Recognizing and resisting temptations (Matthew 4.1-11) [sermon 1-20-19]

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January 22, 2019 by jmar198013

Live audio and sermon notes for my message on January 20th, 2019. From an ongoing series: God’s Neighborhood: a visit with Matthew’s Gospel.

Texts read during worship were: Psalm 91.9-12 and Matthew 4.1-11.

The live audio link is embedded below for those who’d like to listen.


Why did the Spirit lead Jesus into temptation?

I don’t know if you noticed the first words of our Gospel reading today, Matthew 4.1. Or if you’ve ever noticed them before.

It says: Then the Spirit led Jesus up

Okay, hold on, stop reading a second. Last week we heard the story of Jesus’ baptism. Jesus was baptized. Father God told Jesus how much he loves him, and how proud he is of him. The Holy Spirit came to him like a dove.

So our story today picked up right where last week’s story left off. Right after Jesus was baptized. It’s basically, Jesus was baptized, and then the Spirit led Jesus up.

So you’re expecting—okay, what I would expect to hear—is something like:

Then the Spirit led Jesus up to a mountaintop, so he could commune with God, without any distractions, troubles, or temptations.

That’s how I want the story to go.

But it doesn’t go like that, does it?

It says the Spirit led Jesus up into the wilderness so that the devil might tempt him.

You expect the Holy Spirit to take Jesus somewhere to spend time with God—not the devil!

Is anyone else here kind of weirded out that the Holy Spirit would send Jesus—still wet behind the ears from his baptism—into the wilderness to be tempted by Satan?

There’s a big, fat question mark hanging over this whole story. Why did God send Jesus to the wilderness to be tempted?

Now, there’s a Bible nerd answer to that question. And it’s a really important answer. You can find that answer on the back of your bulletin, in the Sermon Sidebar. [1]

But right now, I’m going to suggest an answer that I hope will really make the story we heard today come alive in your hearts as God’s word to you.

Are you ready to hear it?

The devil still uses the same temptations on us that he did on Jesus.

And God wants us to hear the story of Jesus in the wilderness so we can recognize the devil’s attacks, and resist them.

The story we heard about Jesus’ temptations teach us something very important about how the devil works us over.

Most of the time the devil doesn’t just come right out and blatantly dangle temptation in your face.

It’s kind of like … when I was growing up in the ‘80s and early ‘90s. Every ‘80s kid will probably remember this.

Our parents and teachers were just terrified that we’d all turn into drug addicts. And they were always warning us to be on the lookout for drug dealers. Who’d be hanging out by the schools, the parks, and the malls, just giving away free drugs to children.

Look, a lot of my peers got into drugs. Some got in deep. But nobody I knew ever got hooked on drugs because a stranger at the skating rink handed them a free sample of black tar heroin.

No. There were a lot of twists and turns in their stories—things that happened to them, and choices they made—that led them into temptation.

It’s the same way when the devil tempts us. He uses spiritual crowbars to pry open your heart. He plants seeds of doubt. He uses your fears, your anxieties, and your insecurities for leverage.

That’s what he did to Jesus, out in the wilderness. And that’s what he does to us now.

Our story today shows us a couple of tricks the devil uses to lead us into temptation.

And from both my own personal experience, and what I’ve observed listening to other people’s stories; these are probably the devil’s two most common strategies.

Are you ready to hear what they are?

The devil wants you to doubt your relationships and your calling

First, the devil wants you to question your relationships.

He especially wants to draw a big question mark over your relationship with God.

Second, he wants you to question your calling.

He’ll try and get you to doubt the passions and dreams God has placed in you, and the special work God made you to do in his Neighborhood.

These are Satan’s two most common strategies.

And they’re incredibly effective. Especially when you aren’t aware of them.

After today, I hope we’ll all be more aware. We’ll be able to recognize them for what they are. And we’ll learn from Jesus what to do about them.

So first, the devil wants you to question your relationships. Especially your relationship with God.

  • 2 out of 3 times, devil begins his temptation: Since you are God’s Son
    • NIV — If you are the Son of God
      • Devil says it with a sarcastic sneer — Well, since you’re God’s Son
      • Devil wants Jesus to doubt his relationship with his Father, God (which God proclaimed at his baptism)
        • Devil wants you to doubt that you are really God’s beloved daughter or son
  • Devil does this with our relationships with each other, too
    •  Devil = diabolos — the divider
      • Looking to cause division and discord
      • Also means the accuser
        • Wants us pointing fingers, being suspicious of each other

The devil wants you to feel like you’re all alone. Like nobody cares—not even God.

Because he knows if you’re lonely, if you feel isolated, stranded, or abandoned, it’s easier for him to convince you to quit. To just give up and give in.

Here’s something you need to understand. The devil’s not just trying to get you to do bad things. He’s perfectly content with discouraging you from doing the good things God made you to do.

And if he can make you feel isolated;

if he can make you feel like you don’t matter—

unwanted, unneeded, unloved;

if he can cut you off from relationships that nurture you—

especially if he can make you doubt

God’s relentless love for you—

that’s an easy way for him to make you feel discouraged.

