Matthew 4:1-11

When Faith Is Tested

By Dr. Philip W. McLarty

If you’re keeping notes, we ordained and installed elders a couple of weeks ago and reaffirmed our baptismal vows last week.  Today we get down to the real nitty-gritty of the gospel – New Year’s resolutions.

So, did you make one?  You don’t have to raise your hand.  Anyone, say, resolve to go on a diet?  Cut out sweets?  Lose ten pounds?  What about exercise?  Did you make a resolution to start working out?  Take a long walk every day?  Get in shape?  I know several of you took me up on my challenge to read the Bible in its entirety this year.  Well, it’s January 20th.  Are you up to date?

The beginning of the New Year is a time for making resolutions.  And the 3rd week of the New Year is about the time where most New Year’s resolutions come to an end – if they last that long!

Now, you’re probably thinking I’m going to give you a hard time about not keeping your New Year’s resolutions, but you’re wrong.  What I want you to think about is what happens once you resolve to do something.  Once you make a resolution – and it really doesn’t matter what it is – invariably, it seems, the strength of your resolution is tested and you’re tempted to revert back to your old way of life.

This relationship between testing and tempting lies at the heart of the gospel lesson for today.  It’s embedded in the word itself.  The Greek word, periazo, can be translated tempting or testing.  Take your pick.  They’re closely related.

So we find that, no sooner than Jesus had stepped into the waters of the Jordan and committed himself to fulfilling God’s plan for his life, he was tested and tempted to do just the opposite.  Commentator Marsha Wilfong puts it this way:

“In this passage, both meanings apply at different levels of the story: God tests; the devil tempts.  It is God’s Spirit – the same Spirit which descended upon Jesus at his baptism – that drives Jesus into the wilderness.  God’s purpose is to test his newly appointed and empowered Son, just as he’d tested Abraham at Mt. Moriah (where Abraham was commanded to sacrifice his son, Isaac); and where he’d tested the people of Israel in the wilderness.” (Pulpit Resource, Jan-Mar, 2002, p. 30)

So, let’s explore this relationship between testing and temptation and ask, as we go along, what can we expect to happen when faith is put to the test?  The text begins,

“Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness
to be tempted by the devil.” (4:1)

The temptation story falls on the heels of Jesus’ baptism.  Many would say that it was at this point – the baptism of Jesus – that he was first recognized as the Christ.  In other words, whatever we may say about his birth, his childhood or his early adult years, it was here, standing in the waters of the Jordan, that Jesus was confirmed by God as the Promised Messiah, the Savior of the world.  According to Matthew,

“Behold, a voice out of the heavens said,
‘This is my beloved Son,
with whom I am well pleased.'” (3:17)

And, while we don’t know what was going through Jesus’ mind at the moment, we do know that when he came up out of the river, he went off into the wilderness by himself, and there he fasted and prayed for forty days and forty nights, and it was there in the wilderness that the seriousness of his calling was tested.

So, what can you expect when your faith is tested?  First, you can expect to be tempted.

According to Matthew, Jesus was tempted to turn the stones into bread.  Well, why not?  He must have been hungry.  He was tempted to protect himself.  Living out in the wild, as he was, you would’ve been too.  And he was tempted to seek worldly power:

“I will give you all of these things,
if you will fall down and worship me,” Satan said.  (4:9)

In a word, Jesus was tempted to use his divine power to serve himself rather than to empty himself in service to others, as God would have him to do.

In 1992, I preached a sermon entitled, “The Quickest Way to Meet the Devil Is To Take a Stand for God.”  My thesis was, as long as you’re willing to maintain a low profile and go along with the crowd, nobody’s likely to bother you; but just speak up, question the status quo, champion a cause, and you’ll soon be challenged and criticized and called to task, not only by your adversaries, but as often as not, by your friends. The quickest way to meet the Devil is to take a stand for God.

Once you commit yourself to a task or a discipline or a new way of life, temptation won’t be far behind.  Like making a New Year’s resolution, no sooner than you decide, say, to go on a low-carb diet, your best friend shows up with a loaf of bread or an apple pie, fresh-baked from the oven, and how can you say no to that?

Ash Wednesday is a little over two weeks away.  The Lenten Season is right around the corner.  Try this: Resolve to give up something you like – or commit yourself to doing something you think is important – for the forty-days of Lent, and  I guarantee you’ll be tempted to cave in before the first week is up.

This is what makes the temptations of Jesus so important, for what’s at stake here was the temptation Jesus faced to abandon God’s claim on his life and follow the ways of the world instead.  Marsha Wilfong puts it this way,

“The story of Jesus’ testing/temptation
shows how the Son of God will exercise his (calling).
He will use his power
only in obedience to God’s own purposes and plans.” (ibid., p. 30)

In this sense, the temptation of Jesus is a paradigm for the temptations we’re likely to experience in our own lives, and the Good News is, if Jesus can do it, so can we!  As Paul told the Corinthians,

“No temptation has taken you
except what is common to man.
God is faithful,
who will not allow you to be tempted above what you are able,
but will with the temptation
also make the way of escape, that you may be able to endure.” (1 Corinthians 10:13)

When faith is tested, you can expect to be tempted.  You can also expect to be strengthened.

