Trials, Tests, and Temptations
By Pastor Daniel W. Brettell
There is a trend among 21st –century Christians to deny the existence of the Devil. The concept of such a being is just so anachronistic; so medieval; so unenlightened. For the most part, the Devil or Satan has been relegated—at least in the minds of most people—to the realm of horror films and Steven King novels. But what I find most interesting about how the devil is portrayed in those works is that he is so obviously evil; so incredibly obvious that he is hard miss.
Think about some of the horror movies you may have seen. Strange events have taken place; people have disappeared; and now strange noises are coming from behind a door, and the innocent, naïve teenager is now walking toward the door. When I’ve watched those movies, I’ve thought—as I’m sure you have—“Are you kidding me? Isn’t it obvious what’s behind that door? What are you doing walking TOWARD the door? Run in the other direction!!” But no, like a moth drawn to fire, the poor kid—who is obviously playing with just a few cards less than a full deck—walks to the door, opens it, and . . . well I’m sure you can imagine what happens next. The evil, which is so blatant and so obvious, has triumphed again . . . and there is one less naïve kid in the world.
But what’s not so obvious is that evil—the Devil if you will—has triumphed in another, much more subtle way. Now, please don’t misunderstand me here. I’m not saying that all horror movies are evil. Hey, I like a good scary movie myself once in a while; it gets the adrenaline flowing. Plus it’s fun to laugh at just how dumb the people in movie can be. But there is a problem that we, as Christians have to recognize. The problem is that because of movies like this, evil and the devil have become caricatures. The problem is that in real life, we don’t encounter the devil or evil as portrayed in these movies. Our encounters are far more subtle—just as it was for Jesus in today’s Gospel lesson.
Imagine how it was for Jesus. He had been out in the wilderness fasting for forty days. And when Luke talks about wilderness in this passage, he’s talking about an area of the Middle East that is rocky, barren, dry, blazing hot during the day, and frigid cold at night. Almost nothing—not even cactus—grows there. What little water exists there is mostly alkaline—deadly to drink. Jesus is weak from hunger and thirst; his skin is burned; and he’s most likely suffering from exposure. In short he is vulnerable in every possible way.
Onto the scene—as reported by Luke—comes the devil to tempt Jesus. But this isn’t the devil of Hollywood invention; it’s no fanged demon obvious in its evil intentions. This is the real thing. This is the devil of subtle trial, subtle test, and subtle temptation, not the fire-breathing, pitchfork carrying, horned beast that is the stuff of medieval imagery, bad dreams, and B-movie plots.
If you want to understand the real devil, you have to consider your weakest moments. Have you ever been really hungry? Maybe you’re dieting or maybe you’re fasting in preparation for a medical procedure. But you’re hungry—really, really hungry. And maybe you’re a little shaky; and that’s after only twelve hours of dieting or fasting. So, you’re hungry and all you can think about is food. Then there’s that little voice in the back of your head and it’s saying to you, “Go ahead, there’s that piece of chocolate cake out there in the kitchen. Just take one little bite. You’ll feel so much better.” And like I said, that’s after only twelve hours; not even a full day. Jesus had been without food for forty days! Do you think maybe—just maybe—there was a little voice in the back of his head?
That’s the devil Luke is talking about. That’s the real devil; the devil that uses logic on us in our weakest moments. And that’s incredibly important for us to remember as we consider this Gospel Lesson. The devil comes to us—humans—in our weakest moments. You see one of the aspects of this passage in Luke is that it speaks to a very profound theological issue—that of the divinity and the humanity of Jesus. If Jesus is only divine, then the devil has no power over him and if Jesus is only human, then why bother with such a temptation—why offer Jesus all the kingdoms of the world? But, you see, Jesus is both divine and human. Theologically and doctrinally we describe Jesus as being fully human and fully divine all at the same time. And believe me that understanding was not easily arrived at. During the first few centuries of Christianity there was a lot of bitter arguing—and people being declared heretic—before that understanding was achieved. Even today, there are subtle differences in the way the branches of Christianity understand this doctrine.
So, you see, what the devil was trying to do was to separate the divine from the human. He was trying to bring God down to our level, but the surprise was that God had already come down to our level, because Jesus is fully divine AND fully human. God as Jesus was encountering what we encounter every single day of our lives; he was encountering the subtle trials, the subtle tests, and subtle temptations of the devil at a moment of great weakness.
