Text: Matthew 4:1-11
Date: Lent I + 3/5/06 – 2/25/07
That our Lord Jesus Christ was “led by the Spirit” into the wilderness immediately after his baptism in order to be tempted by the devil indicates two things that are actually one thing. First, it indicates that his fasting and temptation were according to the will of God. Like a preemptive attack with laser-guided missals, Jesus’ active earthly ministry begins by addressing the very root of the problem from which He came to free us, namely, the rule of Satan, sin and death. First He disarms and “binds the strong man.” Then He “plunders his house” (Matthew 12:29) by proclaiming good news to the poor, release to the captives, recovery of sight to the blind and the setting at liberty those who are oppressed (Luke 4:18). Jesus, not Satan, was in charge from the beginning to the end. Even Satan’s seeming victory in Jesus’ betrayal, arrest and trials, his suffering and death on the cross was according to the plan and will of God. As our Lord said, “I lay down my life that I may take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord” [John 10:17-18 (ESV)].
Secondly, this text teaches us that to be “led by the Spirit” means not by some direct, immediate communications of exotic or “new” revelations, but, as for Christ in his state of humiliation and for us, it means, simply, to hear, know, and believe the Word of God, the Holy Scripture that reveals God’s good and gracious will for us and for all people. Having met his decisive defeat in the wilderness and through the cross and empty tomb of Jesus Christ, now those who belong to Christ have the armament to fend off the devil’s attacks, to persevere in faith and to look with faith and good hope to our final victory in the day of resurrection. The operative power for Christ in his state of humiliation, his earthly ministry, and for us who take up our cross and follow Him is the mighty Word of God.
As the Lord’s first step in procuring our salvation was his confrontation with and binding of Satan, so the Christian, from the very beginning, must identify and defy our chief enemy, the devil. In order to do that, we must first acknowledge that he exists. We would not know that apart from God’s Word, for this is the devil’s chief tactic: to convince you that he does not exist! That is why the very first word in the sacrament of Holy Baptism, as well as in the baptismal rite of confirmation, is the question, “Do you renounce the devil and all his works and all his ways?” This renunciation is to be repeated every day. For though he met his decisive defeat in the crucified, risen and ascended Lord Jesus Christ, the devil now, like a madman, is only trying to take down as many with him as he can before his ultimate demise in hell. Though, because of Christ’s decisive victory, he is barred anymore from lodging his accusations against us before the throne of God, still he attacks Christ in His Christians trying to wrench us away from Christ and our baptism. Jesus’ battle in the wilderness teaches us how to deal with and overcome our adversary only through true faith in God and his Word. Whoever arms himself with the Word will be able to withstand the devil; but whoever fails to do so lies helpless against the adversary.
This is the significance of how Luther arms us with his simple and clear explanation of the Lord’s Prayer in the little catechism. Notice how it all centers on the Word of God. “Hallowed be Thy name, Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven,” all have to do with the power of God’s Word. God’s name is kept holy among us “when the Word of God is taught in its truth and purity, and we, as the children of God, also lead holy lives according to it.” “God’s kingdom comes when our heavenly Father gives us his Holy Spirit, so that by his grace we believe his holy Word and lead godly lives here in time and there in eternity.” “God’s will is done when he breaks and hinders every evil plan and purpose of the devil, the world, and our sinful nature, which do not want us to hallow God’s name or let his kingdom come,” that is, preach and hear and believe and live according to God’s Word. This day, maybe even more than Reformation Day, is the proper place for Luther’s famous hymn that speaks of our spiritual warfare:
Now means deadly woe;
Deep guile and great might
Are his dread arms in fight.
Though devils all the world should fill,
All eager to devour us,
We tremble not, we fear no ill,
They shall not overpow’r us.
This world’s prince may still
Scowl fierce as he will,
He can harm us none,
He’s judged; the deed is done;
One little word can fell him. [LW 298]
Time and again I tell people that, when Luther was asked what that “one little word” is that defeats the devil he replied, simply, the word “Liar!”
So it was when the devil tempted Christ telling him to turn stones into bread to abate his hunger. “Liar!” “It is written, ‘Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God’” [Matthew 4:4; Dt. 8:3 (ESV)]. So for us, as the Apostle Paul said it, “I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content…. In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need. I can do all things through him who strengthens me” [Philippians 4:11-13 (ESV)]. To think or do otherwise, to be more concerned about our daily bread than the true Source of daily bread is to despise God’s Word, the true bread from heaven. Therefore we would rather fast with Christ and trust in God’s grace knowing that the angels will come and wait on our table.
Relying on God’s Word is not a simple thing, of course. For the devil knows the Bible too. Therefore the second temptation comes from pseudo-preachers who twist God’s Word and teach The Lie. “Throw yourself down from this high place, for it is written, ‘He will command his angels concerning you,’ and ‘On their hands they will bear you up, lest you strike your foot against a stone’” [Matthew 4:6 (ESV)]. Though these are the very words of Psalm 91, they are twisted into The Lie by simply leaving out three little words in Latin, four in English: “He will command his angels concerning you to guard you in all your ways” [Psalm 91:11 (ESV)]. “Liar!” The temptation is to misuse and abuse God’s promises, His very words, for our own vainglory. It’s as simple as the example Luther uses: “Christ repulses him and says, ‘It is written, Thou shalt not tempt the Lord thy God.’ For there is a good staircase there and no need for me to hurl myself down. Because I’m able to descend via the steps without danger, it would be wrong for me unnecessarily and without command of God to endanger myself and jump down”! So it is when someone tries to tell you, for instance, that Holy Baptism is nothing but a cute rite and the simple water means nothing, or that Holy Communion is only a symbol or expression of a Christian’s faith and that the bread and wine are not the same, true and substantial Body and Blood of Christ than once hung on the cross by which you receive the forgiveness of sins, life and salvation. Rather, I will hang on to the truth of God’s promise, “Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved” [Mark 16:16 (ESV)], and, “This is my Body, this is my Blood” [Matthew 26:26-28]. There are many other examples of twisting and abusing God’s Word, from the miraculous healing-preachers on television to all the false teachings that separate us from all the so-called “denominations” of Christendom not to mention the blatantly false sects and anti-Christian religions. In order not to be deceived each Christian must know and continue to study God’s precious Word.
The third temptation, the third Lie, is to fall for the theology of glory, which isn’t much different than the second temptation. “All these things I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me” [Matthew 4:9 (ESV)]. Rather, as Jesus has taught us, “seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you” [Matthew 6:33 (ESV)]. Here is all self-centered and self-conceived spirituality, the idea, for instance, that to be a priest or pastor is somehow spiritually superior to being a faithful husband and father, wife and mother, employer or worker. Here are all those who estimate a successful church merely by counting how many people are attracted to their worldly high-tech productions and emotional experiences. “Liar!” “Be gone, Satan! For it is written, ‘You shall worship the Lord your God and him only shall you serve’” [Matthew 4:10; Dt. 6:13 (ESV)]. And what does it mean to serve God? Serving God means to do what God has commanded in his Word, namely, doing what your calling requires of you and to walk in the fear of God. If you want to serve what is temporary, the accumulation of wealth and things of this world, honor and power, then you will scorn preaching and the worship of God altogether.
Our Lenten journey and all spiritual renewal begins by acknowledging the real adversary and our most fundamental need, deliverance from the unholy trinity, the devil, the world and our own sinful flesh. And we must know and expect all manner of temptations to fall away from God’s grace every day. We must, therefore, gird ourselves well with God’s Word in order to protect and sustain ourselves. May Christ who himself overcame these temptations for us give us also the strength through him to overcome and to be saved.