“Then Jesus was led by the Spirit into the desert to be tempted by the devil. After fasting forty days and forty nights, he was hungry. The tempter came to him and said, ‘If you are the Son of God, tell these stones to become bread.’
Jesus answered, ‘It is written: ‘Man does not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.’’
Then the devil took him to the holy city . . . ‘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 . . .’’
Jesus answered him, ‘It is also written: ‘Do 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 splendor. ‘All this I will give you,’ he said, ‘if you will bow down and worship me.’
Jesus said to him, ‘Away from me, Satan! For it is written: ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve him only.’
Then the devil left him, and angels came and attended him.” (Matthew 4:1-11)
Wow! There is so much going on here, so many great spiritual lessons.
First off, before Jesus officially started His ministry, He went through the desert. I think we believers can all expect to be ‘led to the desert’ at some point. There will be times in our spiritual journey when we will feel like we are in a desert, like God has left us and like the temptations and trials are many and they are wearing us down. And we will remain in that desert until we are hungry. For His presence, for relief, for His intervention. And during that time, we will wrestle with the devil, wrestle with our own desires and will, and wrestle with God and His truths, until we learn to lean on Him and His Word in a way we never did before.
Second, I think we will be tempted with the same kinds of things Jesus was. Bread, testing God, and getting our rewards early.
We will be tempted by Satan to get our “needs” – real needs, physical needs, imagined needs, great big wants - met in ways that God didn’t intend. Jesus was hungry and He was tempted with bread. We might be tempted with bread, but we are also tempted to satisfy other hungers: for love, sex, companionship, recognition, approval, status, material possessions and security, fame, money, success, etc. And he will tempt us when we are most hungry for it.
God provides what we need when we need it, if we lean on Him and trust Him. Satan tempts us to meet our needs outside of God’s providence. Or he tempts us to need things that we don’t really need. Then he can make us disappointed with life and with God, and we will feel justified in going our own way, in taking the lead and the control.
Satan also tempted Jesus to test God, to test His care and love and goodness. Doesn’t he tempt us to do the same thing? We pray for something we want, and we let our views of God be shaped by the answers we get. Satan whispers in our ear, “If God really loved you, He would give you what you are asking for. . . If God was really powerful, He would be able to do this. . . . If God was really good, He would answer your way.”
This is different than a hurting person asking God to show them that He loves them. That is not “testing God.” That is desperately seeking Him. Testing Him is when we are coming from a place of judgment or skepticism towards God, when we decide that God has to do it our way or else we won’t trust Him. We put God to the test when we doubt His goodness, love and abilities, when we ask Him to prove Himself to us, when we challenge His God-ness with little tests, when we judge Him based on our own ideas of what He should do, and when we live like we lead and He follows.
[The only time God tells us to test Him is when it comes to tithing.
“But you ask, ‘How do we rob [God]?’
‘In tithes and offerings. You are under a curse – the whole nation of you – because you are robbing me. Bring the whole tithe into the storehouse, that there may be food in my house. Test me in this,’ says the Lord Almighty, ‘and see if I will not throw open the floodgates of heaven and pour out so much blessings that you will not have room enough for it. . . .’” (Malachi 3:8-10)]
And lastly, Satan tempted Jesus to get His rewards early. After the Fall, Satan was given a certain sort of “dominion” or ownership over the earth. And Satan was offering this to Jesus if Jesus would worship him. The thing is, all the kingdoms were going to belong to Jesus anyway after He did what He came here to do – die on the cross for our sins. Satan was offering Jesus a way out of the sacrifice, an early exit from the trial. He offered to give Jesus a version (a lesser version) of what He was destined to get in the end, but without all the sacrifice and obedience and dying to self.
We will struggle with this, too. We will be offered opportunities to take short-cuts in life, to get out of the trials early, to get the “blessings” and “rewards” earlier than God will give them, if we just compromise a little or go our own way. But if it is not God’s way, it is really Satan’s way. Those are the only two leaders to choose from, to follow.
Maybe it’s the offer of marriage, as long as you settle for someone who is not right for you. Maybe it’s the offer for success, as long as you step on other people to get there and be just a little dishonest. Maybe it’s the offer of financial security, as long as you cheat, steal, and hoard your money. Maybe it’s the offer for fame or popularity, as long as you compromise your beliefs. Maybe it’s the offer to get out of the persecution, as long as you hide your beliefs or deny Christ.