Now, we can read this Gospel passage as a great triumph of Jesus over the devil and the forces of evil, but we can also read it as a moment in Jesus’ mission to save us from sin—a moment that is such a wonderful part of the Good News of Jesus Christ. Why is this moment so wonderful? Because in this moment we are being told that God understands what we—as his creation—have to face at the hands of the devil.
If Jesus were only divine, he could never have faced the devil’s trials, tests, and temptations as we do—as we as weak humans have to. He could never know what it is to experience the devil’s power from a human standpoint.
Similarly, if Jesus were only human, then God would never have had the opportunity to know what we experience when we encounter the devil and his trials, tests, and temptations.
That’s why it is so critically important to our salvation that Jesus is both human and divine. In enables him to have the human experience as God. Consider something I said to you a couple of weeks ago. Jesus’ nature as fully human and fully divine is what makes Christianity so different from all the pre-Christian mythologies. In all the mythologies of the past, there are stories of the gods coming down to earth pretending to be human so that they might consort with humans. But in none of those mythologies is there an example of a god coming down to earth as a human to be a human among us. Only in Christianity does God love us so much, that he comes down to earth as one of us so that he might truly know and understand what we experience.
And consider how the devil first goes after Jesus. The devil hits Jesus right where he’s physically the weakest—in his overwhelming hunger. “If you are the Son of God,” the devil says, “command this stone to become bread.” Could Jesus have done this? Without a doubt—he is fully divine; he is God. And he is also fully human, so the temptation to use his divine power must have been incredible.
Now, think about that in comparison to the trials, tests, and temptations we experience. Do any of you—any of us—have the power to command a stone to become a loaf of bread? No, of course we don’t. But Jesus did have that power. So, given the physical pain resulting from his being fully human, and given the fact that he is also fully divine; this test—this trial—this temptation is all the more powerful; far more powerful than anything we ever experience.
But Jesus resists—“Man shall not live by bread alone,” he says to the devil. And this statement has deep meaning for us. If we do not live by bread alone—what do we live by? Well, our physical, earthly lives are certainly sustained by bread—by physical food—but our spiritual, eternal lives are sustained by a spiritual food—the bread of life—the word of God. In his Gospel, Luke is telling us what we need in order to have eternal life. Notice that just as the devil is subtle in his attack on Jesus—and in his attacks on us—Jesus is not subtle in his response to the attack.
So the devil goes after Jesus a second time. This time, there is subtlety but it has nothing to do with immediate physical weakness; it has everything to do with the devil’s perception of potential future weakness. Look at what the devil does. He offers Jesus glory and authority over all the kingdoms of the earth if Jesus simply bows down before the devil. What’s the devil playing with here? Here again, he’s going after human frailty, human weakness, human fear in Jesus.
You see, Jesus knows what he is going to have to do in order to bring us to salvation. Jesus knows that the cross is looming there in his future. What would you do to avoid a future that involves a horrible, excruciatingly painful, death? Again, consider that Jesus is both human and God. This trial, this test, this temptation of the human nature of Jesus brings about another understanding by God of us as humans. It is the human nature of Jesus that resists in order to serve God, and it is the God nature of Jesus that gains understanding of what it takes to resist.
A third time the devil tests Jesus. He takes him to the pinnacle of the temple, and says, “If you are the Son of God, cast yourself down from here, for it is written, ‘He will put his angels in charge of you, to guard you'” (4:9-10).
How many times in our lives do we test God in our weakest moments? Remember; Jesus in an extremely weakened condition. How easy would it have been for Jesus to give in to his human nature to seek the comfort of angels? His human nature, though, refuses to test God. But he has gained more first-hand understanding of what it is like to be human.
My brothers and sisters, this understanding is the essence of this lesson. God knows what it is like to be us. God knows our weaknesses first hand, because God came to us as one of us and lived and died as one of us. And with that understanding comes salvation through the sacrifice of God’s only Son. God knows that we are not strong enough in our faith to come up to his expectations, so God comes down to us and lifts us up. In the faithfulness that comes to us through the work of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit, the devil has no chance in our lives.
But we need to recognize the subtlety of how the devil works in our lives. He is real, my friends. His trials, his tests, and his temptations are very real—and they are very subtle. But know this—the Good News is that God knows, God understands, and marked with cross of Christ—we are forgiven and we are saved.
Let us pray.
May the love of God, which passes all understanding, keep our hearts and minds in Christ Jesus who took on our humanity so that we might be saved. Amen
Scripture quotations from the World English Bible
Copyright 2010 Daniel W. Brettell. Used by permission.