In this sense, testing is a good thing.  It gives you a chance to flex your muscles and show your stuff.  For example, if it’s a test in school, it gives you a chance to confirm what you’ve learned.  If it’s out on the football field or on the basketball court, it gives you a chance to prove your athletic prowess.

Even when it brings out your shortcomings and inadequacies, testing can a good thing.  It lets you know where you need to improve.  For example, if your blood pressure is too high, you can do something about it.  If you can’t pass the eye exam, it’s time to get glasses.

Testing lets you know where you stand.  That’s a big part of what’s going on in the Presidential primaries – the candidates are being tested, whether or not they have the strength and stamina, the eloquence and charisma, the knowledge and understanding of complex issues to lead the country over the next four years.

So, it’s a good thing that we’re tested from time to time.  Testing builds self-confidence.  It’s the secret to lasting faith and strong character.  Only as our convictions and values and beliefs are tested can we truly know ourselves to be men and women of integrity and principle.  Only as we are tested can we truly know ourselves to be children of God.  Paul told the Romans,

“…we also rejoice in our sufferings,
knowing that suffering works perseverance;
and perseverance, proven character;
and proven character, hope:
and hope doesn’t disappoint us,
because God’s love has been poured out into our hearts
through the Holy Spirit who was given to us.”
(Romans 5:3-5)

Know one knows this better than Lance Armstrong.  He was born just down the road in Plano, Texas.  Growing up, he proved to be a gifted athlete.  He won the Iron Kids Triathalon when he was thirteen and trained with the U.S. Olympic Cycling Team when he was sixteen.  He was on a fast track in his career as a professional athlete.

Then tragedy struck.  He was diagnosed with a deadly form of testicular cancer.  By the time it was discovered, it had already metastasized to his brain and lungs.  Chances of survival were 50-50.  He chose to fight.  Three years later, he was not only cancer-free, but physically fit to compete in the Tour de France, cycling’s premier sporting event.  He won the Tour de France that year and every year following for the next six years.  In the process, he became a champion of cancer research and a positive mental attitude.  Here’s the way he sees it:

“Without cancer, I never would have won a single Tour de France.
Cancer taught me a plan for more purposeful living,
and that in turn taught me how to train and to win more purposefully.
It taught me that pain has a reason,
and that sometimes the experience of losing things –
whether health or a car or an old sense of self –
has its own value in the scheme of life.
Pain and loss are great enhancers.”

Testing proves the mettle of our faith and character.  It confirms the integrity of our beliefs and values.  It builds self-confidence and greater strength of resolve.

When faith is tested, you can expect to be strengthened.  You can also expect God to be with you.  According to Matthew, Jesus told Satan,

“It is written, ‘Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds out of the mouth of God.'” (Matthew 4:4)

“Again, it is written, ‘You shall not test the Lord, your God.'” (Matthew 4:7)

“Get behind me, Satan! For it is written, ‘You shall worship the Lord your God, and you shall serve him only.'” (Matthew 4:10)

When faith is tested, God’s written Word becomes a living Word of inspiration and strength.

How many times have you found yourself recalling a verse or two of scripture in the face of a crisis?

• A loved one dies, and the words flow without effort, “Yahweh is my shepherd: I shall lack nothing…Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me. Your rod and your staff, they comfort me…Surely goodness and loving kindness shall follow me all the days of my life, and I will dwell in Yahweh’s house forever.” (Psalm 23)

• Or, you’re lying in the hospital facing surgery, and you hear Jesus say, as he said to his disciples in the face of a storm, “Cheer up! It is I! Don’t be afraid.” (Mark 6:50)

• Or you’re worried about how you’re going to pay the bills … or how you’re going to get all your work done … or how you’re going to watch over your children and safeguard them from danger … and you remember the words, “In nothing be anxious, but in everything, by prayer and petition with thanksgiving, let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your thoughts in Christ Jesus.” (Philippians 4:6-7)

We feel the peace of God’s presence and the power of God’s Spirit more so in a moment of crisis than at any other time.  This is why there are no atheists in foxholes.  When you’re under fire, you naturally cry out to God and, without fail, God is there: “As I was with Moses, so I will be with you. I will not fail you nor forsake you.” (Joshua 1:5)

Every time we say the Lord’s Prayer we pray not to be tested.  “Bring us not into temptation,” we say, or, as the New Revised Standard Version puts it, “Do not bring us to the time of trial.”  (Matthew 6:13)

And yet, we know that there will be times when we will be put to the test and have to stand strong in our faith.  When that time comes, remember this: When faith is tested, you can expect to be tempted; you can expect to be strengthened; you can expect God to be with you.  As God told Paul in the moment of his trial, so he says to us,

“My grace is sufficient for you,
for my power is made perfect in weakness.”
(2 Corinthians 12:9)

Thanks be to God, in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.  Amen.
Copyright 2008, Philip W. McLarty.  Used by permission.
Scripture quotations are from the World English Bible (WEB), a public domain (no copyright) modern English translation of the Holy Bible.