We will all be tempted at some point to meet our needs outside of God’s way, to judge and define God based on how He passes the “tests” we give Him, and to circumvent God’s timing, to get the blessings and rewards early. To enjoy the treasures on earth instead of storing them up in Heaven. To count our earthly blessings instead of spiritual blessings. To compromise our faith and integrity for a little bit of earthly pleasure or relief. To see things through earthly eyes instead of spiritual eyes.
And we need to be on our guard for these, especially in the desert times when Satan is most likely to tempt us, taking advantage of the fact that we are weak, hungry, and vulnerable. (We also are most vulnerable to temptations after great spiritual highs. Our greatest falls often come after our greatest spiritual accomplishments, when we think, “Wow! I’m feeling so spiritual and so close to God right now that I could never do that!” I’m speaking from experience here. Be on guard then, too. Always be on guard. Never drop your armor!)
But we not left alone to battle Satan during these times. Even if God feels far away (which will happen at some point, usually when the internal battle is the fiercest), He gave us His Word to lean on, to live in. He expects us to use the Word to do battle with Satan.
Jesus used only the Word to fight against Satan. Yet how many of us rely on our own wisdom, strength, and character to try to defeat him?
It won’t work.
We need the Word. But how many of us really know and lean on the Word like we are supposed to? How many of us let this valuable, critical weapon sit on our shelves, covered in dust?
Ephesians 6:17 identifies the Word as the “sword of the Spirit.” Along with prayer, it is the only offensive weapon we have in the spiritual battle. The other pieces of “armor” are defensive, meant to help us resist the attacks of Satan. But prayer and the Word are meant to help us advance against him, to strike back. The Word is a sword, and yet so often I treat it like a pillow. Like a nice soft, comforting, cushy thing to lay my head down on at night to help me sleep better. I have been sleeping on my sword!
But I am getting to the point where I realize the incredible need to use it for what it was meant for, to take it up in the battle against evil. I am learning the value of memorizing Scripture, posting it around the house, and recalling it during times of trial and need and weakness. This is what will beat Satan back. We need to use it as a weapon, not just as a pillow or a pretty knick-knack for our shelf.
But remember that Satan knows Scripture, too. Far better than we do. And he will do all he can to twist it, to use it against us, and to give us only half-truths. So we need to immerse ourselves in Scripture, to absorb it, to live in it, and to study it carefully so that we are not misled.
How many churches are being led astray nowadays, trading in biblical truths for socially-acceptable “truths”? How many church-goers are following people who “tickle their ears”? How many people struggle with their view of God’s wrath or forgiveness because they don’t really understand a biblical view of His love and justness, two sides of the same coin? How many people enjoy certain “freedoms” that they shouldn’t enjoy because they have only learned half the truth, instead of digging in deeper to learn the whole truth? How many fail to seek God’s kingdom and righteousness and to seek God with all their heart, soul, mind, and strength because they only know the parts of Scripture that comfort and relax them, not the parts that challenge or convict?
Scripture is your greatest weapon against evil. Take it up. Turn it inside and out, until you know it deeply. Carry it around daily – in your hand, mind, and heart – until it becomes a part of you. And lean hard on it when you find yourself in the desert, facing trials, temptations, and God’s silence.
And take heart! You will not be in the desert forever. After the trials – after Jesus used the Sword of the Spirit to battle Satan and the temptations - the angels came and attended to Him, refreshing His spirit. You will not be in the desert and feeling God’s absence forever, but just long enough to wrestle with your doubts, fears, desires, temptations, sins, and self-will. Just long enough to learn to do battle, to see things with spiritual eyes, to grow in righteousness and obedience, to learn humility, to grow in faith and trust, to see yourself for who you really are and God for who He really is, to get off the throne and let God back on, and to learn to need Him in ways you never did before. (Yet, life does seem to be one desert after another. Hang in there. Life is long, but God is good.)
When times are the toughest and the battle is the fiercest, rely on Scripture and God’s truth. And you will grow through the battles and hard times in ways you never dreamed of. And when the battle is over, God will reveal His presence again. You will experience Him in a new way, and it will refresh your soul and your faith will be stronger!
So where is your sword? On your shelf or in your heart? Under your head to help you sleep more comfortably or in your hand to do fierce battle with the Enemy? He will keep coming at you, whether or not you are armed. But if you want to stand a fighting chance, pray and take up your sword! And start swinging!