”? Jesus knew where His mission on earth would lead Him – to death on a cross. He knew He was the only acceptable sacrifice for our sin, but He also knew that He would be crowned as King of Kings and Lord of Lords for doing it.
Satan was offering Him a shortcut – just “fall on your knees at my feet, and all this will be Yours.” To a third party like us, it sounds pretty reasonable – give Satan a little honor and escape the anguish of the cross.
But Jesus knew that the Magi had fallen on their knees at His feet – and that the elders in eternity would do the same – so it would be an abdication of His Lordship to worship the Devil. On top of that, He knew His mission was to die for our sin. If He took the shortcut, we would be lost – and we were His most precious possessions. Jesus did not argue the plan of salvation with Satan; instead, He shot him down with the words: ‘Worship the Lord your God and serve Him only.'”
The third: The devil took Jesus to the highest point of the temple in Jerusalem. “If you are the Son of God,” he said, “throw yourself down from here. For it is written: “‘He will command his angels concerning you to guard you carefully; they will lift you up in their hands, so that you will not strike your foot against a stone.'”
Satan got really tricky here. Since Jesus had answered his first two temptations with words of Scripture, the Accuser throws some Scripture right back at Him. If Jesus won’t do something to prove that He is the Son of God, would He do something to prove that God keeps His promises? Jesus – once again – responds with Scripture: “Do not put the Lord your God to the test.” He trusts His Father’s Word – and that’s enough.
And that brings us to the final words of the story: “When the devil had finished all this tempting, he left him until an opportune time.” So Satan came back to tempt Jesus one again. But what was the Last Temptation of Christ?
It was a movie by Martin Scorsese, which set off a firestorm of criticism and controversy when it was released in 1988. Although the script plays fast and loose with the Gospel story of who Jesus was and the need for His sacrificial death – it does point out for us the last temptation that Jesus faced.
But the voice Jesus heard was not that of Satan this time. Instead, it was the voices of the thieves crucified with Him, as well as Jewish religious leaders and other spectators who came to watch Him suffer. They shouted to Him, “If you are the Son of God, come down from the cross.”
That was the greatest temptation that Jesus faced. He had already suffered excruciating pain from the flogging, the crown of thorns, and the spikes driven between the bones of His forearms and legs. He knew that the physical agony was going to last for several more hours.
But the worst was yet to come, as Jesus would carry in His human body the weight of the world’s sin and the anguish of feeling rejected by His Father. He could have called down legions of angels to rescue Him. He had said that the night before to the crowd that came to arrest Him.
As Scorsese’s movie speculated, Jesus could have married Mary Magdalene and had children and gone back to work as a builder. He could have returned to His preaching and teaching about the Kingdom of God. Jesus could have given into temptation and lived a normal, human life.
But He didn’t. He rejected that temptation without saying a word – until the end, when He whispered, “It is finished.” Jesus was four-and-oh in resisting temptation from Satan. As Paul wrote in Philippians 2,
“He humbled Himself and became obedient to death– even death on a cross! Therefore God exalted Him to the highest place and gave Him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.”
Jesus did not yield to temptation – temptation that would have gotten most of us. And because He took no shortcuts to glory, felt no need to prove Himself or His Father, and did what He came to do, He is now King of Kings and Lord of Lords over all Creation.
And as Jesus’ followers, we too will be tempted by Satan to take shortcuts, to try to prove ourselves or to prove our God, or to skip out on the calling that God has placed on our lives. As the old Gospel hymn tells us, “Yield not to temptation, for yielding is sin.” Instead, let us ignore those temptations and follow Jesus faithfully – even if that takes us to a cross.