Duel (Matthew 4:1-11)

I am intrigued by the way people represent the temptation of Jesus in art and movies. Many times, the devil is portrayed as the embodiment of evil, with cloven hoofs, horns, tail and wings. At other times, however, I have seen the devil represented as a well-dressed, respectable-looking person, just like we might see around us every day. Sometimes, the tempter looks obvious, but at other times he seems to be a long way from what we think of evil.

We all face temptation in our lives. Sometimes, like the representations of the devil with hoofs, horns and a tail, those temptations are obvious. At other times, like the well-dressed, respectable-looking devil, those temptations are much subtler. Like the temptations Jesus faced, they can be to put our appetites and desires before trusting in God to provide. They can be the desire for something spectacular so we can know for sure that God is real, instead of trusting in his word of promise. We might be tempted to take the easy road to power, control and glory instead of the way of humility, sacrifice and suffering through service and self-giving love. The temptations we face might look different, but they have one thing in common – to give up trusting God and take control for ourselves.

One way we can understand the stories of Jesus’ temptations is to learn from him how to battle temptation in our own lives. As we watch the duel between the devil and the Son of God, one thing is clear – the use of God’s word. Last week, as we celebrated the transfiguration of Jesus, we heard the voice of God tell us as Jesus’ disciples to listen to him. Here, in Jesus’ temptation, we see the importance of God’s word in our lives. The only way to resist temptation is by being anchored in God’s word. Each time the devil tempts Jesus, he responds with a word from Scripture which brought God’s truth into the situation. In the same way, when we are anchored in God’s word and living in the promises it gives us, God’s word will also give us what we need to resist temptation and live in the peace God gives to us.

Even when the devil tries to misuse God’s word in the second temptation, Jesus corrects what the devil says by relying on what God has said in Scripture. This is important for us: not everyone who uses God’s word uses it to bring us into a closer relationship with God. God’s word can be used to lure us away from the truth. That is why, as we talked about last week, it is important that we learn the art of listening rightly to God’s word together so we can find the truth and grace of Jesus in it.

It is important that we don’t just read the stories of Jesus’ duel with the devil as an example to follow, but also as the gift he gives us. As people who are one with Jesus through faith in him, we need to read this story as a duel he fights for us and a victory he gives to us. If we were to try to resist the devil on our own, we will fail. That is largely what these temptations are about – relying on ourselves rather than God. Faith in God as the story of Jesus’ temptation presents it is about trusting that Jesus has already duelled with the devil and won! Because of his identity as God’s Son and his perfect trust in God’s word, Jesus does for us what we can’t do for ourselves and resists the devil and his temptations. Jesus gives his victory to us as a gift through faith by the power of God’s Spirit. Jesus’ victory over the devil is now your victory, so when temptation comes, we are already declared to be righteous and victorious over those temptations.

This means that God’s grace in temptation is much greater than simply thinking that we will be forgiven if, or when, we fail. God’s grace to us, what he does for us which we can’t do for ourselves, is Jesus’ victory over the devil’ temptations. When temptations come, then, instead of thinking that we have to try hard to resist temptation, we can be anchored in God’s word and live in Jesus’ victory. We can tell the devil he has no power over us, and find what we need in our relationship with Jesus. When we find our identity in Jesus as God’s children whom he loves and with whom he pleased (Matt 3:17), the verse which comes directly before the temptation of Jesus, then we stand with Jesus in his victory. When we are sure of God’s unconditional love and acceptance in Jesus, and when the Spirit of God fills us with the assurance of God’s grace to us in Jesus, we can resist temptation and live faithfully in the live Christ gives us.

What that means for us as followers of Jesus, then, can be thought of as:

Discipleship is …
… resisting temptation by being anchored in God’s word and our identity as his children.

I know from my own journey as a follower of Jesus how difficult it is to struggle with temptation. Sometimes, temptations can be very subtle. Other times, they can be obviously against what God wants, but still look appealing or attractive. And then there are the times when the temptations we face look like they are the best option, and maybe even what we think God wants. It can get complicated, and working out what God wants for us can be hard. That is why we need to not just read this story as an example of how to resist temptation. We need to find God’s grace in this story: in Jesus, God was doing for us what we can’t do for ourselves by defeating the devil and his temptations. This victory is now yours as God gives you Jesus’ victory through the Holy Spirit’s power.

The next time you are tempted, the devil has already lost. The victory over temptation is already yours in Jesus.

More to think about & discuss:

  • If you were making a movie about Jesus’ temptation how would you portray the devil – as someone who was obviously evil, or something more subtle?
  • What is a temptation you have faced in the past or might be facing at the present time? How did you deal with that temptation? Were you able to overcome it or did you give in to it?
  • What do you think Jesus meant when he said that people can’t live on bread alone (v4)? How can being anchored in God’s word help you when you are tempted?
  • We can understand grace as not just being forgiven when we give in to temptation, but God giving us Christ’s victory over temptation through his Spirit even before we are tempted. How might Jesus’ victory over the devil help you when you are tempted?
  • How can finding a strong sense of your identity in Jesus help you when the devil tries to tempt you away from trusting in God?
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