So that you’ll give up, tap out, and stop trying.

When you hear that voice telling you that no one cares, no one understands, you don’t matter, God doesn’t love you or believe in you—recognize it for what it is. It’s the devil trying to draw a big question mark over your relationships.

Second, the devil wants you to question your calling.

  • Your passion, your talents, the contributions you can make to God’s Neighborhood
    • The thing God made you to do
    • Your life-ministry—the place where your greatest joy meets with some deep need in the world
  • That’s what he did to Jesus all three times he tempted him
    • The devil wanted Jesus to not do God’s work in God’s ways (bigger, flashier, success-oriented)
      • He’ll do the same thing to you now
        • By getting you to compare your life-ministry to someone else’s, and feel inferior
        • By tempting you to take shortcuts (remember how he promised Jesus the world, if Jesus would just bow down to him one itsy-bitsy little time?)

The devil plays on our insecurities, on our petty fears, our anxieties.

  • Tell story of busy nun [2]
  • God wants you to conspire with the Holy Spirit to do something beautiful. To grow his Neighborhood, beautify this world, and to heal people’s hearts.
    • That’s why he put you here, with your passions, your experiences, and the gifts the Holy Spirit breathes into your life.
    • The devil doesn’t want you to see and celebrate all the gifts God has given you. All the big and small ways God is equipping you for better things. All the big and little progress and victories God is working in your life.
    • Because he doesn’t want you out there doing beautiful things with God, and for God.

But God wants you to know, you really do matter. Your life-ministry really does matter. To God and to the people around you.

Jesus taught us to resist the devil

Now you know how to recognize the devil’s attacks, when he catches you in that vulnerable place, out in the wilderness.

He almost always starts his attacks where it’s most personal—your relationships and your calling.

Now, once you recognize the devil, you have to resist him. In James 4.7, God gives us this promise: Resist the devil, and he will run away from you.

That’s what happened in our story today. Jesus stood up to the devil, and the devil backed down.

So how do we resist the devil? Can you just say, Not today, Satan!—and leave it at that?

The great church Reformer and preacher Martin Luther once wrote that he fought the devil with ink. This led to a popular legend about Martin Luther throwing a jar of ink at him. Tour guides at Wartburg Castle in Germany even used to point to a stain on the wall and say, Look, that’s where Luther threw ink at the devil!

But what he meant was he fought the devil through his writings. Through the sermons, letters, and essays he wrote. And by translating the Bible so regular folks could read it.

But we’re not all great preachers, writers, or theologians like Martin Luther. So how can we resist the devil?

Jesus showed us how in our story today. When the devil came to tempt him, Jesus took up the sword of the Spirit, which is God’s word, as it says in Eph. 6.17.

Real simple, Jesus quoted the Bible at the devil.

You know, I don’t know that we understand how powerful the scriptures really are. Heb. 4.12 says God’s word is living, active, and sharper than any two-edged sword. The words of scripture are powerful enough to cut even the devil down.

But for the word of God to be effective against the devil’s attacks, you have to live in it. And it has to be alive in you.

It can’t just be a source of inspirational cross-stitch patterns you decorate with. You can’t just reach into it like a grab-bag of spiritual comfort food.

In our story today, Jesus knew exactly which part of the Bible to use against the devil.

Three times, the devil tempted him. And three times, he resisted by quoting scripture.

And all three of those scripture verses were deep cuts from the book of Deuteronomy. From when God’s people were in the wilderness for forty years, facing their own temptations.

Now do you see why Jesus quoted those verses?

He knew those scriptures well enough to quote them from memory at just the right time!

They were written deep on his heart.

We need the words of God written deep on our hearts, too. They’re God’s promises to us. The scriptures show us God’s power and wisdom and steadfast love.

[Bible reading challenge — go deep in one book, or one section of scripture.]

When you live in the scriptures, and the word of God is alive in you, you know what to say when the devil draws those big question marks over your relationship with God, and over your calling. [Make Genesis 1 an example]

Jesus successfully resisted the devil out in the wilderness. But he finally won the victory over him by his death and his resurrection. So whenever the devil tempts us—when he calls God’s love for us, and God’s purposes for our lives into question—we know that he’s already a defeated enemy.

And we can know that with complete confidence, because the word of God living in our hearts tells us so.


[1] One of the things Matthew does is showing how Jesus faithfully lives out the story of God’s people Israel. Israel was “baptized” in the Sea during the Exodus (1 Corinthians 10:1-2), then went into the wilderness for forty years. In the wilderness, they were tested with hunger (Deuteronomy 8:2-3); to see if they would put God to the test (Exodus 17:1-7); or if they would worship other gods (Exodus 32:1-6). In the same way, Jesus was baptized, and then went into the wilderness for forty days, where he was tempted by hunger, putting God to the test, and false worship. But where Israel had failed the tests and yielded to temptation, Jesus stood fast.

[2] I think I may have first heard this story in Philip Yancey’s The Jesus I Never Knew. I’m not sure. The church is going through a move to a new facility and my copy was packed up so i couldn’t double-check.

[3] See Melanie Dobson, Fighting the Devil with Ink.

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